A Vree Erickson Novel, Book One
Text and cover art copyright 2013 Steven L. Campbell
Published by Steven L. Campbell at Shakespir
Cover design by S.L.Campbell Graphics and Books
Originally titled Night of the Hellhounds, this novel is a work of fiction based on the author’s short story “Night of the Hell Hounds.”
All characters, organizations, places, and events portrayed in this book either are products of the author’s imagination or are fictitiously used. Any resemblance to actual persons—living or dead, locales, organizations, or events is purely coincidental.
Shakespir Edition License Notes
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FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD Vree Erickson was destined to die that summer. Although she was a healthy girl, all the fates pointed to her demise. But despite what the fates had planned for her, every decision she made over the summer could either change her destiny or leave it the same.
At 2:50 p.m. on June nineteenth, Vree dodged mowing over an exposed tree root, but she didn’t see her brother’s baseball glove until the John Deere riding mower was inches away. Then … BAM. The leather glove wedged inside the mower’s deck and stopped the blade.
Vree stopped driving and pondered what to do. All she knew about the mower was how to fill the gas tank, check the oil, and start it. After that, the mower went fast when she raised the lever toward the rabbit symbol, and slow when she lowered it to the turtle symbol. Just being able to drive the thing without killing herself was a plus.
A wet June breeze blew her long blonde hair across her face, covering her eyes while she sat for a moment beneath the oak tree in her backyard. She decided to look at the damage underneath. Not fix it—she had no idea how lawnmowers worked. But she needed to see by what degree her father would be angry with her.
She pulled her hair back, turned off the engine and yelped as the sky let loose another round of drenching rain. Rain had plagued most of Upper St. Clair all day, which left Vree with no other choice but to race finishing mowing the lawn before her birthday party that Thursday afternoon. Now it looked like the chore would go unfinished.
She had put off mowing the sizeable yard earlier in the week because of a dental appointment on Monday, a sprained right ankle on Tuesday after slipping in the tub while getting out of the shower, and spending all day at Kennywood yesterday where she and her family celebrated her brother and sister’s birthday. She was not going to disappoint her parents on her birthday. She had her heart set on that box set of hard to find classic movies to add to her growing collection, and her mom had taken the Barnes and Noble coupons from Dad’s study when she, Dave, and Amy left to go shopping at South Hills Village Mall an hour ago.
The rain soaked her red KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON T-shirt and chilled her back while she dismounted the mower, got on her hands and knees, and peered beneath the deck. She had no idea what to look for—she was never going to be mechanically inclined like her mom and brother. So, she stood and scampered to the tree trunk and kept dry beneath some heavy branches. Thankfully, there was no lightning like late last night. The flashes of light and booms of thunder had kept her awake past midnight. And when the storm had subsided and she fell asleep, she dreamed of being alone, lost in woods and looking for her dad, panicking until she made her way back to her parents’ spacious Craftsman home and found him standing in front of the garage. As she ran to him in that weird never-getting-closer way, rain fell and a flash of bright white light had engulfed him. When the light vanished, he was gone.
Stupid dream! It had awakened her in a panic the same moment a flash of lightning filled her bedroom with a few seconds of bright light, which left her cowering beneath her blanket afterward until sleep finally came to her.
Now, taking a deep breath to calm her anxiety, Vree fetched her iPhone from a front pocket of her blue jeans and glanced at the time. 2:59. Dad would be home any minute.
She refused to let either the ball glove accident or the rain dampen her spirits. She had campaigned to her parents all year not to celebrate her birthday on the same day as her triplet brother and sister who had been born before midnight on June 18, fifteen years ago. She had been born on June 19, seven minutes after midnight, so it was only fair that she celebrate her birthday today.
At 3:02, the rainfall turned into a hard downpour and the oak’s branches did little to keep her dry. She glanced at the house and saw her orange tabby cat sitting in a window, watching and waiting for her. Three o’clock was Mr. Whiskers’ feeding time.
She ran to the left side of the mower and began pushing it toward the garage. After three steps and nearly losing her footing, she looked up and saw that Charles Erickson, home from his lawyer job in the city, had pulled in the driveway. He hurried from his black Escalade, juggled his briefcase and umbrella when he took to the right side of the mower, and helped Vree push the mower. She hollered over the sound of rain and told him what had happened. He said nothing, stopped to adjust the umbrella that did little to keep dry his dark gray Brook’s Brothers suit, and returned to pushing the mower closer to the garage. He didn’t complain or scold Vree for driving recklessly and running over Dave’s ball glove, but she was certain the rain kept him quiet from giving her a good lecturing on lawnmower safety and care.
When they rounded the back of the garage, a flash of bright white light and tremendous heat engulfed them as lightning struck the oak tree, the house, and Vree and Charles, knocking Vree to the ground where she lay unconscious, even when her family returned home ten minutes later and found their house ablaze. The lightning had knocked Charles right out of his polished, black leather Florsheim wingtip oxfords. Until then, Charles Maxwell Erickson, Esquire, the man about Pittsburgh, had been successful as a private practice lawyer, earning as much as six figures last year. Now, he lay dead inside the same Tri-Community South ambulance that rushed a comatose Vree to the nearest hospital.
VREE HAD FALLEN into nothingness, she was certain of that. Warm blackness surrounded her, and she sensed she now floated in infinite space. She rolled and swam in the space, never knowing if she went anywhere. But she could breathe. And that seemed important.
She swam until her arms grew tired, so she rested sitting up. She sensed she sat on a plush seat—a sofa by the feelings that came to her while she stretched out her arms on either side. It made a comfortable bed, so she rested lying on her back. She stared at a pinpoint of gray light above her that seemed both close and far away. She needed to go there. And she would go there as soon as she rested.
Something had tired her; she needed to sleep.
She closed her eyes but the darkness and gray light remained.
An urgent need to go to the light overwhelmed her, so she sat up, stood, and readied to launch herself from the sofa and swim to the light that looked like a distant star.
“Let it come to you,” her father said from the right of her.
Vree squealed with delight to hear a familiar voice. She reached out a hand into the darkness, found one of his large and soft hands waiting for her, and sat, snuggling against him while the light above grew larger until it consumed them and bathed them in soft, white illumination.
The sofa, which was also white, split and separated into overstuffed armchairs that reclined. Charles wore his blue silk robe and matching pajamas and slippers, and Vree had on her long Bugs Bunny T-shirt she often wore as pajamas. Her feet were sans slippers and she waved them from the footrest, admiring the blue polish on her toenails. She and her dad floated in lazy circles around a third chair for several revolutions before Vree saw that a girl who looked like her occupied it.
The girl looked up from an open hardcover book, smiled at Vree, then closed the book softly and laid it in her lap of slim fit, skinny leg blue jeans—Vree’s favorite pair from Christmas. She even wore Vree’s oversized tank top with a print of Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night on the front, which had also been a Christmas gift.
“Are you supposed to be me?” Vree asked.
“I am you,” the other Vree said. “Though you probably don’t recognize me because I’m not the reversed image you’re used to seeing in mirrors.”
Her chair spun in slow, lazy, counterclockwise circles, which made Vree dizzy. She looked away and focused on the vast whiteness around them.
“This is a weird dream,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had one like this before.”
“’Tis no dream, girly-o,” the other Vree said. “Welcome to home away from home … the land of repetition and boredom.” She yawned audibly.
“Hush,” Charles said to her as his chair circled behind hers. To Vree, he said, “There’s a reason you and I are together. And I can only visit you once in spirit before I have to leave, so I need you to listen. You are seeing one of death’s many realities.”
“Did you say death?” Vree gripped her chair’s armrests and sat up. She kept her eyes focused on the white void to keep from getting dizzy. “Oh Daddy, please don’t talk about that.”
“I’m sorry, baby doll. I know it frightens you, but I must.”
“This isn’t Kansas anymore, Toto,” the other Vree said. “You don’t have time to be frightened.”
Vree looked back at Charles. “Let’s talk about something else. Okay? I don’t want this to be a bad dream.” She closed her eyes from him and the rotating chairs. “I want us to have fun.”
“She thinks she’s dreaming,” the other Vree said. She laughed.
Vree’s eyes flew open. “Stop mocking me.”
The laughter stopped. “Stop being a baby and listen.”
“I’ll listen to my daddy, but not to you,” Vree said, folding her arms across her chest.
“Why am I not surprised?”
Vree glared at her other self until Charles said, “What I’m going to tell you will sound strange. But I need you to listen. I am one of death’s many realities.”
Vree shook her head. “No. You’re not dead.”
“I am. And what you’re seeing is a connection you have made to me in a way that makes sense to you—surreal as it may seem. This is your world and you control its behavior, baby doll. You can stop the floating chairs by putting your mind to it.”
“I just wanna wake up now.”
“You can do anything you put your mind to.”
Vree looked around. “Then why am I still in this dream?”
“You’re in denial,” the other Vree called out. “You think you’re dreaming all this when you know you’re not. You’re not ready to perceive the truth.”
“I don’t like you,” Vree said. “I wish you’d go away.” She scowled at her other self who smirked like a mischievous twin, still turning counterclockwise.
“Hey-hey, girly-o,” the other Vree said, “where’s the love?”
“Why won’t you go away?” Vree looked at her father. “Who is she? Why is she here?”
“She’s your subconscious … and the one to get you started on the path of your new life,” Charles said.
“What new life?”
“When the lightning struck you, it changed you.”
“Whaddaya mean, Daddy? What lightning?”
“You need to remember. But for that to happen, your subconscious needs to be a part of you, baby doll; not floating around you.” Charles turned and gestured an open palm at the other Vree. “As long as you remain separated, you will remain here. You need to pull her in so you can begin recovering.”
“But I don’t like her,” Vree said.
“There are things about ourselves none of us like. But we can’t deny who we are. Just reach out your mind to her and she’ll come to you.”
“But she’s like Dave and Amy; always talking down to me.”
“You’re personifying her as someone like your brother and sister. Try thinking of her as if she is your best and wisest friend—someone who says positive things about you, who will always have your back. Think of her as being the person you want to be for the rest of your life. Accept her and she will come. Just let it happen.”
Vree and Charles’s chairs stopped circling and faced each other. The other chair spun away and orbited them.
“Concentrate,” Charles said.
Vree moaned. Doubt seemed to flood over her; she shook her head.
“Believe,” Charles said.
Vree watched her subconscious circle around them. Then she held her arms out to the other Vree. “Be my … best friend.”
“Go on,” Charles said.
“Never be condescending like you were a couple minutes ago,” Vree said. “And always have my back.”
The other Vree flew from her chair—a streak of white light that rushed at Vree and entered her forehead. Vree’s body tensed; her grip tightened on the chair’s armrests.
The light vanished. So did the place and chair. Vree and Charles now stood side by side at a bed in a hospital room. Vree looked down at the girl laying there—another version of herself. This Vree lay unconscious, her head bandaged, and surrounded by life support machinery. A breathing tube came from her mouth and ran to a ventilator that made whooshing sounds in five-second intervals. Medicines, nutrients and liquids in plastic bags hanging on a metal pole entered her through feeding tubes.
With the knowledge that had returned to her from her subconscious, Vree remembered the lightning strike. “Daddy didn’t live,” she whispered. She wanted to cry, but she felt incapable of shedding tears.
“It hurts to know he’s dead and you’ll miss him so very badly,” Vree said to herself. She reached out and took one of Charles’s hands in hers. “But you’ll always have him in your memories. Be strong.” She looked up at Charles’s solemn face and said, “What happens now?”
“That’s up to you, baby doll. You can keep blocking and stay in a coma. Or you can keep remembering and live again.”
“How can I live without you?”
Charles kissed her forehead. “Like you said, you’ll always have me in your memories. As long as you do that, you’ll never be alone.”
Vree released her father’s hand and looked down at herself again.
The girl in bed opened her eyes and stared at Vree.
“She’s awakening,” Vree said. She recognized the fear in those green eyes—the fear of something terrible happening and being powerless to stop it. She had carried that fear around since she was three, afraid of something bad happening to her father. And now it had happened.
“She’s remembering,” Vree said moments before she and Charles vanished and returned to their chairs. Her subconscious self’s chair was gone.
“Now that you’re awakening, it’s time for you to go,” Charles said. “The path of your new life will be difficult, especially where you are headed. But your subconscious will be with you to help.” He raised a finger to stop her interruption. “You can do this.”
Vree closed her mouth.
What did he mean life would be difficult where she was headed?
She floated in her chair, reclined it back, drummed her fingers on the armrests, chewed at her upper lip, and looked from side to side.
“Breathe,” her subconscious self said, its voice coming from all directions around her.
“I am breathing,” Vree said to the surrounding whiteness. She sucked in a breath. “See?”
Her subconscious was silent.
Vree waited. This time she kept still. Sleep came and pulled down her eyelids. She felt herself doze.
“Say your name,” her subconscious said, its voice lifting her from her slumber. “Your full name.”
“Verawenda Renee Erickson.”
“Breathe for me again,” her subconscious said. “I want you to take a deep breath this time. A really big breath.”
The pain in her throat caused her to cough, but the fire in her throat kept her from coughing more than twice.
“She’s awake,” a female voice said at her right side. “Can you hear me, Verawenda?”
“Air my?” Vree asked, her voice croaking. Though she recognized the hospital room, she was surprised not to see the sea of soft white illumination from the other world. She swallowed at the fire in her throat. The breathing tube was gone and she felt like she had the worst sore throat ever.
The woman, obviously a nurse by the white blouse and pants she wore, pushed a button on the wall while another nurse at Vree’s left side asked, “Verawenda, can you hear me? If so, speak to me, Verawenda. Can you hear me?”
“Eth,” she said. “Thirthy. Tho very thirthy.”
“It’s okay, Verawenda. Everything will be okay. Just relax and lie still.”
A whoop came from another room and someone shouted, “She’s awake.”
“Someone call her mother,” the left side nurse said.
