Writing Award Sub-Category
Award Category
Golden Writer
Logline or Premise
No way did Sally mean to conjure up these rude and talky ghosts, but now that they’re threatening her family, she’s a one-girl no-mercy phantom-busting crew - until she realizes they’re unread characters from an unpublished book.

First 10 Pages



Bang. That’s the back door. Thump clomp thump. That would be me, Sally, stomping down the stupid stairs. Thunk. I slump onto the next-to-last step, elbows on my knobby knees, knuckles pressed against my cheekbones. I am not crying.

Clouds parade enormous across brilliant blue. Twists of red and burnt-orange leaves spiral randomly to the ground. The little path is starred with them as it curves beyond the padlocked woodshed to who knows where.

But why would I care? This is not some enchanted tale. This is more like my mom and actually-cool step-dad getting transferred to Mississippi, and it not being just a bad dream. This is nobody paying any attention to me because all they ever do now is race to Jackson for work and then race back here and collapse. This is my step-brother, Ravinder, finally arriving here from India and being a lost cause. Plus, of course I’m supposed to be raking the endless idiotic leaves. Again.

Yesterday’s tipping pile, leaves and branches and a few dried-out sunflowers, still leans wetly against the old oak. A gray squirrel dashes toward it, sees me, does a one-eighty just like everybody else, and scrabbles off into the underbrush. I press my arms across my chest and stare at the paint peeling off the bottom step. I’m going back to bed. Except I know that by the time I wake up again, I’d be Grumpy Monkey times ten. Fine. At least the raking kind of keeps me from thinking. Or not really.

I stand up anyway, finally find the rake where I threw it across the driveway last night, push my glasses up, and get going. It almost works―pretty soon I’m sweating, there’s another nice crackly leaf pile at my feet, and when I stop for a second, the tangy air is almost like the smell of blueberry waffles. But then that makes me think of my left-behind friends back in San Francisco. Not here. No Celia, no Romina, no Janelle.

All I’ve got is the squirrel, who’s halfway across the yard again, chitting angrily at me like I’m invading his territory. Well, guess what, it’s mine now too, sad to say. When I’m so homesick for my friends that I can’t stand it, I call this place Fall City, like I’m not a population of one, like hey, I’ve got the company of a thousand leaves spinning and falling this morning from the old chestnut tree, the maples, to huddle affectionately around me on the cold lawn.

Very sad. Because, Reality: I’m living in a rundown house at the end of a lane that basically leads noplace either way, and going to a school that’s like a 1950s throwback. Very sad because the way it looks right now, I’ll never see San Francisco or probably any other population center ever again. New friends? Here? Ha.

The rake catches on something, and I lean to pick it up. A gem, an amulet, a lucky coin to make a wish on? Nope. Just some piece of old broken city sidewalk that lost its way home; some useless rock. I pitch it across the lawn, nailing a leaning fence post, and from out of nowhere, something tears past me, heading around the woodshed and into the woods. Not the squirrel. Actually it looked more like an alien rabbit. Or else maybe a stunted kangaroo.

Before I can call out that I’m sorry for disturbing it, Ravinder shoots out the front door going wherever it is that he always goes. Obviously saying nothing to me, not even looking at me today either. I sniff. So what if Mister Hotshot acts like I’m invisible?

At first, I thought it was maybe because he was a loner, but no, he’s texting, calling people, talking to Dad all the time. In Punjabi, though, so I can’t understand a thing. Like he’s too good for me or something. But if that’s how he wants to be, no problem―I can pretend he doesn’t exist either.

Except, as I start raking again (because I want to get this over with and go read), I feel a little sorry for him. I mean, I sort of know what it’s like. Moving to Jackson, Mississippi first was bad enough. But then the minute I started thinking maybe that wasn’t the worst middle school in the world, wham, no explanation, Mom and Dad decided to drag everybody way out here to Wi-Fi-free Nowhere, MS instead. At least I can speak my own language here, though. At least I’m still in my own country.

But what good does that do? I close my eyes. If I could even talk to my lost friends, what would they say? Easy. Janelle would be all about running away. Tonight, if not sooner. Sure, 2,141½ miles from here to back home—piece of cake. Celia? Well, you never quite know what she’s going to come up with. But Romina. Ha, I can hear what she’d say loud and clear:

‘I know, Sally. But it’s not like you can change anything. You have to get used to it, find the good stuff there. Adjust. Right?’

“Right,” I say automatically. Apparently she’s not done:

‘And listen—’

I don’t feel like laughing about anything right now, but I can’t help it. Romina’s the one who’ll talk your ear off, even when she’s just a voice in your head now...

‘And say hi to people, Sal. Make friends. You’re so good at being a friend.’

Wow. Laughter to tears. But she’s pretty much always right. I could try? No, she is always right. I take a deep breath, and go back to raking. Okay, fine, Romina. I’m going to do it, what you said. Adjust. Sigh.

