Smoke Girl

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Chapter Four: Influence

1.

I lose my lunch in a nearby bush. Alvin Gaffrey tried to possess me. And my dad let him. Dad let him. That's the worst part of all.

A strangled cry escapes my throat when I finish. I drop the album, which lands on a bed of pine needles. Thankfully, it remains closed.

I'm alone out here. There are no buildings, other than the house I left far behind.

I have never felt more alone in my life.

I have to tell Mom what's going on. She's been acting normal. Alvin Gaffrey hasn't tried to influence her. Mom doesn't have his blood in her veins.

But neither did Marvin.

I can't stand here for the rest of the day. The album. I have to find a place to hide it, and now, before the Grand Dragon gets his hands on it. I could bury it, but I don’t have a shovel.

Wait. It’s only the pictures I need to get rid of. That’s easier. I can just peel them out and stuff them somewhere. I toss my backpack to the ground and rummage through for something to put them in, so they don’t get destroyed. I find the plastic baggie where I keep some ibuprofen and dump the pills out. The pain relievers fall into the pit of my backpack and disappear into the mess inside.

I sit down on the pine needles and take a deep breath. And flip the album open.

Alvin Gaffrey grins up at me once again, arms around his son. I rip the plastic off the album page and peel the picture off the sticky surface inside. I flip it over as I set it on the ground. A tingle runs up my fingers, like my hand’s fallen asleep. I ignore it and go to work on the next page, and the next.

I keep my eyes mostly closed as I work. A shudder races through me every time my gaze lands on a picture of a Klan march or a fiery cross. I can’t bear to look at it anymore. My disgust only grows every time I open this book.

The pile beside me grows. At last I peel the last of the photos out of the album, the one with the little girl. I set it down, back and ancient tape up. I slap the empty album shut and toss it as far as I can into the underbrush. It crashes in and disappears forever. Even if Dad or Alvin Gaffrey find it, it won’t do them any good.

I need to take these far away from the album. I gather up the pile and stuff them in a plastic bag, seal it up, and put it in my backpack. They should go somewhere where no one will never look. But they know I ran into the woods. Will Alvin Gaffrey be able to sense his prey? He knew the album was in the house. What if he and Dad come out here, and he can sense the area where I've buried these photos?

For now, they have to stay with me. I need to go far, far away and dispose of them. I'll need someone with a car. Someone who will help.

Ruba.

2.

I almost forget the final photo, the one with the little girl that I've left next to the tree. I stuff that one in my pocket and walk. I don’t dare head back to school. Instead, I wander until I hear the sound of traffic somewhere through the trees. By then, the light is growing orange like a fire burning on the horizon. It's almost dinner time.

Motors and whirring tires float through the trees ahead. I spot the back of the strip mall of Main Street. I must have walked a few miles through the woods by now.

I freeze and stare, to make sure no one is waiting there. Dad knows Darnell as well as I do, maybe better. He’s lived here all his life. But no. I only spot a Dumpster and a car without tires up against the back of the store. I peer in to make sure no one is hiding inside.

I make my way up an alley. My feet hurt. I'm still miles from home, but close to Ruba's. She lives just behind Melrose Park. Main Street is busy this time of day, with a few cars gathered at the intersection. People are returning home from work. My dad won’t be among them. Where is he now?

I drop my backpack on the sidewalk, next to a post office box. I unzip it to make sure the photos are still there, tucked in the plastic baggie. Check.

I also check my pocket for that stray one. My thumb and finger closes on the corner.

The air turns to ice and a sharp tingle runs up my arm.

Jae.

He's back.

Alvin Gaffrey has found me again.

I gasp and pull my hand from my pocket. The world spins around me in a mess of colors and noises. Motors fade away. A whooshing noise fills my head and the world goes dark.

He's trying to influence me.

There's nowhere to run.

The roar fades and the world returns. The electric feeling releases my arm and I shake it, keeping my gaze on the brick of the building next to me. Everything remains solid.

An ancient car sits parked near the curb, a shiny black one that’s rounded and curved and straight out of a car show. A barber pole hangs from the wall nearby, stripes spiraling up like rivers of blood. A Coca-Cola sign looms over me. It's one that hasn’t been there in a very long time. One that hasn’t been there since—

I'm standing in my hometown, ninety years ago.

A band plays somewhere close, a whistling patriotic tune that might belong many decades ago. Footfalls approach. The sound of the traffic has vanished.

I turn.

