Smoke Girl

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Chapter Three: Memories

1.

I don't leave Renee's room until she groans and starts to stir.

By that time, the light on the other side of her curtains has turned to a dull gray. It's dawn.

My eyelids droop and my limbs ache from sitting so long against her wall. I slip out her door, careful to leave it closed most of the way like she leaves it every night. "Is someone there?" she asks.

I have never been so glad to hear her awake.

Renee must answer her own question, because blankets rustle and she's silent again. I stand in the hall, waiting for any sounds. Our grandfather clock ticks away. The house has returned to life.

My joints pop as I return to my room. I blink the sleep from my eyes and sit on my bed for an eternity. My curtains hang over my window, blocking out the world. I could crash and sleep the whole day. The room's slowly rotating around me.

I am so, so glad it's a teacher in-service day today. There's no way I could handle going to school, with or without sleep.

And last night.

My stomach twists. My dad…he’s joined…

I pick up a stuffed unicorn and hurl it at my desk. It hits my History book and knocks the Chia head off its perch.

I know I should go check on Dad, but I can't. I'm too scared of what I might see.

I collapse into bed and let unconsciousness take me.

When I open my eyes again, the sun peeks in and forms a bright line on my wall. A door shuts somewhere down the hall. Renee’s making her way down to breakfast. Down to where Dad is. The faint smell of bacon floats up. Someone's making breakfast.

Dad must be back in the house by now.

Dad.

He didn't--

Vomit burns the back of my throat. He must have gotten back in if Mom got up at her usual time. I imagine him sitting at the kitchen table, paper spread in front of him. He’s dressed in a white robe which topples over his lap and down to his feet. His hood is bent over from the wind and he’s pushed the mask out of his face so he can drink his morning coffee. And Alvin Gaffrey sits on the other side of the table, a pancake in front of him, waiting to meet…

No. That can’t happen. He’s dead. He can’t.

But last night happened. And the only way I know about it is because I wasn't asleep. If I had fallen asleep before Dad wandered downstairs, would I have been like Mom and Renee, unable to wake? Perhaps I wasn't meant to witness that event.

But Alvin Gaffrey tried to beckon me down on that first night I saw him...

I resisted. Dad didn't. Or couldn't.

I rush downstairs so fast my feet thump on the stairs and the railing trembles. The smell of pancakes joins in. The normality of it calms my nerves.

Renee scoots up to the table with a plate. Mom is busy filling herself a cup of coffee. And Dad sits at the end of the table, staring down at his plate and pushing food around on it. He’s got bags under his eyes. But he’s dressed in his plaid shirt and some jeans. He's changed. No robe. I look around the kitchen to make sure it’s not hanging up anywhere, like on the back of a chair. I glance at our open closet. Only jackets hang to be unused until fall gets here.

I heave out a huge sigh of relief. Dad doesn’t look up.

“Jae,” Mom says, smiling. “You know what your father did last night?”

I don’t answer. Because I do know. Where did he hide his robe?

She pats him on the shoulder. “Your dad was sleepwalking again. And he locked himself out of the house. I found him lying on the porch this morning, curled up like a baby.”

Renee snorts into her cereal. I wish I could, too. Heavy guilt worms its way up inside me.

“It’s stress, hon,” he says, taking a bite of his pancake. “You know I always do that when that happens.”

The words escape me before I can stop them. I have to know. “Was he out there in his pajamas?”

“No,” she says.

My heart leaps.

Mom finishes. “He was in his jeans and a T-shirt. He looked ready to take off and go somewhere.” She snatches his set of keys off the hanger, the ones with “I’ll have to guard these every night from now on.”

That doesn’t prove anything. I have to know. “Dad,” I manage. “You look tired.”

“I know.” He swallows a huge gulp of coffee and stretches. A joint pops. “Sleeping on the porch does that to you.”

He doesn’t remember what happened. And if he does, he’s doing a good job of hiding it. So he was asleep after all last night. Asleep while Alvin Gaffrey influenced him.

I glance outside. Nothing’s out of the ordinary, like yesterday morning. So how did I run into that whole…scene…? I smelled the smoke. Saw the flames. Heard every word Alvin Gaffrey said. And now it’s gone without a trace. Dad doesn’t even recall it. It’s almost as if I stepped into another world last night.

I rise from the table, stomach heavy under the pancake, and make for the sink to deposit my plate and start the dishes.

And stop cold.

My pajamas are covered in little green needles from where I’d hidden in the shrub the night before.

2.

“Sis, why are we up here?” Renee leans against my bed as I dig through my closet for some of my old board games.

I really want to tell her that something weird is going on and that Dad’s being controlled by an evil spirit and who knows what it’s going to do next. But I can’t. I’d have to tell Renee the truth. And she wouldn’t believe it anyway. “Do you want to be down there and listen to them argue about bills?” I ask. “I don’t. It’s best we steer clear for the rest of the day."

“Come on. It’s not that bad.” She pops a huge bubble of gum.

