Spectral: First Chapters


A House...

I wake to a loud roar. An all-too-familiar heat berates my face. 

If I keep my eyes closed, I can pretend it doesn’t feel like my eyelids are about to melt off. 

Yeah, right, stupid. As if keeping them closed will stop me from burning alive. With a groan, I force them open.

Yep. My entire room is on fire. Again.

But I’m not scared. Burning to a crisp at seventeen somehow seems…merciful. Most people would be terrified. Me? I’m only frustrated.

As the flames lap at the surrounding walls, my frustration turns into indignation. 

I thought I was past this. That this was the start of my new life. That things would be different.

I grab my pillow and smash it into my face, expelling a muffled, blood-curdling scream. 

“Okay!” I cry out from under the memory foam cushion. “You win! I get it. Ha-ha-ha. Can you stop already? Just leave me alone!”

The roaring of the flames sounds like laughter. Like the chorus of a thousand demons cackling all while flipping me off. This image in my head is somehow worse than my room being razed to the ground.

I let out another scream into my pillow for good measure, but I know it doesn’t matter. There’s no one to scream at anymore. I’ve already done enough screaming. I’ve screamed at myself. I’ve screamed at every one of my parents—foster, adopted, or biological. I’ve screamed at God Himself. None of it’s done me any good. Months pass without incident, but no matter what, it finds me.

If only I knew what “it” is. For the longest time I called it the Ghost, but even I know that makes me sound crazy. So instead, I call it the Entity. 

That makes me sound less insane, right? Right?

A bead of sweat slides down my neck and drips onto the coarse, scratchy sheets. I sigh as the flames eat up the gaudy curtains and ascend the walls of my sparsely decorated room. Lily told me to make it my own, but I knew something like this would happen. So why bother? The most personality in it comes from the stock floral curtains that I’m confident have been there since the early sixties.

I cross my arms and stare at the ceiling, justified in my defiance—never mind that I look more like a five-year-old throwing a tantrum.

No. I’m not moving this time. It’s their turn. Whatever wants to claim me can have me. My seventeen years of existence brought with it countless near misses, and I’m tired. Tired of caring. Tired of trying. Tired of not knowing the true source of all the pain. If I do nothing but sit here, maybe the Entity will make itself known. Either that, or the truth will reveal itself in the afterlife—if such a thing exists.

Or what if it’s worse? What if an afterlife exists, and I’m as clueless there as I am here?

I only hope my adopted parents—a jolt of panic threatens to sit me up on the spot. Where are they? 

There’s no way they’re sleeping through this raging hellscape. I’d bet good money they’ve already run off, leaving me to be chargrilled alive like an underfed chicken. And when asked by the firefighters why they left their adopted kid inside, they’d be like, “Oh, we thought she’d be out here already.” Or maybe something closer to, “Well, she’s not really our child. She comes from a troubled background so…”

This is all their fault.

How naïve could they be? They mean well, but they should’ve known better than to go for the almost grown, high-risk foster kid with a well-documented penchant for arson.

A quaint house in a suburban Burbank neighborhood is an expensive price for their stupid mistake.

But they aren’t the only morons. I should’ve known better, too.

My arms still crossed, I tighten my lips and grit my teeth. Whatever has beef with me can just have me.

So determined am I to confront this faceless Entity that when the firefighters break through my window, I scream at them to get out—to leave me in the encircling blaze. My yells don’t faze them. They probably can’t hear me through the roar of the flames, but I still put up a fight. Even as they hoist my light 105-pound frame, I struggle, punching one of them in the face before they overpower me.

No doubt they only see me as a mentally unstable girl. And who’s to say that’s a wrong assessment? Even I’m not convinced it’s wrong. 

After struggling to free myself from the firefighter’s annoyingly powerful arms, I finally give in. Whether it’s the emotional trauma, the smoke, or plain exhaustion, I can’t tell. I let him shove me out onto a ladder sprouting from the top of a fire engine. As I descend, feeling the grooves of each rung dig into my feet with every step, I look up, seeing thick black smoke spill from my bedroom window.

I can sense the opportunity to confront the Entity slipping away. It’s not coming. Not with so many people around. Never with so many people around. Only when I’m alone.