Figures in white robes and pointed hoods march up Main Street towards me. They're a hundred strong—at least. Some wear masks while others have their faces bared. A band plays drums in the lead. Two masked figures come up behind them, holding up a banner with words in red paint:

JOIN US TONIGHT

KU KLUX KLAN

INITIATION, FESTIVITIES, REFRESHMENTS

TONIGHT AT MELROSE PARK

BRING THE FAMILY

They march past without a glance at me. I shrink away. My skin crawls. This can't be real. This is only happening in my head. Alvin Gaffrey's putting me through this.

No one speaks. Behind the march, the sun sets. It's almost time for something big.

The crowd parts.

Alvin Gaffrey emerges from the sea of ghosts, maskless, a crow herding a flock of angry doves. He waves and smiles into the barber shop. Over to the market across the street.

And at me.

The Grand Dragon extends a hand, beckoning. “Come with us, Jae,” he booms. “Be somebody. Fight for what's right.”

My limbs turn to lead. I open my mouth to shout something, anything, to drown out his lies. But my throat’s locked up. Frozen. I back up against the barbershop and the bricks scratch against my clothes.

Alvin Gaffrey closes in. His grin grows wider and wider as he bares all his teeth. "Why do you resist? Soon, you'll come around. You will join us."

No. God, no. My pulse roars in my ears. I reach up to cover them, to cover up those words and make them go away. I have to get out of here. I can't let him--

He snatches my arm before I can. His grip is iron. There’s no escape. “This way, Jae.”

He yanks me from the wall and closer to the march. I nearly trip on something that catches on my shoe, something long and cloth. A sick feeling explodes, but I have to know.

I look down.

A long white robe hangs down to my feet.

I squeeze my eyes shut as my scream shatters the world.

3.

“Girl? You okay?”

Hands grip my arms and shake. I open my eyes to find an older man in glasses staring at me with huge eyes.

“Huh?” I glance around the street. Cars hurry past with music booming out of them. The Coca-Cola sign is gone above me, and the barber pole is missing from the building that’s now a hairstylist. The present. I’ve returned to the present.

I'm hyperventilating. I wipe my hands down my jeans. No robe. Is that march what Dad saw when he stood before Alvin Gaffrey in my backyard? No wonder he seemed so...not there.

But I resisted.

Fought back.

Didn't let him drag me into darkness.

“I said are you okay?”

I nod to the man. "I'm fine. I'm okay. Really."

I fended off the attack.

The man walks away and vanishes inside the Family Eatery. How did Alvin Gaffrey find me out here? I should have left him and Dad far behind by now. Unless--

My heart stops.

Dad’s truck is parked two lots over, on the far end of the hardware store. A lone figure sits inside, silhouetted in the fading light. He's waiting for me to walk over and surrender the photos. Waiting for me to stop being misguided and waiting for Alvin Gaffrey to bring me around.

I run to Ruba’s so fast my heart nearly bursts from my chest.

4.

I run in circles around Ruba’s street for a while, in case anyone’s behind me. Dad doesn't know where she lives and I want to keep it that way. Any second the chill might return—or worse. But no fires light in anyone’s yard. And no figures lurk behind trees, staring at me through eye holes. At least, I hope.

The kitchen light shines out of Ruba’s window as I approach. A figure moves past the curtains and disappears.

I take one last look up and down the street. All clear. Dad won’t follow me too close. He doesn’t want to scare me away.

I knock on the door. Seconds pass as crickets start to chirp around me. Nightfall. A shudder races up my spine. It's almost Alvin Gaffrey time.

The door swings open and Mrs. Osman stands in the doorway, holding one of her cats. It meows and purrs and reaches out a paw for me. For once, I ignore it and step inside. “Is Ruba home?”

She nods and smiles at me. “In her room.”

Ruba’s doing her homework on her bed when I reach her doorway. She's working on some accelerated math that sends my mind spinning. Problems swim around on the paper like I had in math class before I slugged Kyle. Before he humiliated me in front of the whole class.

I swallow as she says hi. But I waste no time. “Can you drive me somewhere?"

Her eyes grow a little wider. “Where to?”

I hate to bother her like this especially since she has so much homework. "I just need to dispose of something. Far away. I can't let my dad find it." I'm going to have to tell Ruba the entire truth. "Mr. Landwick couldn't keep the photo album. Dad came to school and wanted to take it back home."

Ruba shifts on the bed in discomfort. I can tell she's trying to find the right thing to say.

"You know how spirits can be attached to objects, right?" I ask. "That's what I think is happening here. It's affecting Dad. He's not himself. And if he gets these pictures, it's going to get worse."

