Chapter 1

Getting two phone calls in such a short span of time was unusual for Amari, so strange she thought she was dreaming. The ringtone was from an old racing game and at first it bled into the dream. Then it dragged her to the very precipice of waking and there she stayed, not even a finger cooperating with her pleas to just move. Too often waking up was like this, and every time she had to remind herself: don’t open your eyes.

     She’d read about what people saw when they opened their eyes in this state. Demons, ghosts, witches; all things she’d never gotten around to writing about and didn’t want to meet while she hovered on the edge of sanity. She kept pleading with herself to not open her eyes, unable to stop her body from trying to force them open. She lay there until the phone stopped ringing, at which point she slipped back down into sleep.

     The peace didn’t last long; she sat up with a start, books and her glasses hitting the floor. She pressed a hand to her chest, glad no one was around to see her. Of all the things she wished she could have left in Tamaki, sleep paralysis was high on the list.

When her hands stopped shaking, she felt around for her glasses and phone. It had been ringing but the number was one she didn’t recognize. She sucked in a few deep breaths before she redialed, turned on the speaker phone, and set it on her chest. She stared at the ceiling while she waited for an answer, unblinking, not trusting herself to let her eyes slide shut again.

     “Khadijah Wallace from Clear Isle Publishing speaking.”

     Clear Isle? No one from there called unless she was overdue on something…was it already time to meet her new editor?

    “Hello. Were you trying to reach Amari Brooks?” she asked, trying her hardest to keep her voice flat.

     “I was. Is she…?

     “She’s speaking, yes.”

     “Great! I’m your new editor and we need to talk about this manuscript—well, it’s really more of a draft at this point.”

     “When do you want to meet?”

     “When is good for you?”

     She checked the time; six in the evening. The Last Bookstore was still open and she could walk there in a few minutes.

     “Now, if that works,” she tried.

     “Okay. Send me the address. I’ll be there in an hour if it’s close.”

     “Sounds good.”

     Amari sent the address and let her head fall back against the chair. Going out was the last thing she wanted to do and she certainly didn’t want to think about the hot mess she’d submitted as a draft.

     But if she wanted another book deal, she needed to churn out something that would sell and was good.

     Getting dressed didn’t take long given she only had a few outfits that still fit decently. She pulled her belt to the last notch and sighed. Her pants weren’t hanging off of her yet but they would be soon if she didn’t do something. Her hair was still passable, not too many loose strands sticking out of her braids. After dropping a small notebook and pen in her pocket, she grabbed an umbrella and was about to head out when she felt a twinge in her left ankle. She sat back down and rifled through the nightstand for her ankle brace. The pressure from the brace felt nice, the wind not biting through it like it did her jacket and thermal shirt for the entire walk to The Last Bookstore.

     Walking around the bookstore was a routine that had long since worn thin and the opportunities to people-watch seemed to be more scarce than usual. Their no-bag policy left Amari with nothing to do except fiddle with her phone or keep wandering the shelves and she chose the latter. A set of photographers, the third since she went in the store, was hanging around the arch of books. Precariously perched, the book arch was held together with nothing but clever placement and gravity and had a crowd even on slow days. Amari ducked out of the way once the flashes began, and went down to the old bank vault that held the horror novels.

     Amari didn’t often dabble in the genre but when she did, she only liked the sorts of books that belonged in a vault, the kind that felt alive. Only the pressure from the newer, thicker paperbacks seemed to be holding the tattered volumes on the shelves. Her own work didn’t need to be contained that way; maybe it never would.

     For the briefest moment as she faced the back wall, she feared the vault door would slam shut. She’d be trapped in this place she didn’t belong, that she couldn’t ever make herself belong. Amari’s paranoia wasn’t unfounded. More than once had she found herself locked in a stuffy room with–

     Before she got dragged down that path, she worked her way around the vault, eyes on the door the entire time until finally she was back out in the rows of shelves and could lean on the balcony railing. That room in that decrepit flat was long behind her and so was every bad choice she made while she lived in it.

