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Cover Reveal! Shifting Borders [plus excerpt]

I’m excited to announce that I have an official cover for Shifting Borders!

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It was designed by Eloise Knapp from EK Cover Design, and I think it does a fantastic job conveying the mood of the book.

Writing Shifting Borders and working on the Four Windows project has been a long, exhausting process, and sometimes along the way I’ve forgotten that an actual, finished book will be the result of all this hard work.

This gorgeous cover is a reminder of that.

The manuscript is currently with my editor, Kyra Freestar, after which we’ll finalize the layout and get it ready to launch – appropriately just in time for my favorite spooky month, October.

Sign up for my newsletter to be the first to know when it’s ready to go (and to get biweekly writing prompts and reading recommendations).

In celebration of the cover reveal, here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the novel, wherein Patricia and Valeria quickly find themselves over their heads. I’d love to hear what you think – feel free to shoot me an email, or leave a note in the comments!


Shifting Borders [excerpt]

Patricia Ramos-Waites picked her way through the brackish puddles that passed for a sidewalk in this part of town. Reflected streetlight traced oily slicks in the pitted gravel, and a faint mist gathered on her cheeks and fogged her glasses. The neon sign announcing “Oh Pho” cast an orange hue in the premature evening gloom, but through the windows — papered with peeling, handwritten specials — the restaurant looked empty.

No, not empty. Her sister sat at a table near the door, shredding the label of her Tsingtao. Patricia waved, and Valeria scowled. Fantastic.

“Two small number sixes,” Valeria said to the waitress before rising to kiss Patricia. They were alone in the restaurant, no surprise for a Monday night, given how far it was from civilization. Oh Pho’s regular clientele of commercial truck drivers and warehouse workers had gone home for the night, and it was too far from the artists’ lofts and shops in Georgetown’s main strip to attract the few people that actually lived down here.

“I saw two of your buses go by already,” said Valeria. “You said you’d be here by 5:30.”

Patricia wedged her stuffed backpack into the plastic booth opposite her sister, then slid in beside it. “Work was fine today, thanks for asking,” she said. “We’ve been short-staffed this week, so things are extra busy. How are you doing, Val?” She searched her sister’s face for cracks there — it had only been two weeks since the funeral, and though she’d called daily, Valeria had been putting her off.

She’d be putting her off today, as well. “Jesus, Pati,” Valeria sighed. “Don’t be a bitch. You’re just never late.”

“I can’t make the buses run on time.”

“But you can call.”

So this was how it was going to go. “It’s 5:45, Val.”

“Yeah. And I’ve got places to be.”

“Then don’t let me keep you waiting,” Patricia snapped — and instantly regretted it, but didn’t apologize. Just another snipe-fest between sisters, she thought.

The waitress returned before any more friendly fire could be loosed, two massive bowls of soup balanced on her tray. Valeria set to plucking out her slices of beef while they were still pink, draping them over the side of her bowl. Patricia used her chopsticks to plunge her beef deeper into the boiling broth.

“I need a favor from you tonight, Pati,” Valeria said, shredding basil leaves into her soup without making eye contact. Patricia watched her with a sinking feeling, taking in her sister’s black clothes, the black gloves lying on the table, the faint scent of pungent herbs rising above the anise aroma of the pho.

Nighttime favors meant Resurrections.

“I have to help Ava with her science project,” Patricia said automatically. She reached for the Sriracha, but hesitated when she saw the nozzle’s tip: crusted over and black. Jalepeños would be — Patricia sighed. Would have been fine. Valeria had dumped them all into her bowl, and was busy doctoring her soup into a nuclear accident of gloppy brown plum sauce and safety-orange Sriracha. Chili oil formed a greasy slick across the top.

“It’s important.” Valeria finally looked up. “It’s Marco.”

Patricia’s heart broke for her sister. “Oh, no. No no no.”

“Please, Pati.”

