Halloween Extravaganza: Kelli Owen: STORY: Childhood Ghosts

One of my favorite things to receive, when I ask for a guest post, is a surprise story… especially when it’s one that I’m not quite sure is actually a story at first.


I hate Halloween. I haven’t enjoyed it for years. The last time I participated I was six years old. That was the year Luke Brown died.

The year we killed him.

My dad had left the previous spring, or rather he just didn’t come home after work one day. Mom had started working two jobs and tried hiding the fact she cried herself to sleep almost every night. We didn’t have much back then, just each other. But mom still had spunk. She risked her new waitress job in the name of Halloween and stole a white tablecloth for my costume.

At that age you believe in all the monsters you mimic in costume, the monsters that beg for candy and giggle. At six years old, it’s exciting to become one of them for a night, and I absolutely believed in the ghost I was to become. Mom cut eyeholes and draped the stolen cloth over my head. I stood on a chair as she cut some from the bottom so I wouldn’t trip. I was the happiest little ghost in the world that year.

Or at least I started the night that way.

After skipping my way to every lit porch in my neighborhood, I stood on the sidewalk with several kids from school, our parents gathered further down at the corner.

Kids are cruel and will pick on others for any little thing. My father had decided we weren’t good enough for him, which made me a pretty easy target to other first graders. Fortunately, Luke’s dad had been arrested the night before—for something I didn’t even understand back then—and the other kids had a new target. I went along with it all, happy to be off the hook for the moment.

Until I became the center of attention.

“You just gonna stand there, Sarah?” Josh glared at me through his Spiderman mask. I had been nodding my approval at their remarks, staying on the good side of the miniature lynch mob, but I hadn’t actually said anything.

“No, I just…” I had no excuse. At six you’re not quick enough to react when afraid, so I did the next best thing and diverted attention back to the other target. “I heard they’re coming to get Luke’s momma next.”

The crowd of over-sugared under-mannered six-year-olds turned back to Luke as one. They were like creepy little Village of the Damned kids, except they didn’t look alike—they were a circus version in their Halloween costumes. Spiderman was the leader, but the homemade princess was definitely next in the ranks. The juxtaposition between Bailey’s glitter-covered innocence and the sneer that curled her painted lips around sharp teeth and a sharper tongue was startling. Next to her stood Zack, in a homemade pumpkin outfit, which would be silly by today’s standards, but as the playground bully he could dress as whatever he wanted and no one would have said anything. Rounding out the crew was little Kelsey, appropriately disguised as a witch. A twig of a thing, she didn’t need words to intimidate—her stark black eyes were all it took to quiet a person.

Zack started the next round of Luke’s punishment by shoving him toward Josh. The girls closed ranks and formed a circle around the sheepish boy ironically dressed as Dracula. They giggled as they took turns pushing him like a Bop Bag. The back and forth turned into a round-the-clock motion, and I worried I was going to have a take a turn. The reality of that was painted in blue eye shadow, as Bailey lifted a glitter-covered eyebrow at me and used only a fingertip to shove Luke my way.

I was afraid. I know that now. But that night I only cared about being part of the crowd without being the victim. I pushed Luke toward Josh. I pushed him hard. I think I was hoping he’d fall and stay down. Looking back, I think I was apathetic to his situation. I have to think so. I have to hope I wasn’t really responsible for what happened next.

I never expected Josh to sidestep.

And I didn’t think Luke would stumble outside the circle and off the curb.

Mr. Boardman never saw him. Later he told everyone the black costume and black cape against the night was too hidden, too dark, even in headlights.

I’ll never forget the way Luke’s body folded over the front of the Cadillac when it struck him. I’ll never forget the way it sounded when his limp body slid up the hood and slapped against the windshield like a flyswatter against a sofa. I’ll never forget the way his mother’s scream echoed in the night, covering the roar of Mr. Boardman’s engine and subsequent squeal of his tires.

