by Alex Gotay (@megellenkay)
Editor: Jeni Chappelle (@jenichappelle)
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Penny Babineaux prefers the dead to the living, but she understands most folks don’t—they don’t communicate with ghosts like she does. At least until Miss Kerrianne Doherty and her cousin Mister Erin Gallagher arrive, looking to do business with her Mama’s bootlegging empire. Kerrianne shares Penny’s love of the morbid, and the pair forge an emotional bond while Penny’s interactions with Erin sour time and again. As the cousins stir up Penny’s social life, and her family business, her ghosts grow restless, as do her dreams.
When Penny returns with them to the mountain town of Whistle Pass, on the run from tragedy, her ghostly instincts are put to the test. Gallagher House is full of spirits—and a lingering evil Penny can’t place. Her familiar connection with the dead grows nebulous as she explores the mysteries of the estate, delving into Erin’s ancestors in an attempt to assuage the haunting. As she spirals closer to the truth, her nightmares twist more and more grisly. If Penny wants to return home, she must unravel the enigma of Gallagher House or risk being devoured by the evil within it.
ANHINGA is a 95,000-word Adult Horror/Suspense southern gothic reimagining of Crimson Peak set in 1922 between Louisiana and North Carolina. Filled with gays, ghosts, and grisly, visceral nightmares that will have your skin crawling, ANHINGA’s roots lay between the gothic such as Carmilla and the embellished historical like The Mummy.
I’m a Florida native living in the PNW, who misses Spanish moss but loves the mountains. Much like my writing, I am deadpan, verbose, and queer. My time is split between puzzling insurance ledgers in the day and language quandaries in the night, and I hold an MFA for Visual Art with a focus in portraiture and handcrafts. I can be found on Twitter as @magellenkay and at my website gotayalex.com.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
First Five Pages
NOLA - Late September, 1909
The house creaked, tepid and damp in the fury of the storm, and Penina knew something had gone very wrong. Smudges of her fingerprints speckled the pane as rain burst against the house.
Let Daddy come home. Let the rain stop.
Earlier, there hadn’t been a cloud. Earlier, Daddy had agreed to one more run, with a kiss to Mama he’d be back by midnight.
The storm set in after dinner, the lightning pops decaying into bellowing thunder that made Pascal wail. He’d been crying in jags since the first sheet of rain. A new peal of lightning illuminated the walls in a distorted burst.
Daddy stood in the hall, drenched and sallow, with his luminous eyes locked into hers.
Penina choked back a whimper, hands tight in her bed covers. Her father stood in his corduroy trousers, one suspender off his shoulder following the trail of his twisted arm. He swaddled in a net from the boat, his boat, the Jolie Tortue. He couldn’t be here like this, not when the tide had been right and he’d had business. He would have made the drop and come right on home. Because no one promised Mama anything and wriggled out of it.
But he was so gray, coarse hair skiffew, and hurt to look at, the density of the sun radiating behind his slack expression.
Her short breaths steamed the sheet against her face, but she held his stare, wrongly pale eyes needle sharp on her. With a swallow, she managed to rouse her voice.
But he spoke first. “Not a snake.”
Penina’s face tightened. What did that mean? “Daddy? Are you...where are you?”
She regretted asking when he lurched towards her with a slow, irregular gait, a bobbing corpse along the bayou bottom. The movement forced air from him in a building groan that electrified every inch of her skin.
“Not a snake,” he repeated, his unbroken arm dragging along the hall wallpaper. Before she could reply, he took a squelching step across the threshold of her room, and the air turned to ice. Her eyes watered as certainty crept in—he was too much like the things she saw that no one else noticed, the sad and angry beings that trailed about the swamps and cemeteries. He had to be a ghost. He had to be. He couldn’t be alive. If he was alive it was even more of an abomination. Penina sank in her sheets.
“Go away,” she whispered. It might be her Daddy, but it wasn’t all of him.
“Not a snake.” His tone grew urgent, and his form blurred, as though something within him burbled to escape. “Not a snake!”
Penina sobbed back, one arm covering her ear and hair, “Not a snake, Daddy, please—” Over her pleas, he howled like the wind, raising into a screech that had her crying violently, tears melding into her pillow until it smelled like the tide. Down the hall, Pascal joined the ruckus, shrill toddler screams fusing with the wind and death throes of their father.