Another fireman tries to help me off the ladder, and I smack his hand away. I feel helpless enough without having to be coddled.

When my bare feet settle onto the rocky asphalt, I spare a glance at the once-picturesque two-story home that’s served as my residence for the past six months. It’s the longest I’ve spent anywhere since I was ten. It’s also my last chance at a normal life. And now it’s gone.

“You couldn’t resist, could you?” I say, my eyes focused on the bedroom window. A lump forms in my throat as sadness and fear replace my frustration.

I hate this part—when my brain catches up and puts the entire thing into perspective. I try to stop it, but am overwhelmed as my breath quickens and the hyperventilation sets in.

I wrap one arm around myself and force deep, slow breaths, crouching down close to the pavement until I’m curled up into a ball. With my free hand, I flick a skin tag that rests on the left side of my neck. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Suddenly, the illusion I call the Entity doesn’t seem so real anymore. Suddenly, I know the truth. No matter what lies I tell myself, I know who’s to blame. This fire, like all the chaos in my life before it, is my doing.

I cover my ears, as though it’ll drown out the sound of licking flames and eliminate the deep shame setting in. 

“Why am I like this?”


I’m so embarrassed. So ashamed.

I can almost see myself, as if I’m standing outside my own body. I look like a child, settled on the ground, knees to my chest, arms wrapped around my legs. Why not rock back and forth like a stereotypical nutcase while I’m at it? No. Not today.

Willing my legs to stand, I…remain seated, my legs not so much as flexing. Great. Limb failure. That’s a fun one.

But it’s okay. I’ve gone through this before. Like my therapists say: focus on my breath. 

In. Out. In. Out.

Seconds pass in what feels like hours. Finally, feeling returns to my hands. And my feet…? Yup, there they are. Hi. I stand back up and my surroundings come back into focus. I’m beside a bright red fire engine. Probably closer than I should be. Wow, it’s huge. How much would it hurt to get hit by one of these bastards barreling down the street? They don’t get enough credit for how huge they are. 

As I focus on the smooth polymer body of the fifteen-foot-tall engine next to me, voices begin to fade in.

Oh, shit. I’d forgotten there’s a bunch of people around. Crowds butt up against caution tape on either side of the street, excited chatter filling the midnight air. Oversized men in firefighter uniforms brush past me. 

That’s right. A fire. My house. No. My parents’ house. Adopted parents’. The stress around the whole situation threatens to rise up again, but I shove that feeling the hell back down again. 

“Are you okay?” says a brusque voice next to me. 

I turn to face a man clad in mustard yellow who wraps a blanket around my shoulders. Did I just have a complete mental breakdown in front of a total stranger? Had he been there the whole time? “Yeah, I’m fine,” I say, probably (definitely) too quickly. Avoiding eye contact, I scan the street to get my bearings. 

Fire. House. Parents. No. Adopted parents, dammit! Where are they?

I find them on the other side of the street, leaning up against a neighbor’s car. Damien’s arm is around Lily, the look on his face of a textbook, perpetual comforter. It’s somehow his best, yet most annoying, feature that I’ve grown to loathe as much as rely on. And Lily…her normally stoic expression has transformed into that of a weeping gargoyle, sobs wailing out at controlled intervals.

I don’t know why this surprises me. Losing your house is enough to break anyone, but I’d always seen Lily as unflappable, borderline sociopathic. Like she could lose her whole family without batting an eyelid. I promise, that’s a good thing.

So, to see her bent over, gargoyle-faced and all, it’s hard for me not to feel shame. Shame over something I can only assume I was responsible for. Though, I guess that’s a problem in and of itself. Most people know if they’ve burned down houses.

I want to comfort her. To tell her I’m sorry. Instead, I turn away to face the heat of the weakening flames. Whatever the firefighters are doing must be working.

At least this house didn’t burn down. Not completely anyway. I don’t have the faintest idea of how long it’s going to take, but I doubt it’ll take as long as the last fire. Every cloud has a silver lining, right?

Hot sweat runs down my neck and back, and a warm breeze reminds me that all I have on is a ratty undershirt and pair of kiwi-print pajama shorts. No socks, no shoes. If I’d died today, at least I’d have died in comfort. 

“Are you okay?” a voice says behind me. I bristle at the question, but seeing that it’s Damien, I respond.

