Authors: Mara Purnhagen
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Fantasy & Magic, #Speculative Fiction
A Past Midnight Novella
Charlotte Silver's world is like no one else's…
As the daughter of the famous Silver Spirits paranormal investigators, Charlotte Silver is used to all things weird. But when coffins start floating down her street during a flood, life turns extra strange. And wonderful, when her friend and crush Noah signs on to help Charlotte and her folks in the aftermath. Cemetery cleanup might not sound exciting, but as shocking discoveries and a lurking stranger come to light, Charlotte learns that sometimes, raising the dead can bring unexpected rewards.
And watch for more books in the Past Midnight series
One Hundred Candles
Available March 2011
Beyond the Grave
Available September 2011
Mara Purnhagen cannot live without a tall caramel latte, her iPod or a stack of books on her nightstand. She has lived in Aurora, Illinois; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Dayton, Ohio, and Duncan, South Carolina. She currently lives outside Cleveland, Ohio, with her family, two cats and a well-meaning ghost who likes to open the kitchen windows.
Visit Mara online at her website www.marapurnhagen.com and her Facebook page www.facebook.com/mara.purnhagen
I was not morbid, but I had already written my epitaph:
Here lies Charlotte Silver, who died at 17 from excruciating boredom
. Composing an appropriate epitaph was an old trick I used to keep myself awake during one of Dad’s lectures. The historical ones were particularly painful, even when I was supposed to serve as his assistant and had little jobs to perform, like setting up the PowerPoint presentation and making sure we had enough copies of his book for the signing afterwards.
I looked out at the eager crowd. The ancient auditorium was filled to capacity, people drawn in by the allure of listening to a semifamous paranormal investigator despite the raging weather outside, which the local meteorologists said was an effect of the latest hurricane to batter the South Carolina coast. Dad had been speaking for almost an hour, and the mostly middle-aged men who comprised his core audience were still dutifully taking notes and nodding in excited agreement.
“Originally, it was not pumpkins that were carved for Halloween, but the more plentiful turnip,” Dad said.
That was my cue. I retrieved a tiny turnip from our box of props and handed it to him, then sat back down. A few cameras flashed. The audience liked to take pictures of Dad, and I knew they liked to get me in the shot, as well. We looked so much alike, both of us tall and with the same straight, dark hair. There was no mistaking that I was Patrick Silver’s daughter.
“You may ask how it was possible to carve such a small gourd and insert a candle into its belly.” Dad held up the withered vegetable. More nodding from the audience. “The answer is simple. Europeans used to grow much larger turnips.”
I handed Dad a bigger turnip, this one made from papier-mâché. He lifted it up and the audience applauded. They actually applauded. I felt sorry for them. Then I remembered that I was the girl spending a Friday night listening to her dad’s stock speech on the history of Halloween and handing out turnips. I had no right to judge others.
“Now,” Dad said, clapping his hands together. “Who wants to talk about ghouls?”
After the lecture, Dad signed copies of his books while I packed up our props and shut down the computer. Once everything was packed, I sat on the edge of the stage. Through the auditorium’s open doors I could see the long line for Dad’s book signing and knew I was stuck for a while. I let my legs dangle off the stage. Thunder rumbled outside, the lights flickered inside, and I hoped the auditorium was equipped with a good backup generator. As the daughter of paranormal investigators, I wasn’t scared of the dark—or much else. But the thought of sitting in a vast, windowless room with a crowd of anxious people made me uneasy. How would I find my dad in the dark? I was identifying the nearest exit when I heard a familiar voice.
“Noah?” He was standing near the back of the huge room, but his voice echoed towards me. My heart beat a little faster. “What are you doing here?” I asked as he walked down a side aisle.
He hopped up onto the stage and sat next to me. His khaki rain jacket was covered with dark patches of water and his brown hair was spiky from the rain. “How could I pass up a chance to hear about the true origins of Halloween rituals and traditions and their impact on modern society?”
“So you read the flyer. Why are you
He sighed. “We lost power at our apartment. My mom decided we should go to Shane’s place. I knew you were here, so I asked her to drop me off. Can you give me a ride later?”