The room disappeared and Vree wondered if she had returned to the other world when it been black without any light, before she found the sofa and the light dropped on her from above. She looked for the light—any light—and saw none while she seemed to float on her back atop invisible waves of a gentle ocean. Fuzzy voices spoke around her in unintelligent words until her father’s face appeared over her and whispered, “Wake up, baby doll.”
Someone had raised the head of her bed so that she sat up now. The hospital room came into focus slowly. Daylight from the corner window hurt her eyes. She squinted, tried to swallow away her thirst, but someone had glued sandpaper to the back of her mouth. She lifted a hand and felt her swollen lips.
“Thirthy,” she said.
A white plastic cup hovered in front of her face for a moment before she took it from the offering hand. The water was warm but tasted good.
“More,” she said.
The hand took her cup and she closed her eyes until the voice that seemed to be connected to the hand told her to drink.
“Mom?” She opened her eyes to see Karrie Erickson’s happy but troubled face look at her before tears distorted the image.
“Welcome back,” Karrie said as Vree pulled her close and did her best to hug the woman, despite the feeding tubes and bed railing that got in the way.
IT WAS 2:00 p.m. on July fifth, a Saturday during Fourth of July Weekend when most families in northwest Pennsylvania gathered at backyard cookouts and picnics, or took to the road for camping getaways and other fun events to celebrate the holiday. Vree and her family headed north, away from the Pittsburgh area and closer to their new home in Ridgewood, one hundred miles away.
The highway they were on teemed with vehicles carrying bicycles and pulling campers or boats; Vree watched from the silver Sorento’s backseat as the traffic passed her and her mother, sister and brother. The sunny sky did little to brighten her anxious spirit, and the heat inside her mother’s SUV caused her to tug at the front of her sweaty yellow Pittsburgh Pirates T-shirt with one hand and wipe sweat from her forehead with the back of her other hand. The vehicle’s AC had stopped working an hour ago, right around the time the transmission had begun making rattling noises. And now her lemon-lime Gatorade from their last stop was gone. She grumbled under her breath, regretting that her mom had sold their dad’s newer, fancier, and roomier Escalade two days ago.
“Are we there yet?” she asked her mom after they reached their third hour on the road.
“Almost,” Karrie Erickson said from the driver’s seat. She pointed past the windshield to a large, weather-beaten billboard sign ahead of them that read WELCOME TO RIDGEWOOD in large, black letters. Below, in smaller letters, the sign advertised cottage rentals at Alice Lake, next right.
“New home, new school,” Karrie said as she slowed down for three white-tailed deer dashing across the road past the billboard. “Well, new school for you guys,” she clarified.
Vree’s face, which had softened to see the deer, soured as a realization punched her in the gut. “We’ll be the new kids at school. The ones everybody’ll pick on.”
“You’ll be the one who’ll get picked on,” her brother Dave said from the front seat pushed all the way back, giving Vree little room to stretch her legs. He was tall and lean like their dad, and had blonde hair kept short in an Ivy League crew cut—a style worn by their dad most of his life, except that one time when he was a law student at the University of Pittsburgh—an incident their mom referred to as The Lost Bet of ’93.
Dave brushed a long hand across the top of his head and added, “Trust me; you’re destined to wear Kick Me signs on your back all year and eat alone at lunchtime.”
Vree bristled. “Mom!”
“It’s tenth grade,” Karrie said to Vree. “You won’t get picked on.”
“I agree with Dave,” Vree’s sister Amy said. She sat left of Vree, earbuds jammed in her ears and leaking tinny music from an iPod in her lap. Like Vree, she had straight, shoulder length hair, but auburn like their mom’s.
“You read too much,” Amy said to Vree. “All that Harry Potter and fantasy is so out.”
“And you’re always painting unicorns and fairies.”
“Well, you’re always writing love songs.”
“But I play sports and do other things. So does Dave. But you—”
“I studied dance.”
“Not a sport, loser.”
“I didn’t say it was. And stop calling me names!”
Karrie told the girls to hush. Vree glared at the passing green and brown countryside out her window, fretting over Dave and Amy’s remarks and wishing their father were there to defend her. Charles had always been her protector.
Vree choked back an onslaught of anger and extreme sadness. Her frown cut into her brow as it deepened. She knew she needed to control her temper, so she let out her breath with a “Damn” and pretended to curse at the sun to the east that baked the side of her face. Still, she stewed. She had missed her dad’s funeral and the time of closure and final goodbyes during her time in the hospital. Even her cat had perished while she was unconscious. An important part of her life had been stolen from her—a part she could never get back. She rolled down her window, which only caused chaos with her hair. She closed her window and muttered, “Lousy, stupid, unfair life.”
The path of your new life will be difficult.
She tried to remember who had told her that. Remembering was slow since waking from the coma, and sometimes she didn’t know if she remembered actual events, dreams, or stories she had read in books.
She pushed stray hair from her eyes and lifted her gaze far enough to see acres of second growth farm fields and pastures with old fences roll past. She shut her eyes and wished it all away. When she opened them, the dismal scenery remained.
Another saying came to her.
Hope only brings us disappointment if we set our expectations too high.
Her mother had told her that before leaving Pittsburgh. They had said goodbye to the Jensen family, next-door neighbors who had taken them in when they became homeless, and Vree had told Mrs. Jensen they would see each other soon once they were financially sound again.
Now Vree realized their move was going to be a long-term investment.
Despite Grandpa and Grandma Lybrook’s generosity of wanting to help, which included a job teaching seventh grade science at the high school if Karrie wanted it, there would be no going back to how things used to be. Their sudden losses had left them SFC: strapped for cash, a term Karrie used whenever talk turned toward money. It was a term Vree hated hearing. It ranked up there with SOL, which is how she felt no matter how many times her mom said their new lodgings were temporary—six months at the most—and that things were going to get better.
Karrie banged an open palm against the dashboard and startled Vree from her funk. The engine had overheated again.
“I wish your grandpa still had his dairy farm,” Karrie said after striking the dashboard once more. “It would have given you kids a chance to see what life is like growing up on a farm. Milking cows and baling hay and harvesting crops.”
Vree realized she wasn’t the only one pining for the past. “Not me,” she said, turning up her nose. “Not where there are cows and cow manure. No way.”
She turned her attention outside.
They had entered Ridgewood. On both sides of the street, chipped and faded brick and cement storefronts pressed tight against each other. Their big windows with names and titles revealed no one inside. Even the street itself was barren of traffic.
Ridgewood was a place struggling financially. Vree knew that. She had heard her mother mention it before they left Pittsburgh. But to see it felt like a hard slap to her face.
The town was a place of missed opportunities; it looked as broken as she felt.
“Where is everyone?” Vree asked. Their old neighborhood would have been teeming with shoppers on a Saturday at 2:15 pm. Ridgewood looked like a ghost town.
“I’m taking you kids past the high school before we go to your grandparents’ place,” Karrie announced when she stopped at a red light.
Dave and Amy sounded excited, but Vree’s attention fixed on a two-story brick and cement building outside her window. Someone had painted the place a nondescript battleship gray, and had hand-lettered a black sign over its steel front door that said SAM’S PUB in white block letters.
The door of Sam’s Pub opened and belched two ragged looking patrons onto the uneven sidewalk. The men staggered past the building’s two grimy windows that had neon signs advertising ice-cold beer inside. The last window sported a black and white sign in it that announced fifty-cent wings on Saturday nights only. The men disappeared around a corner and a moment later, three girls on bicycles and around the ages of ten or eleven turned the corner. They raced by and teased each other with obscenities that shrilled and shrieked through Vree’s window, which she had rolled down upon entering Ridgewood.
The pub’s front door opened again and a dark complexioned, white-haired woman exited from the front door. She leaned against the wall and smoked a cigarette. She paid no attention to Vree or the Sorento, or anything around her for that matter while she inhaled deeply from her cigarette. Her lined face looked ancient and her plump body had on a tattered green Army jacket, a red T-shirt, and blue jeans that looked brand-new. Behind her, in the darkness of the front door that the woman had propped open, two red beady eyes peered out at Vree.
Does it see me?
The words came to Vree in a shout.
Can it see row ellens?
Vree turned away from the eyes and shuddered at the voice’s ferocity.
The stoplight changed. Vree looked up at the intersection just as her mom turned left into the path of an oncoming semi.
Vree gasped. The speeding truck had come out of nowhere. Its large aluminum grill filled the right side of the windshield as the truck came at them. Vree screamed inside her mind—there was no time for anything else.
The world inside the Sorento rippled like disturbed pond water while the green and white truck with yellow running lights passed through the SUV.
A buzzing sound came with it, as though thousands of bees had flown through the SUV.
Cold wind blew at Vree while she waited for death.
It did not come.
The rippling air and buzzing noise stopped.
Vree listened to the ticking and rattle of the Sorento’s engine, to her sister’s tinny music, and to the hammering of blood rushing past her ears.
“Did you see that?” she tried to say to Dave and her mom, but her voice refused to work.
They still sat at the light, her mom waiting for it to change. The white-haired woman still leaned against the wall at Sam’s Pub and smoked her cigarette. The red beady eyes were gone.
The light turned green.
“Wait,” Vree said when Karrie began easing the vehicle into the intersection. Something terrible was going to happen. A chill ran between her shoulder blades.
“Stop the car,” Vree cried out. “Please stop the car.”
Karrie stopped the SUV and turned in her seat. “What’s wrong?” she asked. Fear mixed with the exhaustion and sweat on her face.
The semi—the one Vree had seen in her mind—passed by. Vree turned and watched it go. A car horn sounded from behind the SUV. Vree faced front and saw the familiar look of frustration cross her mom’s face.
“Do you want to drive the rest of the way?” Karrie asked Vree.
Dave and Amy snickered and Vree lowered her head, away from her family’s stares. The Sorento’s engine stalled for a moment before it roared to life and the SUV leaped and turned safely through the intersection.
Vree shut her eyes, caught her breath, and held back a sob. For several minutes, she tried to make sense of what she had seen—or thought she had seen. Her mind replayed over and over the red eyes, the woman smoking, and the vision of the semi passing through them before the real semi came and passed by safely.
But none of the strange things that happened made any sense.
“Hey-hey, girly-o, look at the bright side,” the familiar voice of her subconscious said. “You saw a future event and were able to save everybody.”
“Whatever,” Vree grumbled.
She opened her eyes and saw her mother pull over and park the SUV beneath a giant maple tree along a residential street. Outside her window, past a wide sidewalk and a manicured sprawling green lawn, a single-story yellow brick and tinted glass building sat a hundred feet away and sprawled in sharp angles across the lawn.
“Where are we?” she asked after Dave happily announced he saw a baseball field beyond some far trees.
“My alma mater,” Karrie said, “though looking a lot different than I remember.” She beamed at the place and gushed forth memories of attending school there; of how simpler and happy her life had been all those years ago, but how complicated her hormonal and societal life had been as well. Ridgewood High was a place where she had made friends and then lost most of them after graduation, college, marriage, her career, and raising a family. “And now I’m back to teach the children of parents I went to school with.”
Vree, Dave, and Amy heard for the first time how nervous and excited their mother was to be teaching there.
Vree felt strangely assured that her mother would become someone important here. And so would Dave and Amy.
“You’ll be a great teacher, Mom,” Dave said, echoing Vree’s thoughts as Karrie took one more wistful look at the school, then drove away from the place and headed the Erickson family once more toward their new home.
KARRIE DROVE TO the north side of Ridgewood, to a highway that ran steep to a hilltop where large anvil-shaped clouds choked the northwest sky. Sunlight shone in rays around the clouds, and where it touched the earth of woods and fields of barley and knee-high corn, it colored the land in ripeness.
At the highway’s hilltop stop sign and intersection, a reddish-brown horse pulled a black Amish buggy slowly past them, clopping along the country blacktop as though it and the bearded old man in the buggy needed witnessed and appreciated.
Vree’s frown softened while she looked out at a world so very different from the one she had left behind one hundred miles away. Gentler sunlight fell across her window and bathed her face. She heard bees buzzing again, but they sounded far away.
“It’s okay,” Charles said to her. “The sound won’t hurt you.”
His voice seemed to come from the seat occupied by Amy, who still listened to music on her iPod; she had her eyes closed and kept time to the music by bobbing her head.
Is that really you, Daddy?
Vree relaxed at the sound of Charles’s pleasant voice coming to her on the sound of bees buzzing.
“Your mother is worried,” he said. “The house you’re going to is new to her. And … well, she’s afraid of the future.”
Afraid? Vree swallowed. She watched her mom stare in the direction the buggy had gone. Is that why we’re sitting here at this intersection and not going anywhere?
“Yes. And because this part of Myers Ridge is unfamiliar to her. But it will be okay. Trust me. You need to tell her which way to go.”
But I don’t know where we’re going.
“Yes you do. When the lightning struck you, it changed you. You can do anything you put your mind to.”
He had spoken these words to her before; she didn’t remember when.
She watched her mom tap her fingers against the GPS unit in the dashboard. When Dave asked if everything was okay, she told him that the unit had stopped working and that she didn’t remember if she needed to turn right or left.
“Turn left, Mom,” Vree said. Somehow, she knew the way. “Grandma and Grandpa’s place is about three miles away on the right.”
“Leave Mom alone,” Dave said. He turned his head and frowned at her. “You’ve never been to Grandma and Grandpa’s new place, so be quiet.”
“I don’t have to be quiet,” Vree said. “And I do too know where their new house is.” She even knew what the house looked like, even though she had never seen pictures of the place or, as Dave had pointed out, had never been to it. But she saw clearly in her mind a white foursquare farmhouse trimmed in blue, with a green and white Mayflower tractor-trailer parked in the driveway.
“Just let Mom drive,” Dave said, turning in his seat far enough so he could glare at Vree. “She knows what she’s doing.
Vree glared back. “I’m just trying to help.”
“No one needs your help.”
“Why can’t you mind your own business and stay outta my life?”
“Why can’t you and Dave stop fighting?” Amy had removed her earbuds and looked annoyed at Vree.
“She started it,” Dave said, “rambling like some crazy person about how she knows the way to Grandma and Grandpa’s new home. I think her accident knocked a few screws loose in her brain.”