That was ten years ago.

I’ll be seventeen in December, if I make it through tonight.

Fear, shame, whatever the reason, I didn’t talk to the other four again until five years after Luke’s funeral, when I saw Bailey crying in the bathroom at school the morning after Halloween. It was the first I’d heard of Kelsey’s accident. She told me she’d been with Kelsey the night before, when the old wooden garage door slammed down suddenly and killed her. Bailey swore Kelsey screamed “No, Luke!” right before she heard the crunch and watched Kelsey’s can of A&W Rootbeer roll down the driveway. We called her crazy. We said it was guilt.

We changed our minds when Zack texted Josh the following Halloween. The message was one word: Luke. Zack’s parents found him under the basement fridge; one of its wheels across the room like it had suddenly popped free and toppled the unit over, crushing Zack without warning.

When Luke died, the other four had continued to celebrate the holiday and tradition of Trick-or-Treating, as if nothing had happened. Not me. I stayed home and handed out candy. Mom tried to get me to play along. She bribed me with some great costumes over the years, but it was all wasted money—I wouldn’t budge from the house. I couldn’t. I heard the tires and the scream and the slap of Luke’s body every Halloween. Hell, I heard it every time I shut my eyes until I was eight.

The year after Zack died was the last time I even answered the door. Spooked enough by Kelsey and Zack’s unexpected deaths to become superstitious, both Bailey and Josh decided to stay home as well. It did Bailey no good. Luke didn’t care if we celebrated or not.

They say she lived long enough to call 911. They say her ribs were broken and lungs punctured by the tree limbs and broken glass the sudden windstorm sent through her bay window. Bailey’s final words on the police recording were supposedly, “I’m sorry.”

I never thought Josh and I would talk after that night on the curb so long ago, but we became friends out of necessity. The rest of the school thought the connections between the deaths were all an urban legend created by the bullies to keep younger kids in check. If they’d bothered to pay attention, they would have realized Josh and I never spoke of it—only others did. And whenever it was mentioned, our eyes showed nothing but fear.

Fear won’t keep you alive though.

Far from any type of perceived danger, Josh spent the next Halloween night in his basement rec room, playing Nintendo and trying desperately to busy his mind and calm his nerves. We called each other every hour on the hour to check in. When the sacks were full of candy and the street’s porch lights were all off, we thought we were in the clear. We presumed Luke only came back during the hours of Trick-or-Treating.

We were wrong.

I never heard anyone explain why the ceiling fan was even turned on in October, but it was. It was still going when the cops arrived, wobbling off center with a missing blade. No one ever said if it had a crack or loose screws, never explained how the fan blade broke free. They only talked about the decapitation my mother claims was pure gossip.

Four funerals in four years…

It’s Halloween again. The last year has sucked. This is not what sixteen should feel like. I’ve been completely pushed out of any and all cliques at school. I don’t have one single person I can call a friend. People are afraid to associate with me. They know I’m the last one. They know what I know—when I’m gone, the Halloween deaths will stop.

My mom doesn’t believe any of it though. She says there was a logical reason for each of them and the dates are just coincidence. While others call it a town curse, she smiles and reassures me there is no such thing. I thought she just said it to make me relax, but she believes it enough to have gone out with Cheryl tonight. Tonight of all nights.

AMC is playing a horror movie marathon but the television is only on as a distraction, background noise. I’m not paying attention to it at all. I’m babysitting Cheryl’s six-year-old, like some kind of karmic punishment, and watching the clock. Mom should be home any minute. It’s five to midnight and little Riley’s sugar high has crashed her into a crumbled heap of sleeping princess on the couch.

Five minutes. I just have to wait five minutes and I think I’ll be in the clear. At midnight, it won’t technically be Halloween anymore.

Except someone knocked on the door a minute ago.