“Do you have a permit? A court order? Because how will you explain to my kids that their mom has to go to jail over an illegal resurrection? Val, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry he’s gone.” She reached across the table, took Valeria’s cold hand in hers. The nails were ragged, chewed to the nub like Valeria used to do when they were girls. They were painted a cafe con leche color which nearly matched her own skin, a subdued tone that worried Patricia. Everything about Valeria had been more subdued since Marco’s accident.

And then the hand was gone. “Wouldn’t you have brought Joe back if you could have?”

That stab, unfair and unexpected, sliced neatly through six years of emotional scar tissue. “Joe is in Heaven,” Patricia said quietly. “Why would I bring him back from that?”

“What if you knew he wanted to come?”

“You can’t speak to the dead in their graves.”

“You can if they want to be spoken to.” Valeria met her gaze, eyes fierce and tear-bright, smoky eye makeup smudged around the lids. The restaurant’s neon open sign called out the reddish tones in her dark hair, but her curls hung limp, and her lips were chapped under the silver gloss she wore. “When I go out to his grave, I can sense him, just a little bit. He’s waiting there. He wants me.”

“But do you have the legal paperwork?” Patricia stabbed at her soup with her chopsticks. Legally, a few ghosts were allowed to come back, mostly to help solve unsolvable cases or clear up disputes over wills. Illegally…. Patricia didn’t want to know. Valeria had been selling her body for years to a local Mexican Resurrectionist, acting as a Host for the spirits he brought back. Valeria claimed that they only worked the lucrative court contracts, but Patricia knew her better than that.

Valeria hesitated, and Patricia could see her practicing the lie. But then she sighed. “No. I don’t. This is entirely for me.”

“Then I can’t help you.”

“Patricia, is it a crime to bring back the man I love? When he wants to be with me?”

“You said you were done with the illegal stuff. I’m not bailing you out of jail again.” Patricia struggled to get a grip on a slippery piece of tendon, but her hand was shaking too badly to hold the chopsticks steady. Droplets of broth spattered the table when the morsel hit the soup’s surface. “I won’t help you.”

“I’ll be careful,” Valeria said. “No one will ever know.”

Patricia sighed. “Why do you need me? What about your Mexican guy?”

“Lucho’s a businessman. He won’t do a resurrection for free, and I can’t pay him.”

A chill traced itself down Patricia’s spine. “So you’re going to—“

“I’ve done it before. I’m not just hosting for him now — he’s taken me on as an apprentice. I’ve done the last few resurrections on my own.”

“Val.” Patricia almost reached to take her sister’s hand again. “Come over tonight. Adrian’s at an away game, Ava’s got her science project to keep her busy, and I think I might even have a bottle of wine somewhere. You can stay over.”

“I can’t, it has to be tonight.” Valeria slurped a quick spoonful of broth, coughed on the chili sauces.

In the kitchen, the waitress and the cook were talking loudly in Vietnamese, pots banging as they cleaned up from the day. Calling this Monday night a bust, Patricia thought. Ready to go home to their own families just as soon as the Ramos sisters finished their meal. Patricia was suddenly very tired. “He’s dead, Val,” she said after a moment. “He won’t be the Marco you loved.”

“You haven’t seen them, the way people are when they’re reunited. The spooks are just as thrilled as the clients. I’ve made so many people happy, Pati. When do I get to be happy?”

“Val, this is stupid. You have to move on.”

“Yeah, like you did? You still wear Joe’s goddamn ring, Pati.” She dug into her purse, and threw a ten dollar bill on the table. “Forget it. Forget I ever asked you anything.”

“Valeria, wait.” Patricia grabbed her wrist, and Valeria didn’t try to pull away. “Promise me…”

“Promise you what.”

Promise me you won’t disappear without a trace this time, Patricia wanted to say, but that would only spark a fight she didn’t have the energy for. “Promise you’ll talk to me before you do anything rash.”

Valeria pulled away. “I am fucking talking to you, Pati.” She shrugged her purse over her shoulder and slammed the door as she left.