“Enough,” Karrie said, turning her attention away from the rise in the road and fixing it on Dave. “Apologize to your sister. Now.”
Dave did but Vree barely heard him. His apology felt meaningless to her. He would always be the oldest and the only male, therefore replacing their father … at least in his mind anyway.
Karrie turned left. Dave remained scowling as he turned back in his seat. Amy returned to her music. And Vree called for Charles in her mind but his presence was gone. She listened for his voice while Karrie drove along a twisting ribbon of blacktop that took them to a long, stone paved driveway on the right that led to a white foursquare farmhouse trimmed in blue and a two-car garage painted to match the house.
Despite Vree’s wishes, Charles’s voice never came to her.
Karrie parked the SUV alongside a green and white Mayflower tractor-trailer that had moved their belongings donated by friends and various charity groups, as well as their meager ones that had survived fire, smoke, and water damage.
The truck reminded Vree of how she had kept her mother from turning into its path downtown.
“When the lightning struck you, it changed you,” Charles had said to her.
So far, she didn’t like anything about her life changing, especially the change of seeing and hearing things that others didn’t.
Still, she unbuckled her seatbelt, slid from her seat and out her door, and stood like a newborn foal on wet asphalt next to the sweet smell of country grass, glad to be out of the SUV.
“Now what?” she asked when Karrie, Dave and Amy got out and looked at their new home.
“It’s not very big,” Dave said.
“It’s big enough for now,” Karrie said. “When your father’s insurance comes, we’ll find a place of our own. Until then, I don’t want to hear any negativity from any of you.”
She crossed the driveway and headed to the house as Grandma Evelyn, a shorthaired, red-haired woman wearing a white blouse, blue jeans and pink tennis shoes, stepped out of the front door and called to them. Karrie climbed the concrete porch steps and stooped to embrace her mother. The plump and rosy-cheeked Evelyn took Karrie by a hand and led her inside. Dave and Amy followed.
Gathering her land legs, Vree followed, too, stopping inside the center of a rectangular living room filled with plush brown and leather furniture on a sea of cream carpeting. She quickly checked the bottom of her purple and white Nike tennis shoes for dirt, saw that they were clean, and breathed a sigh of relief.
She moved out of the way of two men carrying cardboard boxes into the room from a side door. They wore green and white uniforms and moved gracefully over newspaper someone had strewn across the carpet.
Dave and Amy followed the newspaper into the dining room and beyond while Vree stood in the living room, uncertain of her role until Karrie entered from the dining room, shooed her upstairs, and told her to find her bedroom and unpack any of her boxes that may be there.
Vree climbed the squeaky but polished wooden stairs slowly and discovered that the first room at the top contained Dave’s secondhand bed and nightstand that Karrie had purchased at Goodwill. The room was smaller than his old one. A lot smaller. And it was wallpapered in pink and white roses on a blue background. A smile threatened to curl the corners of her mouth.
Oh, well … SOL, dear brother … what are you gonna do?
Down the hall, she passed another small bedroom. This one had cream-colored wallpaper with blue floral and butterfly patterns on it. A dismantled queen-size bed lay on the cream-colored carpet inside. A tall, thin man wearing a black T-shirt and brown coveralls stood at the walk-in closet with a screwdriver. He had bushy but well-groomed gray hair, frowning brown eyebrows, serious looking brown eyes, and an upturned nose above a pinched mouth on a clean-shaven face.
Jack Lybrook stopped working a screw in the doorframe and asked, “Will you help me lift this door?”
Vree sidestepped past cardboard boxes and lifted the wooden door until her grandfather told her to stop.
“Thank you, um … are you Amy or Verawenda?” Jack said, squinting at her a moment while he turned another screw to adjust the track of the closet door. “You two look so much alike.”
“I’m Verawenda, the blonde one.”
“Yes, of course.” Jack finished turning the screw. He rolled the door back and forth on its track. “How was your trip?” he asked. “Uneventful, I hope. Your mom says it’s time to trade in that van of hers.”
“It was hot the whole way without the AC. Mom tried to call you at our last stop for drinks, but no one answered.”
Jack grunted. “Phone reception is lousy here,” he said. “All of Myers Ridge, for that matter, depending how the wind blows,” he added, “ever since that sinkhole appeared at my farm and forced your grandmother and me to move.”
A noise at the open window next to them kept Vree from asking what a sinkhole had anything to do with phones. She looked and saw that someone had erected an aluminum extension ladder. A boy in a white T-shirt appeared and caulked the top of the window. He was almost featureless behind the gossamer film of dust on the glass, but Vree could tell he was good looking.
Jack went to the window screen and said to the boy, “I’ll pay you an extra twenty if you wash all the dirt off these windows when you’re done caulking. I have glass cleaner and towels in a box on the workbench in the garage.”
The boy rubbed dirt from the glass with his fingers and peered in. He had an unclouded, intelligent looking face, although caulk marked his high forehead and the left side of his slender nose. He glanced at Vree from beneath a head of thick, burnt sienna hair, and looked to be her age or a little older.
“Yes sir,” he said. His full lips thinned as he grinned at Jack.
Jack broke Vree’s attention from the boy as he excused himself and headed for the stairs. When he stopped and turned back, she saw a thoughtful look cross his dark brown eyes.
“Your mother tells me that you like to paint pictures,” he said.
She felt her cheeks flush. “I dabble,” she said. “I’m not that good.”
“She says you’re very good.”
Vree raised an eyebrow. “My mom really said that?”
“Says you’re very talented.”
Vree heard the boy descend the ladder. She glanced at the empty window.
“His name is Lenny Stevens,” Jack said, nodding at the window. “I bought this house from his father, the high school art teacher. They live up the road.”
Vree turned back to her grandfather and asked, “His dad is an artist?”
“When he’s not teaching it. Both he and Lenny are very good at drawing animals.”
Vree returned her attention to the window and heard the aluminum ladder quiet. Then she heard her grandfather clear his throat.
“Anyway,” Jack said, “I set up your easel next to the north window of your bedroom. I’ve heard north light is ideal.”
Vree looked around and saw no easel.
“You and your sister have the attic,” Jack said when Vree asked where her bedroom was at. “Your grandmother fixed it up pretty. I think you girls will really like it.”
“Is it as pretty as Dave’s room?”
Jack smiled and winked. “Prettier,” he said. He turned and headed to the stairs once more.
Vree went to the window and watched Lenny on the ground below. He hiked up the waist of his khaki pants and looked up. Their gazes met for a second before he moved the ladder to the next window. Vree went to that window and waited at the screen.
When his face did not appear, she looked down and saw that he was gone.
“Good grief,” she mumbled, “get ahold of yourself. He’s just a boy.” She went to the hall and found the doorway of the attic stairs. Someone had removed the door and taken it away, along with the hinges and strike plate from the doorjamb.
So much for privacy, she thought.
As she climbed the squeaky wooden steps and entered the middle of a vast A-frame loft, she smelled fresh paint. Someone—probably her grandmother—had painted the A-frame ceiling pink and the floor lavender. The stairs and a pink throw rug at the top separated the loft and divided the room. Her artist’s easel, which survived the fire because it had been in her garage studio, sat in front of the tall window on the right. Her Goodwill bed sat to the right of the window and her Goodwill dresser to the left. Either the movers or her grandparents had set her box of paints and brushes on her Goodwill desk and the black plastic and metal chair next to the dresser. Lavender curtains—not from Goodwill, she hoped—hung at both sides of the window.
Vree looked out the window and down at the road. Something moved in the dark green shadows of bushes and young trees on the other side. She tried to see what sort of animal foraged there when someone knocked at the attic door.
Before she turned from the window, a pair of beady red eyes peered from the shadows. With a gasp, she took a step back. When she looked again, she saw no red eyes peering at her.
The person below knocked again at the door.
Vree left the window and looked down the stairs. Lenny Stevens knocked at her door one more time.
“I came to introduce myself,” he said and introduced himself from the bottom landing.
He looked puzzled when Vree told him her name.
“Your grandmother called you Verawenda,” he said.
“Vree’s a nickname from my initials: VRE.”
“I see. So, do I call you Vree or Verawenda?”
“Vree will do.”
Lenny smiled and asked to enter.
“Oh, good grief,” Vree said, though not too unkindly. “Just come on up already.”
VREE LOOKED AROUND for her box of pre-stretched canvases when Lenny entered. She saw it next to Amy’s Gibson acoustic guitar (her electric one burned in the fire) on the other side of the room, so she skirted past him and retrieved the box.
Lenny still stood at the top of the stairs, looking around at the room.
“I used to play up here when I was a little kid,” he said as he stepped aside and let her pass. He followed her to the desk where she unpacked the canvases. “This was my fort, my pirate ship, my galactic spaceship, and even the Temple of Doom mines from Indiana Jones. I had maps and all kinds of drawings taped to the ceiling.”
Vree sorted her canvases by size while she listened to him talk about his early childhood spent playing in the attic, as though it had happened a long time ago. His friendliness toward her along with his willingness to share his past relaxed her. And he made her laugh when he told her that he had buried treasure in the floor.
“Seriously,” he said. He went to Amy’s side of the room and got on his hands and knees, inspecting the floor. “The new paint has sealed the loose floorboards, but I sometimes stashed my allowance beneath the floor, along with bits of silver and gold Gumpa gave me … and my GI Joes and Hot Wheels cars.”
“You hid money, silver and gold up here?”
“Just the stuff that fell from my pockets … and the toys I didn’t want to lose.” He peered up at her. “You have a knife or scissors?”
Vree fetched an X-Acto knife from her box of art supplies. Lenny carefully took it from her, extracted the blade, and cut at the seams of paint around a board. Vree watched and wondered what lay beneath.
“So, why did you and your parents move?” she asked. “This seems like a really nice place for a country home.”
“We never lived here. This was my grandparents’ home until Gumpa died. Gam Gam moved in with us until she died last year.”
“I’m so sorry,” Vree said.
“Don’t be. They’re still here in spirit.”
Vree raised her eyebrows. “You see their spirits?”
Lenny laughed. “Of course not … don’t be silly. I meant figuratively. They still live in my memories.”
He stopped cutting and said, “But I have seen my great-grandfather’s ghost. It happens every year around this time at the property next door. He used to live there a long time ago. Do you wanna see?”
“The property or his ghost?”
Vree shook her head. “No thanks.”
“It’s nothing to be afraid of,” Lenny said quickly. He looked away from Vree, glanced at the floor, and coughed.
Vree noticed his body had tensed. She said nothing. But she wondered why his mood had changed.
When Lenny’s shoulders dropped and he returned to cutting at the paint, she relaxed.
Lenny used the blade to lift the board until he could grasp it with his fingers. He lifted the wood and said, “Voila!”
Vree tried to peer inside but Lenny blocked her view as he reached inside. The space was deep enough to swallow his entire arm. He grunted and withdrew a book larger than her largest coffee table art books. Its dusty cover was black, hard leather, and its pages were askew.
“I forgot I had this,” he said.
“What is it?” Vree knelt next to the book and looked for a title. There was none, even after Lenny blew away some of the dust, which made her sneeze.
“I found it one day while playing up here. It’s filled with numbers and strange figures, like a secret code.” He pulled a loose page from the book. The page was thick and yellow; someone had written numbers and figures on it with a quill pen. He ran a finger over the page. “The whole book is like this. None of it makes sense, but I thought it was pretty neat.” He set the book and page aside and rummaged inside the floor for more treasure.
Vree picked up the page. The numbers and figures shifted and coalesced into letters that became words.
The transformation startled her and made her dizzy. She closed her eyes and told herself that she wasn’t crazy, that she was okay, that
The lightning did something to me.
“It changed you,” her father had said.
She took a deep breath, told herself again that she was okay, and looked at the page.
“Free the dancers of truth so that you may know their poetry,” she read aloud.
Lenny ignored her while he continued rummaging.
She opened the book.
“It’s poetry and something else,” she whispered after some of the numbers and figures on every page she turned to became words. She sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor, placed the book on her lap, and read while Lenny extracted money, toys, and comic books from his old hiding place.
Ten pages into the book, one poem stood out from the others.
Born from lightning on edges of flame
She finds herself in the heat of shame
The last of three born in the city
She travels far the path of pity.
Her dead father lives in the distance
Gone from her life of false existence
Only in truth is she noumenon
Who gives her life to save Roualen.
“Do you know what the word noumenon means?” she asked Lenny.
He looked up from skimming the pages of a Batman comic book.
“Noumenon?” He shrugged. “I remember it as a spelling word at school, but … oh, wait. It’s something not tarnished by perception, like how things really are no matter how we think they are. The word was on my English final from studying philosophy last year. We had some tough subjects to learn, but I managed to pass with a B.”
Vree looked again at the poem. “Only in truth is she not tarnished by perception,” she said.
Lenny peered at the page of numbers and strange figures.
“Are you reading that?” he asked.
Vree ignored him and asked if he knew who or what Roualen was. But no sooner had she said the word, a memory struck her. The words came to her in a shout, as they had downtown.
Can it see row ellens?
She shuddered at its ferocity, and from the memory of seeing two beady red eyes staring at her from the shadow at Sam’s Pub—and from the shadows across the road outside her window.
She nearly screamed when a toy red Ferrari sports car struck against one of her tennis shoes.
She glared at the intrusion, but Lenny didn’t seem to notice.
“I used to have a track that went all over this room,” he said to her. “Roll that Hot Wheels back to me and I’ll show you the Trans Am that won almost all my races.”
Vree picked up the Ferrari. Dizziness and the buzzing sound of bees overwhelmed her.
She closed her eyes and waited for the moment to pass. When it did, she opened her eyes and saw—
The sun had set. Twilight made it difficult to see detail along the side of the road where her car sat. The dark red LeSabre had a flat tire and she knew she would be late to her son’s birthday party. She had managed to jack up the front of the car and remove two of the five lug nuts holding the tire to its wheel. But the other three wouldn’t budge no matter how hard she wrenched on them. She shook the can of WD-40, sprayed them again, then stood from her crouch at the edge of the road and waited for the smelly grease to do its magic.
