- How Do You Deal with a Dead Girl?
Ben D’Argento is a gay, eighteen-year-old, trust-fund kid, rich and handsome. He has the world on a silver platter, right? Nope. He’s been abandoned by his jet-setting parents, his boyfriend just dumped him for a girl (!), and his autistic kid brother has been locked up in a group home. Utterly devastated by all this, Ben steals the keys to his parents cabin the woods, breaks his brother out of the care facility, and drives them up to Fawn Skin Lake. Ben wants nothing more than to get away from the heartache and wagging tongues in Los Angeles and to bond with his younger brother. However, when a thirteen-year-old girl named Flora, who drowned there years before, starts showing up in their vacation home with an ominous warning, Ben discovers she has other plans for them. But there’s something else, something old and evil, looking for fresh blood, lurking right beneath the emerald surface of the lake. Maybe Flora knows more about it than she’s telling?
Will Ben ever find love again? And after living with ghostly Flora all summer, will he finally be able to answer the question: How do you deal with a dead girl?
Publisher: Kindle Worlds
Pairings: MF, MM
Heat Level: 2
Romantic Content: 4
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Gay, Pansexual, Straight
Protagonist 1 Age: 18-25
Protagonist 2 Age: Under 18
Protagonist 3 Age: Under 18
Tropes: Bad Breakup, Biological Urge to Mate, Fairy Tales Revisited, Hurt / Comfort, Love Can Heal / Redemption, Rescue, Villain to Hero
Word Count: 75,000
Setting: Los Angeles County
Languages Available: English
Series Type: Same Universe / Various Characters
“GODDAMNIT!” BEN SHOUTED WHEN the silver key snapped off in the deadbolt when he unlocked it. He looked at the metal stub between his fingers. It gleamed mockingly up at him.
Ever since Mark dumped me, it’s been like this. (Un-fucking-believable!). At least senior year is over. I’m free and I can finally use my trust-fund money. Mom and Robert can’t stop me; they won’t even be back until October, anyway. I have this whole summer to lick my wounds and get over Mark (asshole!), and hopefully give Taddy the summer vacation he’s never had.READ MORE
He tossed the shiny fragment into the bushes next to the stone-lined walkway. He turned to see his autistic, six-year-old brother, Tadzio, staring up from behind him. “Of all things to happen on our first day here, right, Taddy?” Ben smiled reassuringly down at him. “At least I stole the spare key too. We’ll have to lock the bottom one until I figure out about getting a locksmith up here.” He could hear his stepfather Robert’s voice warning him, I’ll skin you alive if I catch you up at our summerhouse.
(Let’s hope you never find out.)
Tadzio didn’t answer his older brother and instead wrapped his arms around Ben’s thigh.
“Hey! What’s up, little man?” Ben asked as he gazed down at the small boy clamped to his leg. “I told you this was going to be fun! We’re going to spend the whole summer here, just the two of us. Don’t tell Mom and Robert that I took you out of Hardwick and we came up here, okay? They still think we’re in LA.”
Tadzio continued to embrace his brother’s thigh while patches of June sunlight filtered down through the pine trees and scintillated around them. It was gloriously warm already at ten o’clock in the morning in this mountainous part of Southern California. The two-story Victorian summerhouse cast its cool shadow over them offering some relief from the heat. Ben wondered why there wasn’t a shaded porch waiting there to greet them beneath the northern gable. His mother, Vivian, an art gallery owner, had drilled an artsy-fartsy aesthetic into him since he was a little kid; he knew all the different styles of architecture.
I thought a Second Empire house like this is supposed to have a front porch? Weird. The builder must have had his reasons, I guess. Maybe he was some rogue architect like Gaudi or I. M. Pei, a real innovator of the 1900s?
Ben reached down a kind hand and ruffled his little brother’s brown hair.
“Fawn Skin Lake is nearby; we can fish and swim there. It’s a little walk from here, but not too far. The Delmar Mountains are beautiful. And there are California spotted newts all over, too. Wouldn’t you like to go find some?”
“Where’s Mark? Why didn’t he come with us?”