“Sure.” I suppressed my inner urge to squeal. Noah came here because he knew I was here? That was positive. Although his only other option was to hang out with his mom and her new boyfriend, and I knew he’d rather pour Tabasco in his eyes than watch the two of them swoon over each other. Shane was like an uncle to me, and while I thought his new relationship with Noah’s mom was wonderful, I could see how it might bother Noah. A week earlier he had walked into his living room to find Shane and Trisha locked in a passionate embrace, and he said he still had nightmares. Noah believed that moms should wear loose-fitting jeans and kiss on the cheek only.
Another growl of thunder caused me to flinch. “I can’t believe this storm is getting worse. I thought hurricane season was almost over. How bad is it outside?”
Noah swung his legs in rhythm with mine. “Lots of downed power lines. There’s a flash flood warning, too.”
“I wish I was home.”
“You don’t like thunderstorms?” He sounded surprised.
“No, I do. But I like to enjoy them from home, where I can curl up on the sofa in my pajamas and keep a flashlight nearby.”
Noah laughed softly, a sound that warmed my stomach and caused it to flutter at the same time. “I know what you mean. When I was a kid, my brothers and I would turn the dining room table into a fort whenever there was a bad storm. We’d sit underneath it and Mom would bring us cookies.” He smiled wistfully. “Nothing scares them, though. They’re both serving in the military now.”
The lights flickered again. I clenched my fingers on the edge of the stage. Noah noticed.
“Hey. If the lights go out, don’t worry, okay? I’m right here and I won’t leave you.”
Now I was hoping the power
go out. Immediately. Noah and I had been friends since my family had moved to town over the summer. He was with me in Charleston a few weeks earlier, when I’d experienced the most surreal moment in my life, the moment I made contact with a girl who’d been dead for a century. And more recently, he’d been my date to homecoming.
Through all of this, my feelings for Noah had grown. There were nights when I would lie awake just thinking about him, imagining him in his own bed and wondering if he was staring up at the ceiling, thinking about me. But he’d had the perfect chance to reveal his feelings at homecoming, and instead of trying to get closer to me, he had pulled away.
Maybe he needed me to be more direct. Maybe I had unintentionally sent out mixed signals. If we were suddenly submerged in pitch blackness, I could lean over and accidentally let my lips brush his neck. If he responded, great. If not, then I could pretend that it was a colossal mistake due to the fact that I couldn’t see.
More thunder growled outside, this time so close that I was sure the storm was directly over the building. The lights blinked but stayed on.
“Charlotte?” Dad stood in the doorway. He was putting on his trench coat. “We need to go. It’s really coming down.”
“Sure.” My hopes of a possible kiss and a romantic beginning to a new relationship officially dashed, I hopped off the stage. “Can we give Noah a ride?”
Dad was examining his cell phone. “I have a text here from Trisha. She’s with Shane at our house. Noah’s coming with us.”
Noah lowered himself from the stage and stood next to me. “Great,” he muttered. “More quality time with Shane.”
“It’s fine,” I said as we began walking down the aisle. I carried the box of props while Noah held the computer. “I doubt they’ll be making out with everyone around.”
Noah snickered. “You underestimate them.”
I laughed, but when Dad held open the doors leading outside, I stopped. Rain slammed the ground as if it was being fired from a machine gun. “I’ll get the car!” Dad yelled. He darted toward the parking lot and disappeared in the wall of water gushing from the sky.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” I had to practically scream at Noah so that he could hear me over the roar of rain.
“Welcome to hurricane season in South Carolina!”
Dad pulled the car around a few minutes later. Already the water was several inches deep. Noah opened the back door and I dove in. He tucked the computer under his jacket and followed. Inside the car, it was quieter, but Dad had the wipers going at full speed and they were barely clearing his window.
“We don’t need a car to get home,” I joked. “We need a boat.”
Dad didn’t even smile. Around us, people raced to get to their cars. “I can’t believe this,” Dad said. “We were only in there for three hours.”
He drove slowly, stopping several times when he couldn’t see the road. Our house was less than five miles away, but it felt like a hundred. I held the wet box of props in my lap and tried to look out my window, but the streetlights were just a blur against the rain.
Dad’s phone rang. He handed it to me.
“Charlotte, where are you?”
“Hi, Mom. We’re in the car. It’s taking a while.”