*

Forest Lawn Cemetery was a ten minute drive from Patricia’s house in White Center — less, the way Valeria was driving. “Slow down,” Patricia hissed, gripping the door handle with all her strength. “If you get pulled over, I don’t know how you’ll explain that to them.” She gestured at the duffel bag in the back seat. She had only a vague idea of what it contained, but it smelled sweet and foul as rotting fruit. “What’s the hurry? He’s not going anywhere.”

Valeria’s jaw tightened. “No hurry,” she said, but she glanced once more in the rearview mirror, and the speedometer crept slightly higher.

They parked a few blocks away, where no one would remark on an extra car, and stepped past the heavy chain that blocked the cemetery’s driveway. The earlier mist had shifted to a light rain, which was already soaking through the black Highline Pirates hoodie Patricia’s oldest son had left at home. Her only rain jacket was baby blue, and had been summarily vetoed by Valeria.

Rows of flat headstones tufted the well-manicured lawn, following the gentle contours of the hills. Trim Japanese maples dotted the grounds, and a few oaks stretched dark silhouettes against the low clouds. Persistent clouds meant Patricia hadn’t seen the moon for over a week, but the city lights infused the fog with the faintest of glows, illuminating their way. Barely.

Marco’s grave was in the northeast corner — far from the road, Patricia saw with relief, tucked near the strip of wild brambled forest that covered the ridge’s steep eastern shoulder. 

A waist-high fence separated the civilized dead from the disordered urban forest, and overhanging branches afforded them just enough cover from the rain. The toes of her sneakers squelched in sodden fresh turf.

Patricia shivered, realizing she was standing on Marco’s grave. She stepped aside.

Valeria’s duffle bag clinked as she set it down. She stooped to brush the leaves and grass clippings off the stone:

Marco Caruso

1975 — 2014

“Who will Marco be when you bring him back?” Patricia whispered, and Valeria stiffened but did not answer.

Valeria’s face glowed in the flame of her lighter; her jaw was set, her eyes flashing steel. She lit a pair of candles on the headstone, then a propane camping lamp. She shook a pair of coals onto a grate over the flame. “Stop looking over your shoulder. You’re making me nervous.”

“I thought the cops were cracking down on illegal resurrections.”

“The cops around here have drug deals to watch for. They’re not out patrolling the cemeteries.” Strain as she might, Patricia couldn’t see the gate over the rise of the hill — still, she felt exposed and nervous. Valeria looked up from her careful arrangement of…bones? Patricia shivered. “It’s fine, Pati. I’ve done this dozens of times. Hold this.” She handed her the flask of vile smelling liquid, and Patricia held it at arm’s length. She tried to force herself to relax.

The candles on the headstone sputtered as fat raindrops splashed down through the branches. It was never any use to talk sense into Valeria when she had a plan. When they were kids she’d nearly drowned after breaking into a neighbor’s swimming pool in Managua — Patricia had refused to go with her, and Valeria had snuck away to go on her own.

Their father had been angry with them both, but it was Patricia who’d gotten the spanking for not watching out for her little sister. Granted, Valeria had been in the emergency room, but the injustice still smarted.

Patricia had seen that same determined look in Valeria’s eye tonight. “What do you need me to do?” she asked, afraid of the answer.

“I’ll do all the ritual, don’t worry about that. I just need you to hand me things when I need them, and to break the circle if anything goes wrong.”

“Scalpel, stat,” Patricia said, trying to laugh. She shivered instead.

“Normally the Resurrectionist summons a spirit into a Host, but I’ve been reading about modifications to the spell that let a Resurrectionist call the spirit directly into herself.”

“Reading?”

“I’ve done the original spell before, and the variation isn’t tricky. You’re here just because if anything goes wrong, I’ll need you to break the circle. Here.” Valeria dumped the now-lit coals into a censor like they used in Catholic churches, and handed it over to Patricia with a pair of tongs and a baggie full of some sweet-smelling herbs. “If anything goes wrong, just dump the herbs onto the coals, erase part of the circle with your foot, and put a coal in each of my hands.”