“Taddy, you remember what I told you? Mark and I broke up. We’ve been through this before. I know it’s only been a month, but I need to start moving on with my life, that’s what Dr. Waxman said,” Ben replied a little sharply. The breakup had been very hard on him. He and Mark were childhood friends, and they’d been a couple since middle school. As far as everyone, including Tadzio, was concerned; Mark was part of the family. Ben and Mark spent almost every day together since high school: studying, playing video games, going to films, and on the weekends, trying to sneak into dance clubs. And now Ben was starting to realize the toll the breakup had taken on Tadzio. Mark didn’t just dump him; he dumped Tadzio, too.
Tadzio’s eyes flashed open, nearing tears.
“I’m sorry, buddy. Come here. You know I love you. That will never change,” Ben said, soothing the child as he knelt down to hug him. He released Tadzio from his grasp. “Which reminds me,” he continued and stood up. “I need to let Dr. Waxman know I won’t be seeing him while we’re up here. Maybe we can still FaceTime a few sessions.” Ben already had his iPhone in his hand as he opened the bottom lock with the spare key.
Tadzio squeezed past him, tears forgotten for the moment, moved through the doorway, and off into the dusty foyer. It was dim and damp inside. The indoors felt nice compared to the summer morning outside. After a four-hour drive from Los Angeles, Tadzio wanted to use the bathroom. Ben began to leave a message for Dr. Waxman as his brother stepped closer into the darkness at the center of the summerhouse.
Tadzio surveyed the living room.
Tall, narrow windows along the oak-lined walls let in thin bands of sunlight that did nothing to remove the ancient gloom. It was hard to make out the objects on the tabletops and on the bookshelves. Everything was in silhouette. The house felt old; the candelabras and inlaid tables, the gilt-framed oil paintings of melancholy seascapes belonged to some other time.
A small bronze satyr pirouetted on a marble-topped end table. Tadzio walked over and touched the cloven hoof it held aloft. Then he ran his finger along the satyr’s patinated leg. To the boy’s left, something shifted on an ornate sofa. Just a small movement, hardly noticeable, really. Tadzio went over and lifted a velvet pillow from the other embroidered cushions. A honeybee suddenly rose buzzing from the fabric and made its way into the bright kitchen. The boy, distracted from his errand, followed its lilting path through the musty air. He passed a dark staircase on his right that ran up to the second floor. Tadzio paused and took in the deep silence in the house. From somewhere within its faded rooms a clock ticked softly.
He heard his brother outside walking along the gravel path among the fallen pine needles. The bee flew up over the tiled sink top and bounced noisily against the window. Tadzio entered the yellow kitchen and watched the bee’s angry dance. It flew up again into the back of the room, behind a large, freestanding chopping block, and landed on a door painted midnight blue. The bee crawled up to the frame and disappeared beneath the jamb. Tadzio stepped toward the blue door and tried the brass knob. It was icy cold. It wouldn’t budge.
He let his hand drop and then reached up and tried opening it again, somehow expecting a different result.
The doorknob was odd, as well. It had a man’s grinning face, with a deeply furrowed brow, etched into the metal. Tadzio could tell that turning the knob one direction made the man smile, the other, upside down; the furrowed brow became his frown. Happy opened, sad closed; but it was locked just the same. Whatever secrets the door protected would have to wait.
Ben entered the kitchen and placed a few bags of organic food on the countertop. He took off his letterman’s jacket and hung it from a chair back. “We’re going to need to clean this place up a little bit, huh? It looks like no one has been here in years. I can’t remember the last time Mom and Robert came up here. I’ve never even set foot in this place before today.”
“What’s in there?” Tazio asked while pointing to the blue door. Neither Ben nor Tadzio had ever been allowed to come to the summerhouse. It had been purchased a few years ago as a fixer-upper as one of their parent’s many private getaway properties. They rented it out occasionally too. Robert had shown Ben the plans for the renovation. Other than that, the summerhouse was for the exclusive use of the grownups. (No children allowed, Robert said as he tipped a gin-filled highball at his two stepsons.)
“That door’s locked.”
“I think I remember from the floor plan, that door leads to the basement. We can open it and explore down there later. Right now I need your help with bringing things in from the car. Can you do that?”
“But why can’t we open it now?”
“I said later, Taddy. I need you to help me unload the car. Okay?”
“You’re not my boss,” Tadzio said staring right up at Ben.
