Following is an excerpt from Valynne E. Maetani’s young adult novel, Ink and Ashes, released today, June 1, 2015, by Tu Books.
I closed and locked the door behind them and headed up the stairs to my room. Halfway up, I heard music, a slow and haunting melody that sounded familiar. The sound was faint, but grew louder the closer I got to my room. I flipped on my light and found my stereo had been moved to my desk. Someone from the party? Why would they move it?
A Japanese song I recognized from my childhood was playing on the stereo. The English version was called “Sukiyaki,” but my parents had always sung the Japanese words to me. This was neither—the version playing was wordless and featured a stringed instrument, the tempo much slower than I had heard before.
My curtain fluttered, carried by a breeze floating through my open window. I was pretty sure I had closed it. Had I left it open by mistake? Had Chase snuck in here when he couldn’t get through the front door? Maybe someone else from the party had been in my room. I surveyed my bed. Maybe two someones from the party had been in my room. Ugh. I didn’t really want to think about that one. Why didn’t I put a sign on my door like I had my parents’ bedroom and the study?
I slid the window shut and paced around the room, inspecting. I’d noticed the big things first, but those weren’t the only things wrong. The closet door was open, with clothes about to fall off their hangers and a small pile already on the floor. There was an overturned garbage can by my desk. The books from my shelf were scattered on the floor. As I looked closer, I saw smudge marks on my carpet, a small tear in the curtain. A shiver rippled through me. Who would do something like this?
“Mom,” I shouted into the hallway. “Someone broke into my room.”
My laptop was still on my desk. I checked the top drawer of my dresser. My wallet was there. My phone was in my pocket. Nothing else I owned would be valuable to anyone but me. My mouth went dry, and the muscles in my neck and shoulders tightened. What was going on?
“I don’t think so,” I said. “But they moved the stereo and made a mess.”
“Are you sure?” She walked over to the stereo. For a minute she closed her eyes and listened to the music, then turned it off. “Was this was here when you got to your room?”
I nodded. Chase had come to the house, but he’d barely made it inside. Maybe the person had climbed up the tree and come through the window. I’d done it enough times to know it was possible. Had someone played a prank on me after hearing about the cheating scandal? I just couldn’t see any of our teammates as people who might come up to my room and violate my personal space just to mess with me. They were all good people. Weren’t they? But if it wasn’t a stupid joke, someone had really broken into my room. Like someone who was a real criminal. What if I had been in here when the person came through the window?
“I’ve always loved that song,” she said.
I had too, even though I had no idea what the lyrics meant. The melody brought back so many good memories, memories I hoped wouldn’t be tainted by the bristle running beneath my skin. I scanned the room again but couldn’t think of anything that was gone.
“Nothing’s missing, but they left a CD playing on your stereo,” Mom said. “I don’t know if there’s much the police can do with that, especially when you guys were the ones who invited a houseful of people over.” She sighed. “Let’s at least file a report.”
She made a phone call and two policemen showed up at our house. I expected them to wear rubber gloves and have their kits ready to dust for fingerprints on the stereo and CD or sample the dirt smudges on the floor. All they did was walk around my room. They checked the window for forced entry but didn’t find anything peculiar.
One of the officers, a woman with an athletic build and light brown hair, introduced herself as Officer Rodriguez. Officer Schwartz, a short, round man, took me aside. His belt was cinched tight and had probably seen better days.
“I think that it’s good to be careful,” he said, “and it’s better to be safe than sorry, so calling us was the right thing to do.” He leaned closer. “Would you feel more comfortable if we asked your mom to leave, so you can tell us what really happened?” The way he glanced down at me with his pudgy face made me feel smaller.
“No. That’s what really happened,” I said.
He shifted his focus to my mom. “Sometimes teens do stuff like this to make it look like something expensive has been stolen when really they’ve sold it because they needed money.” He held up his chubby arm and glanced at his watch. “It’s only eleven p.m., so it’s pretty unlikely that someone would have attempted to break in.”