Yes, it is. “We’re staying here.”

“Geez, what is your problem? It’s not like Dad’s a drunk or something like that. And I saw him going into the study. So he can’t be arguing with Mom, right?” She stands and marches out the door. “I’m riding my bike down to Ella’s.”

"Good idea." If she's out of the house, that's even better. "Have fun."

I sit at my desk and crush the stuffed unicorn with my foot. Renee’s leaving. That’s good. But she has to return tonight at the latest.

I have to find out what was really going on with Dad. What if he repeats last night? And tries to drag me with him, or worse, Renee? I close my eyes for a second. He pulls me closer to Alvin Gaffrey, who has his arms spread out like he wants to give me a hug. And on a table next to him is--

I need a shower. Now.

But wait. It was only men who joined the Klan…right? Alvin Gaffrey won't want me for that.

Right?

3.

I do an Internet search on ghosts, since I'm stuck home and Ruba's family is out visiting her grandparents. I can't even call Marcee and ask if she wants to hang out somewhere that isn't here. Apparently, she's been grounded from her phone for spending too much time in class writing in her journals.

There's the usual stash of fake Youtube videos. A couple of documentaries that don't tell me anything Ruba hasn't already told me. Countless people leave stories on forums about strange noises and sightings in their homes. Nowhere does anyone mention anything like what I experienced, except for the voices and the cold snaps.

I read for hours, trying to find someone, anyone, who managed to get rid of any spirits in their house. I find two stories, and both involved exorcisms which took months to convince a priest to do.

I don't have months. I have to get rid of Alvin Gaffrey before he does any more damage.

Before he spreads.

Dad stays in the study right below me. He shuffles around on some kind of mission. I hope he's digging out his resume. Occasionally I hear his chair squeak as he pulls it back. He must be at his computer, job hunting. Only once does he come out to use the bathroom.

Dinner comes and Renee returns from her friend’s house, tucking her red hair behind her ears and parading into the kitchen. The smell of burgers floats through the house. There will be no going out to dinner for Mom and Dad for a while.

Dad emerges from the study, tucking his credit card into his wallet. He plops down at the table and smiles. “So what’s cooking?”

That beats his sullen attitude he’s had the past two days. He’s awake. Himself again. But what’s he been doing all day? And what's he buying if he doesn't have a job?

He won't look right at me.

It's almost like he's hiding something.

"Burgers," Mom says. "It's our last meat."

"Maybe you should run to the store," Dad says. "We have a bit more in the bank than I thought. I think we can afford to pick up a few more groceries, as long as we keep it cheap."

Mom takes Renee and I out to the grocery store after dinner. We pick up a load that's a lot smaller than normal. Cheap bread. Cheap pasta. Pancake mix, and no bacon this time. We don't speak much through the Darnell Market and not through the ride home. I watch our old downtown roll past along with ancient Melrose Park where Mom would bring us when we were younger. The park stretches out past the new play castle town built a few years ago.

I wish I was a little kid again

When my family was perfect and my parents had no flaws.

It's late by time we get back. Dad's watching some television. He asks Mom how much she spent and seems pleased with the results. Renee and I go up to her room and we watch some dub step video made up of some cat's meows. By then, I'm yawning.

But do I go to sleep?

What if I get up in my sleep and march downstairs? Out to the field?

Or what if Mom and Renee do?

I'm staying awake. I can stop Renee if she goes. Mom, too.

I grab a Monster out of the fridge. It's the last one of the four-pack I bought from the Darnell Market last weekend. I might be needing more of them. I head up to my room and set it on my nightstand.

The blanket on my bed is flipped up.

Someone's been in here.

Then I remember. The photo album. I slipped it under my bed last night and forgot about it.

I drop to the floor and shuffle over to my bed. I squint and study the darkness. There's an empty spot where the photo album was. I slide my hand along unworn carpet.

Nothing. I pull out an old, crumpled math test with a bad grade that I hid from my parents in the sixth grade, but nothing else.

I sit up.

Dad must have come in here while we were gone and found it. But why is Dad looking for that album now? How does he know about it?

Alvin Gaffrey must have told him to find it. Is that the shuffling in the study I've been hearing all day?

That means that Dad does remember last night, at least on some level.

My stomach ties in knots, even though I'm relieved that album is gone and I won't be tempted to open that cover with the gold G. It's just a bunch of old photos, anyway, and probably ones I don't want to see. It's not important. I should have burned it right along with--

Shit.

I released Alvin Gaffrey just from burning his robe.

What if Dad's going to burn the photo album? What's going to happen then?

4.

Mom and Dad go to bed at ten. I lie in bed and face the wall, pretending I’m asleep, as they close their door. Then I listen to the distant tick of the grandfather clock and wait.

And wait.

Loud snores confirm that Dad's asleep, at least. I glance at my own clock. Ten forty-five. As long as I finish this before midnight, I should be fine.

I swing my legs over the bed, stand up, and creep downstairs.