The flat was on the driver’s side and that meant she had to work partly in the road. She looked up and down the empty highway and listened for the sound of any approaching traffic. The fields of countryside brush were quiet around her. She pushed her bangs from her eyes and knelt again next to the tire, resting her knees against a blue plastic tarp she had found in the trunk. She brushed away some dirt from her black pantyhose and the hem of her navy blue skirt, and pulled again at a large piece of amber glass from the tire. This time it came out. She replayed in her mind the sound of the beer bottle exploding under the weight of the tire. She hadn’t seen it until the last second before driving over it.
She looked up and down the road for any oncoming traffic. The fading sunlight behind the thicket of trees on the car’s passenger side made her nervous. She headed back to the trunk to find the road flares. She had set the spare tire on the ground next to an oversized box wrapped in blue and white HAPPY BIRTHDAY paper near a ditch of still water. Green scum had collected on the water’s stagnant surface and she thought she could make out the mostly submerged bulging eyes of a frog. It made her think of snakes, so she high-stepped her black high heels away from the car. She could hunt and field dress any wildlife, but she couldn’t stand being around snakes.
She thought about trying to call her husband again, but she knew the phone wouldn’t work. So she returned to the gaping trunk and looked inside for the box of flares.
She heard the sound of an approaching vehicle behind her.
She stood up and looked.
She bent over the box and heard the sound again.
She stood up again and looked.
Again, she neither saw nor heard any approaching vehicle.
She brushed at her bangs and saw the false nail had broken from her right thumb—a chubby right thumb. All her fingers were chubby. So were her hands and arms … and the rest of her as far as she could see.
She had never been thin. But she had always been pretty. And tonight, she wanted Howard to see she could look sexy. After their son’s party and the kids were in bed, she had a special present for him, which was still in the black plastic bag next to the German chocolate birthday cake on the backseat.
She brushed away a fly that had landed on the breast of her yellow blouse. Then she scanned the ground, hoping to see her missing blue nail.
Behind her, a dog howled nearby.
Another dog joined in. Then another until there was a chorus of howls coming at her.
She looked at the road and saw a Rottweiler sitting on the median. It vanished as an engine roared behind her.
She spun around to see a white van come fast over the crest of hill and at her. And she wondered why it was partly off the road and not pulling into the next lane to go around her when it slammed into her.
Margga was her final thought.
The crash sent the frog to the bottom of the ditch water and spooked a pair of sparrows from their perch on the telephone wires above.
VREE DID NOT feel the impact of the large grille crush the woman’s body and kill her instantly, but she did see the woman and parts of the car and van fly in pieces across the country highway. She even saw the driver fly through the shattered windshield and cartwheel into the field like some twirling rag doll, expelling blood and body parts along with loose change and bits of clothing into the patches of goldenrod, buffalo bur, nettle, and bindweed.
She shut the book with a bang, put it down, and stood and crossed the room. Too many weird things had happened to her since awakening from her coma. She closed her eyes and pictured her father coming to her, telling her she was okay.
His gentle face had formed in her mind when a floorboard squeaked at the stairs and Grandma Evelyn entered the room.
“I hope you girls will like what I’ve done to this room,” she said, resting her smiling gaze on Vree’s face. She carried a white plastic basket of folded clothes in front of her, which she handed to Vree. “Your mother says these will fit you. I know they’re secondhand, but they’re like new and washing up nicely.”
Vree peered at T-shirts, jeans, socks and underwear she didn’t recognize and thanked her grandmother despite the creepy feeling she got from knowing that strangers once wore the clothes.
“Your grandfather is putting up more clotheslines and I’m beginning dinner,” Evelyn said. “I hope you’re hungry.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Vree asked.
“No, no. Dave and Amy are helping. I want you to rest. You’ve been through a terrible ordeal.” Evelyn’s green, sorrowful eyes scanned Vree’s face as she peered at the girl. “How are you feeling? Your mother says you’re not sleeping well and you’ve been talking in your sleep.”
Vree’s face heated. Lenny was in the room, listening. She saw him sitting motionless. He was probably hoping Grandma Evelyn wouldn’t turn around and see the removed floorboard.
“Dr. Jarvis says it’s a normal reaction after something traumatic happening,” Vree said. When she realized she would never see her family doctor again, she added, “That’s what he said, anyway. It’ll pass.”
Evelyn’s gaze remained fixed. “Have you had any bad dreams, or any visions while awake?”
Vree balked to answer the question. She looked at Lenny who stared at her, his expression filled with anticipation.
Evelyn turned and peered at Lenny, the childhood treasure on the floor, and the removed floorboard.
“My old hiding spot,” Lenny told her. When she did not reply, he said, “I’ll put the board back right away, Mrs. Lybrook.”
“Good idea,” Evelyn said. “And make sure it isn’t loose. Nail it down if you have to. No one needs to break any ankles.” She turned to Vree. “We’ll talk later. For now, though, put away your clothes and return the basket when you’re able.”
“I’m fine, Grandma. Seriously. And I’d really like it if you’d let me help.”
Evelyn looked thoughtful. “I suppose I could have you pick some blueberries,” she said. Then, to Lenny, “Go with her and show her where the ripe ones are at.”
Lenny nodded. “I will, Mrs. Lybrook. I know right where to look. It was Gam Gam’s favorite spot,” he said, looking melancholic for a moment.
Vree smiled upon hearing his pet names for his grandparents again. She couldn’t imagine calling her mom’s parents anything but Grandpa and Grandma. And her dad’s parents, who lived in Charleston, West Virginia and were lawyers, were Grandfather and Grandmother Erickson, and nothing else.
“But help her unpack first and be quick,” Evelyn said to Lenny. “I’d like to eat before five.” She studied Vree’s face once more. “We’ll talk later, just us girls, when we have some time alone,” she said before descending the stairs.
Vree put away the clothes while Lenny returned most of his childhood treasure. He kept out the comic books and the book of poetry. He took the latter to Vree.
“You were reading this,” he said.
Vree bristled at his accusation and shut her drawer extra hard. “I simply looked and the words were there. Is that okay with you?”
Lenny blinked and stepped away from her. “I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said. “I just thought that … maybe because of … well, here.” He held out the book. “It’s yours if you want it.”
Vree looked at the offering for a moment before she accepted it.
“Sorry,” she said. “It freaked me out that I could understand the numbers and figures inside. I didn’t mean to get angry.”
“It’s okay. And it’s really awesome you can read it … whatever it is.”
“Poetry? Why would someone write poetry in cipher?” Lenny shrugged. “I thought it was a book of codes, something top secret.” He looked at Vree, impressed. “So, what’s the key?”
“The key to the cipher. You know … the key that told you what the words meant.”
“I dunno.” Vree set the book on her dresser. “They just made sense to me, that’s all.”
“Well, I’m like ‘wow’,” Lenny said. The smile and admiration on his face beamed volumes at her. “So, let’s get you unpacked so we can pick blueberries.”
Vree paused. No boy had ever taken a liking to her so quickly. His seemingly genuine interest in her made her cast timid glances at him while he retrieved all the boxes with her name scrawled on them in black marker. Finally, she joined him at her dresser where he opened a small box that held the birthday gift of DVDs she had received and opened the day after awakening in the hospital.
“I love these,” he said, taking out the first two movies. He held Casablanca in one hand, Citizen Kane in the other, and looked at Vree with admiration on his face. “My mom got me interested in the classics when I was really young.”
“For me, it was my dad,” Vree confessed. “When I replace my Blu-ray player and TV that burned up in the fire, maybe we can watch them … together.”
“That’d be great,” Lenny said. His eyes glazed with a faraway look for a moment. Then, he looked at Vree, his cheeks flushing. “Except, nothing electronic here ever works right. TV, radios, telephones … even video games. Some kind of electronic interference on the ridge, ever since that sinkhole appeared at your grandfather’s old farm.”
Vree studied Lenny’s face closely, looking for the slightest sign that he was kidding her. His look remained sincere.
“From a sinkhole?” she asked.
“Yep. Some scientists and professors from the university at New Cambridge came in April to look at the thing, but I never heard if they figured out what’s inside that’s causing the interference.”
“So why doesn’t someone fill in the hole?”
“Your grandfather started to, but that sucker is deep. Plus, it keeps widening and swallowing more property. He lost most of his cornfield last summer. And with his dairy business losing money over the years and the bank foreclosing on the farm, he finally sold his cattle and farm equipment to pay the bank and buy this house from my dad.”
Vree took in the information, all of it new to her.
“So what do you think is down there that would cause electronic interference?” she asked.
“No idea. But when it rains, like when there’s lightning, it glows green inside. I saw it happen a few times when I helped plow the cornfield; it creeped me out every time.”
“That sounds like fluorescent minerals glowing because of the lightning … maybe sodalite or fluorite.”
Lenny shook his head. “No, whatever’s down there is emitting energy of some kind that’s converting to light.”
“You mean radioactive energy?”
Their conversation stalled until Vree said, “Well, there’s always regular TV to watch.”
“There’s no cable on Myers Ridge,” Lenny said, “and satellite dish out here gets poor reception. Plus, your grandfather sold his TV before he bought this house from my dad.”
“Well, that sucks.”
Lenny nodded. “But at least there are no sinkholes here,” he said.
“I hope you’re right.”
“I am,” he said matter-of-factly. “My dad says it’s due to the underground mining done on that side of the ridge that ended a century ago. Now, the old mines are caving in and causing sinkholes because of the huge amounts of nickel, silver, and copper that were extracted from the ridge.”
“Is that where the silver and gold you buried in the floor came from?”
“Yeah. A relative of Gumpa’s was a miner. I used to pretend there were mines up here. I even playacted some of the old miners’ tales from books.”
Lenny went to the floorboard, removed it, and fetched an old pad of yellow writing paper. He brought it to her and showed her a crude drawing done in crayon of a tall, humanoid creature that looked like a giant orange and blue anteater standing upright on two long, blue, hairless legs. No hair grew from the top of its bulbous orange head, either, or down its long blue arms to its three-fingered hands. Its orange face had a pair of tiny eyes that were dots drawn with a black crayon, and its nose and mouth were identical to an anteater’s, though the appendage hung past the creature’s chest. A long flagellate tongue protruded from the snout and hung past the creature’s knobby knees.
“That’s a Roualen,” Lenny said when she looked up from the drawing. “They’re a native folklore here, said to be invisible. They live underground and eat bugs and worms. Stories have it that miners would use their burrows and caves as mines. This was during a time before modern machinery, when miners used dynamite. But someone discovered that Roualens love eating sugar, so miners often covered the walls with sugar water before leaving. They would return later to find that the Roualens had dug into the walls to lap up all the sugar, thus safely expanding the size of the mines and unearthing precious ores and minerals in the process. But after a while, they stopped. The miners had to return to using shovel, pickax and dynamite.”
“What happened? Why’d they stop?”
“I dunno. I only know the story from books of local fables at the town library. That’s where I copied this picture from.”
Vree frowned as a realization came to her. “If Roualens are invisible, how does anyone know what they look like?”
“Exactly. For whatever reason, someone with an overactive imagination made them up,” Lenny said. He crossed the room and returned the tablet. Vree’s stomach rumbled with hunger, which caused Lenny to grin.
“We should skip getting you unpacked and go get those blueberries,” he said after he closed the hole.
“Agreed,” Vree said. She followed him downstairs to collect pans from her grandmother. The thought of eating wonderful food replaced her thoughts about the poem, Lenny’s creepy drawing, and weird tales concocted by a bunch of over-imaginative miners.
AT 3:15 P.M., Vree was glad the blueberry patch was behind the house and not far from the back door. Even though the day was sunny and birds sang merrily and flew across the kind of sky summers are famous for, she had read that lightning could strike anywhere and anytime on a clear day.
She paid close attention to the cloudless sky and ignored the shadows in the woods almost fifty yards in front of her. Besides her fear of lightning, she was in no mood to see another pair of red eyes. She stayed close to Lenny, who walked at her side and guided her across the backyard toward an open field of wild grass and weeds.
Along the way, they passed a line of three white, canvas camp tents in front of a square fire pit made of cement blocks.
“The bedrooms aren’t done yet, so your grandfather thought you and your brother and sister would enjoy sleeping outside,” Lenny explained.
“Sweet,” Vree said. Then, “Where’s your tent?” she asked.
Lenny shrugged and looked wistful, as if something troubled him. “I can’t tonight. It’s my birthday … my dad has other plans.”
“Happy birthday,” Vree said. “How old?”
“I know. Your grandparents already told me.”
“I hope you and your dad have a good time tonight.” This time, Vree looked wistful while she and Lenny entered the field.
“Where are the blueberry bushes?” she asked, looking around when they stopped.
“We’re standing in them.”
She looked down at clumps of both ripe, plump, light-blue blueberries, and unripe, tiny green and white ones. Following Lenny’s instructions, she knelt low to the ground and picked only from healthy, full bushes that were in direct sunlight. She ate some of the ripe berries, of course, which tasted sweeter than any her mom bought at the store, and she soon forgot about scary lightning and red eyes.
She had her pan almost filled when she heard a cat meowing. An orange, mangy tabby ran to her and rubbed its body back and forth against her knees, purring loudly. Vree hesitated to pet the cat. Pus oozed from its closed right eye, which the cat rubbed repeatedly against her pants.
The cat was definitely malnourished and sick, and its cries were steady and weak. Its body trembled.
“You poor thing,” Vree said, still hesitant to touch the animal. “Would you like me to get you some milk? My cat loved milk. His name was Mr. Whiskers because he had long whiskers. But he died when lightning burned down our home.”
The cat had quit rubbing its sore eye and now looked at Vree with its healthy yellow-green one. It still trembled and meowed pitifully.
“I’m sorry you’re so sick. I wish there was something I could do to make you better.”
You can do anything you put your mind to.
She ignored the memory, turned to Lenny, and saw him stooped low and picking berries at the far edge of the patch, thirty yards away. She wanted to ask him if there was a vet on Myers Ridge, but the sound and sight of the cat running from her kept her from calling out.