“Tell your father to drive slowly.”
“He is, don’t worry.”
Dad stopped again. I automatically looked behind us to make sure no one was driving too close. I couldn’t see any headlights. I couldn’t see anything.
“Mom? I’ll call you when we’re close, okay?” I snapped shut the phone. Dad was staring out his side window.
“Do you see it?” He pointed.
I leaned over Noah to look out the window. Something was in the road, bobbing along the water.
“Looks like a little canoe,” Noah said.
“That’s not a canoe,” Dad said. “That’s a coffin.”
Coffins continued to float down Main Street throughout the night, bobbing along the raging brown water until they lodged in between buildings or came to rest against fallen trees. We watched the macabre footage from home, where Noah, Trisha and Shane had been stuck with us since Friday evening.
“Are you seeing this?” I asked Avery. On the TV, a newscaster dressed in a bright yellow poncho tried to shield his face from the pounding rain.
“It’s crazy,” my best friend agreed. Avery lived at the bottom of our neighborhood hill. I had called her right away, concerned that the water was running down our street and into her front yard. It was, but so far her house was holding up against the flood.
“Think they’ll cancel school on Monday?” I asked her.
“Definitely. No one can drive in this. And if it keeps up, they’ll probably cancel Halloween next week, too.”
That wouldn’t be a bad thing, in my opinion. I hated dealing with people on Halloween. Our house always drew a crowd, even though we didn’t decorate and tended to keep the lights off. People associated my family with the paranormal, so they would show up and linger on the front lawn, snapping pictures in the dark and waiting for something to happen. Did they really think a gang of ghosts was going to visit us on Halloween?
The raging flood wasn’t the only reason I was calling Avery. Seeing a coffin carried by the river that was Main Street automatically made me think of Avery’s late boyfriend, Adam, who was buried in a local cemetery. I didn’t know where the caskets were coming from, but I was sure that Adam’s cemetery was not the source. I wanted to make sure Avery knew that.
“So listen,” I began. “The flash floods have gotten really bad.”
“Uh-huh.” I could hear Avery’s TV in the background.
“And they’re saying that it’s affected some cemeteries.”
The TV went silent. “Who’s saying that?”
“The local news.” I paused. “And we saw a casket in the street when we were driving home last night.”
“The flood is hitting an older cemetery,” I rushed to say. “My mom is looking into it. She works with preservation societies all the time, and she’s seen this kind of thing before. I don’t want you to worry, okay?”
“Sure.” Avery’s voice was listless.
“Modern burials are different now,” I explained. “They don’t just dig a hole and throw a coffin in.” I cringed at my own words. “Sorry. I wasn’t trying to be insensitive.”
“No, it’s fine.”
“What I mean is, coffins today are put into a cement vault, then covered with dirt. Adam’s cemetery isn’t the source, I promise.”
She hung up, and I returned to the dining room, which my family used as a den, and where everyone was now gathered, their attention focused on the local news.
“So far, over a dozen caskets have washed away,” the rain-soaked newscaster announced.
“Authorities are determining their point of origin. Stay tuned for dramatic—and exclusive—footage of a man and his dog being rescued from their submerged car.”
Mom hit the mute button. “Who wants to help me with dinner?”
Trisha and I immediately went to the kitchen, leaving Dad, Shane and Noah in front of the TV. I was happy to leave the local news behind and focus on something else instead.
“So,” I said. “What are we making?”
I knew better than anyone that my mom did not cook. Her culinary talents included reheating restaurant leftovers in the microwave and turning on the coffeemaker in the morning.
Trisha opened the freezer. “How does pizza sound?”
“Perfect,” Mom said. “I’ll see if we have enough to make a salad.”
I wasn’t about to return to watching the local news, so I offered to set the table. While I went about my chore, I listened to Mom and Trisha chat. They talked about the incessant rain, with Trisha apologizing for taking over the guest room and Mom assuring her that it was no problem, and how the town would clean up after the storm passed.
Sitting at the kitchen table, I was able to relax and let my mind wander. I thought of Noah in the next room, stuck with my dad and Shane and the endless news broadcast, which trumped the reruns of sitcoms that normally aired during weekend dinnertime. I worried about Avery and hoped that her house would be safe from severe water damage. And, as it had happened so often over the past few weeks, I thought about Charleston and the girl in the pink dress.