“I am when Mom isn’t here. Do you want me to call Robert?” Ben asked. This was the thing both brothers feared most; their nasty stepfather.
Tadzio shook his head and then rushed past his brother and out the front door to the white Mercedes waiting on the dirt road.
“Slow down, Taddy! There’s no hurry!” his brother shouted after him. (That kid is such a spazz, his stepfather said cruelly. I think he’s just high-energy, Ben answered. You don’t have to take care of him, Robert replied.) Ben began to unload the sundry items they’d brought from Whole Foods: two jars each of peanut butter and all-natural fruit spread, a loaf of flourless bread, bottled water from Fiji, whole-wheat pretzels, gluten-free canned soups, and a bottle of Stoli he’d taken from his stepfather’s liquor cabinet.
In one of the counter drawers, Ben found a hand-drawn map of the surrounding area that the realtor must have left, and a small brass key tied to a blue ribbon. From the map, it didn’t look like there were any other houses nearby; it only showed the lake and a few penciled-in roads. The closest people were in the town of Butler below them, about 20 miles away. Ben picked up the ribbon that held the key. Without thinking he walked over and placed it into the lock in the blue door and opened it.
“Aha! It’s the basement key,” Ben said to himself as he pushed the heavy blue door back against the wall and slipped the key back into the nearby counter drawer. A breath of stale air wafted up from the basement and surrounded him. He flipped on the light switch at the top of the landing and illuminated the staircase going down. Ben could barely make out the bottom-most step. Beyond it spread a grayish darkness. He turned off the light and closed the heavy door.
That’s so strange. Why would the door lock from this side? I wonder what was locked up in there?
Ben busied himself with sorting the groceries into the tall cabinets. The floral shelf paper cracked and bent up at the corners as he shuffled in the bottles and cans. A hairy jumping spider lightly touched his hand and leapt to the floor. He gasped and recoiled for a moment and then continued. After the groceries were all put away, Ben folded up the nylon shopping bags and tucked them into the space between the counter and the refrigerator-
This is just what I need: time away from everyone in LA asking all those stupid questions about Mark and me. I need time to get my life sorted out while Mom and Robert go commune with nature or whatever they’re doing in Quebec. Mark was my best friend. I’ve known him forever. I can’t believe I didn’t see it coming. And poor Taddy caught in the middle. I didn’t even think about him missing Mark, too. I don’t want to hate Mark, but I do. I really, really hate him for what he’s done to Taddy and me. It was such a blow to my ego; he left me for some girl he met at the country club. And now he’s straight and some kind of religious fanatic too?
Ben’s reverie was interrupted when Tadzio walked in dragging two fishing poles and two large Louis Vuitton suitcases.
“Wow, you can handle all that stuff? Thanks, buddy. Leave them there,” Ben instructed. “I have a surprise for you.”
“What is it?”
“Look – I found the key to the basement,” Ben told his kid brother as he crossed in front of him and opened the blue door.
“Cool!” Tadzio said as he approached the dark staircase.
“The light switch is right here,” Ben said as he turned it on. “Why don’t you take the fishing poles down to the basement and have look around down there while I put our clothes away in our bedrooms upstairs?”
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
“Okay. Let’s see, I think it’s in back through the living room, down on the left, the door past the stairs.”
Tadzio stared at his brother completely motionless.
“Do you want me to show you?”
“I can find it!” Tadzio said as he headed out into the hallway.
Ben carried the two suitcases out of the kitchen and mounted the stairs to the second floor. Sunlight was streaming down from the top landing.
The upstairs rooms must be much brighter than the ones below. Maybe there are larger windows up there?
As Ben walked up, the stair planks creaked beneath his weight. He found the master bedroom down the hall to the left of the landing. A green quilt decorated with cut-outs of leaping fish and lily pads covered a lumpy queen-sized bed in the middle of the back wall. Above the bed, pine boughs obscured the view of the lake that glinted through the double windows.
God, this place is bizarre. No wonder they loved coming up here. Mom certainly had a hand in making it so kitschy. Painted sea-shell owls? She loves to collect all this arts-and-crafts stuff.
Ben tossed his heavy suitcase on the bed and then went out into the hallway to the bedroom next door, Tadzio’s room. A loud gurgling noise came bubbling up through the walls, the sound of an old toilet flushing.