She sits up. "You're saying you have a spirit who's connected to those...pictures in the photo album?"

"Yes." Here's the hard part. "It started a couple of weeks ago. I...I released this guy, or woke him up, by burning something awful I found in my attic. I'll let your imagination fill that in."

"Was it...one of those KKK costumes?" Her eyes get big.

"It might have been."

"You found that?" She's sharing my horror.

I nod. I'm shaking and my chin wobbles. "I've seen him, Ruba. He's outside my house at night. My dad even went out to him when he was sleepwalking. I watched my dad hug him, and worse. Alvin Gaffrey is controlling him. They're after those pictures I have in my backpack. I think they want to burn those too and release all the energy in them. Things are going to get much worse for all of us if that happens."

Ruba takes in a breath. Does she even believe me? This is way more than she's used to reading or seeing on television.

"Please."

She stands. "Let me find my car keys."

Is she just humoring me? It doesn't matter right now. I hug her. "Thank you."

She leaves her math homework sprawled out on her bed and grabs her keys off her computer desk. "We should leave before my mother asks where we're going," she says as we head into the hallway.

“Jae.”

I freeze and drop my backpack.

Dad stands in the front doorway.

5.

"Where have you been?" he asks. His eyes are dark and heavy with disapproval. He flicks his gaze to Ruba and back to me. She backs away. Is he just Dad right now or is he Alvin Gaffrey, too?

I can't tell.

"Visiting a friend," I snap. "It's not like I'm twelve." I don't have the album anymore. I can lie. "You're not going to find what you're looking for."

"That album is old, Jae. You can't just throw something like that away."

"I just did. You're never going to find it."

"I will," Dad says. He stares hard at me. "I think you still have it."

Mrs. Osman appears in the kitchen doorway. "Who is this?" she asks me.

Ruba presses against the wall. Dad closes the distance between us. I try to back away, but catch myself on the fake plant. I stumble but manage to stay upright.

"I need you home right now." Dad takes my wrist. Cold air envelops me, freezing me, squeezing the breath from my lungs. I can’t breathe. "We have plans tonight."

"Let go of me."

"Is there a problem?" Mrs. Osman asks.

Ruba's looking around like she's not sure what to do. I pull against Dad's grasp. "Let me go."

"Jae, would you stop with your attitude?" Dad asks. He picks up my backpack and releases my wrist. "I am taking your stuff to the truck. I think we'll be setting both you and your sister straight tonight."

My heart stops.

They're going to try swaying Renee to their side tonight, with or without those photos. With or without me.

Dad opens the front door and heads out into the night, backpack in tow. "I'm leaving. I suggest you follow."

My heart pounds and an enormous hole opens in my chest.

Renee. They're going after her next. I share a glance with Ruba. If I stay, she has no protection from Alvin Gaffrey. If I jump in the truck with Dad, will Alvin Gaffrey try influencing me again? Will I be able to resist a second time?

I have to protect my sister.

I nod at Ruba, swallow, and head out the door. I hope she understands.

Dad nods and we head out into the night.

6.

The ride home stretches into forever. Dad's put my backpack behind our seats, in the compartment reserved for coolers and camping equipment. I sit there in silence, steeling myself for another one of Alvin Gaffrey's attacks. It never comes.

We roll into the night. Out of town and into the country. Past forest.

Dad speaks. His smoky voice fills the car. “Jae, don't you ever watch the news?"

"No," I answer.

"Maybe you should. Then, you might understand what's going on in the world." He stares straight ahead. "I don’t want you in the company of…that kind of people. Ever again. Don't you realize what they want to do to our country? They hate us. They want to kill us. We need to run them out of town."

I have to push the words out. "Don't say that about my friend."

"I'm watching out for you."

"Then leave my father alone and give him back!"

"Jae." Dad faces me. "Nothing is wrong with me."

Who am I talking to?

We pull into my driveway. The lights are on inside the house, warm and inviting. A shadow moves across the dining room window. Mom. And Renee's hung up one of her Hello Kitty sheets in her window. She must be up there, listening to music.

Mom. And Renee.

Dad opens the driver side door. “Head upstairs, Jae. Sit tight.”

"Not without my stuff. I have homework."

"Now." He speaks with a patience that scares me. He knows I can’t leave…that I won’t leave without the photos. Without my sister. Both those pictures and my sister are the chains keeping me here.

I scramble for the space in the back of the truck, but Dad slaps his arm across it, blocking me.

"Upstairs," he says. "Go think about things for a while."

"No!" I realize with horror that my phone's still in there, too.