She watched the cat disappear into the field at the edge of the woods before she returned to picking a few more berries. The cat was likely a stray and would be back. Maybe her mom or grandparents would drive her and the cat to the vet. She still had her birthday money, which she could use to pay toward the visit. Maybe they would let her keep the cat when it was in better health.
Satisfied with the amount of berries in her pan, she turned again to Lenny.
The sound of bees buzzing fell on her and made her dizzy. She braced herself with an outstretched arm and waited for the sound to stop.
When her head cleared, she looked at Lenny and saw a tall creature with an orange head and blue arms and legs standing next to him, its back to her.
Afraid to move, she watched.
The creature stood still and watched Lenny pick berries.
Vree swallowed the lump in her throat.
Is that a Roualen?
She debated whether to call out, to warn Lenny of—
It didn’t look threatening.
She remained motionless while she watched it observe Lenny scampering from bush to bush, putting ripe berries in his pan. Suddenly, the creature stumbled, dropped to its knees, and fell forward into some bushes. Lenny continued picking berries, apparently unaware of what had happened.
Vree watched and waited, but the creature lay motionless face down in the blueberry patch while Lenny kept busy picking berries, moving away from it.
The buzzing sound returned like a sudden scream for a second. Then it quieted, but not completely. It shifted to somewhere right of her. She turned in that direction and wound up looking at a pair of blue, leathery knees inches away from her face. She emitted a small screech that should have been a scream as she recoiled, both startled and frightened. She landed hard on her backside. Berries from her pan scattered to her lap and the ground. She looked up at the face of the creature Lenny had called a Roualen. Her breath and the voice she tried using to call for help felt locked in her chest.
Beady, bright red eyes like the ones she had seen across the road and downtown, looked down at her from an orange leathery face with an anteater snout for a nose and mouth, just as Lenny’s drawing had depicted.
“Don’t hurt me,” Vree managed to say.
The buzzing stopped. A sudden voice similar to the one downtown entered her mind.
Vree swallowed. She nodded when she realized the creature had spoken to her. “Yes. I see.” Her voice cracked. She cleared her throat and caught her breath. “I see you.”
Vree winced from the panic in the creature’s tone.
“Yes, I see,” she said again.
You see Sarlic?
“Your name is Sarlic?”
She thought she heard it squeal as it turned and loped away from her. When she stood, she saw it turn and look over a shoulder at her before it quickened its pace and hurried through the blueberry field and into the woods where the trees and brush were thick and dark and hid the creature from her.
She turned back to her fallen berries, scooped up the pan, and hurried to Lenny, not looking at the fallen creature on the ground along the way. She was sure it was a disgusting Roualen creature, so she gave it a wide berth, certain it would leap at her if she got close.
“I saw your Roualens,” she said when Lenny looked up at her. “Next time, use a red crayon for its eyes instead of a black one.” She tossed down the pan, scattering more berries, and spun and headed toward the back door, leaving him watching her, a frown and confused look chiseling his face and brow.
She was almost to the door when he caught up and stepped in front of her. He had left behind his pan of blueberries, so he had his hands up, turning the palms toward her.
“Wait. Whaddaya mean you saw Roualens?”
She saw his stained fingers and thought of the creatures’ blue leathery skin.
“I’d rather not talk—”
“But how is that possible?” he asked.
She stepped back and sputtered, “Well, it is … and it was just there, looking down at me with two red, unhuman eyes.” She scanned the woods, looking to see if it peered out at her. The other one still lay face down in the blueberry patch.
Why didn’t it move?
“Roualens are a myth, just like Bigfoot,” Lenny said.
Vree looked away from the fallen Roualen and pressed her face closer to Lenny’s. “Well, someone must have seen one or you wouldn’t have a drawing of it copied from a book, now would you?” She brushed past him and went inside, letting the wooden screen door slam shut behind her.
“Lenny’s bringing the berries,” she said to the quizzical looks she received when she passed her mom and grandmother in the bright yellow kitchen. “I’m taking a shower,” she added and held up her stained hands, “if that’s okay.”
“That’s fine, honey,” Evelyn said from in front of the large white stove. “But you’ll want to wait until the last load of laundry is done washing. Our pump can handle only one job at a time.”
“But what about my hands?”
“I already have a solution for that.” Evelyn went to Vree and guided her to the kitchen’s aluminum sink. “Cornmeal, toothpaste and lemon juice works wonders on blueberry stains.” She scooped with her fingers a yellowish paste from a ceramic cereal bowl on the windowsill and rubbed it on Vree’s hands. “Just let this sit for a few minutes, then wash it off with warm water.”
Evelyn wiped the paste from her own hands with a dishtowel and returned to the stove where silver pots of cubed potatoes, kernels of corn and leafy spinach boiled, stewed and simmered. Karrie stood to the right and stirred the corn with a wooden spoon. Her shoulders slouched and Vree knew she was exhausted after their long drive. Vree turned on the water to wash her hands so she could relieve her mother when Amy stepped from the washroom at the right of the stove and stopped at Karrie’s side.
“I can do that, Mom,” Amy said. “You should sit and relax after our long drive. Maybe take a nap.” She embraced her mother, took the stirring spoon from her, and turned her attention to the pots on the stove. Karrie stretched and released a yawn before heading in the direction of the living room.
“You’re a sweet girl,” Evelyn said to Amy.
“With Dad not around, I do what I can to help.”
Vree quietly mimicked her sister’s words, scowled out the window above the sink, and watched Lenny trudge from the blueberry patch, carrying the two pans of berries. The Roualen still lay in the patch.
Why doesn’t it move?
She told herself she didn’t care. It wasn’t normal that she could see these creatures when no one else could.
She washed the paste from her hands, dried them on Evelyn’s dishtowel, and hurried and met Lenny at the screen door.
“Not a word to anyone about what happened,” she said through the screen.
“Not a word about what?” Jack Lybrook asked as he stepped into view and stood beside Lenny. He carried a coil of clothesline around a shoulder and held a half-eaten sandwich on wheat bread. The smell of mustard and onion wafted through the screen.
Vree stepped away from the door. “Nothing,” she said sheepishly to her grandfather who peered in at her. “I … I spilled some of the blueberries and they got dirty.”
“Well, your grandmother will give those berries a good cleaning and rinsing. You can count on that,” Jack said before he proceeded toward the side yard and nearest T-post of clothesline. Someone had hung a colorful display of shirts and pants to dry on the two lines there.
As Jack began adding more line, Lenny coughed and drew Vree’s attention to him.
“Are you gonna let me in?” he asked as he held up the two pans of blueberries.
Vree opened the door and let him inside.
“I mean it,” she said. She stood in front of him and blocked his way to the kitchen. “I don’t want anyone else to know about what I saw. You got it?”
She glared at him.
“Okay. I got it. Not a word.” Lenny brushed past her and entered the kitchen.
Vree looked out at the woods where the Roualen had run to get away from her.
“I don’t ever want to see you again,” she said.
SARLIC WAITED INSIDE the woods until the human activity ceased outside the house. The planet’s lone sun neared the third degree of the evening sky when the Roualen went to Yetka’s lifeless body. Sarlic turned the body over, switched off the dual amber lights of Yetka’s visor, and studied the breathing tube that had protected Yetka from the planet’s poisonous diatomic gas. By outward appearances, the tube looked undamaged, though it would require a thorough inspection inside the ship.
Sarlic made sure Yetka’s cloaking device still functioned. Then he dutifully recorded Yetka’s death into his log unit situated inside his own breathing and feeding tube. With a flick of a switch, Sarlic spoke again, broadcasting over his communications device that they had a human seer in their company.
A murmur of concern came over the line and Sarlic waited for it to fade before broadcasting the coordinates of the seer’s dwelling and telling them to stay away. Sarlic did not mention that Yetka was dead.
Finished with the transmission, Sarlic lifted his friend by hooking two long appendages around Yetka’s shoulders and knees, and carried the dead Roualen in his arms. Sarlic aimed toward the ship buried deep below Myers Ridge. The walk and the descent would be long and grueling on the Roualen’s aging back. Five hundred and eight earth years of waiting for his home planet to respond to the ship’s distress signal had meant Sarlic lived a hypoactive life. Very few Roualens lived more than eight hundred years. The original crew had perished long ago, procreating children who begat more children, leaving behind history logs of their ordeal on a strange planet with stranger inhabitants.
As he headed away from the Lybrook house, Sarlic wondered about the extremely young human female who was able to see through the Roualen cloaking field. Only three humans—all of them female, but in the latter stages of life—had been able to see through the cloak. And all had caused the Roualens’ breathing tubes to malfunction. The last event had killed nearly a hundred Roualens. No one knew why the tubes failed. But Sarlic was sure the disembodied spirit of the last murderer could shed light on the matter.
The problem, of course, would be dealing with the volatile creature. Nothing was scarier on Earth than the transcendental remains of a mentally unbalanced human.
Perhaps the better solution was a direct approach. After disposing Yetka’s body and holding a rite of passage with Yetka’s family, Sarlic could return quietly to the house and place a grenade under the girl’s bed. The explosion would kill the girl and everyone in the house and solve the problem. But Roualen law forbade killing intelligent creatures. And despite the intermediate areas humans fell under, Roualen council had determined them intelligent nevertheless.
Sarlic’s visor recorded his stress while he hefted Yetka’s body and hoped the girl would cause no more deaths.
A disturbance at the narrow brook between the Lybrook house and the field where Myers Mansion once stood turned Sarlic’s gaze to the black Rottweiler that emerged from brushwood across the brook. Behind the dog stepped the ghost of the old woman who had massacred almost a hundred Roualens. She wore her seventy-year-old death clothes of short denim coveralls over a solid red T-shirt; her long legs were bare and her feet were clad in brown leather sandals.
“Margga,” Sarlic said, turning his back to her. “Look away, enchantress. Your gaze has killed too many.”
“How nice of you to remember me, Sarlic. If you were a spirit, I would kiss you.”
Sarlic remained motionless. He could still breathe.
“I see death still frightens you,” Margga said. “You’re as afraid of me now as you were when I was alive, which excites me. But you needn’t be. I was stripped of my fatal powers when I was put to death and sentenced here.”
“Yes,” Sarlic said, facing Margga, “you are dead according to my sensors. But you come clothed and speaking. How is that possible?”
“I just told you that I was killed and that my soul was sentenced.”
Sarlic said nothing while he tried to understand the meaning of her words.
“That means I’m a ghost, a spirit, a spooky apparition.” Margga shook her head of very short gray-black hair, slightly elevated on the top and neatly styled to the side. A fringe of mostly white hair covered her forehead. She said, “Isn’t there life after death where you come from?”
“I was born here.”
“Then you must know how magic works by now.”
“I only know science.”
“And that’s your downfall, Sarlic. Haven’t you figured that out by now? Magic is stronger than science. Always.”
“Was it magic that you used to kill my people?” The twin lights flashed thrice on Sarlic’s visor.
The Rottweiler growled at Sarlic and Margga grinned large white teeth at the dog.
“His name is Blood,” she said to Sarlic. “He is my ward, one of my hellhounds, a companion for all of eternity.”
Sarlic shifted the weight of Yetka’s body.
“The girl will kill more of your kind,” Margga said, looking at the dead Roualen, “and yes, with magic … more powerful than mine ever was.”
“You sound pleased with our deaths,” Sarlic said.
“You creatures with all your sophisticated technology blame me for something I had no control over.” She shook her head again. “No. I’m not to blame for what happened.”
“You knew you were killing us.”
“Did I?” She batted extra-long eyelashes.
Sarlic looked away. Behind the ghost, large rusty gates and shoulder-high brushwood nearly hid the foundation of her prison—a black cavity inside tangles of weeds and vines that had supplanted the once beautiful bluegrass yard.
“Return to your incarceration, witch, and leave me to tend to matters at hand.”
“And risk you trying to kill the girl as you tried killing me with those useless grenades?” Margga pouted light pink lips. “Like I said, you’re dealing with magic. You need magic to defeat magic.”
“I would rather take my chance with a grenade.”
“You would put yourself on trial with your people again for trying to kill a human? And a child, no less.” She shook her head. “No. You need me. But my spirit is only here until midnight. After that, I’m gone for another year.”
Sarlic’s visor flashed again. “I do not understand.”
“Tonight marks another anniversary of my crimes against Reginald and Cathleen Myers and the day of my death. I am sentenced to return here on this day and apologize to them. But I never will. I abuse their spirits and curse their family. I will see their lineage ended.”
“I do not understand your vengeance.”
“I have my reasons, just as you have yours for wanting the girl dead. But she is powerful.” Her chocolate eyes widened. The stare from them seemed to penetrate Sarlic’s visor. “If I had my spells, I could lure the girl to step onto this property and cast a powerful death spell on her. But I need your help, Roualen. I cannot leave this property. Therefore, I need you to find my book of spells and bring it to me before midnight. Then, both of our problems will be solved.”
Sarlic looked down at Yetka. “I need to bury my friend. Our ritual lasts for three day—”
“You would allow the girl to live another year? How many more of your kind will die before you realize you need me and my magic to stop her?”
Sarlic mulled her offer. Margga had always been a seductress when she was alive, wanting things her way, and always for selfish reasons. And when she discovered she could kill a Roualen by shutting down its breathing apparatus with her mind, she never stopped until the powers that govern death for her kind finally stopped her.
“Why do you care if I or any of my people live?” Sarlic asked.
Margga drew down the corners of her mouth. “I am destined to remain trapped to this hellish death for all of time, so let’s just say it lightens my heart to know I can have fun saving you Roualens from another bout of destruction. Besides, the witch who has killed your friend has many years to live and become much more powerful. Is that the future you want for you and your people?”
Sarlic’s visor blinked. The dead witch presented a good argument about the girl.
“Where can I find your book of spells, Margga?”
Margga puffed out peach colored cheeks. Sarlic cocked his head while his visor’s two red lights flashed rapidly, recording his puzzlement.
Margga exhaled and said, “That’s the rub. It was in this house when I died.”
“You breathe, yet you have no reason to do so. Why?”
