Living in St. Jude, a 110-year-old dying city on the edge of the Mississippi, is tough. But when a letter informs fourteen-year-old Cinque Williams of the passing of the father he never met, he is faced with an incomplete past and an uncertain future. A curse meant for his father condemns Cinque to a slow death even as it opens his eyes to the strange otherworld around him. With help from the ghost Willy T, an enigmatic White Woman named Iku, an African Loa, and a devious shape-shifter, Cinque gathers the tools to confront the ghost of his dead father. But he will learn that sometimes too much knowledge can be dangerous — and the people he trusts most are those poised to betray him.
I first met Tone Milazzo in 2012 at a room party at the World Fantasy convention in Toronto, shortly after he had become a fellow CZP author with the release of Picking Up the Ghost. My first impressions, hazed no doubt by eight years of passing time were, more or less in order: he's very tall, scary smart, and looks at the world from a slightly different angle than most people—no doubt why he's such an impressive writer and why I was thrilled to include Picking up the Ghost in this bundle. I also remember that, somewhere over the course of that World Fantasy party, he helped answer the age-old question: how many authors can you fit into one of those big bathtubs in a hotel suite? The answer is ten (we all were fully clothed). And yes, I have pictures. – Douglas Smith
". . . this debut entertains with an original approach and mix of breezy humor and dark fantasy."– Publishers Weekly
"Picking up the Ghost is an unusual and fascinating story about the search for identity and inner strength cleverly written in a way that is entertaining and accessible for teens. . . . It's a well-written book and I give it 4 stars."– Tahlia Newland
"Tone Milazzo travels beyond stereotype of the non-black author writing about African Americans. He portrays a different 21st century reality of African American teenage maleness in Cinque's world using complex multi-planar African American realities that embrace an existence of spirit worlds within worlds to write a counter stereotype coming of age narrative."– Sonic Tapestry
"It's storytelling that deserves to be recognized in the finest traditions of David Lynch and Neil Gaiman. It takes you on a journey that, if nothing else, is going to likely be unlike any that you have ever undertaken before."– GingerNuts of Horror
Cinque tore through fourteen years worth of junk, trying to find just one more sneaker. At the bottom of the pile he uncovered a comic book his Ma bought for him at a thrift store back before he could read. On the cover the Fantastic Four surrounded the Molecule Man who was counter attacking with a wand in each hand.
He brushed his dreads away and opened to the middle, a picture fell into his lap. It had come with the comic book. Back then in ignorance and wishful thinking he was convinced that it was the father he'd never known and the comic was a secret gift but later on his Ma told him it was an androgynous singer and actress from the eighties named Grace Jones. He smiled at the naiveté of his younger self, and dropped the comic and the picture back on the pile.
Cinque gave up on finding a matched pair. He accused the shoes of abandoning him, though he knew that didn't make any sense. A father might walk out on him but a shoe wouldn't. He still had a black one and a white one; at least they were for different feet. The high tops were from different brands and the mismatched soles made him walk lopsided as he picked up his bag and went downstairs toward the smell of pancakes.
He came downstairs as his Ma rushed past in her waitress uniform. He was about to ask if she knew what happened to his missing shoes, but she cut him off, "Are you just coming down now, boy?" Without waiting for an answer she kissed him a quick goodbye and rushed off to work.
With a muffled, "Morning," he joined Darren at the table, and tried to get as much food in him as he could while he could. His older cousin acknowledged him with a nod and a mouthful of pancakes.
"Good morning, Cinque," said Grandma as she wiped the stove. For Grandma, meal time was a lesson in punctuality, not entitlement. Meals were served in windows of time, not amounts. Miss the breakfast window and you went hungry until lunch. Grandma's stern look reminded him of this rule. Her strict timekeeping didn't make the boys especially punctual but it did make them accomplished speed-eaters and that was good enough for her. Two teenage boys shoveling food into their mouths made poor conversation and Grandma didn't try to talk to them; instead she talked at them, reciting pieces of wisdom that she thought the boys needed to know, hoping some of it would sink in.
"You boys should know that Mark Twain said, 'If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything,' tangled webs and all that."
The boys reacted their usual way, hearing more than listening as they cleaned their plates and issued hurried goodbyes. Maybe Grandma hoped that starting off the boys with an anecdote like this would help keep them on the right track through the rest of the day. Maybe it did, because for a couple of boys living in St. Jude, Cinque and Darren were pretty good kids. Cinque did well in school and Darren had high hopes for the future.
Darren's long legs carried him over the steps and through the yard before he turned to give Cinque his daily well-are-you-coming-or-not look. Almost instantly it changed into a what-fool-thing-you-onto-now look.
"Whatcha got on yo' feet, boy?" Darren asked while Cinque closed the door.
"What's it look like?"
"Looks like you gone blind last night. Get back up in there and find some shoes that match."
"I can't. These are all I got."
"What happened to the other ones?"
"They're gone. I looked everywhere. They must have walked off on their own," Cinque said.
Darren looked at Cinque. Cinque looked at Darren. The older boy gave up and turned away. "Do me a favor. Do us a favor. Get a new pair of shoes, quick like. I don't want your weirdness to be rubbin' off on me at school. Understand?"
The two boys walked away from their house and out into St. Jude. For all its faults, no one could say it wasn't a green city. Plants filled the empty lots, abandoned properties overgrown with weeds, grass shot up from the cracks in the pavement and most residents let their lawns go wild. But the grass was always greenest over the collapsed sewage lines.
Darren grabbed hold of Cinque at the corner, just as they were about to cross the street into downtown.
"Yo! Hold up here. Gimme yo bag."
"What for?" His bag stayed on his shoulder.