Dad's losing his patience. "Now, Jae."

There's no way I'm going to be able to pull up the seat and snatch my backpack. There's no way I can grab Renee and get her out of here in time if I'm fighting Dad for those photos. I have to choose one or the other.

And that's going to be my sister.

I sigh. "Fine." If I leave, Dad will get the photos out himself. It might be easier to get them back then, after I have Renee on my side. He still has to take them out to the fire pit. There's still a bit of time.

He smiles. "Good. Why don't you grab some dinner? There's still a frozen pizza in the freezer you can heat up."

I head into the house, forcing myself to walk. I want away from Dad. I have to get to Mom and Renee before it’s too late. I squeeze into the house and past a box that's sitting next to the door. Some delivery. I kick it aside. Mom's nowhere to be found, but the basement door's open. She must be down there.

Renee. I have to get her first.

I bolt up the stairs.

Her curtains blow in the breeze as I peek into my sister’s room. “Renee!”

She jerks her face away from the computer screen. “What now?”

“We’ve got to get out of here. No time to explain.” Where are we going to go? Will I have to snatch the keys from Mom and steal her car if she doesn't cooperate? I hate to leave her here, but Renee's in more danger than she is.

Renee swivels around to face me. “Have you been all right lately?”

"Trust me. We need to go."

"Why?" Renee's annoyed. Then she sniffs the air. "Why do I smell smoke?"

7.

“What is going on?” Renee shouts as I pull her down the stairs.

My heart thuds like a frightened wild animal trying to escape from a trap. “Just come on. There’s no time." I know what's outside. It's not midnight yet, but Alvin Gaffrey must be growing stronger. The lights aren't even out. Maybe he's getting so powerful that he no longer needs to suck the energy out of everything to manifest.

The keys. They're still on the ring by the kitchen. I'll grab those and I'll get my sister out of here.

The side door's open, leaving only the screen door closed. Footsteps approach from outside. I stop behind the cage of the banister. Renee crashes into me, but I barely notice.

"Jae--" she starts.

I shush her.

The screen door opens.

Dad steps into the kitchen. In full Klan regalia.

Renee sucks in a breath next to me. The sound of crackling floats in behind him and fills the house. His white robe flows down to the floor and his hood towers over him, but no mask covers his face. The red and white patch over his heart glares out at everything. That same box I nearly tripped over is wedged between his arm and his body, and this time it's open. My backpack's nowhere to be found. Has he already burned the photos? Or are they sitting outside, waiting?

“What the—” Renee starts. Her voice is a hiss in my ears.

I don't want her to see this. My only hope now is that she doesn't understand what this is.

A light switch clicks off somewhere, and the basement stairs creak as someone marches up them. Mom.

Stop him, I pray. Confront him. Dad turns towards the basement door and waits like an old painting frozen in time.

Mom emerges and heads for the fridge…and stops.

“Ted?” Her eyes narrow and her jaw falls. “What…what is the matter with you?”

“Honey, it’s fine,” Dad says.

Her voice rises. “Fine? Why are you wearing that? You're setting a great example for the children." She laughs. It's nervous. "You had better take that off before they come down."

"That won't be necessary," Dad says.

The back door flies open again, and Alvin Gaffrey bursts through, robes flapping around him like the wings of a crow. His mask is also flipped out of his face and his eyes are deep pits. He raises his bushy eyebrows as he extends a hand to my mother. “Sally.”

Mom backs into the basement door, jaw falling open. Renee tenses next to me.

Run, I scream in silence. Run, run, RUN!

Mom doesn’t. She presses into the door so hard her hands pale. “What—”

“Sally,” Dad says in his soothing voice. “I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is ‘yes.’”

“But…but…” Mom’s voice shrinks into a squeak. She blinks, trying to dismiss the nightmare.

Alvin Gaffrey takes her hand and squeezes. I squint and peer closer, unable to look away. Is his hand like air, able to pass through her? But no. He’s solid. Alive. The lights stay on.

Mom freezes and stares into his eyes. She's cornered. Trapped. I want to scream at her, to scream at Alvin Gaffrey, to scream at Dad, but my throat’s locked up. My breathing, stifled. So I reach out and take Renee’s arm. Her skin has gone cold and her breath comes in shallow gasps.

“Sally. You are a school bus driver, right?” the Grand Dragon asks in a low voice.

Mom nods, transfixed.

“Have you ever wanted to be a part of something greater?”

Mom stares. And stares.

And nods.