“Fine.” It comes off as harsh, but I hate that question.

“Are you sure?” His face is his standard annoying mix of comfort and concern.

“Isn’t this your house that’s burning?”

Damien’s face drops. “Oh, shit. For real?” He backs away from the burning house as though seeing it for the first time. 

I snort against my will. “How can you even joke right now?”

“Oh, I didn’t realize there was established protocol for how someone reacts to their home burning down. Maybe this is how I mourn.”

“But what about…” I motion to Lily, whose ashen face still sits in wailing disbelief.

“That’s probably the right reaction, but she’ll be okay.”

This guy is unbelievable. “That’s it? No third degree? Aren’t you at least a little...?”

“What? Suspicious?” His voice is nonchalant.

“Yeah!” I practically yell. “Are you too stupid to have read my file?”

“Did you start the fire?” Damien’s tone is neutral—friendly, even—without a hint of accusation behind it. 

“I...no.” I don’t think so. I bite my lip and swallow nervously. This is where most people turn on me. My record speaks for itself, and not to brag, but I make a pretty badass scapegoat.

“Well,” Damien says. “That settles it.”

“Settles what?”

“The mystery of the burning house. Well, maybe not settled, but we know who didn’t do it.”

“Are you stupid?” 

“Do you want me to blame you?”


Damien smiles his idiot dad smile. “Let’s call it an act of God, then. You don’t live in California without being insured up the ass for a fire. We’ll let those people take care of it.”

I smile. I think it’s a smile. At least it’s as close to one as humanly possible, given the circumstances. Lily’s expression brings back the knot in my stomach. Damien may be stupidly optimistic, but I can already see suspicion eroding the caring veneer of my adopted mother. 

Our eyes connect for the briefest of moments. It’s barely perceptible, but I catch the look. Enough of a look for me to infer one important detail: Lily blames me.

I’m shaken from my self-pity by the sound of police sirens. The quick one-two whomp-whomp! is all that’s needed for my body to tense up. Fight-or-flight mode activates, and the blanket around my shoulders tumbles to the asphalt.

“Red light, Kiddo,” Damien’s voice has an unexpected calming effect on me. “You don’t have to run anymore.”

I take a few deep breaths and nod. This was a house fire. The police showing up isn’t surprising. 

And then I catch sight of the vehicle itself.

Son of a…

Of course, it has to be Detective Chu. I try not to think too much about the fact that I recognize a specific cop’s license plate number. That’s completely normal.

“Remember,” Damien says, “you did nothing wrong.”

“Tell that to him.” 

A pair of obnoxious, shiny black shoes hit the pavement at the same time. He gets out of his car so damned weird that I’ve committed it to memory. Out pops Detective Chu’s smug, golden boy face. Why? Why is he here every time something goes wrong in my life?

If I were a superhero, he’d be my arch nemesis. If I were a supervillain, he’d still be my arch nemesis. 

Seeing his jet black hair, pleated khakis and too-polished-for-what-he-does shoes, I want to run. The question of “fight or flight” has fully resolved into flight. He hasn’t seen me yet, so if I take off now, I could make it without being caught. I’ve done it before and even been successful on some occasions. 

I bounce on the balls of my bare feet, testing to see how much it’ll hurt to bolt down the road in the opposite direction without so much as a thin layer of rubber protecting them. Even within the small two-foot radius I’m standing in, there are a few jagged pebbles that jut into my soles. It wouldn’t be a comfortable run.

Still, if I maybe…

“Why am I not surprised to see you here?” Detective Chu says, smugness oozing from every syllable. He walks up to me, nodding to Damien. “Mr. Green.”

This isn’t the first time he’s met Damien. As my adoption case was going through, he was all too eager to volunteer the “inherent risks” someone like me posed to an upstanding couple like the Greens. He took time out of his work day to actively try and ruin my life.

“Detective, do you mind?” Damien's tone shifts, his face darkening with a rare display of annoyance. “We’re going through something here.”

“And I’m sorry to see that,” he says, in a not-so-unsympathetic tone. “But that’s why I’m here.”