Margga scowled at Sarlic. “Pay attention, please. This is important.”
“But I am very curious. I have never observed this aspect of human death before. There is no need for your lungs to take in your planet’s atmosphere.”
“It’s reflex,” Margga said, “though I don’t do it often.” She pointed at the house, at the room that was Jack and Evelyn’s upstairs bedroom. Sarlic’s visor lights stopped flashing. “Focus on what I’m telling you, Roualen. The people who bought the house after I died likely moved the spell book. But I sense it is still there, upstairs, probably packed in a box in someone’s closet, or in a trunk, perhaps in the attic. You must go there, find the book, and bring it to me.”
“Yes.” She ran a thumb across her throat.
“I do not understand,” Sarlic said. “What will happen?”
“The girl will die.”
“And be like you are now?”
“No. Her death will be permanent as long as I have my spells.” She waved a hand in front of Sarlic’s visor. “Listen. Every year Reginald’s ghost and the shadows of his two dogs return here to remind me of the crimes I committed. And Blood chases those stupid mutts around for fun.” She grinned at her hellhound who seemed to grin back. “Along with that quidnunc Cathleen who returns to haunt me with her screams while she relives falling to her death at the cliffs, it’s all quite spectacular to the mortals around here. But if I had my spells, I could end this sideshow once and for all.”
“Very well,” Sarlic said, hefting Yetka again. “I will put Yetka’s body in a maintenance chamber and return in what you call twice hours.”
“You mean two hours.”
“Two hours. Yes.”
“Let the fun begin,” Margga said to Blood, looking pleased as Sarlic left them at the edge of the brook that divided the two properties.
WITH EVERYONE BUSY at the back of the house, Vree excused herself quietly from that area and sat on the front porch swing. The air tasted sweet and was warm on her tongue as she rocked and observed a dark blue house surrounded by evergreen hedges two hundred yards away and across the road.
Lenny entered the porch from the living room and stood to the side of the swing. He pointed at the house. “My dad and sisters and I live there,” he said. “My Gam Gam owned that house and this one until she died and willed them both to my dad.”
Vree sighed and halted the swing. “Why are you following me?” she asked.
“It wasn’t intentional. I kept getting in the way inside the kitchen, so I left. But I didn’t wanna be by myself.”
“So it was intentional.”
Lenny shrugged. “Is it okay if I sit with you?” he asked.
Vree scooted over. “I notice you never talk about your mom,” she said.
As he sat, the wistful look returned for a moment. He shrugged and said, “She died.”
Vree frowned at her decision to be nosey. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. Everyone has something crappy in their lives to deal with. It’s just nice to have friends around when we do.” Lenny stood up and took two sticks of gum in aluminum foil from a back pocket.
Vree accepted one of the pieces of Juicy Fruit when he sat down closer to her. They chewed in silence until she apologized for her behavior at the back door.
“Totally my fault,” Lenny said. “I got overly excited when you told me you saw a Roualen. The most I’ve ever seen is my great-grandfather’s ghost when…” Lenny’s voice trailed off.
He leaned forward, put his forearms across his knees, and stared at the dark blue house. His muscular back and shoulders seemed to harden while he stared.
Lost in a bad memory, Vree thought.
“I hate her,” Lenny said, his voice low and growling. He sat up straight and said, “Sorry. This time of year puts me in a bad mood.”
Vree peered at the side of Lenny’s face, his clenched jaw, and said, “Birthday blues?”
Lenny sighed. Then he chewed his gum and looked thoughtful. “You’re gonna find out about the Night of the Hellhounds sooner or later, so I may as well tell you a few things.”
Vree raised an eyebrow. “Night of the Hellhounds?”
“That’s what some of the locals call it. They’re the ones who’ve seen ghost dogs or heard stories about them running around at the property behind us.”
Vree turned to look at the property behind them. She changed her mind when Lenny began swinging the swing by pushing his feet off the porch floor.
“It began a long time ago, when my great-grandparents mysteriously died,” Lenny said. “My great-grandfather, Reginald Myers, was a famous Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter. He and his wife lived in a big Victorian house at the property next door, before my Gumpa and Gam Gam had it razed.” Lenny put an arm across the back of the swing and behind Vree. She smiled at his gesture. He stopped swinging the swing, fixed his gaze ahead again, and said, “Gam Gam claimed she destroyed the house because she found my great-grandfather and his two hunting dogs frozen inside the house on a sweltering July evening. She also said she found my great-grandmother dead at the bottom of the cliffs on Myers Ridge, at a place called Widow’s Ravine. A witch named Margga killed them.
“Since then, my great-grandfather’s ghost returns on this night. So do the ghosts of his two hunting dogs. But the creepy part is people have seen a third dog—sometimes a fourth and more—all of them black and with red eyes. Gam Gam called them Margga’s hellhounds and told me to always stay away from them.”
Lenny turned and looked at Vree. She saw him studying her, his gaze serious. He waited for a response, she knew, but she found it difficult to speak or move. Her time spent with Lenny got weirder and weirder.
“There’s more,” he said, lowering his voice to almost a whisper. He leaned close. His arm that was draped across the back of the swing touched Vree. Dizziness and the sound of bees buzzing everywhere overwhelmed her. The world around her changed and—
She ran. She ran from the house where she had discovered her husband and his hunting dogs frozen inside the living room. She tried to block the image of how surprised his dead face looked, as though he had realized seconds before his death that he was dying.
She ran across the front lawn, toward Myers Road, stumbling where it connected to the blacktopped driveway, and falling when she entered the old country highway scarred with long grooves made by the metal wheels of Amish buggies. Blood from her nose dripped into one of the tracks and reflected the backlit clouds in a sky that had once been sunny and promising a pleasant night.
The witch’s curse was upon her.
She stood and ran for her life.
Rolling gray clouds blocked the sunlight when she entered the angry field of brambles and thorny weeds that slapped and poked and grabbed at her, scratched her face and forearms, tore away long, black strands of her hair, and slashed her brand new Rayon dress—the blue gray one with lace collar and ivory buttons. The tangled growth grabbed and stole her chunky non-strap pumps, causing her to fall. She hurried upright, glanced back only once at the house, and left behind her shoes as she continued to flee from the witch who lived next door.
She found the path that led to and past the rocky cliffs above Myers Creek. Once she made it beyond Lovers Leap and Widow’s Ravine, the hill would become less steep and lead her to Russell Road and the sheriff’s house. She prayed he would be home. There, she would call her daughter, Adrienne, at New Cambridge’s college campus to come get her and take her away from Ridgewood and Myers Ridge for good.
She was glad Reginald had taught Adrienne how to drive an automobile.
As she approached Lover’s Leap, she saw that it was still fenced in with bars of iron piping; there was little chance of falling. But someone had removed the pipes at the section overlooking Widow’s Ravine. The path came so dangerously close to the edge there. One little slip and she could tumble over the side and fall to the rocky creek below.
That’s when she felt the witch’s presence behind her, and felt the sudden push from right to left, as though a giant invisible hand had brushed her aside like an insect, veering her off course and sweeping her over the edge of Widow’s Ravine.
THE SCREAM IN Vree’s head diminished. The sickness in her stomach did not.
“I need to lie down,” she said, bolting from the swing and charging into the house.
The soles of her tennis shoes pounded against the steps as she hurried up the two flights of stairs to her room.
She would have screamed when she entered had she not been out of breath.
“Daddy?” she managed to say as she stared at her father standing inside her room.
Hot tears filled and rolled from her eyes.
“Is that really you I’m seeing?”
She staggered to the edge of her bed and sat. Charles Erickson’s spirit came and stood at her bedside, looking down at her. His head nearly grazed the slanted ceiling. Vree hadn’t inherited that part of his Nordic features, but she had developed a love for the arts from him.
He looked at the easel, as though he had heard her thoughts. “You haven’t painted anything new since your coma,” he said.
“I haven’t had time.” She swiped at the tears with the backs of her hands and asked, “Why are you here?”
“Do you remember when I told you I can only visit you once in spirit before I have to leave?”
“Well, I have to cross to a higher existence now, baby doll. But before I do, I need to remind you how gifted you are. You’re psychic. You can see and hear things no one else can. That’s never going to change.”
“You’re talking about those Roualens I saw outside.”
“And so much more. You’ll see and hear spirits, like me, or sense them in other ways. You’ll have intuitions and dreams about future events that come to pass, and know what other people are going to say before they say it. Objects around you will sometimes move for no apparent reason, or electrical equipment may malfunction.”
“I don’t wanna be psychic. I wanna be normal. I want things the way they used to before lightning changed everything.”
“We all do. But nothing I know of can change that. Just promise to learn as much as you can about being psychic. There are many books on the subject. And there are many people like you, baby doll … you’re not alone. When you’re feeling down, find the light and be strong when things look darkest. And remember me when you paint your beautiful pictures.”
“Wait,” Vree cried out as Charles’s spirit dulled and vanished.
She closed her eyes and saw him in her mind, waving goodbye and growing smaller.
“Come back,” she said, wishing she could have hugged him one last time.
He spoke to her, but his words were unheard over the hum of bitter emotions coursing through her.
She lost sight of him and wept. Her large tears rolled down her cheeks and dripped to the hands clenched in her lap. She fell back onto her bed, her small self not wanting to face the world beyond her bedroom. She would stay here forever.
CHARLES ERICKSON’S SPIRIT stood atop the highest peak of the Lybrook house. This would be the last time he would see his wife and children within their lifespans.
The white light beyond this dimension called to him.
He listened to the call. But before he started toward it, he thought of Vree and the abilities the lightning had unlocked in her. She would need guidance to harness those abilities, but he knew of no one with her powers. She would have to find that guidance herself.
He regretted that he could not stay and help her. She had always clung to him and made it easy for him to guide her along. They had grown close; her life would be difficult without him. But it would be gentler during her times of need if she stopped living her hours alone.
“Go to your mother, your sister and brother,” he said, directing his words to Vree. He felt her watching him. “Find their love and let it grow inside you.”
He lifted his arms and began following the song of the white light.
He was above the property next door when his feet became weighted. Heat blanketed his front side and electricity hummed around him before he realized he was falling. He felt an explosion at his feet when he landed in a square cavern. Dusty skylight from a missing ceiling revealed sooty crisscrossed boards in front of blackened brick walls that contained a few familiar bottles of someone’s vintage rosé. The cavern was the burned remains of a wine cellar.
He tried to move but an invisible force pressed against him and pinned his back to a wall of wine racks. Crimson light glowed throughout the air, sometimes slithering like snakes in front of him, other times pulsating like hearts pumping alien life into the atmosphere.
“Who are you?” a female voice hissed at him from the charged air. The sound of buzzing bees overwhelmed him for a moment before the noise descended to a soft hum.
“Who are you?” Charles countered. “Why is there a magic spell cast over this house?”
The crimson light vanished. “You are with the girl, the one the mortals call Verawenda,” the voice said around him. It crackled as though coming through a radio with poor reception. “You are important to her … yes, you two are connected. She seeks you now. She is lost without you.”
Charles said nothing. He was at an impasse with the unknown life force. As he prepared his next round of questioning, the voice interrupted.
“You are a spirit of great importance to her, which means you are of greater importance to me.”
“I do not belong here. I cannot stay. The light calls for me to return to it. It pulls at me, growing stronger.”
“Then allow me to alleviate your discomfort, spirit.”
The crimson light returned. It flowed around Charles, turned black, and cocooned him.
DAVE CALLED UP the stairs of the Lybrook home and told Vree to get ready to eat. She covered her ears and muffled the annoyance. She had lost her father twice. And both times, he had never embraced her before leaving her.
She pushed from the bed, rose to all her height, and shouted at the ceiling.
“YOU NEVER SAID YOU LOVE ME.”
Without warning, her stomach buckled. She needed to vomit.
She charged the stairs and into her brother who had climbed the stairs and stood at the top step.
She halted but Dave lost his balance and tumbled down the steps.
His descent seemed to go on forever.
When the terrible noise stopped, she heard him cry out in pain as he lay at the bottom landing and clutched his left arm.
She hadn’t meant to push him.
I didn’t push him. Not with my hands.
She knew she was in trouble. She hiccupped and turned, then doubled over and vomited on the floor.
Bile rose in her throat a second time but she held the sour liquid down.
She saw her hair mingling in the vomit, its ends painting wet streaks across the wood whenever she moved her head.
Someone touched her back—her mother—and asked if she was okay.
She nodded and hid her face. She wished to be whisked through time and space to when her childhood had been happiest, to when her father gave her piggyback rides, tucked her in bed at night and read Harry Potter and Lyra Belacqua books to her, and told her how much he loved her.
“We’re taking David to the hospital for x-rays,” her mother said. “Clean up your mess and take a shower. Make sure you wash your hair. Okay?”
Vree nodded again.
“I don’t know what happened to cause this,” Karrie said, “but you can’t let your anger control your actions.”
“It wasn’t like that.”
“You can tell me about it when we get back … after you shower, and after we eat and have time to relax from our long day.” Karrie started down the stairs. She stopped and turned around. “I want you to be happy.”
Vree looked at her mother’s concerned face. “It isn’t happiness I want,” she said. “I wanna stop feeling afraid and alone. Sometimes I need a hug and you’re always so busy trying to make a better life for us.”
“You’re right. But trust me; things will get better.”
Vree listened to her mother descend the stairs. Somewhere downstairs, a door closed. Outside, three doors of a vehicle closed. The vehicle drove away and the house, inside and out, grew silent. Vree bawled until her sobs became dry heaves.
She sensed someone in the room, smelled Grandma Evelyn’s perfume before the woman sat on the bed, put an arm around her shoulder, and quieted her sobs.
“If you need to talk,” Evelyn said, “you can come to me anytime, day or night.”
Vree leaned into her grandmother’s embrace.
“You asked earlier if I’d had any visions,” she said between sniffles. “Why is that?”