“I told you nothing was missing,” I said. He put his hands on his hips. “I can’t find any real evidence of anything, but it’s probably a good idea to keep your windows closed.”
“I did have the window closed.”
“Sure. Well, if you see anything suspicious, you can call us again, okay, sweetheart?”
He patted my head like I was a small child or a dog. Obviously he didn’t believe a word I said, and it was all I could to not to punch him. My social graces kicked in, though, when I saw Mom’s warning expression, reminding me it wasn’t the best idea to give a police officer the middle finger salute.
Officer Rodriguez sealed the CD into a plastic baggie for evidence, and Mom and I followed the officers to the door, where Mom thanked them and apologized if we had wasted their time. They reassured her, rather insincerely in my opinion, and left.
“I’m going to go call your dad,” she said.
I walked up the stairs. Even the slightest creaks made me jump. I scoured every inch of my room, determined to find something the police had missed.
It took me a good half hour of searching, but eventually I found something. On the floor right underneath my open window, I noticed a business card and picked it up. At the top was the name of a place called The Waiawa Circle of Friends. Below that was their website address, their mailing address in Waipahu, Hawaii, and a phone number. At the bottom was written, “Healing by exploring forgiveness and repairing harm.” I’d never heard of the place, and I had no idea what that phrase meant, but it sounded like a place for free-spirited granola lovers.
I wasn’t sure where it’d come from, but it must have fallen from my father’s notebook a few weeks ago. Rather than taking the effort to put it back in the box in my closet, I set the card in my desk drawer. I closed my window and climbed into bed. For all I knew, Dad could be halfway around the world, but I wished he were home instead.
Cold air woke me only a few hours later, the clock glowing 3:34 a.m. Twisting the covers tighter, I curled in my blanket and I shut my eyes.
Leaves crackled in the trees. I flopped to the other side to get more comfortable. The wind swept past the house, growing from a faint whimper to a hum. As a light sleeper, even hushed whispers woke me, so trying to lull myself back to sleep was going to be next to impossible. I smashed a pillow around my head, but the noises outside my window grew louder.
And then I heard music.
The sound was weak. I told myself it was just my imagination. At first the music hovered as if outside my window. And then the eerie melody echoed from downstairs.
Ue o muite arukou
I could barely hear it, but I knew it was the same song that had played over my stereo, only this time a man was singing, his voice low and gravelly. The tempo was still slower than what I’d remembered as a child, the tone somber.
I dragged myself out of bed, hoping someone else had woken and for some reason turned on the stereo in the living room. But the chances were small. I was the only one who woke so easily.
Each step was a step away from going back to sleep. I got to the top of the stairs and froze. Mom’s bedroom was only yards away below me. I sucked in a deep breath and willed myself forward, but my feet moved the opposite direction, backward up the stairs, and didn’t stop until I stumbled into Parker’s room.
“Parker,” I whispered, shoving his arm. “Wake up.” He didn’t budge. I shook him harder. “Wake up. There’s something at the front door.”
He grunted. Slobber trickled down the side of his mouth. “I don’t want to go to the dentist. Dentist. Don’t do that to me, dentist.” He rolled away.
I whacked him on the chest with my fist. He bolted up, his arms in karate-chop position. He stared at me, blinking for a couple of seconds before he really woke, then let his hands fall to the bed. “What are you doing in here?”
I grabbed his arm. “I think someone’s on the porch.”
Normally he would have thrown me out of his room while yelling a few choice words. But he must have seen the fear in my eyes. Without any questions, he reached under his bed and pulled out a wooden bat. “Let’s go,” he said.
I crept behind him, hunched as if we were thieves robbing the house. At the bottom of the stairs, Parker and I tip-toed toward the front door, but I took a detour into the living room, where I crept to the picture window and peeked outside.