“Oh. So, who started it?” Damien asks, giving Chu a smart aleck tone. I feel an instant pang in my stomach, something like betrayal. While I’d never worry about him giving me up to the likes of Chu, it’s clear he doesn’t fully trust that it wasn’t me. So much for “case closed.”

“I’ll give you two guesses as to who a prime suspect on my list is,” Chu says.

“She didn’t do it,” Damien says, his voice more certain than before.

“How would you know that?”

“She told me.”

“You know what would happen if we believed the word of every suspect?”

“So we’re going with that logic now?” Damien says. “Not evidence?”

“I’ll go with you,” I say. The words are out before I can stop them.

Both men look at me.

“You’ll what?” Detective Chu said.

“I’ll go with you,” I say, confidence solidifying with each successive word. “That’s what you want, right? To question me?”

“No, Luna,” Damien said. “You don’t have to. Contrary to what some cops think, you can’t just bring anyone in for questioning.”

“Considering her history and her proximity to the crime,” Detective Chu says, “I most certainly can. We aren’t living in pre-Civil War times anymore. If there’s an obvious suspect, no matter what rights you think she has, we have every right to question her in the interest of public safety under the Security Accords of 2048.”

Of course he quotes some line from some public record thing. Loser.

“She’s just a minor.”

Detective Chu’s face twitches. It’s a thorn in his side that I still can’t be tried as an adult. “We’re bringing her in for questioning. You know where to find her. You can pick her up after.”

* * *

“Six months,” Detective Chu says as he enters the small, dimly lit room. The floor is a particularly depressing shade of beige linoleum, and the walls and ceiling are painted a somehow flamboyant white with some choice black scuff marks spread all over. I’m sure it’s meant to make me already feel like I’m in prison, and you know what? It works every time.

I shift my weight on the hard metal chair, but no matter how much I try, I can’t get comfortable. It’s one of their tactics. I’m pretty confident they have these chairs specially made to make suspects more likely to talk. They can use whatever cruelty they want. I have nothing to hide.

I think.

“What?” I ask.

“Six months,” Detective Chu repeats. “That’s how long until I can try you as an adult.”

“You have to know how creepy that makes you sound.”

He shoots me a “knock it off” look, but I can tell the comment made him uncomfortable. “Enough with the jokes, Ms. Guerrera.”

“I didn’t realize I was joking, Detective Chu.”

“Am I crazy here? I thought you came in here voluntarily.”

I hold back another biting remark. He’s right. I did come here voluntarily. But I’m so used to our antagonistic back-and-forth that it’s become second nature.

When I say nothing more, he smiles and points to a camera at the top corner of the room. “This is being filmed for the record. For the safety of our Republic, you are under a moral and legal obligation to answer all questions to the best of your ability, even at the risk of self-incrimination.”

“Wow, you make it sound so appealing.”

“Do you understand?”

I give him a deadpan look and nod.

“I need a verbal confirmation.”

“In other words, talk, or you’ll lock me up and throw away the key?”

“Need I remind you that you came here voluntarily?”

“Yes, I understand,” I say. “Old habits.”

“Thank you.” He sounds like a babysitter who finally got a kid to eat a bite of broccoli. 

I try to bring the very best out of our men in blue.

With a heavy sigh, Detective Chu takes a seat across from me. “Okay, then. Let’s get started with the basics. Why’d you do it?”

I roll my eyes. “Can we start with something more cliché, please?”

“You’re legally obligated to answer my questions, cliché or not.”

“Fine, then.” I turn to the camera. “I didn’t do it.” At least I don’t think I did. Considering I don’t really know, they can’t hold it against me in a legal sense, right?

“You’re sure?”


“A question?”

“Calm down. I just didn’t expect that question. Yes. Yes, I’m sure.”

“Let’s rewind.” Detective Chu pulls a netscreen mini-tablet from his jacket pocket, unfolding it with a click. I bet he practiced that, because even I have to admit it looks pretty cool when it snaps open like that. “At age six, you pull a knife on a playmate of yours.”

“They use the word playmate in the lawsuit, but that bitch was a bully.”

“So you pulled the knife on her?”

I glare at him. He knows this whole story, and yet he insists on revisiting it every time we sit down. “I don’t remember pulling a knife on her. She was unharmed, and the lawsuit dropped. Anyway, you wanna skip all that and get straight to the other arson cases?”