Darren grabbed it roughly and pushed the younger boy away. "I need you to carry somethin' into school for me. Stay here." With that, he disappeared down an alley between two of the abandoned buildings.
The city was laid out like a big X, around the two main streets where Cinque waited for Darren on the corner of Belmont and Potts. Of the four corners, two of them were abandoned department stores. One was a windowless box, a discreet sign confessing that it was an adult bookstore. Kitty-corner to that, was the -arber Man, with its decaying, pseudo-Egyptian facade. The barber pole shown, bright and clear, day and night like a lighthouse for pedestrians.
Cinque jumped at the horns from the riverboats on the Mississippi. The sounds traveled far and clear in the cold, wet air.
Darren reemerged from the alley and handed the bag back to Cinque. The increased size and weight of the bag would have told him that there was something else in there if the sloshing sound hadn't.
"What'd you put in here?"
"It's cool." His cousin dismissed his concerns. "I'm bringing it in for science class."
"Since when did you bring in anything for class? And why I gotta carry it?" Cinque reached for the zipper.
Darren grabbed his hand in a hard fist. "'Cause I'll kick your ass if you don't." The younger bit his lower lip, hesitating. Then Darren suddenly softened, "Chill, little man, you ain't got nothin' to worry about. You know I won't let nothin' happen to you."
The boys stepped over the collapsed fence on the west side of Livermore Combined School's overgrown football field, around the spot on the track that was always muddy, even on the hot days, and past the Three Hundred Building, so rank with mold that even the St. Jude School District couldn't use it. A horrible place for learning, the one-two punch of budget cuts and standardized testing had left the school without the resources to teach the students any more than how to fill out bubbles on a Scantron sheet.
When they entered, Darren grabbed the smaller boy by the shoulder and ushered him into the boys' room with the least functional plumbing. The school had written off the toilets, the janitor having bound them in trash bags and duct tape. When the sinks stopped working they'd lock the door for good.
"Give it here," Darren said, opening his bag.
Cinque pulled the mysterious cargo out of his own bag—a bottle of liquor. "You had me carry this for you?" Cinque shouted, angry with Darren for using him. "Why you gotta bring this stuff to school for anyway?"
"School's where the customers are, little man!" Darren smiled as he reached for the illicit prize. "What am I gonna do? Sell outta the house? You really is the smart one, ain't ya?"
"Boy, I oughta smash this bottle across yo face!"
Darren's smile dropped into a scowl, his outstretched hand balled into a fist. His voice went deep and low, and Cinque realized there was going to be trouble. "Maybe you ain't so smart after all."
He counted on Darren keeping his eye on the bottle, so he could kick the larger boy in the nuts, but his cousin simply leaned a little to one side. Cinque's foot hit him harmlessly in the leg. Darren grabbed the bottle with one hand and pushed him down with the other.
He landed hard on his butt and Darren stood over him, bottle in hand. Darren's smile returned like it had never left as he put the contraband into his own backpack. "You always kick with the right leg an' you always telegraph by leanin' way back to do it, but that you all over, ain't it? An open book."
Cinque hated the wide smirk of triumph on his cousin's face, but after a moment, Darren gave him a hand up. He stood, shaking his head. "I don't get it."
"I know you don't. You too honest, that's what's wrong with you. Well . . . one of the things wrong with you. Later, little man!" And with that Darren took off.
Still feeling stung and humiliated, Cinque left the bathroom to drop off his homework—one of the few students who did. He did well in all of his classes, but he hid it from the other kids like Darren told him to. He left his homework in the faculty mail-room so no one would see him hand it in.
Unfortunately for him, Imani knew, and she was waiting for him, her long, lean form blocking the way to the mail-room. There was a bemused smile on her face. "Sin-Kay!"
Her deliberate mispronunciation of his name was more command than greeting. Cinque suspected the sharp, precise syllables really meant, "Here, boy!"
They'd been in school together for years. While Cinque kept to himself, Imani devoured attention. She was pretty enough to be popular, but instead she seemed to dance above and around the social pecking order. Somewhere in the sixth grade Imani discovered the light-skinned boy with nothing to say, and he hadn't had a day of rest since. She knew he was smart, but more book-smart than street-smart, and she used that to make him squirm.
"Did you do your homework, Sin-Kay?" Imani pouted with big doe-eyes as she made the question sound like, "Who's a good boy?" Lightly touching her chin to her chest she looked down at him. As of last year she was taller than Cinque.
Cinque tried to enter the mail-room but Imani blocked the door, head tilted to one side. He tried to duck under her arm, and she pinned him to the door jamb with a casual swing of her hip.
"Quit playing, Imani! We have to get to class!" He tried to dodge past her again, but she was too quick. Her game came to an end when a teacher rushed in to grab her mail, opening the doorway. Cinque followed the woman and put his homework in the mailbox. When he returned, Imani stood at the door, and her gaze dropped to Cinque's feet. He sighed inside.
"Yes, I know. My shoes don't match," he said in his serious voice and headed for homeroom.
"Nuh-uh, Sin-Kay," Imani followed him, pretending to be appalled. "Pants and shirts don't match. Socks don't match. But one black shoe and one white shoe? That's just wrong! No, it's scary and wrong, it scarong."
Cinque walked away, eyes front, but Imani wouldn't relent.
"That's so wrong you couldn't a thought it was right. I'm guessin' that be a cry for help. Am I right or am I right?"
"I ain't hearing this."
Imani darted around to blocking his way again. "Is this the new tin foil hat? Was the CIA sendin' you messages through yo feet? And by mixin' up the pairs, you break the signal? Come on! Tell me what's up wit' that? Were they stolen? Maybe they ran off to be with your pops, shoes'll do that."
Cinque winced. Imani had never teased him about his missing father before. Why now? But asking her why would be asking for trouble. He couldn't show her another weakness.