It had been only three weeks since I had stepped into the afterlife. Three weeks, and already a part of me was doubting the details of the experience. Had I really spoken to a dead girl? If so, I had achieved more contact with the paranormal in a moment than my parents had throughout their decades-long career. I hadn’t told anyone about it, not even my parents, mainly because I was trying to make sense of it.
The logical side of me reasoned that it had been a stress-induced hallucination, brought on by lack of sleep and weeks of feeling watched. After all, no one had witnessed anything other than me placing my hand on an old tree. In that half second, minutes seemed to fold away as I tried to help a girl reconnect with her deceased parents.
At the time, it had felt so real. But later, as I tried to replay the incident in my mind, only a few details remained. The pink dress. The tree. The girl’s voice, so similar to my own, telling me that there was no end to life, no end to anything at all. I did not trust my own mind. What if I had somehow manufactured a memory using the details I was already familiar with? I had eaten lunch by that tree and viewed a faded photograph of the girl. My tired brain could have pieced elements together to form something resembling reality, something to which I could relate. The bizarre vision had given me the mental strength to continue on with a ceremony intended to bring about closure to restless spirits. But as my dad always wondered, why would the dead need the limited powers of the living? Anything we did to help the deceased was merely a guess, nothing more. We possessed no true knowledge of what it meant to be dead; therefore, we possessed no true knowledge of how to help them—or if they even needed help.
That was Dad’s other concern. He loved to debunk the psychics and charlatans who claimed that they assisted tortured sprits with the process of moving on. These people possessed no wisdom, Dad claimed. They had no idea what it meant to die, much less whether the dead needed assistance. No place was haunted by souls desperate to find the light that would lead them to eternal peace. Places were simply occupied by residual energy that was triggered by human action. The solution? Stop the action.
It was the driving principle behind my parents’ careers. But after Charleston, I’d noticed a shift in how my mother and my father approached their work.
While Dad continued his no-nonsense, scientific approach to all things paranormal, Mom seemed to take a step back. The first time I’d noticed the change was the day we returned from
Charleston. Our house was a wreck, the result of two angry spirits. Furniture lay on its side and the hundreds of sheets of paper scattered throughout the downstairs made me think a tiny tornado had touched down in the center of our dining room. Immediately, Dad went about fixing the big things, such as returning chairs to their rightful place and inspecting the ceiling for cracks.
Mom took a different approach. She knelt on the floor, examining each piece of paper for clues and running her hands over every jagged line streaking the walls. She was searching for a pattern, I realized, some common thread that tied everything together. While Dad assumed it was all a random mess, Mom thought it represented something deeper and more complex. When she asked Dad to slow down, he laughed. “The sooner we put all of this behind us, the better,” he declared.
Mom tried to explain her ideas to him, that maybe they should catalog exactly what had happened, but Dad dismissed her with a wave of his hand. “It means nothing,” he said. “Nothing a couple hours of hard work can’t fix.”
Mom pursed her lips and looked like she wanted to debate the issue, but even I knew that when Dad decided upon something, it was final. Mom picked her battles, and this was one she couldn’t win. Yet.
“Ranch or Italian?” Mom asked Trisha, bringing me back to the present.
“Exactly what I was thinking.”
I watched the way Mom talked with Trisha, the way she smiled and went out of her way to make Trisha comfortable. We rarely met Shane’s girlfriends. He only introduced us to women he had dated for more than a month, a population I could count on one hand. Trisha was special, and everyone in my family knew it.
While the pizza cooked we converged in the dining room, eager for new flood updates. The same footage aired on the news, though, an endless loop of water licking the bottom of stop signs and cars gliding along on dark waves.
“I haven’t seen a storm this bad since Noah was in diapers,” Trisha announced.
Noah winced. He’d endured a full 24 hours of discomfort, beginning with having to dress in my dad’s old sweatpants after we made it home, to sleeping on our sofa with a snoring Shane sprawled out on the floor, to watching his mom feed chunks of grapefruit to Shane at breakfast. Noah looked miserable, and I wanted to do something about it. While the adults stared at the TV, flipping between the weather channel and the local news, I invited him up to my bedroom.