“Val—“

“Nothing’s going to go wrong. But if it does, you just dump the herbs, break the circle—“

“And put a burning coal into each of your bare hands,” Patricia said. She swallowed.

“Right. And keep an eye out.”

“For the security guard?”

“Sure.” Valeria swung her gaze over the cemetery, searching. When she seemed satisfied that they were alone, she lay down over the grave, her head resting just below the stone. She began to whisper at first, in Spanish oddly accented from years forgetting their native tongue, and then relearning it at the hands of her Mexican Resurrectionist. She seemed tense at first, hands clenched on her belly, but as she spoke she slowly relaxed, drawing her palms down over her hips, smoothing her dress in a way that seemed both self-conscious and sensual. Water began to seep up out of the fresh turf, darkening Valeria’s dress, cradling her hips like ghostly fingers. Patricia shivered.

Valeria’s voice fell to a whisper, and then she fell silent though her lips still moved. Patricia leaned closer, trying to make out the words. The salt ring glimmered a brief moment, then went dull once more. A faint play of light flashed over the wall of foliage beyond the edge of the cemetery.

Patricia looked up, startled.

Valeria’s hands clutched the grass, fingers worming their way into the fresh soil, her back arching, shoulders writhing against the headstone.

The light came again, stronger.

It could be the headlights of a car, maybe, someone turning down a residential street? The foliage above them lit up again. Flashlight.

Patricia’s mouth went dry.

“Valeria,” she whispered, but her sister didn’t seem to hear. “Valeria.” A breeze stirred the grass inside the salt circle, toyed with the ends of Valeria’s hair. The air around Patricia was still.

The beam of light came again, stronger now. The police. Patricia’s mind whirled as she thought up excuses, but there was no excuse that could explain away what they were so obviously doing. Oh, Lord, her job, her kids. The church. “Valeria!”

Her sister moaned.

Patricia glanced back over her shoulder and caught a glimpse of a small group in the distance, rough voices, laughter muffled by the fog. A hint of cigarette smoke drifted on the breeze before them.

Not the police.

“Valeria, we have to go.” Patricia hesitated, her foot poised over the line to erase it. What would breaking the circle right now do to her sister?

As if in response to the thought, Valeria’s body arched violently away from the ground, her face screwed into a silent scream. A trickle of black blood seeped from one nostril, and when she opened her eyes, the whites were colored an unholy pink.

Patricia fumbled for the brazier. She dashed her foot across the salt line, feeling a hurricane force of wind tear into her as she did. Her hair whipped across her eyes. She grabbed for Valeria’s hand, plucked a fiery coal from the censor.

The stench of burned flesh stung her nostrils as she dropped the first coal into Valeria’s hand — her sister gasped, flinging it away to hiss in the wet grass.

“Can’t take him,” Valeria whispered. “I almost—“

“Hey, hey, what you doing?” A shout came from behind them. “Ramos?”

The men were running, now, the glowing butt of a cigarette flicked into the grass, the silhouette of a handgun against the fog.

Patricia grabbed Valeria’s hands, tugging desperately against her sister’s dead weight. “No, no no nooo,” Valeria gasped. Her body arched again, wrenching violently as her heels dug into the fresh turf above Marco’s grave. She screamed, piercing the night.

Patricia pulled once more with all her might, dragging her sister’s writhing body past the salt line.

She gasped as an ice-cold wind rushed through her, then searing heat; her body suddenly felt too tight.

Too tight, yet surprisingly strong. She yanked her sister to her feet and half-carried, half-dragged her toward the cover of dense brush at the edge of the cemetery.

A gun shot rang out. Bark splintered off the oak above them. Someone let off a stream of curses. “Don’t kill her, pendejo!”

Patricia boosted Valeria over the fence, then vaulted it herself, tumbling into a clutching Oregon grape that clawed at her baggy sweatshirt. She grabbed Valeria’s arm, propelling her through the underbrush like a reluctant toddler, heedless of blackberry thorns and slapping wet ferns, sliding ever downward through the sloping underbrush.