At least that’s working, Ben thought.
The second bedroom was smaller: a twin bed, a darkly varnished dresser and mirror, and a strangely oversized walk-in closet. A dusty dormer window squinted back at him from the corner. Ben placed Tadzio’s suitcase on the bed. The latches opened with two loud snaps. He lifted a small red t-shirt up into the dim light and observed it. Ben thought about when his brother had been born. He was twelve at the time and his mother, the eternal free-spirit, had just become single once again. Even though they were struggling to get by, Ben remembered it as a happy time full of spur-of-the-moment picnics, his mother’s art gallery openings, and long summer afternoons spent on white sands of Redondo Beach.
That was before his mom met Robert and he swept her off her feet. He’d come into the gallery looking for a lithograph by Salvador Dali. They hit it off immediately. Robert felt that being with Vivian made him more ‘worldly,’ or something. And then they got married and she got all his money and all the craziness that came with it.
The difference in their ages made Ben and Tadzio more like father and son than brothers. Tadzio was one of the coolest things that ever happened to Ben. But he worried so much about him; Tadzio’s autism made him awkward around people, especially strangers. Sometimes he’d freeze up as if he’d been turned to stone or blabber on in a made-up language. Ben was very protective of his baby brother. (Come to think of it, Mark had been the first non-family member Tadzio really trusted enough even to talk to.)
With that thought, Ben shook his head, turned, refolding the limp shirt, and placed it in the top dresser drawer. In went more shirts, underwear, and bundled socks.
Jeans and Bermuda shorts into the middle drawer.
Two lightweight jackets went onto the hangers in the deep closet. Ben closed it and then turned and slipped the suitcase beneath Tadzio’s bed.
He returned to his own bedroom and put his vacation clothes away in the dresser and his coats and long pants in the wide closet along with the suitcase. He entered the large master bathroom and put his Dopp kit in the freestanding sink basin. Ben unzipped the leather case and put his Paxil prescription and a bottle of aspirin into the mirrored cabinet. He looked at himself.
Not bad for someone recently dumped. Nice cheekbones and hazel eyes.
With his slight five o’clock shadow and strong jawline, he did look older than his eighteen years. Maybe twenty-one or twenty-two. Ben stood back and took in the rest of his 6’ 2” frame. He adjusted his button-fly, and then rolled up the sleeves of his pink polo shirt, exposing his biceps and flexing them. Ben tilted his head from side to side. (Looking good!) He laughed and then returned to the job at hand. His imported hairbrush and SPF 70 sunscreen went into the cabinet. His and Tadzio’s toothbrushes and toothpaste were placed in the empty soap dish for now.
“Hey, Ben!” Tadzio’s excited voice rose up the stairs.
“Come here! Look what I found!” Tadzio shouted back.
“Okay, just a minute. I’ll be right down!”
“I’m down in the basement.”
“I’ll be right there!”
Ben put his half-emptied Dopp kit on the toilet tank and headed downstairs. He crossed through the sunny kitchen and started down the basement stairs. It was dim in the basement with only the light from a few horizontal windows along the tops of the walls letting in the mid-morning sun. Tadzio sat holding a shoebox-sized wooden box, a treasure chest, near a medium-sized hole in the back wall. A flat piece of stone rested on the floor.
“What is that?”
“I found it in there,” Tadzio said as he gestured toward the dark opening. “I put the fishing poles over there. And I saw that ball on the floor so I kicked it. It hit the back wall and the stone came off. The box was behind it. Can I open it?”
Ben looked at the fishing poles leaning in the corner and then he saw the basketball a few feet away.
“You kicked the basketball into the wall and it broke?”
“The stone fell off. Am I in trouble?”
Ben inspected the hole. “It looks like someone did a pretty bad plastering job. Robert is gonna be so pissed when he sees it. Leave it as it is.”
“Should I open the box?”
“Finders keepers,” Ben said and smiled at his brother.
Tadzio tried the lid but it had swollen shut from dampness and age. He pressed his fingernails under the sides and tried to pry it off. He gave a little grimace and flipped the box over to see if there was another way in.
“Let me try,” his brother suggested.