“I think you need a break from all of this,” I told him.
“Anything’s better than staring at the TV,” he agreed.
As soon as Noah stepped into my room, I felt nervous and tucked a lock of hair behind my ear. It wasn’t that I thought something would happen, but maybe being alone together would inspire him to make a move. I was suddenly aware of everything my room held and what those things might say about me. Would he laugh at the small pink teddy bear perched on top of my dresser? Would he dare open my closet? Normally my clothes were strewn in heaps across the floor, but when it became apparent that no one would be leaving the house Friday night, I had shoved everything into my closet. An avalanche of clothes waited behind the double doors, ready to tumble down on the unlucky person who turned the handle.
Thankfully, Noah did not venture near my closet. Instead, he went straight to my bookshelf while I sat on the edge of my neatly made bed. “These are all required reading,” he said as he examined my small assortment of books.
“Not all of them.” I was immediately defensive. I’d had no idea he would be drawn to my bookshelf, of all things. My desk was much more impressive, with a powder-blue laptop, a ceramic mug filled with pens in every color imaginable, and a framed picture of all of my friends—including him—at homecoming.
Noah held up a paperback copy of
A Tale of Two Cities
. “You bought this for recreational purposes?”
“It’s a classic.” It was also an assignment at one of the many high schools I had attended. We’d moved before I had finished the semester—or the book.
“Hmm.” Noah looked unconvinced. He ran his fingers over the spines of my collection, stopping when he came to a red paperback. “I like this one.” He held up a well-worn copy of
“That’s my dad’s,” I told him. “But it’s one of my favorites.”
This minor revelation made me majorly happy. Sharing the same taste in books, despite the fact that those books had been part of a school assignment, was a positive sign.
I wasn’t sure what to do after Noah finished examining my pathetic bookshelf. Invite him to sit with me on the bed? Offer him a peek into my dresser? Fortunately, he made the decision for me.
“I was thinking about the coffins,” he said as he sat down on the floor. “What happens after the rain stops? Whose job is it to go out and collect them all?”
“The police? Or the county coroner, maybe?”
“Yeah, but they’re going to be crazy busy with everything else going on. Retrieving old caskets might not make the list.”
“Think your parents will get involved?”
I sighed. “Probably.” Mom would definitely volunteer. She would want to examine not only the coffins but their contents, as well. Both my parents had assisted in similar projects, but it had been a while—not since I was a toddler, at least.
“So Shane would help, right? I mean, he goes where they go.”
“Wait.” I narrowed my gaze at him. “You’re hoping Shane becomes totally occupied with work for a while so he won’t have time for your mom.”
Noah gave me a wide-eyed, innocent look. “I didn’t say that.”
“Right. Nice try, but a few hours away at work isn’t going to stop those two from being a couple.”
He groaned. “Did you see them at breakfast? Can’t they at least tone it down when I’m around?”
“It was a little much,” I agreed.
He leaned his head against my bed. “And I’m so tired. Shane snores like a wild boar.”
“Wild boars snore?”
“You know what I mean.” He closed his eyes. “I need a nap.”
I got up. “Take my bed for a few hours.”
“Sure.” I had changed the sheets the night before, so I was pretty sure there were no drool spots on my pillow.
“Well, yeah, if you’re okay with me sleeping in your bed.” Noah pulled himself off the floor. We stood facing each other for a moment. He was so close I could smell the cinnamon on
his breath and I wondered if I should just step forward and kiss him. I couldn’t, though. I wasn’t that brave.
“Sweet dreams,” I said, hoping he couldn’t hear the pounding of my heart.
I closed the door behind me and went downstairs. Noah was in my room, in my bed. It made me giddy, and I tried not to smile too widely.
Downstairs, Mom was taking the pizza out of the oven. “Where’s Noah?”
I sat down at the table. “He wanted to take a nap. I guess he’s had a hard time sleeping because of Shane’s snoring.”
“Tell me about it,” Trisha muttered.
Mom and I shared an amused glance. “Well, dinner’s ready. We’ll save him some for later.”
After dinner, I stayed in the kitchen and called Avery. “Guess who’s sleeping in my bed right now?”