by Em Dietrich (@EmDietrichWrite)
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Seventeen-year-old oracle Lilah Evans is no stranger to spirits and visions. A year after her prophetic abilities accidentally caused her brother’s drowning, a ghoul appears to collect her soul, and her mother dies banishing him. Heartbroken, Lilah attempts to use her powers to rewrite the past and resurrect her mother. Instead of a family reunion, she accidentally tears the veil separating the realm of the dead from the living, and the ghoul waltzes back through.
All Hollis Hildebrand wants is to escape her small Ohioan town and attend art school—until she unwittingly saves her childhood nemesis from a ghoul. Thrown into a world of magic and mayhem, Hollis teams up with Lilah to spite her (absolutely not because she has a crush). When the ghoul returns, Hollis gives up her chance of escape to protect Lilah by binding the ghoul to her will. Yet before they can banish him again, they discover he’s the only one who knows how to heal the veil. Worse, unbeknownst to Hollis, Lilah harbors a mangled connection to her dead mother that’s unraveling Lilah’s sanity.
To save reality, Lilah and Hollis must survive Midwestern road trips, haunted cornfields, the ghoul’s murderous tendencies, and the sinister secrets hidden in the waters of Lake Erie before the future splinters apart and the past eats them alive. Moreover, if Hollis doesn’t unravel her family’s disturbing past deeds, and if Lilah doesn’t sever the bond with her mother and learn to mourn, they’ll lose everything they care about—including their budding romance.
BENEATH THE WAVES, DEATH SPEAKS is an 88,000-word #OwnVoices sapphic YA horror novel told in dual-POV. It incorporates local Ohio ghost stories and folklore while also combining the hauntingly vivid prose of Sawkill Girls and the gritty atmosphere of The Dead and the Dark.
Raised in Ohio next to cornfields, I am a genderqueer writer with numerous literary magazine publications, an MFA candidate at The New School, an Ohio State University summa cum laude graduate with research distinction in sapphic horror and ghost stories, a Futurescapes Writers’ Workshop 2022 attendee, and a 2022 RevPit winner.
First Five Pages
Her mother’s bones tasted like sea salt and burnt lavender.
Lilah was surprised how soft they were, wet and slippery from the candle wax she’d dressed them in. The tiny cracks were worn into grooves from how often her hands had smoothed over their surfaces.
Silence pooled in the ridges of her collarbones. Her fingers cramped as she burrowed them into the cornfield’s soil, rough and heavy with dew. The wind whistled warnings through the thrush, reminiscent of her mother’s voice as she’d moved Lilah’s hands, showing her how to bind visions to the earth with a rhyme.
Memory and soul, heart and hope.
She pulled three fingerbones from her pocket, the fourth already on her tongue. Her breath ghosted over the edges. The stalks stretching above her head rustled. Behind her, thunder spat out of the darkness. They were still calling her name, searching.
“Lilah, are you out here?”
“Lilah, can you hear us?”
Panic hooked around her windpipe. She was running out of time. This was the last day to make things right before her mother slipped too deep into the realm of the dead. All she needed to do was complete the ritual and tether the soul. If she didn’t, her mother would be gone for good, and Lilah would still be alive—at the cost of what Hollis had done to save her.
She kept digging, the rocky soil peeling back the skin around her nails. Two inches deep, eight inches apart; two deaths, two secrets: her brother—drowned a year before—and her mother…well, Lake Erie devoured her body just the same. But unlike Jesse’s, hers had floated to the surface. Threatening to drown Lilah on all the lies she’d buried under the silt and seagrass unless she completed the ritual.
A knucklebone slipped from her grip and nestled in the hole before she leveled the dirt over it.
One to tether.
The white of the bone, stark against the blackened earth, disappeared beneath her fingers.
One to find.
Another hole, another bone. The cornfield was the most memorable place between her and her mother—besides the art studio. There, the fingers had been warm and stiff, blood intermixing with the paint clotting on the floor. The kitchen knife had been cold.
One to bleed.
Between the stalks, Lake Erie oozed, lethargic and choked with ice. The murmur of the waves elongated her screamed name as the people continued to comb the field for her. She let the fingerbone rest one last second on her tongue. The rhyme’s final line sliced into her thoughts, tiny paper cuts all over her reality.
And one to die.
She swallowed. The bone slipped down her throat, and she focused on her mother, her lopsided smile, the tightness around her eyes when she painted. Her mother’s voice tickled her ears, telling her how perfect she would be if she stayed in control, stay in control.