The sky darkens, shadows rolling over the road and across the lawn, then doing a circle past the shed and twisting off into the trees. If I still believed in magic, if I was still a little kid, I’d be thinking all I have to do is to follow that leafy path around back of the shed, and trip over some rusty old farm implement thing, which would deposit me on this misty trail through the woods that would lead me to an ancient bramble-covered well, and then I would somehow get the old splintery cover off and figure out the secret spell and—make a wish!

Except, wait a minute. No farm implements, no misty trail, no well, but two months ago, when we first moved out here, I did already make a wish. To go home.

It didn’t work. Doesn’t work. Or maybe it’s my fault. I mean, in all the magic books, normally there have to be like five siblings, and one is bossy, one always has their nose in a book, one is the Annoying Youngest, and so on, plus they’re living in this mansion that is always creepy and Victorian but still cool. Besides which, they only moved there for the summer, and then they’re going guess where—home.

Most important, they all know how to cooperate when it comes to spells and stuff, and so some amazing adventure happens right away, and off they go. (Except usually the oldest brother is way too mature for this, so he just wanders in and out and silently scoffs. Which would be the only sibling part of it I got.)

So, yeah, back to Solo Sally and her stupid rake—of course my wish wouldn’t work. I stare unhappily at the creaking shed door, the old license plates hanging crooked above it, the freaky spider so big I can see it from all the way over here. Never mind. Who cares about magic anyway? I’m doing what Romina said. Getting used to it. If I can. Maybe.

Leaves swirl madly at my feet, and the top of every tree at the edge of the forest starts flailing back and forth. I shiver and stop raking one more time. Now what? Somebody clears their throat.

“It appears you wished for—”

My hands freeze to the rake as I spin toward the voice. Who was that? Complete silence. Nobody there. I stare along the side of the house, behind me, up into the technicolor branches, over at the road. Ravinder is already way down the lane. Everybody else is gone. But there’s the throat-clearing again.

“—you wished for… Ah, yes, here we are, it was…”

I look wildly around. This is definitely not an in-your-head type of voice. But where is it coming from? It’s not like I’m scared, really. I just want to see what it is.

“Absolutely abysmal handwriting that scribe has... In any case, it seems you placed a ridiculous and most laughable wish for—”

Who wants a wish granted from this crazy invisible thing? “I did not!”

“PARDON your crudest of interruptions! You certainly did.”

“Well, that was three months ago. Or so.” I kick myself. “I mean, I didn’t.”

“Oh, you most absolutely did.”

The voice mutters to itself as pages flip and rustle.

“Aha! Here we are: July 28, 2025. 3:43 PM – Allow me to read it to you: Wish from small and petulant child regarding #1. Immediate return to, hmm, looks like Saint Francisco? Followed by an entire slew of jumbled wishes from said child re #2. nobody listening to her #3. busyness of parentals #4. stupid stop-brother?? #5. something regarding something friends, and #6. whole different life, blah blah blah…”

As it takes a deep breath, I look belligerently in its (maybe) direction. “I am not a small child.” Except, well, it’s halfway right. I was pretty mad. And when nothing else was working, I did end up wishing for a different life. So sue me.

But let’s see what else this weirdo has to say. A cold breeze snakes down my collar. Now the only sound is the wind banging a loose board on the shed roof and whistling into the nearest tree, drenching me with wet leaves. The voice is gone.

Okay, see, that’s all it was—your icy January wind making a little unscheduled visit to September. And some meaningless moan that almost sounded like somebody talking. Sometimes I am so dumb. Forget it. Back to work.

The minute I start moving the rake, the maple whirlybirds all spin crazily and start to fall like rain. Great. Good old Fall City again, my wonderful solution for when I’m feeling abandoned and forlorn―which has never worked yet. Probably I’ll be alone for the rest of my life. Since my parents couldn’t care less what I want.

“And, ahem, as for what they might want?”

Oh no. “I couldn’t care less what— Never mind.”

“Precisely. Since you are clearly the most—”

“I Can’t Hear You!” As I speed through whirlpools of leaves for the back door, all I can think is how my wish completely and totally malfunctioned, or else how magic obviously isn’t what it used to be. Halfway up the stairs, I stare back across the yard. Anyway, I’m never listening to that guy again

I slam the door and stand inside looking over at my only favorite part of this house, the breakfast nook. I always wanted one, ever since Celia took me over to her grandma’s in Haight-Ashbury. She had one that was like out of a story—bright blue and yellow cushions to snuggle up against, saucepans hanging up above like a coppery orchestra, and her perfect striped and yawning cat.

By the time I’m snugged up in the nook with a mug of hot chocolate steaming up my glasses, I’ve decided I was right—it was only the wind. It’s hitting the house now, slamming shutters and tumbling something across the back porch and then down every stair and onto the path. Malarkey, it’s shrieking. Magic is malarkey! Excuse me?


The next morning, wind squall becomes freezing rain turns into spitting snow. The house feels like an icebox. It’s only October 1st. And I thought Mississippi was supposed to be subtropical. Silent Step-Brother whistles through the kitchen for the back door.