It was too dark to see anything but black shapes, which could just as easily have been porch furniture as a person. “I can’t tell if anyone is there.”
Parker lifted the bat, ready to swing, and pushed his cheek closer to the door’s crack. He flipped on the porch light. “Who’s there?”
The voice continued to sing, the muffled melody sneaking through the cracks around the door. As far as I could tell, nothing was on the porch, but beyond the lit area, it was now pitch black.
Parker moved from the door. “Okay, you keep talking to distract him. I’ll go out the back door, sneak around the house, and launch a surprise attack,” he whispered.
“On what? We don’t even know what’s out there,” I said. “I’m going to get Mom.”
“Coward,” he muttered.
I raced into my parent’s room to wake her and found Dad there as well. He must have come home late, after we were all asleep.
Dad woke with little effort and came out to the living room with me. “Stay behind me.” He stuck out his arm and herded me and Parker to the side.
Parker clung to my back with both hands as if I were a human shield. “Get off me,” I said, wriggling away.
Dad removed a gun from the back of his pajama pants, the kind you see on cop shows that have a clip that goes in the handle. Parker’s eyes went as wide as mine must have been. When did he get a gun?
Dad pressed his bare back flush against the wall next to the door’s frame. He checked the chain lock to make sure it was in place before he cracked open the door.
A ball of fire exploded out in the yard, lighting up the living room window. Heat rushed into the house as Dad slammed the door.
“Parker, call 911!” Dad yelled. He rushed to the window and inspected the fire outside. “Give them our address, and tell them we might have a burn victim in the front yard.”
My heart dropped to my stomach. A burn victim? Who? Through the living room window I could see a fire blazing in the front part of our oak tree. My hands shook.
At the same time, Mom screamed behind me and ran into the living room. “What was that?”
Dad waved her back toward Parker, who was on the phone in the living room giving our address to the dispatcher. “Claire, go get Avery and meet me at the back door. Parker, take Mom and wait there for me. Don’t leave the house until I get there.”
Parker nodded. I unfroze enough to sprint up the stairs, tripping and catching myself all the way up. Avery was sitting up when I got there, dazed and half-asleep. “What’s going on?”
“There’s a fire,” I screamed. “We’ve got to go.”
The sleep disappeared from his eyes. He jumped to his feet and followed me down the stairs to the back door, where the rest of our family waited for us. Dad waved us down. “Stay down and out of sight.”
Mom huddled us around her, and we crouched on the floor.
Dad motioned for the rest of us to stay where we were. Mom’s eyes were wide and focused intensely on Dad, tears pooling in the corner of her eyes. He nodded at her, acknowledging her unspoken plea, then lifted his gun, cracked open the door to peek through, and ran outside, shirtless and barefooted.
My stomach dropped to the floor watching him go. I couldn’t see the fire from here, but I could hear it crackle. What if it reached the house? It had been a dry fall with burn bans up the canyon. Would we be able to escape the house, or was someone out there waiting for us, someone who set the fire? Would Dad be okay out there all alone?
Mom closed her eyes. A tear trailed down her cheek.
“We’re gonna die, we’re gonna die, we’re gonna die,” Parker chanted.
“Shut up!” Avery growled.
Another five minutes or so passed as we sat quietly, each of us in an anxious world of our own. Dad opened the door, startling all of us. His gun had disappeared and his expression had changed from stressed to annoyed.
“It’s safe,” he said. “Whoever did this is gone.”
Valynne Maetani (pronounced Vuh-lin Mah-eh-tah-nee) grew up in Utah and obtained a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania. In a former life, she was a project manager and developed educational software for children with learning disabilities. Currently, she is a full-time writer. Her debut novel, Ink and Ashes, is the winner of the New Visions Award 2013 and is a Junior Library Guild 2015 selection. She is a member of the We Need Diverse Books team and is dedicated to promoting diversity in children’s literature because every child should grow up believing his or her story deserves to be told. She lives in Salt Lake City.