The front light has been off since mom left, hours ago. But the streetlight is just strong enough to illuminate the porch. Through the curtains I can see a Dracula costume and pumpkin candy bucket. A pale hand reaches up and knocks again. Harder this time.

Four minutes. I stare at the grandfather clock in the dining room, willing it to tick faster. Headlights relax my jaw as I see mom’s car round the corner.

“Sarah.” The whisper comes from behind me and I spin to see Luke standing over Riley, his wooden stake prop raised high over his head.

“No!” I try to lunge for him but am frozen in place.

The ticking from the dining room is the only sound I hear. Time slows as I watch the stake come down. The pink of her princess costume slowly change to red as the puddle spreads. I hear myself scream as I regain control of my legs and run to the couch, grasping at the air where Luke stood.

I don’t even realize I’m crying as I look down at Riley, her eyes wide in silent shock. I don’t hear the front door slam open, or feel the hands that pull me away from Riley’s still form.

Later they’ll say it was me they saw in the window. They’ll claim it was fear and superstition and guilt. They’ll know the truth, but they’ll never accept it.

They’re too old to believe in ghosts.

Kelli Owen is the author of more than a dozen books, including the novels Teeth and Floaters, and fan-favorite apocalyptic novella Waiting Out Winter, and the Wilted Lily Series. Her fiction spans the genres from thrillers to psychological horror, with an occasional bloodbath, and an even rarer happy ending. She was an editor and reviewer for over a decade, and has attended countless writing conventions, participated on dozens of panels, and spoken at the CIA Headquarters in Langley, VA regarding both her writing and the field in general. Visit her website for more information.

Teeth

All myths have a kernel of truth. The truth is: vampires are real.

They’ve always been here, but only came out of hiding in the last century. They are not what Hollywood would have you believe. They are not what is written in lore or whispered by the superstitious.

They look and act like humans. They live and love and die like humans. Puberty is just a bit more stressful for those with the recessive gene. And while some teenagers worry about high school, others dread their next set of teeth.

Vampires are real, but in a social climate still struggling to accept that truth, do teeth alone make them monsters?

Wilted Lily 1: Wilted Lilies

It’s not that Lily May Holloway is a broken, battered teenager recently escaped from her kidnapper. 

It’s not that she may or may not have killed him to escape. 

The question on Detective Travis Butler’s mind is — what exactly does the death of little Tommy Jenkins have to do with her kidnapper? 

And why does the man behind the one-way glass want the detective to entertain Lily’s tales of speaking to the dead… and being able to hear the thoughts of the living?

Wilted Lily 2: Passages

Lily May Holloway can hear the thoughts of the living, and speak to the dead. She’s done so since she was little, and been shunned for it.

As a new student at McMillan Hall, a private school with other teens who possess a variety of psychic gifts, she finds she isn’t necessarily unique. Or safe.

Acceptance is no longer her only concern. 

Staying alive is.

Passages, book 2 of the Wilted Lily series, picks up where Wilted Lilies left off…

Left for Dead/Fall from Grace

LEFT FOR DEAD

When Susan’s 8-year-old daughter is brutally attacked, she becomes consumed by her need for revenge but mere punishment is not enough. Susan learns that sometimes those being given the lessons are not those doing the learning.

FALL FROM GRACE

Grace has spent seven years adjusting to the tragedies of her youth. She has become a smart, sexy, complex teenager, who is nothing short of dangerous, as she teeters on the edge of the abyss and smiles at the monsters inside.

Halloween Extravaganza: INTERVIEW: Kelli Owen

Meghan: Hi, Kelli. It’s been awhile since we sat down together. What’s been going on since we last spoke?

Kelli Owen: To start off with a bang, I got a chapbook banned on Amazon last spring. They’d been selling it for three years and then one day some guy named Charlie V with too much power and not enough friends decided to ban it, block me from selling it, and make my life an interesting factoid. In the end, I published it at a local printer and now offer it through my website. Sorry, Charlie.