The veil that separated the realm of the dead from the living appeared in her grip and rippled in the air. It was more palpable than she expected, silk the color of stars, cold and smooth. Lilah breathed in; dug her nails into the gossamer. Coldness slithered down her spine. She sensed the piece of soul, a fragment of laughter etched with her mother’s perfume: lachrymose with a hint of honey. Deeper than cologne, like a lull in time before lightning struck. Lilah hoped when it did, she would be ready. Because if anything, she was the thunder. The booming echo of pain after all the spark died out. She was the darkness, the rain that soaked everyone. And drowning in this power was nothing compared to fear.
Her ears itched for the slightest sound, but the ghoul couldn’t have been out here. Waiting. Watching. Grinning. The tether to her mother keeping him in this world wasn’t strong enough. Wouldn’t be until Lilah successfully drew her mother’s soul from beyond the veil.
Among the cornstalks, something stirred.
The veil slipped, and her ankle twisted painfully as she jerked around. The rest of the bones in her pocket clinked. She half-expected it to be the ghoul, his hands reaching out to strangle her once again. Instead, she came face-to-face with someone far worse.
“Lilah?” asked Hollis. She flicked her flashlight away, and Lilah blinked twice for the brightness to trickle from her vision. Hollis’s black hair tangled in the wind, pale skin a canvas of bruises under eyes.
“What…are you doing here?” Lilah’s voice was a whisper. She fought the urge to look over her shoulder. A buzzing squirmed in her mind, like a fly had crept into her thoughts and was entangled in her memories, thick as amber.
Hollis shifted uneasily on the balls of her feet. “You should go home. Everyone’s looking for you.” She glanced around at the field stretching for miles, infested with the people shouting Lilah’s name. It’d been two hours. Two hours since her mother’s body had washed up. Two hours since she’d disappeared, trying to find the connection to her mother and the veil with the few bones she’d taken from the corpse. Two hours, and now she’d located the veil. And been found before she could finish.
Lilah shivered. “I…”
“You’re safe,” said Hollis, hugging her arms against her chest. The flashlight scattered glimpses of shadows around their feet. “They don’t suspect us. They don’t suspect anyone. It worked. Lilah, go home. I’ll take care of the others and tell them you’d left town to visit your aunt or something.”
“I can’t.” Terror knotted in Lilah’s chest. She needed to stay, to complete the ritual, but she couldn’t do it with Hollis here. If the people scouring the cornfield for her was any indication, she’d already drawn too much suspicion. Her heart squeezed as Hollis eyed her coatless shoulders. Hollis shrugged off her jacket and handed it to her. It was warm, the hint of rosemary staining the material.
She glanced beyond Lilah to where the waves seethed quietly, deadly. “Just go.”
Stuck in the past. That was what they said about those who lived in the Midwest: people whose experiences were creased beneath the hiss of cornstalks. But the secrets were everywhere, and Lilah’s were as visible as the Hell is Real sign on Interstate-71. Hell was real alright, and it dwelt in the eddies of Lake Erie. She just had to make sure it didn’t destroy reality before she could erase the past.
The first part of the ritual was already in place. She didn’t need to be near the water. The lake was powerful, which meant there was a risk of tethering herself to unwanted spirits. Or, worse, losing herself to the realm of the dead. Her mother had died at her house, a connection she could use.
“Is that all you have to say?” Lilah asked. The bones in her pocket were smooth, sliding over something that hadn’t been there before she’d started to slip into the vision. Paper. Crinkled and pulpy as though it’d been washed at a laundromat.
“What do you want me to say?” Hollis took a step forward, gaze unreadable. “What do you want me to do?”
Stillness. Silence. Both waiting for the other to make a move. Lilah’s hands trembled at her sides—not with fear. But anger. Anger at Hollis for not being furious. Anger that she’d dragged her into a world of magic and secrets and death. They owed each other nothing. Wrong place, wrong time. If Hollis hadn’t had an art lesson with her mother and walked in on the ghoul attacking Lilah, the two of them would’ve gone on the way they always had: pretending the other didn’t exist.
“I have everything under control, Hollis. You have no idea what you’d get yourself into if you don’t stay away from me.”
She grabbed Hollis’s arms, the hoodie’s material slipping over her clammy palms. Her breath was the flutter of butterfly wings against Lilah’s cheek. Skin, sweat-slicked, cold, like their hands had been on the beach when they’d fed her mother’s body to the lake. She shuddered and stumbled away. Dirt smeared Hollis’s fingers where they’d pressed against hers, a reminder that whatever Lilah touched, she ruined. She refused to let Hollis be put in a situation again where she was forced to do something she would regret. Something that would haunt her for the rest of her life. And the only way that would happen, the only way she could protect everyone from what she planned to do, was to—
Let her go. “Goodbye, Hollis.”