Now running, now tumbling, until Patricia’s shins hit against the trunk of a fallen tree and she dropped, stifling a cry. She wriggled her way between the tree and the sodden earth, hugging her sister tight to her, hand clamped over Valeria’s mouth.

Valeria shook uncontrollably, but whether from fear or cold — or from the spell — Patricia couldn’t tell.

The crashing pursuit continued a few minutes longer, the men calling to each other, the beams of their flashlights streaking terrifyingly close to where the Ramos sisters lay. After a long while the sounds faded to silence.

Patricia stayed still, unsure if they had actually left; the chorus of rushing blood in her ears and her sister’s ragged breath muffled all other sounds. A stone dug into her ribs. When she could bear it no more, she lifted her weight onto just one shoulder, shifting so her hand could brush away the stone.

A twig snapped. Less than ten feet away.

She froze, her heart pounding.

“Val. Valium, baby.” The same man who had shouted earlier was wheezing now, his voice raspy from liquor and smoke. “I know you’re in here somewhere. I know you can hear me, and you know what I want. I’m gonna send one of my boys to see you tomorrow. Call me in the morning, we talk and I’ll send Charles. But sweetheart, you think you’re smart, you try to lay low? I’ll send Javier.”

He waited as though expecting a response, but damned if Patricia was going to give him one. Valeria’s breath came ragged and hot under Patricia’s hand.

After what seemed like eternity, Patricia heard him clamber, swearing, back through the underbrush.

Patricia gripped her sister tight a while longer, her cheek wet with Valeria’s tears, Valeria’s fingers curled in her hair, her own fingers digging into the wet thin fabric of Valeria’s dress. Valeria was shivering, flighty tremors that slowly grew into sobs.

The rich black earth reeked of decay, the slick mat of waterlogged leaves beneath them rotting back into soil. Something crawled over Patricia’s hand. It had started to rain in earnest now, gathering in the leaves, dripping in fat drops onto Patricia’s back.

“We should go,” Patricia said finally, but she couldn’t make herself move. She should be afraid, she should feel cold, but the only sensation Patricia was aware of was joy, elation at finding herself in Valeria’s arms. :val, valvalval:

Something stirred deep within her, its attention pulsing toward Valeria. She stroked her sister’s back, brushed her lips against her cheek.

“I failed, Pati,” Valeria said after a long moment. “There’s no second chance. He’s gone forever.”

Patricia kissed her sister’s forehead, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. Warm, vital blood rushed in her veins. “It’s OK, babe,” she heard herself say. “I’m here.”

A pressure, like the pulsing ache of an anxiety attack, began in Patricia’s chest, like her ribcage was too tight, her lungs carved of stone. She forced herself to take deep breaths, pushing against the pain.

“They wanted Marco,” she heard Valeria say. “And they probably got him.”

“What?” The pressure inside her chest swirled, fluttering against her ribcage. A wave of clammy heat broke over her, and she tugged at the throat of her hoodie, trying to breathe. Nausea, throbbing head, hot flashes, Patricia ticked off the symptoms, trying to remember if she’d hit her head. She pushed Valeria away from her and scrambled out from beneath the fallen tree, just in time to revisit her earlier meal of pho.

Patricia wiped her lips on the sleeve of the now-filthy hoodie. Sorry, Gabe.

“You OK, Pati?”

Valeria’s voice swam to her as though through water. “Who were they?” Patricia asked, and Valeria started to answer, in that hedging way when she was trying to lie without lying. Patricia couldn’t make out her words — they sounded muddled, echoey, and Patricia fought down her rising panic. I think I have a concussion, she tried to tell her sister, but her lips wouldn’t move. I think. . . . And the pressure — the presence? — in Patricia’s chest stopped fluttering. It shifted, just ever so slightly.

:who?:

“I’m Patricia,” she whispered. “Who are you?”

Valeria stopped mid-sentence. “Pati? Oh, shit. Pati?”

Patricia could feel her sister’s hands on her face, hear her frantic voice, but all she could focus on was the swirling voice in her head. :whowhowho?: The world went black.


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