Shortly after that, Passages, book 2 in the Wilted Lily series, came out. And in doing so, turned into a series rather than a sequel.

And several short stories have happened—two came out last year, two will this year, and one is slatted for an early next year release. I know, that’s only five, the sixth piece I was ticking off on my fingers was actually an essay rather than a story—released last year as well.

Meghan: Who are you outside of writing?

Kelli Owen: Depends on the moment. I wear many hats, including writing. I’m an accountant (by day), a grandmother, a perpetual 12-year-old full of wonder and questions, a curious but cautious explorer, and a fun-crazy (not to be confused with scary-crazy) girl just trying to absorb it all.

Meghan: How do you feel about friends and close relatives reading your work?

Kelli Owen: I think it’s great. Readers are readers, and not in the sense of “please read my book” but rather in a “reading is becoming rare and any reader is a good thing” kind of way. If I happen to know them and they happen to read my fiction, awesome. I hope they like it.

Meghan: Is being a writer a gift or a curse?

Kelli Owen: Neither. It just is. It can however be an intrusive inconvenience. When you’re actively working on something but are away from it for whatever reason (life, dinner, shower, out with friends) and suddenly have to stop what you’re doing to write notes. That can be fun. And there’s those moments when you’re mid-sentence or watching a movie and just drift off because suddenly you’re plotting or planning or have dialogue running through your head. I still wouldn’t say curse, but I’d definitely suggest it’s an adventure. Just having the imagination that goes with writing can fall into both categories, and usually at the worst times.

Meghan: How has your environment and upbringing colored your writing?

Kelli Owen: My father loved thrillers and horror novels, introducing me to everything from Lovecraft to Dean Koontz. My mother loved horror movies, and supported my love of all things creepy—though with a raised eyebrow on occasion. While I did read my way through a fantasy phase, writing fantasy was as brief as a firefly’s blinky butt. Thrillers and horror were the things that moved me from a very young age, and made me want to move others. The atmosphere in my house nurtured it, never suggesting I “write something nicer” or otherwise steering my interests, themes or topics.

Meghan: What’s the strangest thing you have ever had to research for your books?

Kelli Owen: Returning blood to a liquid state after it has clotted. Even typing that is gross and reminds me of some of the nastiness of that research. Thank goodness I found a lovely phlebotomist to make friends with who could answer all the questions with science and make it less gross for me, even though I turned around and wrote it with gore and upped the gross factor for the readers.

Meghan: Which do you find the hardest to write: the beginning, the middle, or the end?

Kelli Owen: The first paragraph. I will write and rewrite and rewrite it. Then I’ll move past it and come back, and rewrite it. And rewrite it again. I honestly rewrite that first paragraph at least six times before I get to the end. I never start a piece of fiction without knowing the end, and the middle is the fun part where I have a rough sketch and let the characters tell me the details, but that beginning? It has to not only punch, it has to lead into the middle and the eventual end with grace.

Meghan: Do you outline? Do you start with characters or plot? Do you just sit down and start writing? What works best for you?

Kelli Owen: I outline, or what I call an outline. It’s more of a list of scenes and/or conversations, in order, which does usually get followed fairly closely.

I usually know the story before I know the characters. I know this thing is happening in the universe, then I work out who is present for it, whom among them have insight and therefore voice. Story arc and character arc often work in opposite directions, passing each other somewhere in the outlines.

Once all that is ready, and that dang first paragraph is good, then yes, I just start. It becomes a living thing to the point that one of my biggest issues is tense change—because it’s happening present time in my mind but I write mostly in past tense, so I’ll catch myself switching between them.

Meghan: What do you do when characters don’t follow the outline/plan?

Kelli Owen: Smile, sit back, and follow them with glee. I love when characters come to life and start surprising me, and my outlines generally allow for it to happen. Only rarely have I had to reel a character back in, and it usually causes me to pause and wonder why they went off that way.