The study is a mess. Old shirts litter the floor. Stacks of books try to trip me up. I tiptoe around them, heart pounding. One trip, and Mom and Dad will hear what I’m doing.

I need to find the album. If Alvin Gaffrey wants it, it can't be good.

And I need to see what Dad's been up to, as much as I hate the thought of spying on him.

I need some light in here. The computer’s off. Of course. I hit the power button and watch the screen glow a faint gray. I click off the speakers before they play the annoying chime of the computer turning on. And the door. I shuffle over and close that.

I don’t know if there’s anything in the dark hallway, watching me.

Blue light flares to life and illuminates everything in the study. Dad's deer heads that have hung on the wall since before I was born. His prize fish on a plaque. His stacks of sports and hunting games that have kept him entertained. This, at least, is the Dad I know and love, the Dad who smells like the woods each fall and the Dad who's taken me out fishing every summer since I can remember. This isn't the Dad who embraced Alvin Gaffrey last night.

I check the drawers of the computer desk. I slide the bottom one open.

There.

The old leather album waits, the G shining at me in the dark. I seize it and take it out. Dad clearly wasn't expecting me to search for this and take it back. Even though I don't want it back, I feel a rush of satisfaction that I'm probably foiling more of Alvin Gaffrey's plans, whatever they are. He deserves it.

I set the album up on the computer desk. I don't dare sit, in case I need to run. My heart pounds as I load up the web browser. Now all I have to do is look up his browsing history. My palm sweats and the room grows hot as I move the mouse arrow slowly over the screen to look it up. What sites has Dad visited today?

Blank. He’s erased the entire browsing history. Everything.

I even check the temporary Internet files. That, too, is blank. Empty. Cleaned out.

God. This only means Dad's been doing something he doesn’t want us to see.

I shut the computer down. My limbs feel weak. He’s up to something.

I seize the album, open the door, and creep back upstairs like a criminal breaking into a house.

5.

Dad doesn’t leave his room all night. The clock strikes midnight, and nothing happens. I breathe a sigh of relief as the minutes tick by and settle back into my covers for the night.

Except the lump of the photo album has made a bump in the mattress. I’ve shoved it through the hole in the bottom that I once used for my diary in junior high. So I’m still using it to hide secrets. Only this time the secrets are ugly, not cute.

I drift off and dream that I’m opening the worn cover. Flames jet out at my face, singeing my hair. And Alvin Gaffrey reaches out of the fiery maw towards me, peering out through the pits that are his eye holes. “Jae,” he says, “you can’t erase me. I’ve always been here.”

I kick my sheets off and leap out of bed. Light filters in through the curtains and fills my room. I heave out a huge sigh of relief. No Alvin Gaffrey. At least, not that I can see.

Thump.

I gasp at the sound. It comes again. Dad’s in the study below me, moving stuff around. Looking for something. Something that’s missing.

I mold my face into an expression of calm as I descend the stairs. Dad won’t ask me about the album. Because then he’d have to tell me what he’s doing.

Breakfast passes. Only the tapping of silverware can be heard. Dad doesn’t even look at me. His eyes are seeing things I don’t want to know about.

He finally speaks as we put our dishes in the sink. “I invited Marvin over tonight. Is that okay?”

Mom rubs her eyes. “As long as you don’t keep me up. I’ve got to drive the school bus tomorrow.”

I let out a little sigh of relief. Marvin beats Alvin Gaffrey, hands down, even if he’s loud and always stays late. Marvin means that Dad won't be taking any midnight trips tonight, either.

I can’t focus on the muddy words swimming in front of me in History later. Answers to the review questions dodge me every time. I’m going to fail this test tomorrow.

“Something’s up." Marcee closes her book. "You haven't spoken much in the last week or so. I haven't borrowed any words from you this week."

My mouth falls open. How long can I keep covering this up?

“I…”

“It’s about your dad, isn’t it?”

My stomach lurches and I nod. Yes.

She lowers her voice. “I know what that’s like. My dad lost his job when I was seven. We had to cut back on everything. I was stuck with shoes that were falling apart all year.”

I nod. "That sucks."

Marcee returns to her review worksheet. I'm glad for the quiet for the rest of the hour. I need to think of a way to stop Alvin Gaffrey from ever getting a hold of that album. He must need it for something. Dad shouldn't be able to find it inside the mattress. No one knows about the hole except for me. And Mom's home with him for most of the day. He won't have much chance to look.

But what if he did find it again?

I have to stop myself from running into the house as soon as Ruba drops me off. My insides twist and feel ready to explode at the thought of that album being missing again. Why didn't I bring it to school with me? Throw it in the trash somewhere?

"How was school?" Dad asks from the kitchen. He has his laptop on the dining room table. It's open to the state job hunting site. He sounds happier today and I'm glad to see it.

"Fine," I say.

"Have lots of homework?" he asks.

"Thankfully, no. Any luck with the job search?"

"Not much," he says, tapping the computer. "I'm looking every day. I might have an interview next week but it's about fifty miles from here."