“We’ll get there,” he says, not raising his eyes from his tablet. He’s like a kid in a school presentation. He has this whole interrogation planned a certain way, and there’s no room for deviation. “After your mom passed, your father turned to muze, isn’t that right?”

My back straightens. “What?”

“Muze, the narcotic sold mainly on the streets of Skid Row.”

“No, I know what muze is. The other part,” I say. I can feel my breath quickening already. “My mom’s not dead. She walked out on us five years ago.”

Detective Chu tilts his head, eyes narrowed. Genuine confusion. He looks back at his netscreen, then back up at me. We’d done this dance several times before. Each time he takes me through my “timeline of malfeasances,” as he calls them. The first is always a knife to my elementary school bully. Then he pushes on to my mom leaving, Dad’s drug use, and my secondary career as a delinquent. So why was today different?

“She walked out on us,” I repeat, “and never came back.”

I’ve never seen Detective Chu uncomfortable before. He crosses his right leg over his left, and then, apparently deciding it’s too uncomfortable, he crosses his left over his right.

“My mom passed,” I repeated. “Why would you say that?” 

“I’m sorry you had to find out like this.”

“Find out what?”

“We called your father,” he says as though each syllable could break me. “Given your age, we go to next of kin, and allow them to decide how to—”

“What the hell happened?” I try to slow down my breath, but can already feel that method failing.

There’s a knock against the two-way mirror. 

Detective Chu stands up.

“Don’t mess with me, Chu,” I say. “Just tell me what’s going on.”

His gaze shifts from the mirror to me. “We found her body in a car submerged in the Salton Sea.”


“It’s inconclusive,” he says.

“But you’ve conclusively found out she’s dead?”

No response.


Another knock on the glass.

“The pollution from the lake made it difficult to get an exact time frame, but she passed around the time she went missing.”

Another knock.

He holds up his index finger to the mirror. “Hang on. She has the right to know. It’s her, but there’s no way of knowing how she died. She…her body decayed too much.”

It had taken several years, but I’d somehow come to terms with Mom’s disappearance. Dad had been a mess from day one, so she’d pretty much raised me alone. One day, she couldn’t take it anymore, so she left. It’s a tried-and-true, stereotypical sob story. Hardly original. Still, a part of me was happy. Happy that at least one of us could run off and live their life. Happy for her…happiness. 

My chest heaves. Oh, God, here comes the hyperventilation.

In. Out. In. Out. Inoutinoutinout!

Oh, no. It’s happening too fast now. I try to slow it down, but whenever I try to focus on slowing my breath, I see her face, dead and slowly pickling in the water. 

Detective Chu says something. Probably an unhelpful, “Are you okay?” 

No, Detective Chu. I want nothing more than to tear at my skin, but I settle for a solid jab, digging my nails into my face without dragging. My vision flickers, and though I let out a scream, I can’t even hear my own voice.

I close my eyes and punch at my temples with both hands. It’s irrational, childish, self-destructive. Everything my therapists told me not to do, but it’s beyond my control at this point. Even the warbling of Detective Chu’s voice has disappeared entirely, instead replaced by a cacophony of…memories?

My eyes flash open, and instead of an interrogation room, I’m in a wide-open space the size of a football stadium. The floor is lined with what looks like charcoal scribbles on a cement floor. 

On all sides float giant jumbotron-style netscreens. 

And then a feeling passes through me like an ocean wave. One I haven’t felt for a decade. My mind hones in on Alyssa Crane, the little girl who bullied me, making fun of the unsightly skin tag on my neck that’s been there since I was born, though I don’t quite remember what she says.

That feeling dissipates. Suddenly, I’m reliving the first time Dad beat me—or at least the first time I remember. The details are murky, but the feeling of anguish is all too real. I’m like a seven-year-old kid again, helpless even as Mom watches on in horror.

Then it’s the night Mom left. No. The night she was killed. 

The pang of insecurity as I move from home to home, never quite fitting in. The confusion that flames brought to my second foster home.

Each memory plays out on all sides of me in this stadium of misery, pelting me like arrows. 

As I collapse to the hard ground, I look down at my hands, realizing with abject horror that this is no illusion. 

It’s no hallucination. This is happening for real.