“Because that’s what happened to me when lightning struck me. I was nine years old, down on the backside of Alice Lake, fishing with my dad. I never knew what happened until after I awoke in his arms. He was crying, and he nearly broke me in half when he hugged me.” Evelyn tightened her embrace around Vree’s shoulders. “I still remember my confusion and the pain. The lightning had burned my back where it hit. I was numb and couldn’t walk, so my dad carried me to his truck and drove me home. For several weeks, I had strange dreams and I thought I saw ghosts. I even saw blue creatures with orange faces.”
“Roualens. Lenny told me about them. I even saw some.”
“They’re not real. They’re visions caused by your brain healing from the lightning. You’ll stop seeing them after a while, just like I stopped seeing them.”
Vree sat up “But don’t you find it odd that we’ve both seen them?” she asked.
“It’s all part of the healing process.” Evelyn took Vree’s hands in hers. “We’re the lucky ones who survived. I count my blessings every day. And so should you.” She released Vree’s hands and stood. “I need to finish supper and you need to shower. We’ll eat as soon as everyone gets back.”
“They all went to the ER? Lenny, too?”
“No. He and Amy are in the kitchen. And I need to get back down there and make sure they haven’t burned anything.”
Evelyn left. Her shoes were soft against the stairs.
Vree sat alone and wondered if her grandmother was right that she too would stop seeing Roualens.
“The sooner, the better,” she said.
Still, it struck her odd that they both saw the same fictional creatures. Why couldn’t she have seen unicorns, or friendly leprechauns eager to give her their pots of gold, or a good fairy who could heal her fear and loneliness with a magic wand? A wand that could bring her father back. A wand that could change the past. A wand that, alas, didn’t exist.
No. Magic wands were the dreams of little girls. She was fifteen and old enough to realize only she could change her life. Grandma and Dr. Jarvis were right. She needed to stay positive—count her blessings—and heal. She needed to stop feeling lonely and frightened and as empty as she had on the day she awoke from her coma and was told her father was dead. That was the past. The future was hers. And although there would be days when her life would feel cold and cruel, and she would feel numb and listless inside, her goal would always be one of conquer.
She jumped from bed, went to her window that faced front, and basked in the sunlight there.
Outside, something moved in the dark shadows of bushes and trees across the road.
Whatever was there foraged in the flora and remained hidden.
She told herself she didn’t care if it was a squirrel, a deer, or a Roualen. But that wasn’t true. She still wondered why someone struck by lightning would see Roualens if they weren’t real.
You’re psychic, her father had told her. You can see and hear things no one else can.
She was certain the Roualens she had seen in the blueberry patch had been real, even though she wanted them to be fictional like Lenny and her grandmother had said.
“You can do this,” she told herself. But despite her mantra to be strong, her protector from all her frights was gone. She was on her own without him, never to have him hold her again and tell her everything would be okay.
Now, at the nearest window of her new bedroom, she stood alone and watched the scene across the road come to life with light, color, and shadows of roadside flora, and the fauna of bumblebees and white butterflies until a cloud blocked the sunlight. The foraging in the flora stopped. She watched the stillness until she saw inside the green shadows two red dots of light, similar to the Roualens’ beady red eyes. They were motionless.
She squinted to get a clearer look when the foliage moved enough to startle her. She stepped away from the window, but not before she saw the orange and blue skin of a Roualen. The creature stepped from behind a tree and looked at her with red dotted eyes before it crouched and dragged the source of the other red dots into the shadows.
A scream—not her own—filled her head.
LEAVE US ALONE.
She winced from the scream and clutched the sides of her head. The pain lasted a moment. She stepped closer to the window for another glimpse at the creature. Yellow light shot at her from the shadows, filled her eyes with pain, and sent her falling backward to the floor, placing her hard on her backside.
AT 4:25 P.M., Vree bolted from the house. She wasn’t sure if either Grandma, Amy or Lenny had heard her leave through the front door, but she was never going back to where she heard strange creatures’ voices in her head.
She knew the way back to Upper St. Clair was a hundred miles ahead of her. But if she could get to a truck stop near the interstate before nightfall, she was sure a sympathetic trucker would drive her there. She had fifty dollars saved from the birthday she never celebrated properly. Surely, that would get her as far as downtown Pittsburgh. Then she could call—
There was Mr. and Mrs. Jensen, her old neighbors. But they would surely call her mom right away. She didn’t intend returning to Myers Ridge. Ever.
Where can I go?
Her nearest relatives—her dad’s family—lived in West Virginia. But she had never been close to any of them. She had no favorite uncle, aunt, or cousin. And she’d never had a best friend, unless she considered the shy girl she had sometimes talked to at school a friend, or Mr. and Mrs. Jensen’s granddaughter Cammie who visited from Vermont every summer.
No. Her best friends had always been herself and her father, in that order. She needed to trust that her instincts and wits would get her through this, and staying safe was top priority. The only safe place she knew of besides home was at church. But Pastor Richards would be quick to contact her mom. That left the college campuses in downtown Pittsburgh. She was certain she could find a safe place to stay with college girls, and then convince her mom to move away from weird and creepy Ridgewood.
Feeling hopeful that her plan would work, she headed south along Ridge Road beneath a hot four o’clock sun that made her wish she had changed into the white shirt and shorts she had put in her dresser. Sweat soaked the armpits, back, and stomach of her Pirates T-shirt. And her hair was still sticky from her vomit. But she refused to turn around. So, on she walked, and was well into the countryside of cornfields on both sides of the road when her stomach complained of being hungry. The cornstalks were barely above knee level, so she scanned across the cornfields for fruit trees. Miles of woods lay beyond the fields and probably housed more Roualens. As long as she didn’t look at them. Out of sight, out of mind.
But the thought that there were Roualens in Upper St. Clair nagged at her. She had never seen the creatures until moving here, but she sensed that they were as populace as white-tailed deer. As long as they stayed outdoors and she stayed indoors, she could live with that.
She blinked at the tears that welled in her eyes and continued her trek across the double lane ribbon of tar and asphalt. The air smelled ripe with approaching rain. A storm bruised the sky ahead of her and crawled slowly toward her.
She had to reach the truck stop before the storm came.
Her empty stomach yelled at her. She knew she couldn’t travel far without nourishment. But it was still too early in the summer to find ripe fruit or vegetables. And she wasn’t going to venture off looking for any strawberry, blueberry or raspberry patches.
On she went until she scanned across another cornfield, spotted an apple tree with green apples along the edge of the woods, and hurried into the cornfield to it.
The small green fruit on the ground was hard, dry, and bitter, but after climbing to the top of the tree, she found softer, juicier green apples. They were sour, but they helped ease away the thirst and soften her hunger pangs.
She ate and looked out over the countryside, enjoying the view from the tree’s fingerlike branches. Geese honked from a pond just beyond a grove of pine trees. She could see glimmering water from where she sat and she knew she needed to go there and take a quick drink before continuing.
“WHAT DO YOU mean Sarlic is not returning?”
Margga stood at the edge of the property, her eyes filled with rage.
“I need my spells,” she said to Onlin, the Roualen who had just delivered Sarlic’s message.
Onlin, the youngster at 371 earth years old, stood ten yards away on the other side of the brook and kept her distance from the humanlike creature who had somehow defied death.
Onlin had been nearest the area during Sarlic’s transmission and was given the task of delivering the message to Margga. Dressed in her protective body suit and gear, Onlin looked no different from any other Roualen.
“The seer has left home,” she reported. “She has been sighted almost three miles from here. She is heading west, on foot, and appears to be resting before continuing her departure.”
“No,” Margga hissed.
The amber sensors in Onlin’s visor flashed three times. “This is good news for my people,” she said. “The seer is leaving us. Sarlic says you won’t have to kill her.”
“No, no, no, you foolish Roualens. As long as the girl lives, your lives are at stake.” Margga waved a hand at her. “I will figure a way to bring her back. You tell Sarlic to meet me as planned.”
Onlin stood motionless while her visor flashed.
“Go,” Margga said. “Be quick to tell Sarlic what I told you.”
“The message has been delivered,” Onlin said when her visor stopped flashing. “Sarlic will be here as planned.”
“Then leave. I must concentrate on bringing the girl back.”
Onlin turned and hurried toward the woods behind the Lybrook house.
Margga quit watching the creature. She had to concentrate. She closed her eyes and called an old, familiar spell composed of solar heat and decay—a spell she had used a hundred times when she was alive to call forth ghosts from the sun’s radiation.
She manipulated the sunlight particles around her and concentrated on the mortals who had died along the road Vree was on. She grinned. She had caused Rebecca Stevens’s death on that road and near the three-mile spot Vree was at.
The spell would be weak, but it would have enough strength to scare the girl and likely convince her to return.
Margga placed the particles against her forehead and said, “Go and do my bidding.”
The energy shot upwards, rose and arced high into the sunny sky where it fractured and fell apart as it pressed against new radiation entering the atmosphere, and fell like unseen snowflakes upon Myers Ridge and the apple tree Vree sat in.
AT 5:15 P.M., Vree climbed from the tree, staggered through the tall field grass, and scratched at the dust and flies settling on her sweaty neck and arms. She came upon a footpath that led toward the pines, so she followed it to a small log bridge someone had built over a narrow and shallow creek. The air was cool there and she swallowed it into her lungs. She even lifted her T-shirt as she went to let in the tiniest of breezes and dry away the sweat on her stomach.
Beyond the bridge and between the trees and scrub she saw the pond, so she hurried toward it and without stopping, removed her sweaty T-shirt and kicked off her tennis shoes before she waded barefoot into the cool water with a deep desire to rid herself of the sweat and dust and flies that fouled her body. Her feet sank into the dark ooze of the muddy bottom, clouding the water as it rose to her knees.
There were no thoughts of poisonous snakes or quicksand or any other danger as she stood in the knee-high water, cupped it to her face, and let it cool her lips and tongue. She did this several times and let the water flow down the front of her.
The pond was small and except for a family of Canada geese swimming away from her, deserted. Green brush and willow trees surrounded the area and there were large crops of reeds and rushes along the shore that served as refuge from the highway behind her.
Crystal jewels of water glittered like diamonds on her wet skin that prickled to the tiniest breeze blowing across the pond. She stayed there for several minutes, let her mind and body relax, and sobbed away her anger, hatred, and frustration until a deer fly bit her neck and forced her to splash herself and scrub at the sting, washing away the dirt and sweat there.
She left the pond and had just picked up her shirt when a knife’s long silver blade flashed in front of her eyes. She emitted a cry and stepped back, almost losing her balance.
A brown-haired woman no taller than Vree put a finger to her mouth. “You’ll scare away the geese,” she said. She wore a yellow blouse, navy blue skirt, and black hose and high heels. She smiled with a beguiled look that twisted from ice blue eyes as she held the hunting knife pointed at Vree’s face.
“This yours?” she asked.
Vree stared cautiously at the nicely dressed woman who wielded the knife gripped tight in her right hand. The woman’s gaze darted to and from Vree’s face and breasts. Vree covered her breasts with crossed arms even though she wore a pink bra. “No,” she answered when the woman asked again if the knife belonged to her.
“Found it lying back there by some trees, of all things. Real beauty with no rust or nicks or any blood on it.” The woman held the blade closer to Vree’s face. “If it ain’t yours, I think I’ll keep it. I could use a knife like this.”
“For what?” Vree asked.
“Hunting and skinning animals, of course. Haven’t you ever gone hunting?” The woman peered at Vree’s face. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
Vree shrugged but said nothing.
“Cat must have your tongue,” the woman said. “I love tongue.” She stepped closer and touched above Vree’s right breast with her left hand.
Vree’s jaw and hands clenched as she looked at the knife inches away from her left cheek and wondered if the woman was crazy enough to kill her. The point of the knife drew closer. She stifled a cry, felt a cool breeze waft across her back, and shivered.
The woman took her left hand away and held up a fat aquatic worm. “Can’t believe you didn’t feel this blood sucker feeding on you.” She tossed the worm away and wiped at the blood on Vree’s chest, smearing a two-inch line across the wet skin.
“I-I need to leave now,” Vree said in a raspy voice. She kept watch of the sharp knife blade still close to her cheek.
The woman raised an eyebrow and studied Vree’s face. “Oh? Where to, if you don’t mind me asking.”
“Home. I need to go home.”
“Yes. You need to be with your family.” The woman looked at the knife for a moment. Then she switched the knife to her left hand, lowered it, and held out her right hand. “Name’s Becca,” she said. “What’s yours?”
Vree looked at the chubby hand awaiting hers and said, “Are you kidding me, lady? First, you scare me to death with that stupid machete-size knife, and now you act as if it’s no big deal.” Her throat tightened and tears flooded her eyes. She struggled to breathe properly, but sobs seized her body. She pushed past the woman and looked through a wall of tears for her shoes.
A hand grabbed at her shoulder. She screamed and spun around, but no one was there. She looked back at the pond and heard her name floating to her on the waves of buzzing bees.
Verawenda, go away. You’re not wanted here.
“Leave me alone,” Vree shouted. She began walking, her drenched pants weighing heavily on her lower legs. She saw her shoes next to a tree, grabbed them up, and half ran, half staggered over the path to the highway. She looked up and down as she tried to remember which way she had come.
Down the road, the figure of a short, heavy man lumbered toward her. He wore brown coveralls and a blue work shirt as murky as the stormy sky behind him. His boot heels struck the pavement but made no sound.
“Stay away from me,” she said.
The man kept coming.
She pressed her shirt close to her nakedness and refused to make eye contact with him.
As he drew closer, so did the sound of buzzing bees. She crossed the road. The man crossed, too, and approached her.
She kept her eyes on her bare feet. She had chipped the nail on her right big toe. She had stopped painting them after waking from her coma. Maybe she should start painting them again. A lustrous blue.
The man stopped in front of her and the buzzing stopped.
“I came to tell you something … but I seem to have forgotten what it was,” he said. His voice was small, nonthreatening. “I remember I was in an accident. I mean, I think I was in an accident.”
Vree’s stomach lurched and she was afraid she would vomit chunks of apples. She peered up at the old man who smiled politely at her. He was bald with pudgy cheeks, a bulbous nose, and small ears, and he had friendly looking blue eyes that edged with sadness.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said through the panic that surged inside her. “Are you okay?”