"That's good." I need to go check my mattress.

"Your backpack doesn't look as big this afternoon," Dad remarks. "How many books can you carry in that thing?"

"My Literature book counts as two books," I tell him. I know what he's asking: did I sneak the album out of here this morning and leave it somewhere? That means he hasn't found it yet. "It's always a good thing when I don't have to lug that home."

Dad clears his throat like he wants to ask me more. But then he decides against it and goes back to his laptop. I take the opportunity to head upstairs.

The mattress groans as I lift it from the bed frame. I fish through the hole in the bottom and through padding until I find the corner of the photo album.

It’s cold and poking into my palm. I don't dare take it out. I won't until Marvin comes over later tonight. I let my mattress fall back to my bed frame and lie down on top of it. I should sleep now. I won't let my guard down at night.

I set my alarm for eleven thirty and let myself conk out. I wake later to the sound of gentle static. My room's dark except for the night light. It's eleven thirty.

My parents' door across from me is closed, but there's still light coming from downstairs. Marvin must be here, and staying late again. Dad will be distracted. I can take out the album now and find a way to transport it out of here.

I flip up my mattress again, reach into the secret chamber, and wrench the album out. I close my door to make extra sure Dad doesn't walk in.

I fumble through the closet for my flashlight. The My Little Pony isn't enough to see by. Darkness fills the room except for a pale pink glow. I pick up the album and make my way to the other side of the bed. My palms tingle and my stomach threatens to send me scrambling for the bathroom. But I won’t. I grit my teeth and pull open the cover. A papery smell hits me. The circle of yellow light falls on the first page.

It’s as bad as I expected.

Alvin Gaffrey smiles out at me from a black and white photo that’s ripped around the edges. He’s dressed in his robe and hood. No mask. It's daytime. I can see old cars parked some distance behind him. There are figures in white robes milling around.

But that’s not the worst part.

He’s kneeling and has his arm around a little kid in a white robe, who can't be older than three or so. And the boy has bushy eyebrows like his.

My grandfather?

I bite my lip and turn the page. The album creaks with age.

Sheeted figures stand scattered around a blazing cross at night. More of them gather at a picnic during a late afternoon, with children running around them. They stand in front of the city hall. They march up a Main Street of some town, complete with flags and banners, and nobody's trying to stop them. Telephone poles and a Coca-Cola sign tower overhead. A few people have come out of a barber shop to watch. There are no protestors, no one out there shouting them down. My only relief is that there are no pictures of lynchings. I can't help but wonder where those are.

Was this normal back then?

My hands flip through the album on their own. The pictures blur together in grays and browns and yellows. Goosebumps rise all over my body. I should have never opened this thing. At least I know for certain I can feel good about throwing it away.

There's even a photo of the Klan marching before the Capitol, dated 1925 in faded ink.

No. I can not let Alvin Gaffrey get this thing and release whatever pent-up energy might be in it.

The final page falls from my grasp and swings down onto the rest of the album. My stomach churns as my gaze lands on the last image. It’s another little kid in a white robe with no mask, standing in front of a bunch of robed adults whose heads are cut off the top of the picture.

Only this one’s a girl.

6.

I slam the album shut.

I remember Dad standing before Alvin Gaffrey. Joining him.

Jae, come here, the Grand Dragon says.

I’m not safe.

I reach for the album and flips it back open. The little girl in the robe looks up at me with pudgy cheeks. Why am I here? she asks. Why did Mom and Dad put on me?

I peel up the plastic off the album page. It rips like it’s screaming. I reach for the picture. I don't even know who this little girl is. Did Alvin Gaffrey have a daughter, too? I've never asked if my grandfather had any siblings. I want to tear all of these to shreds and bury it in the dirt where it belongs.

But I stop.

If burning Alvin Gaffrey’s robe exhumed him, what will this album do if I destroy it? What will it set free? Will tearing up these pictures do the same thing?

My guts heave. This album could be key to helping him spread his disease, to transmit it with picnic baskets and promises and hugs. Allow him to become powerful behind it. Venom and fire won’t lure many people in…unless it has a candy coating.

Come on, sweetie. It’s okay. You’ll love him.

“No, I won’t." I'm not going to make this whole thing worse. I'm not going to let anyone else fall under Alvin Gaffrey's spell. What if he gains so much influence over Dad that Dad starts doing horrible things to people? What if Dad goes out and commits some hate crimes? That must be next. I know people who could be at the receiving end. Marcee. Mr. Connelly, the Chemistry teacher who blows up gummy bears in test tubes.

Ruba?

And I don't want Dad to go to prison because of what some spirit is whispering in his ear.

Silence falls and crushes me except for the ticking of my clock on the wall.

Then there’s a knock on the door.

I leap up and shove the album back inside my mattress.

The door groans as it opens downstairs. Nobody could be coming this late.