Ben grabbed hold of the top and bottom at the same time and gave a great tug. The dusty box cracked open, its contents raining onto the floor. Multi-colored marbles scattered to the basement corners, sprigs of dried flowers and paper clipping fluttered out, a tightly-bound piece of animal hide rolled out, and a small tin box toppled onto the floor along with a bow-tie-wearing, white, stuffed monkey.
Tadzio picked up the tin box and pulled it open. “Yuck, it’s got dead bugs.”
He showed it to his older brother. Someone had kept two dead honeybees inside. Their empty husks curled under the decomposing tissue paper. Ben picked up the white monkey. It smiled a lop-sided grin and stared at him with black, glassy eyes. He brushed back the hair on its soft forehead.
“It’s a shame his bow tie is undone. I never learned how to tie those things. You can put him in your room upstairs,” Ben said as he extended the soft toy toward his brother.
“I don’t like him.”
“What do you mean?” Ben asked, looking down at his little brother.
“It’s someone else’s.”
“But it’s yours now,” Ben said as he held out the toy again.
“I don’t want him.”
“I just don’t,” Tadzio replied blankly.
“Okay, have it your way. He can stay down here with the mice and the spiders,” Ben said as he placed the monkey on its side on the floor. “What about the marbles?”
Tadzio shook his head.
“What’s up with you? You love toys,” Ben said as he began to collect the scraps of paper and other items from the basement floor. “From all these dried flowers, this stuff probably belonged to a girl.”
“I don’t want to play with a girl’s toys.”
“We don’t know that for sure. It could have belonged to a nature-loving boy, too. It’s not some pink baby doll; it’s a stuffed monkey and some marbles. Anyway, this can all stay down here. If you want to play with them, they’ll be waiting for you,” Ben said and left the dried flowers and paper scraps next to the stuffed monkey. “Let’s leave it for now and go eat some lunch. How about PB&J?”
Ben placed the paving stone back, blocking the open hole. The broken box and its treasures were pushed up against the cold basement wall. Brother and brother went up the long staircase to the kitchen and to make their sandwiches.
As the light went off and the blue door closed tightly behind them, something stirred softy in the darkness. A faint breeze, almost a sigh, pressed its way through the quiet basement. The white monkey suddenly up-righted itself. It sat perfectly still for a few moments, cold eyes gazing off into space. The air stirred again. Then the frayed ends of the monkey’s bowtie began to move. The red ribbon curled back upon itself, interlacing, until it formed a perfect, neatly tied bow.COLLAPSE
Los Angeles kids tangle with a mostly friendly ghost and a not-so-congenial spirit in this YA paranormal novel.
Ben D’Argento, fresh out of high school, is nursing a broken heart. His childhood sweetheart, Mark, found religion and left him for a woman. Looking for somewhere to lick his wounds, he absconds to his stepfather’s eerie summer house on Fawnskin Lake—where he is strictly forbidden from going. For company, he breaks his autistic 6-year old brother, Tadzio (“Taddy”), out of his group home, hoping to give him “the summer vacation he’s never had.” As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Quickly, Taddy unearths a creepy basement and establishes a rapport with Flora, a dead girl in a blue dress who claims: “This is my house. I live here.” Thankfully, the only neighbors for miles, Jayne and Ozzy, are an amiable couple—and it also doesn’t hurt that she is a psychic. Jayne tells the boys about Ainila, a spirit who is meant to guard the lake. But, as Taddy says, “There’s a bad thing at the bottom of the lake.” And it’s out to collect souls, the most prized of which turns out to be Taddy’s. In this rollicking series opener, Demcak (Alpha Wave, 2018, etc.) presents the gamut of spooky happenings—on this wild ride, readers will encounter tarot readings, séances, ghostly bee swarms, and “the Los Angeles Paranormal Investigation Society.” But he doesn’t try too hard to make it all fit into one neat package. Sure, some loose ends are left wafting in the ghostly breeze, a couple of coincidences stretch readers’ spectrum of credulity, and the ending seems to resolve a little too quickly, but horror can be a messy mistress. Besides, what counts are the moments of tension, elements of surprise, appealing cast, and ultimately the fun—is that voyeuristic ghost who’s peeping at Ben and a friend about to get down and dirty? With Demcak, that’s decidedly possible.
An eerily amusing horror tale that will have readers rooting for the characters.