When only Pascal’s shrieking remained, Penina cracked open an eye.
Burning bright, like a feu-follet, inches from her face, she could just barely make out Daddy’s broad features—the pale moons of his eyes blank upon her above a full, trembling mouth, as if he strained to find words. Almost faded from existence, the terror bled from him, and Penina’s room regained its muggy quality.
The salt of her tears tightened her cheeks, but her crying subsided to small, whistling huffs. He didn’t move, only watched her as the light dimmed. Faintly, she could hear Mama moving about, likely checking on Pascal from her adjoined bedroom.
“Don’t go,” Penina breathed, feeling suddenly like she’d dropped something important down a well, like she’d shooed a friendly stray cat. She unclenched a small fist and walked her fingers across the coverlet towards the light. “Mama’s gonna be mad at you. Come home.”
Another blinding burst of lightning flashed through the window at her back. The wisp, and her Daddy, were gone when the thunder knelled, and her bedroom door slammed shut like a casket lid.
NOLA - March, 1922
Every time a righteous squall blew through the bayou and city, it claimed what it could—souls or mortal remains, homes or hide—until barometers swung fair and the sky hung empty. During one such lull, air dense and ground still mucky with rainwater, Penny knelt in the mud, scratching loose lichen from a mausoleum to get a clearer view of its dates. Even if her work had been born of restlessness—both her own and that of the deceased she tried to comfort, tried to reason with in hopes they’d move along—purpose had long since settled in her bones. Plenty of the passed had no one to remember them properly. If she could spare even a sliver of her attention to let one know they weren’t alone, come hell or high water she would.
So there she crouched, coat hem dirtying and stockings slipping as she assigned the tomb an identification and marked its location beside the crying mausoleum on her rough map, paper folded out in glued-together sheets from her notebook. The grave had been damaged, a portion of its boundary granite swept away, and she had a strong inclination the next heady storm would claim more. Her mouth wrinkled. All it took was a fracture in the stone or plaster before the whole thing fell to bits. In her years of work, she’d learned though she couldn’t fight the passing of time, she could keep folks remembered. Maybe some didn’t deserve the grace, but they’d been people once, and given their corpsehood kept them from troubling most anyone alive, she figured God could sort out their misdeeds.
Penny didn’t have room to judge.
With the stone legible, she sat back on her haunches to sketch the name plate. Better to add it to her collection now than let it erode further. At this point, only a few quiet graves remained undocumented—she didn’t need to rush on the ones already at rest.
Of all the cemeteries in the area, this one always claimed the strongest place in her heart. Its trees were the shadiest for when she worked, and she got to say hello to the family plot on her solitary stops. But today the rows buzzed with intermittent visitors righting vases and rearranging tokens knocked wild by the winds.
Storm-sensitive souls dotted among them, most no more than a flicker in her periphery. They came and went like the tide, familiar and largely peaceful as her regulars tended to be. The hollow crying within the mausoleum to her left was more distracting than the rest combined—not that Penny would fault a drowned child for their fears. Her skin prickled at the sound as it hiccupped, her memories of Pascal too similar to sit easily.
Ignoring the bustle of living and dead best she could, Penny pushed to her feet, pencil scratching lines she’d cement later with ink, documenting the storm marred resting place of Regis Coulain, slain 1864.
Regis should have picked a better cause.
She gently folded in the wayward sections of her map. She could forgo judgment of the dead, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t critical of the fools among them.
The crying mausoleum sobbed, glottal and wet like backwash in a pipe. Penny winced.
“Hey now,” she murmured, making a final note and settling her supplies in her leather satchel before putting a hand on the stone. “No more of that. Storm’s over.” Ghosts weren’t properly sensible, not that the living were either, but she could usually get them to rest. But the noise didn’t cease. She checked the plate to make sure she had the right name. “Vittoria. Time to come in, ’s getting dark.”
Penny didn’t have to wait long for the crying to taper off. Simple soothing usually proved best. Angry spirits took a whole rigamarole of effort to sort out—getting to the bottom of their grievances, helping them make peace or forcing them to for the sake of the living—it was always a circus and a half, like prising out a headless nail. But repetitive echoes, ghosts who couldn’t move on properly or left shadows of themselves behind, they just needed the push to fade away.
“Havin’ a chat?”
Penny pressed a hand to her chest and wheeled around, wide-eyed.