I hold my breath and creep down the hall, past Renee's mostly-closed door. Muffled voices float up the stairs. One is Dad’s. The other is Marvin’s. And there’s a third voice, too, a voice made of black silk with a hint of smoke and crackling fire underneath.

A faint yellow light pokes through the stairwell. I squint as I glance down into the living room. My muscles tense. I hold my breath.

Dad stands in front of the coffee table with Marvin at his side. There are empty beers and cards strewn on the table. Marvin squints at the newcomer standing in the open doorway, like he’s not sure what he’s seeing.

Alvin Gaffrey takes up the space inside the door frame. He blends into the night in his black robe. He’s removed his hood and he’s holding it to his chest, hiding his patch. He has a head of thick, brown hair. Hair like my father's.

Hair like mine.

He waits in the doorway. Invite me in, it means.

“No,” I mouth to Dad. Marvin’s here. He won’t.

But he does. He lifts his hand and waves him in.

Alvin Gaffrey flows into the room like a living shadow. Marvin shrinks back a bit and shoots Dad a look. I can’t see it from here, but I can imagine the confusion on his face.

“Marvin,” Dad says. “This is Alvin, a relative of mine. Never mind how he’s dressed. I didn’t know he’d be stopping by tonight.”

A whimper wants to creep out of my throat, but I hold it back. So Dad remembers everything after all. There's doubt he’s awake now.

“Hello,” Marvin says. He doesn’t reach out to shake his hand.

Alvin turns away from him. “Do you still have it in the study?” he asks Dad.

My stomach drops. The album. He means the album hidden in my mattress.

Dad shifts leg to leg like a child who’s in trouble. “No. It went missing.”

“What are you talking about?” Marvin asks. His speech is slurred.

The Grand Dragon ignores him again. “Ted, we can’t make much progress without it. You need to find it. Chances are someone in this household moved it. Have you asked your wife?”

He shakes his head. “I can’t. How do I explain--”

“Have you asked…Jae?”

A shudder races over my body. I can’t breathe. What if he comes up here after me?

Dad shakes his head. “If she found that thing a second time, I have a feeling we won't be getting it back. My daughter might have destroyed it already. She's misguided right now." Dad closes the door, sealing Alvin Gaffrey in the house. "I swear, it's the agenda they're pushing on kids in school."

"I agree," he says. "She's going to be hard to bring around. But we'll do it."

I'm getting dizzy. I force myself to take in air, keeping as quiet as I can. If any one of them look up, they just might spy me up here. I'm not going to let Alvin Gaffrey or anyone else drag me into darkness. I'm not going to become like that. I'm not like that.

“Huh?” Marvin asks. He takes a step to make for the door, but the figure in black is blocking it.

The Grand Dragon straightens up, taking up even more space. “Speaking of the album, she hasn't destroyed it. The others would’ve joined me by now if she had. You need to search her room tomorrow when she’s at school.”

"I already have." Dad keeps his voice low like he's ashamed. "I don't like invading the privacy of my children."

"I know it's here in the house. There's a lot of energy stored in those pages."

He's onto me.

Marvin shrugs and steps forward. “Okay, Ted. Is this some kind of joke?”

“No,” Dad says. He gets his composure and smiles. “We’re just working on taking our country back, like I’ve been talking about all night.”

Marvin sighs. He's clearly annoyed.

Alvin Gaffrey grins and motions him towards the front door. He opens it onto night. The faint smell of smoke drifts in. "Would you like to hear about it? You're invited."

Marvin sighs and glances at his watch. "What's going on?" He's drunk--too drunk to drive out of here. Too drunk to resist. He's easy prey.

"Just step out here for a minute," Dad says. "You'll see."

There's nothing I can do. I'm outnumbered. Alvin Gaffrey's snaring Marvin under his influence, too.

Marvin steps forward. Dad exits the house behind him and closes the door,

The three men shuffle into the study and close the door, leaving the living room quiet and empty.

I can only sit on the steps and catch my breath.

The others.

Those two words repeat themselves in my mind, over and over again, in Alvin Gaffrey's voice.

Alvin Gaffrey wants to resurrect the Klan and begin a new reign of terror.

And I'm the only person standing between him and his goal.

7.

Dad is still in bed when I get up to head to school. Only Mom's awake, manning the coffeepot the next morning.

"I don't know when your father came to bed," she says. "It must have been late, because I never woke up when he did. I bet Marvin was here until three in the morning again. That man needs to find a real job and stop living with his parents."

I know what happened to Marvin. He's one of Alvin Gaffrey's soldiers now.

My backpack hits the floor with a thud as I sit at the kitchen table and push my food around on my plate. Dad’s chair is empty. Good, because the photo album in my backpack bulges against the fabric and threatens to rip its way out.

I guard my backpack on the bus as it rolls down the road, crunching gravel. As long as I keep it from Alvin Gaffrey, he can’t get much more powerful. But I have to find a way to dispose of the album without destroying it.