     Going back downstairs was a slower process that Amari would have liked but eventually, she found herself in the rare books room, the only place she’d yet to comb through on this particular visit.

     Most of the books weren’t too strange and the mystique was ruined by large handwritten price tags next to each one. They were expensive than she typically spent on books, but they made for nice display pieces.

     As she approached the last case and was about to say “excuse me”, she saw the badge on the person’s sleeve.

     “Khadijah Wallace from Clear Isle?”

     When she straightened up, they were eye to eye and Amari had to force herself to stay still and not start adjusting her clothes. The slacks were some of the only pants she had that fit the way they were supposed to, as was the jacket. She hoped she looked mostly presentable, like she hadn’t spent the day and half the night before tossing and turning in a bootleg La-Z-Boy. But Khadijah would be able to see through the farce; why Amari felt that way, she didn’t know.

     Khadijah frowned for a moment before reaching for her badge.

     “You are…?”

     “Amari Brooks,” she held out a hand, glad she’d kept her hands in her pockets until the last possible second. Khadijah wouldn’t have to pretend her hands weren’t shockingly cold.

     “One of the studios is empty; I booked it for us. This way.”

     Amari led her upstairs, opting to go in front so Khadijah couldn’t see pain flit across her face the closer they were to the top.

     The studio was dusty, only a few built in shelves and a wooden table and chairs. Amari slid one to Khadijah before pulling one to the opposite side of the table. She slouched a bit, trying not to look so stiff while Khadijah set up the tablet.

     “So? What’s wrong with it?” Amari kept her voice as full of life as she could and tried not to let on that if he was nudged wrong she would crumble. But Khadijah seemed to nudge the other way, intentionally or not.

    “There’s too much going on. Too many point-of-view shifts, too many threads that lead nowhere. If this came across my desk when I was slush reading, I’d have just rejected it.”

     “Ouch,” she held a hand over her heart, letting a half smile cross her face. She knew the draft would get lambasted but deadlines were looming and something to edit was better than nothing.

     “But,” Khadijah continued, “there’s substance somewhere in there. And I think it can be good eventually. There’s time for two or three overhauls before we need to get ready for printing.”

     “Mm…let’s aim for two.”

     “That’s all up to you, Amari.”

     “You never read anything I wrote, have you?” she asked, her curiosity piqued.

     “No. My backlog is around fifty books and you about…number forty-seven.”

     “Gotta wonder who’s below me…”

     “It’s chronological. Nothing against you unless you make me read some mess like this again.”

     “Try anything before ‘Half A Spindle’,” Amari said after careful consideration.

     “Why stop there?”

     “You said don’t make you read no mess,” she shrugged. “Now, lemme see what has to go.”

     Khadijah slid the tablet across the table and Amari almost winced when she saw how much had been stricken out and underlined. A few pages were almost entirely crossed out and Amari jotted down what was left in her tiny black notebook.

     Get rid of

     Long lists of things fell under the heading. Scenes, characters. She only questioned Khadijah’s judgment once, when the scant few pages she felt were good had met the editing pen.

     “…you sure it don’t work?”

     “Positive,” Khadijah nodded. “Hold on to it for something else though.”

     Given how much was gone, it didn’t take long for her to reach the end which was no longer an ending, but the midpoint of section two.

     Did this book even have sections…?

     “Looks like I need another half a book,” was Amari’s final assessment.

     “Yep. So…let’s meet again in two weeks. Gimme a few thousand new words and fix some of what’s left. I want a new intro at least.”

     Amari nodded, not quite able to make eye contact with her new editor. It had been years since her writing got torn to shreds and Khadijah was easily the nicest critic she’d ever had, the hand-drawn emoticons taking away the sting of the “What are you trying to say here?” that was littered throughout the draft.

     “Send me a calendar invite for whatever day works for you,” Amari said as she stood, pausing to roll her left ankle.

     “Door’ll lock behind you when you leave if you want to stay longer. Have a good one,” she waved.

     “Good night,” Khadijah said.

     I won’t be having one, Amari thought.