Meghan: What do you do to motivate yourself to sit down and write?

Kelli Owen: Deadlines work! Haha. I’m actually blessed, and I say it that way because I know there are many who aren’t and I don’t want to get slapped by colleagues. When it’s time to write, I can basically just do that. I start the music, read what I previously wrote, and then continue the story.

Meghan: Are you an avid reader?

Kelli Owen: Oh I used to be such an insanely voracious reader. For years, I read enough to keep the TBR pile(s) under control. Now, I’m pulled so many ways for time, I have three different TBR piles, and while I am reading from each of them (the top book), I’m not doing it anywhere near the speed I would like.

Meghan: What kind of books do you absolutely love to read?

Kelli Owen: I still love the thrillers and horror. Dark stories about normal people in screwed up situations. Wicked twists or supernatural undertones, paranormal or apocalyptic, I’ll take anything that falls under dark, but is only one step left of reality.

Meghan: How do you feel about movies based on books?

Kelli Owen: I think people could enjoy both more if they all just remembered it’s two different mediums and sometimes you need to make changes because things don’t translate one way or the other. That said, I think there should be more movies based on books. Hollywood is so fixated with built-in audiences and unwarranted remakes, I swear they’ve all burned down their bookshelves. There are so so many books, in just the last twenty years, that would make amazing movies, but unless they’re agented or connected, they’ll never be seen that way. It’s a shame.

Meghan: Have you ever killed a main character?

Kelli Owen: Absolutely. One I knew was going to happen from the beginning, the other was a bit of a surprise (see that question above about characters going off script). And of course, in the Atrocious Alphabet, the coloring book based on a horror poem I wrote, pretty much everyone dies.

Meghan: Do you enjoy making your characters suffer?

Kelli Owen: It sounds so dirty when you say it that way, but yes. It’s my job. By definition, a thriller or horror story is boiled down to: something has gone wrong and it affects the protagonist. For a short story you can end there, but for longer works, usually more things goes wrong. A lot more if there are layers and/or multiple characters in the mix. Do I enjoy it? I don’t necessarily enjoy the issue or problem at the core, but seeing how it affects the characters, or how they’re going to deal with it, is always interesting.

Meghan: What’s the weirdest character concept that you’ve ever come up with?

Kelli Owen: “Weird” is a subjective term, and in the realm of the darker genres, it’s actually normal, or at the very least expected. So I’m not sure how to answer this. Re-inventing vampires (in Teeth) who don’t burn in the sun or fear the cross, perhaps? I also have a school full of psychically gifted kids, with some new twists on paranormal abilities (Passages).

Meghan: What’s the best piece of feedback you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?

Kelli Owen: Actually, I recently had an editor question the tone of the ending to a short story, and it made me rethink it and change it—strengthening the entire story. We’ll call that the best. The worst? I don’t know if there is such a thing. There’s feedback you disagree with, or decide not to heed, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it bad. And oddly, can’t think of anything I disagreed with hard enough to even mention.

Meghan: What do your fans mean to you?

Kelli Owen: Everything. I’m delighted to have them, and am constantly humbled by their kind words. I have included them in my works via submitted names for characters, and thanked them in the acknowledgements.

Meghan: If you could steal one character from another author and make them yours, who would it be and why?

Kelli Owen: Odd Thomas. And you should know, in my head, I answered that with definitive vulgarity punctuating those words. I’d make him a teacher at McMillan Hall (Passages) and have a lovely time with scenes in his classroom.

Meghan: If you could write the next book in a series, which one would it be, and what would you make the book about?

Kelli Owen: There’s not a lot of series (I’ve read) which are still open ended enough to take somewhere. Though it may be more fun to hijack someone else’s work and write a sequel. In that case, I would love to take Jack Ketchum’s Off Season—which is one of my all time favorite books—and continue the story beyond his existing sequel (Offspring) to round it out to a three-part series.