The bus pulls into the school. Jeff Bogarty snores in the seat in front of me. The Dumpster on the side of the school catches my eye. I could throw it in and forget about it. But wait. What if it gets destroyed somehow in the garbage truck or they take their trash to some kind of incinerator? And someone could dumpster dive and find it. It's not a risk I need to take.

I could bury it somewhere. Find a plastic box and seal it in and put it in a shallow grave. That’ll work. I can bury it out in the woods, if no one sees. All I have to do is keep it from Dad until then.

I scan the halls for Ruba and Marcee once inside. They're not around. Most likely Ruba's hanging in the band room because they’ve got a big concert they’re preparing for this week. But that’s good. I can hide this thing in my locker for the day, at least. Only I know the combination. The lock on it is my own. Not even the office can open this is Dad asks. No one casts me a second glance as I open my locker and unzip my backpack.

The old album comes out. My hand tingles as it grips the ancient leather. There’s a power inside, one begging me to set it free.

Instead, I shove it in the top shelf of my locker and grab my Algebra book out of the mess inside. And I slam the door so hard it rings in my ears.

8.

I think I’ve failed my History test. My mind is blank as I hover over the questions. All I can think of is Alvin Gaffrey's plan. I glance at Marcee. What kind of danger will she be in if that happens? What will the guy sitting in the front corner face?

The bell rings and I drop the paper into the basket, sealing my grade. I make my way back through the hall and return to my locker. It’s lunch and the smell of greasy pizza floats down the hall, but my stomach turns. Mr. Landwick strolls up the hall towards the teachers' lounge. He’s probably going to call my parents this week about my test.

I should bury the album somewhere deep in the woods where no one will ever find it. Wrap it in a garbage bag to make sure it never gets destroyed. I'll need a shovel.

My locker creaks open. I fumble with the mess inside, sliding my history book underneath the album.

“So, how was the test?”

I jump and books tumble out of the locker. People dodge out of the way. Ruba stands there with big eyes.

The photo album flies to the floor with a loud thwop. Mr. Landwick stops in front of it like he’s hit a wall. Everyone stares as it slides across the floor.

And flips open.

Alvin Gaffrey wraps his arm around his robed son, staring up at the student body of Darnell High School.

My knees threaten to go out from under me. Silence falls. I back into my open locker, hoping to disappear inside. My heart withers. I could die.

Mr. Landwick studies the gray photo on the floor for a long time. He squints and puts on his glasses. His eyes widen and he snaps it up off the floor. There's an uncomfortable silence. Josh Bogarty peers over the teacher’s shoulder as his mouth falls open. Christy and her cheerleader friends join him. They’re gathering like vultures and choking off my escape.

“Alvin Gaffrey,” Mr. Landwick mutters. Then he blanches as his jaw falls. He snaps the album shut…and looks at me.

I hunt for an escape, any escape, but there's a ring of people. I'm trapped.

Ruba stares, wide-eyed. Every gaze in the Social Studies hallway lands on me. Nobody says anything. They all know my disgusting secret.

I am guilty.

At last, Mr. Landwick speaks. “Jae, why don’t you come with me?”

Hoots sound off, but I barely hear them. Ruba says something, but it's muffled. Oh, God. I'm going to die.

I think I close my locker. My legs carry me towards Mr. Landwick. He waves me towards the History classroom.

Panic races through my mind as I step through the threshold. What if he calls Mom and Dad about this? Dad will get the album back, and it’ll fall into Alvin Gaffrey’s hands. He can release all those marches and mass initiations and who knows what else. People might die.

I find myself at his desk. Mr. Landwick pulls up a cheap chair and gives it a pat as he sits in his own.

I sit across from him, heart pounding. I should’ve used the Dumpster after all. Because now he knows. Everyone’s going to know.

Mr. Landwick sets the album down on his desk and rubs his hand across the cover. He takes a deep breath and opens it to the first page. “Alvin Gaffrey,” he breathes. His gaze creeps over my features. “Jae, is this why you didn’t finish your family tree project?”

I nod. He’s made the connection, just like I feared.

He lets out a sigh. Is it of relief or disgust? “Then that tells me that you probably didn’t bring this to school to flaunt it around. I do need an explanation, though.” He flips open the album and turns the pages it with a straight face, like he’s seen this before. “There is a rule about bringing offensive material to school. And this, frankly--”

“I just wanted to get it out of the house until I found a way to get rid of it,” I say over the lump in my throat. I can barely hear my own voice. “I found it in the attic and I don’t want my little sister finding it. She was getting nosy and poking around.” That’s true. But each word I speak makes my throat ache. I feel like dirt.

He turns the page to one of the marches, the one with the Coca-Cola sign, and squints at it. “This must be awful for you, Jae,” he says. "I am so sorry. It’s never nice finding out something like this. It’s not something people like to talk about. But you’re not alone. Did you know a good portion of Darnell was once involved in the Klan?” He taps the photo.