I bite my lip to hold in the scream. No. Mom’s not going to—

Alvin Gaffrey’s voice grows to fill the room, mixing in with the crackling from outside. The stench of smoke wafts up the stairs with it. “Our cause is an important one, Sally. Think about this.” A pause. “What kind of kids are the ones causing all the trouble on your bus? Who’s responsible for all the crime on the news? Who's in the prisons? We can work to make this world a better place for your children.”

Renee shifts next to me. I want to hold her close, but the stairs might creak.

Mom steps away from the wall, silent.

“Ted,” the Grand Dragon says. He is the director of a horror film playing out below me.

Dad sets the box down on the table. He’s a puppet with invisible strings attached, strings that are attached somewhere inside his head. With a faint shuffle, he produces a square of folded white cloth encased inside plastic wrap. He tears open the package and holds it up.

The robe unfurls towards the floor. A bill blows off the table and hits the wall.

Alvin Gaffrey releases Mom. Now she can run. Or order him to get out of the house. Or yell at Dad. She can do something. She can—

Mom blinks again…and reaches out for the robe.

I squeeze my eyes shut and wait for the nightmare to end. The air still reeks of smoke. My heart pounds. But I won’t look. I can’t look.

“Let’s go,” Renee hisses.

She’s right. I open my eyes and wake up to my nightmare.

Alvin Gaffrey fills the room, and two figures in white robes stand before him. Neither of them speak. They face him as if deciding what to do next.

He looks up at the stairs and nods at my ruined parents. “Bring the kids down.”

8.

I thud up the stairs, yanking Renee’s arm and racing for my room. The steps screech and scream under me. Footfalls grow louder and close in.

I slam my bedroom door. “Renee,” I breathe. “Chair. Now!”

“What?” She backs towards the bed.

The footfalls close in. “Chair!”

She shoves the computer chair at me. I ram it under the doorknob a second before it starts to rattle. It might hold for a minute at most.

“Jae, open the door,” Dad says. “You’re overreacting. Nothing bad is going to happen to you. Just come down here and you’ll see something amazing happen.”

Nightmares and flames swim behind my eyes. “No!”

The door rattles again. Lurches forward a bit.

“The window,” I whisper.

Renee slides open the window and the stench of smoke wafts in, filling the room. Flames crackle. An orange, flickering glow appears. "Um, sis? This looks like something bad I saw in a movie at school once."

The doorknob rattles again. “Jae!” Dad’s voice rises to bad report card and breaking curfew. The chair slides in another inch.

“Go,” I mouth, climbing over the bed and for the exit.

We push at the screen. Renee whimpers beside me as it falls to the overhang with a soft thud. Smoke wraps its cold fingers around my skin.

And beyond it, the cross blazes, bright and angry.

We have no choice but to go out this way.

The door creaks and groans. Dad pushes on it harder. “I mean it, Jae. Stop your crap. You need to get your priorities straight."

Renee pauses at the window, trembling. She won't stop staring at the cross. She must have an idea what this all means by now.

I slap my hand on her back. "We have to jump."

"What if that guy's that way?"

"He might be." I'm not going to lie.

I'm running from my own parents.

My own family.

I swing my legs over the windowsill. The shingles scrape against my shoes, slowing me down as I descend with Renee in tow. She holds onto me. The ground spreads out below us, waiting.

A figure shrouded in black stands next to the leaping flames. He faces away from us, watching the cross burn. A long shadow stretches away from him, pointed and dangerous. He wears the hood of an evil wizard, ready to work forbidden magic.

Plastic and paper hang from his outstretched hand, glowing orange in the light of the flames. The photos. They haven't been burned yet. Alvin Gaffrey's waiting.

There’s another bang on the door behind me. A cracking sound splits through the air. “Jae, don’t make me break this door down!” Something muffled. “Sally, go make sure they don't go out the window.”

“We’ve gotta go,” I say, pushing Renee to the edge of the overhang.

"I can't jump."

"You can. It's not far."

She slides off and to the ground.

I follow.

The world spins around me as I vault to the edge and down onto the grass. Footsteps thud inside the house as Mom races down the stairs. Renee's grasping her ankle.

“Run for the woods," I order her.

She does.

The flames climb higher, ready to do their work. Alvin Gaffrey stares into them, maybe searching for the fiery hoods of his followers inside. He doesn’t notice me. Maybe—

I run for him.

The front door opens with a faint bang. Time’s running out.

Alvin Gaffrey whirls around to face me. And with the flick of his hand, the photos sail into the fire.

I stop cold as the last of my hope dies.

And the Grand Dragon smiles, showing all his teeth. “Too late, Jae.”


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