Meghan: If you could write a collaboration with another author, who would it be and what would you write about?

Kelli Owen: I would have loved to write with Dallas, aka Jack Ketchum, but sadly that window has closed. As both a hero and a mentor, and later a friend, it would have been a beautiful opportunity to see how his magic was created from the inside. What would we have written about? Easy. Life askew, washed in horrific Technicolor. Also, see the previous question.

Meghan: What can we expect from you in the future?

Kelli Owen: For starters, what I thought was a simple sequel to Wilted Lilies became book two in a series. So after Passages there will be at least three more, which are currently plotted. While those will likely remain novella length to fit the theme so far, anything could happen. Outside of that, I’m very excited about my next two novels—a coming of age tale, followed by what I hope is a truly scary ghost story. I’ve made a career out of making people nervous or uncomfortable, let’s see if I can’t make their hearts race and perhaps scare them…

Meghan: Where can we find you?

Kelli Owen:

Facebook (author page) ** Facebook (discussion group)
Twitter ** Instagram ** Goodreads

And of course, my website where you can find links to other bits and pieces of me scattered about the web. Also, depending on when this is published, I will be at four signings this Halloween season, please see website for details.

Meghan: Do you have any closing words for your fans or anything you’d like to say that we didn’t get to cover in this interview or the last?

Kelli Owen: Thank you so much for reaching out to me to come back and be part of the extravaganza again, I’m delighted to be included. To the fans, thank you so much for reading—please tip your waitress (ahem, please leave reviews, it’s lifeblood in this business). And may everyone have a safe and spooky Halloween!

Kelli Owen is the author of more than a dozen books, including the novels Teeth and Floaters, and fan-favorite apocalyptic novella Waiting Out Winter, and the Wilted Lily Series. Her fiction spans the genres from thrillers to psychological horror, with an occasional bloodbath, and an even rarer happy ending. She was an editor and reviewer for over a decade, and has attended countless writing conventions, participated on dozens of panels, and spoken at the CIA Headquarters in Langley, VA regarding both her writing and the field in general. Visit her website for more information.

Teeth

All myths have a kernel of truth. The truth is: vampires are real.

They’ve always been here, but only came out of hiding in the last century. They are not what Hollywood would have you believe. They are not what is written in lore or whispered by the superstitious.

They look and act like humans. They live and love and die like humans. Puberty is just a bit more stressful for those with the recessive gene. And while some teenagers worry about high school, others dread their next set of teeth.

Vampires are real, but in a social climate still struggling to accept that truth, do teeth alone make them monsters?

Wilted Lily 1: Wilted Lilies

It’s not that Lily May Holloway is a broken, battered teenager recently escaped from her kidnapper. 

It’s not that she may or may not have killed him to escape. 

The question on Detective Travis Butler’s mind is — what exactly does the death of little Tommy Jenkins have to do with her kidnapper? 

And why does the man behind the one-way glass want the detective to entertain Lily’s tales of speaking to the dead… and being able to hear the thoughts of the living?

Wilted Lily 2: Passages

Lily May Holloway can hear the thoughts of the living, and speak to the dead. She’s done so since she was little, and been shunned for it.

As a new student at McMillan Hall, a private school with other teens who possess a variety of psychic gifts, she finds she isn’t necessarily unique. Or safe.

Acceptance is no longer her only concern. 

Staying alive is.

Passages, book 2 of the Wilted Lily series, picks up where Wilted Lilies left off…

Left for Dead/Fall from Grace

LEFT FOR DEAD

When Susan’s 8-year-old daughter is brutally attacked, she becomes consumed by her need for revenge but mere punishment is not enough. Susan learns that sometimes those being given the lessons are not those doing the learning.

FALL FROM GRACE

Grace has spent seven years adjusting to the tragedies of her youth. She has become a smart, sexy, complex teenager, who is nothing short of dangerous, as she teeters on the edge of the abyss and smiles at the monsters inside.