I look down at it, closer this time. The old stores seem a bit familiar. Like--

“That’s Main Street back in the twenties. Our Main Street,” Mr. Landwick says in a low voice. “It was like this all over, actually. Five million joined. It was actually worse here in the Northern states.” He turns the page again, to one I’d missed flipping though the album last night. A pair of sheeted figures hold up a banner that reads 100% Americanism. “Most of the Klan's bigotry in the twenties was against immigrants and other religious groups. It wasn't quite what people expect, but it was still ugly. Sadly, we're still having similar issues today."

I shudder. That doesn't make me feel any better.

“Can you please close that?” I ask. I don't even want to look at those guys in sheets and masks anymore. It's making my skin crawl.

He does, shutting away the disease. “I’ll go back and revise your project grade, Jae. If you want, I can hold onto this for you. I don’t want you carrying this the rest of the day. Kids spread rumors and a teacher with less sympathy than me might want to search your backpack.”

“You’re…you’re going to keep it safe?” I ask.

He nods as his glasses shine. “I’m a History teacher. Of course I will. I’m going to lock it in my desk right now.”

I stand. I’ve done it. Mr. Landwick won’t destroy a piece of history, even if it’s ugly.

I head for the door to go face the world outside. Doom fills my stomach like a mass of polluted water. My skin crawls like a disease is creeping across it. Rumors are spreading through the halls and classrooms now. Through texts. And Ruba’s waiting in our next class, a million questions ready.

“Jae? One more thing.”

I turn.

Mr. Landwick rises from his chair and grips the side of his desk. “Don’t let the other kids give you a hard time about this. A good percentage of them are in the same boat as you, whether they know it or not.”

9.

"I don't want to talk about it," I tell Ruba as soon as I take my seat in Lit. "Not now, anyway." I'm going to have to tell her the full truth eventually. "Did you bring those ghost books for me today?" I've almost forgotten to ask. I have to change the topic.

"I did," she says, reaching for her backpack. A question burns in her eyes. She must have heard what Mr. Landwick blurted out in the hall. She's got to know. She fishes out a plastic bag full of paperbacks and one hardcover. "I hope this helps." She pauses. "Is...your problem...the same problem in that album?"

"It might be." I can't bear to look at her. "I just brought that here because I wanted to get rid of it. I swear. Renee--"

"Oh. I understand," she says, patting me on the arm. “None of this is your fault. We all have relatives we are not proud of. One of my uncles back home went to prison for assault.”

More people come into the room and sit. Is it just me, or are fewer people sitting close to my desk than usual? Tricia's eyeing a text on her phone. She faces me for a split second, then chooses a desk on the other side of the room.

I want to dive into Ruba's words and stay there. I know that she's right in one way, but it does nothing to dispel the misery inside.

But she's wrong in another.

Alvin Gaffrey is my fault.

I released him, after all. I set free all that horrible energy in that robe and everything else I burned that night. I allowed him to come back into this world.

“Look, you are my friend no matter how bad your relatives were. You are not them."

"Thanks."

She's the only person who speaks to me during that hour.

I rush to my final class, Algebra. No one says anything to me, which is somehow worse than the shouts and insults that I expect. Only two people in the building know the real reason I brought that album into school. The rest only have speculation. Backs turn as I hurry past. Voices lower. Glances sneak towards me and dart back into hiding.

The board blurs and swims with numbers in Algebra. The teacher gives us a worksheet after the lecture. I write my name at the top of the paper.

Jae Gaffrey.

I tap my pencil against the paper and make gray dots across the problems. Sweat makes my shirt stick to my skin. There are so many people in here. I can feel them looking at me, their gazes piercing my skin like needles.

The pencil nearly falls from my hand as I erase Gaffrey.

Kyle Williams shifts behind me, making his chair groan under his weight. I can feel his putrid breath on the back of my neck.

“KKK,” he whispers.

I grip the pencil tighter and tap more dots on the paper. I won’t bend. I won’t let him get to me. “Grow up.”

He snorts. “Where’d you get that photo album, anyway?”

My mind works, digging through mud for a weapon. But there’s none to be found. I open my mouth, but no defense comes out.

Kyle elbows the guy next to him, whose name I don’t know. “Did you hear? That leader dude in that one picture has her last name. That's what Mr. Landwick said."

The other guy mutters something and stares down at his book.

I move on to the next problem on the page. A fraction problem. Numbers and letters and slashes twist together on the page. The room gets even hotter in the late summer heat. The clock ticks on the wall like a bomb ready to go off. My back prickles under Kyle’s stare.

And Kyle speaks to his neighbor again, loud enough for the class to hear.

“I bet that album’s like her family heirloom or something.”

I stand up and slug him so hard he almost falls out of his chair.

10.

I think I’m going to hurl.

The hallway stretches in front of me as I make my way to the office, pass and note in hand. Tears well up around my eyes, but it’s not because I’ve got detention.

They all know. And soon, Dad will find out about the album. The office will tell him, no doubt. How else will I explain the teasing? He’ll know that I took it.