“Wait! Ravinder?” He actually stops, but now I don’t know what to say. “Um. So, did you ever hear, like, voices around here?”

He rolls his eyes.

I smush the spoon into what’s left of my oatmeal. “I mean I just happened to be thinking about magic wishes...” Now he’s shaking his head and rolling his eyes. “…well, because I found this piece of rock, and when I threw it, some animal ran away, and then there was…”

He reaches for the doorknob.

Why didn’t I just ask how he’s doing, or what he thinks of the weather? Instead, I keep going. “…this, um, voice. I mean, it wasn’t the animal. And it was saying that I…”

For a minute, he stares serious into the distance, and then he’s on his way out. “The magic? It is only malarkey.”

As he crashes down the last step, it hits me. “Rav, hold on!” I whip the door open. “Did you just say…” Too late.

Then before I can try and sort out what he meant, Mom’s clearing my cereal bowl with one hand and grabbing her car keys with the other. “Bye, Sally. I don’t like going in on a Sunday again but…” She drops the car keys into the sink, pats at her dirty-blonde flyaway hair, then stares at the bowl she’s about to put in her pocket, and regroups. “It’ll just be a couple of hours?”

Sure. I plump down in the nook, and kick at the other side of the bench. “Mom, do you think I could go with you?” Maybe we could order pizza, like we always used to. “No, never mind.”

She blows me a kiss. “There’s still casserole from last night.”

“Cool.” Yuck. “When is Dad―”

“He’s away at a conference until Tuesday.”

Oh, what―how did that happen?

The door clicks closed. Creepy feeling. I mean, she knows Ravinder went out. Are mothers even supposed to leave their kid alone out in the middle of nowhere like this? Practically all weekend.

I hug my arms around myself. But Rav said magic is malarkey, which means nonsense, right? So everything’s good. Plus, I am not going outside today. I have a better plan: finish my cold cinnamon toast and then curl up in the living room with a pile of books. For the rest of the day. Or maybe year. Well, at least until we move back home.

Swallowing the last buttery bite, I grab a blanket out of my room, then snag another book and my pillow. Okay, my quilt too. No fire in the fireplace, but this is going to be super cozy anyway. Mm, I could make some tea.

Half-frozen leaves slap against the kitchen window, then fall away. I make a whole teapot full. Why not? Sugar bowl. Creamer. Go for it. Trying to fit a few more cookies on the plate, I decide to just take the whole box.

Back to my comfy chair. Nice. Chapter Five of Midnight Mischief. When Selena finishes telling her mom off and slams back into her room, I stretch happily and eat two more cookies.

Crash. The whole house shakes. I pull the blankets tight around me and try to breathe. And then it’s silent. Like really eerie silent.

“Are we having FUN?”

My entire body freezes. I think something just moved over by the credenza. Or more like invisible molecules doing some kind of weird little ghostly dance. Finally I take another gaspy breath.

“Impolite. Extremely impolite and highly immature to not even offer a response.”

Now I’m so mad, I forget to be scared. “I am not! And I was having fun until―” My mind shudders. “Until you burst in here.” If there is a you. And if there is, are you the same… I press my hands over my eyes and ears. This was not part of the plan. Leave me alone!

A scuffle of air near the door, then dead silence. Does this thing read your mind too?

“No. We don’t. But you do tend to do a tremendous amount of whispering.”

Now It’s lying. It just read my mind! A sob escapes me as I pull a blanket over my head.

“Crybaby she is too. Perhaps you might be willing to leave us alone?”

I punch back out from under the covers. “What are you talking about?” No idea where It actually is, I shakily address the bookcase. “Listen, could you um just, please, go away?”

Not a sound. I wait. Good, I guess that was polite enough and It did leave. Except then one of Mom’s best china cups slides neatly to the edge of the hutch and jumps off.

Omigod. “Hey!” I miss it by a sliver as it bounces once on the rug and then rolls onto the floor, intact. Thank goodness. Or not. The handle just fell off. “Get out!”

Loud muttering. The heavy curtains lift and settle again. An armchair over by the window gives an ominous creak.

“And still not even the courtesy to say a proper hello…”

No. Just because It’s suddenly wanting to be all friendly doesn’t mean I have to be. Or okay, fine. “Hello. Is that good enough?” I pick up my book. “Nice meeting you. Again.” Not. At all. “Goodbye.” Please vanish. Was I on Chapter Five or Chapter Six?

“Perhaps I did not thoroughly introduce myself? M-malarkey. Malarkey M. Wharton to you.”

I swallow hard and hunch into myself. Go away go away go away…

A long pause, like It’s maybe trying to figure out if I can be trusted with some totally top-secret information.

“The Seventeenth. Yes, that is indeed Seventeenth. And also... Esquire. Not that she bothered to ask. Not that anybody―cares!”

Slam! I unhunch my shoulders and find my page just as the door flies open again.

“And you WILL be nice to us.”

Us? No, this is not happening.