A sick feeling fills my stomach. Dad's going to ask the office for every detail and someone might tell him that Mr. Landwick took it. I can’t use that cover forever. There’s only one thing I can do now. And that’s get the album back.

Stopping Alvin Gaffrey and so much more depends on it.

I know that last period is his conference hour. That’s now. My heart slows a bit as I race away from the office where I'm supposed to be getting chewed and into the Social Studies wing. I can get the album and bury it out in the woods after school. Dad won’t torture me for it or anything. Even if he’s…he’s…

He’s in Mr. Landwick’s classroom.

I stop cold in my tracks in front of the doorway as a hand of terror seizes my guts. Mr. Landwick opens the bottom drawer. And Dad leans against his desk, palms spread out in anticipation.

“…anyway, I thought you might like to have a say before I go donating it to the museum,” Mr. Landwick says, slapping the album down on his desk.

“Yes. I'll take it back,” Dad says. He doesn’t see me yet. “It’s old. I didn’t realize she’d taken it. Thanks so much for calling me. I was wondering where it went.”

Mr. Landwick stares at Dad for a long time, frowning.

And he slides the humiliation and shame and disgust towards my father, sealing my family’s fate.

Dad smiles. His eyebrows are thicker. His eyes more intense.

He is Alvin Gaffrey.

11.

I rush into Mr. Landwick’s classroom. “No! Don’t give it to him!”

Both men jump. Dad’s mouth falls open as I lunge for the album in Mr. Landwick’s outstretched hand. But he snaps out of it. He won’t let his power slip away. With a lightning motion he snatches the album and holds it tight against his chest.

“Jae,” he says. Only it’s not Dad’s voice. It’s a voice filled with thick smoke and rolling flames. It’s Alvin Gaffrey. He's not just influencing Dad now. He's actually possessing him.

I freeze as the pits of his eyes gaze down at me with impatience, ripping the breath out of me. He grips the album tight. Dad--no, Alvin Gaffrey--nods at Mr. Landwick. “Again, thank you,” he says, going for the door. “Return to class, Jae. I’ll see you later.”

My heart stops. He can’t. If he leaves the school, it’s over.

I’m taking a risk after all.

I lunge for the door, smacking into him. Dad’s--or Alvin Gaffrey’s--breath escapes him and the album falls to the floor. The cover flies up and falls back down, barely hiding the nightmare inside.

My heart pounds in my ears. I lean over and scoop up the album.

Feet thud behind me as I run. The doors loom large ahead of me. I have to outrun Alvin Gaffrey.

“Jae!” Dad yells.

I stop and whirl around. His voice has changed. He’s no longer Alvin Gaffrey. He’s just Dad again, the dad who read me bedtime stories and held me up on my bike when I was weaning off the training wheels and took me mushroom hunting two summers ago. He stands next to Mr. Landwick, shaking his head and blinking. Alvin Gaffrey has released him…for now.

“Dad?” I clutch the album tighter and stare.

He stares right at me. Something swishes.

Cold air wraps around me and constricts. The hairs on my neck stand on end. I’m frozen. My feet are stone.

“Jae,” a voice whispers in my ear.

The cold starts to seep into my skin. And a voice billows through my head. It’s an inferno slowly eating everything in its path.

I need your help.

The cold seeps in deeper through my skin, and I realize what’s happening. Alvin Gaffrey wants to take me over, to swing me to his side.

The freezing air tightens like a noose. I need the album. Help me do what's right.

I clutch the album tighter. Dad continues to stare. Mr. Landwick shoots him a confused look.

Then Dad speaks. “Come back here."

No.

I break the cold snare of Alvin Gaffrey and crash through the doors. Warmth and mugginess wash over my skin like a hot bath. My feet slap against the parking lot as the doors squeal open behind me.

“What’s going on here?” Mr. Landwick asks.

Dad calls my name. JaeJaeJae. Again and again.

The woods. They loom beyond the parking lot, a green shelter. The corner of the album stabs into me as I run. But I barely notice the pain. Dad’s footfalls are closing in.

Bushes and underbrush tear at my clothes. They’re arms sprung from the underworld to hold me back.

Sticks snap behind me. “Jae!”

I don't look back. I bolt ahead, keeping the album clutched to my chest.

"What is your problem?"

Keep running.

"I'm your father. I'd never hurt you." He's panting.

Don't look back.

Just run.

The footfalls start to fade behind me. Dad gasps for breath. His cigarettes and nights in front of the television slow him down. Trees thicken. The light dims as I run. I leap over a fallen tree and dodge around a thick tangle of vines.

"Jae." He's weaker now. More distant.

My sides scream. My throat burns with every breath.

And still I run. Across a dirt bike trail. Past the fence of someone's house. Music floats out at me, but I leave that behind, too.

An eternity later, and my throat burns with every breath. I stop in a clearing and glance behind me. No one. The air is hot and thick, but not constricting. That's good. It means no Alvin Gaffrey. So he can’t show himself in daylight.

He needs a body for that. A vehicle.

And he almost took over mine.
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