He said, “I remember the accident happened back a ways. My van looks totaled. I need to find a phone.”
“I-I don’t have a phone,” Vree lied. Her useless cellphone pressed against her left upper leg from its place inside her pocket. “Not one that works.”
“Sure, sure,” he said, sounding a little like her Grandpa Jack. “My luck has been going south ever since I cut myself shaving this morning. And the wreck only made matters worse. But that’s not why I’m here. You need to go back. A terrible storm with lots of thunder and lightning is coming.”
“Lightning?” The word caught in Vree’s throat.
“You’ll be safe at your grandparents place,” the man said. “I mean, no, wait. The witch is there. But she’s good, I think. No, she’s bad. You’re killing the Roualens when you look at them and they want you dead. But your daddy misses you. He needs you to go back.”
“My daddy’s there?” Vree asked.
“Yes. I mean, I think he is.” The man pulled his shirt collar away from the folds of his squat neck. Blood gushed out as his head fell away, his neck now a gaping bloody mouth. The body fell to the roadside and landed atop his head.
Vree screamed the granddaddy of all screams, the kind that opens the floodgates of your bowels, shrivels your heart to a pea with a weak electric pulse, and cocoons you into darkness.
She ran, although she didn’t know it. She ran blindly down the road until she tripped over a fallen tree branch and sprawled onto the black road, scraping her forearms and the palms of her hands as she slid to a stop.
“Ow!” she cried and looked up through the fog of terror at Becca standing in front of her.
“You must stop killing the Roualens,” the woman said, slapping the flat edge of the knife blade against the palm of her left hand. “You must never look at them again.”
“Please leave me alone.” The words felt dead as Vree watched Becca and the road disappear.
She felt her mind leave again into the safety of the cocoon. No crazy women with knives or headless men there.
In the cocoon, she was somewhere in grayness where nothing existed. She was unafraid in the grayness. In the grayness, she could move again, breathe again, speak again.
In the grayness, she screamed in anger.
The road hurried into view as she opened her eyes. She found herself sitting along the berm. Becca was gone. So was the headless man.
Were they ever real, or had she imagined them?
She held her head in her bleeding hands and bawled.
From the pond, a goose honked. It sounded like mocking laughter.
The first rumble of thunder traversed the sky.
She barely heard it until it growled a minute later.
She stumbled upright and headed away from the storm and toward her grandparents’ house and those creatures that Lenny had called Roualens.
If she were killing them, she would never look at them again. She would stay indoors and never look or go outside. Because outside was where the bad things were.
MORE THUNDER GROWLED, closer. Vree swiped at the tears and hurried away from the purple-gray sky. A crow cawed from its perch atop a pine tree behind a cornfield. The crow—white with red eyes—lifted into flight with bulky wings. It rose into the sky as the first drop of rain struck Vree’s back.
She realized she still carried her shirt and shoes. She had no time to dress. She had to beat the storm. She did not want to be outdoors when the lightning came.
The white crow banked left, soared across the highway, and landed on the berm, halting Vree’s advance. For a moment, she thought it was an owl until she made out its familiar crow-like features of nutcracker beak and narrow forehead. However, its eyes were red, like Roualens. She yelled at the strange bird, told it to fly away.
The crow ruffled its snowy feathers as though it had shrugged its shoulders, stood defiant, and seemed to dare Vree to try to pass.
Vree yelled again, told it to go, and charged around it when it refused to leave. As she passed to the left, it pecked at her right knee with its chisel-like beak.
She yelled as pain shot through her leg.
It struck her knee again and sent more pain shooting through her.
She jumped away from it, stopped to rub at the pain, and dropped a shoe. She grabbed it, threw it, and missed hitting the crow’s head by inches. She threw the other tennis shoe, but the crow spread its wings and hopped over it. In a final effort to strike the crow with something, she threw her balled shirt. It hit the crow in the face and caused it to stagger for a moment.
The crow squawked. Then it charged.
Vree kicked at the crow as it came for another peck. But the bird dodged her foot, spread its wings, and danced along the shoulder of the road, as though taunting her with its quick moves.
Vree turned and ran. More rain fell and struck her back. Lightning flashed and brought a jolt of fear through her heart.
The crow flew past her head, landed in front of her again, and turned and charged.
Vree screamed and kicked as it attacked her legs. Its beak made some direct hits to her right knee and shin and sent pain screaming through them. The sharp beak tore her pants leg and lashed at the tender flesh beneath her jeans. Her head swam and her knees nearly buckled. Her stomach lurched and she staggered to escape, kicking blindly, erratically, and uselessly at the crow.
She lost her footing and tumbled crazily onto the highway.
The crow walked swiftly and stiffly to her and stopped inches from her face.
“Stay away, you meddling girl,” the crow said. “Roualens are dying because of you.”
Vree lifted her head and peered at the crow’s flaming eyes.
“Go away,” she said. “Leave me alone.”
“Listen to me. If you go back, you won’t be safe. The witch will take your powers and all will be darkness again.”
“Leave me alone,” Vree said again. “Please. I beg you to let me be.”
The crow cocked its head and said, “You have been warned, Verawenda Erickson.”
Vree collapsed at the sound of the crow speaking her name.
Talking white crows with red eyes, red-eyed Roualens, knife-wielding crazy women, headless men … her life had become chapters of the books her father had read to her when she was younger.
“Help me, Daddy,” she said. “Make it all go away.”
Rain fell on her.
The crow was silent.
When she lifted her head, the crow was gone. A pair of bright headlights came at her.
She closed her eyes and felt no impact. Death was painless and silent. Her whole world was silent and she saw she was inside the grayness again. She wanted to stay but a sound broke through and pulled her away.
A powerful engine chugged above her head. The smell of rubber tires, motor oil, and radiator fluid caused her to turn her head and vomit apple bits.
“Verawenda, are you okay?” a man’s voice asked from above.
Vree smelled onions and mustard close to her face. She almost vomited again.
Instead, she said, “Grandpa? Is that you?” She opened her eyes. A silver grayness hurt her eyes as she searched for her grandfather speaking to her, telling her she was okay. His string of foam rubber words tumbled into her body and fell away. She closed her eyes from the pain in her leg. Her throat was on fire as she tried to speak.
She forced open her eyes. Everything was now red, blue, and yellow squares and rectangles and cylinders shimmering in fantastic light that tasted salty on the tip of her tongue. She took a deep breath to replace the anxiety crawling inside her stomach. Her world spun. The colors and shapes disappeared, reappeared and disappeared in front of her. She braced herself against strong arms that lifted her to her feet. She fell against warm metal until her grandfather took her by the shoulders.
“The … crow,” she said in a bullfrog’s voice. Someone had glued sandpaper to the back of her mouth. She touched her dry lips with wet, cold hands. “It was trying to hurt me,” she managed to say when the freaked-out, hallucinatory sensation passed. “Told me to stay away.”
Her grandfather told her to hush.
Cold rain fell. She opened her mouth to quench her thirst. The rain tasted good but icy in her throat. Her grandfather steered her to the passenger side of the truck, away from the warm grill, and helped her climb into a dry seat. The warmth inside swallowed her immediately. She sat back and was about to let herself fall away. The feeling was similar to the coma that had succumbed her the day lightning struck her.
“No,” she said, not wanting to fall into the void.
But she was too tired to fight. She heard the crow caw from somewhere outside before her grandfather got into the truck. He draped something warm, soft and dry around her shoulders. In seconds, her world turned to darkness.
IT WAS 5:30 p.m. and around the time Vree ran from the headless man when Lenny sat at the table and waited to eat. Jack Lybrook and Karrie Erickson had returned with Dave, and Lenny hoped to taste some of Mrs. Lybrook’s delicious baked chicken and homemade mashed potatoes and gravy soon. But Vree refused to come when Karrie called for her from the bottom of the stairs, so Lenny and Vree’s family waited at the long dining room table while Karrie went upstairs to check on the girl. Lenny sat at Dave’s right and listened to the brown-haired boy describe his visit of the hospital’s ER.
“I wanted one of those blue fiberglass casts,” Dave said, looking down at the old-fashioned white plaster cast around his left forearm that rested in a blue sling. “But the doctor said she needed to mold the cast around the break so it would stitch better, whatever that means.”
“It means you won’t be swimming or playing any baseball for a while, thanks to Vree,” Amy said. She sat at Lenny’s right and stared at the large yellow bowl of mashed potatoes in front of her. Someone’s stomach gurgled and Lenny was sure the noise had come from him.
“You’ll need to make sure you don’t sleep on that arm,” Jack said to Dave. “We can prop your body in bed with some pillows to keep you from turning too much while you sleep.”
“But I was hoping I could sleep in one of the tents tonight.”
“Well,” Jack said, looking thoughtful, “I do have an air mattress we can prop you on. And as long as we keep your arm covered and warm, I don’t see why not.”
“Sweet.” Dave grinned. “I love sleeping outside. Maybe we could have a campfire and hotdogs and s’mores.” He looked at Lenny. “And you could come, too.”
“So, you want an old-fashioned backyard campout, do you?” Jack said before Lenny could respond. “Well, I’ll see what your grandmother has in the kitchen cupboards.” He winked at Evelyn.
“But only if it’s okay with your mother,” Evelyn said to Dave from her seat across from Amy. Then she looked at the girl and asked if she would like to sleep outside, too.
“Sounds okay,” Amy said. “But if it gets too damp, I’m coming inside. The last time I slept outside, I had a cold for three days. Daddy made me gargle with warm garlic water with cayenne pepper. To this day, I still can’t eat food with garlic or cayenne pepper in it. Makes me gag.”
Lenny chuckled and was about to share some of his least favorite foods when he saw the faces in the room had become somber. Their heads turned when Karrie entered the dining room.
“Vree’s not in her bedroom or anywhere else upstairs,” she said. Her body slumped as she crossed the room, and she leaned and rested her hands on the table when she stopped and faced Jack. Her arms quivered as though they held up a tremendous weight. She said, “I looked in all the rooms.”
Evelyn stood. “Maybe she came downstairs and we didn’t see her. I’ll check the bathroom and laundry room, Karrie. You sit and eat.”
“Go on and sit,” Jack said to Karrie when Evelyn hurried into the kitchen. But Karrie continued leaning on the table.
Jack stood and helped his daughter to her chair. She fell heavily into the seat and took a deep breath.
“Supper smells delicious,” she said.
“Dig in,” Jack said. He looked at the kitchen door; so did Lenny. Evelyn stood there and shook her head twice. Her eyes were wide.
Karrie saw her and said, “Dammit.”
“Eat,” Jack said. “I’ll look outside.”
“She’s my responsibility, Dad.”
“True,” Jack said. “But you’re all under my roof now, so that makes every one of you my responsibility.”
Karrie stood. “Then help me look.”
“I’ll help you, Mom,” Dave said.
Lenny heard a groan from Amy before she stood. She followed Jack into the kitchen; Dave followed Karrie out the front door. Lenny paused, still seated at the table, uncertain of where to go or what to do.
He took his cellphone from a pant leg pocket, saw that it had one bar, and called his dad and hoped the phone’s signal wouldn’t quit on him.
“I may be late getting to the restaurant,” he said when his father answered. It was after five thirty and nearing the start of the dinner shift at his mom’s old restaurant still called Becca’s and now owned by his oldest sister. His family often helped out there on Saturday nights. He and his two youngest sisters bused tables and washed dishes while his oldest sister and dad prepared the food.
“One of Mr. Lybrook’s granddaughters is missing,” he told Howard Stevens. “And Mrs. Erickson looks really worried. They’re searching for her now … the girl … her name’s Verawenda. I need to go and help look for her. I just wanted to let you know.”
“Stay away from the property next door,” Howard said.
“But what if she went there?” Anxiety thrummed across Lenny’s shoulders like electricity. He jumped when he heard a pot bang in the background. His dad was in the restaurant’s kitchen, cooking.
“Butter, not margarine,” Howard said. Then, “I’m sure she’s okay, Lenny … as long as she stays away from the house next door.”
“That’s what I mean, Dad.” Lenny had gone to the front door and now peered out the screen. The light had dimmed and the sky showed signs of an approaching storm. “She’s been having a really bad go of things. I think she may have run away. What if she did go next door?”
Another pot banged. Outside the Lybrook home, a silver F-150 pickup truck left the driveway and turned right, followed by a gray four-door Highlander and Karrie’s Sorento. The Highlander and Sorento turned left, and Lenny described to his dad what he had seen.
“What should I do?” he asked.
“If they find her, go ahead and stay for supper,” his dad said. “Help Mrs. Lybrook with the dishes. Finish any chores that need done, then see if Mr. Lybrook can bring you to the restaurant.”
“But what if they don’t find her?”
“Leave. But thank Mr. and Mrs. Lybrook for their hospitality before you go. Hurry home and call me so I can come get you. And wear your raincoat. It’s gonna storm on Myers Ridge, just like every year.”
“I should have told her about the haunting,” Lenny said.
“That’s her parents’ and grandparents’ responsibility and none of your concern.”
“But Mr. and Mrs. Lybrook just moved to this side of the ridge. They don’t know about—”
“Trust me, Leonard, they know all about the haunting. Everyone in the blasted neighborhood does. Just promise me you’ll stay away from your great-grandparents’ place tonight.”
Lenny promised. Then, “Is it okay if I campout with David tonight?” he asked. “He’s the grandson. He broke his arm and—”
“We’ll talk later. I have to go. And be here by seven. I mean it.” His father’s voice and the kitchen noise stopped.
The rain came in fat drops as soon as Lenny pocketed his phone. He watched the drops increase in quantity until he could no longer see across the road. But before the road vanished, he thought he saw an orange face with red eyes stare at him from the brush across the road.
He peered at the wall of rain and wondered if he had seen a Roualen. He hoped so. For as long as he could remember, he had always hoped to see the creature that sometimes haunted his dreams.
JACK RETURNED WITH Vree amidst heavy rain, thunder, and lots of lightning. They came through the back door drenched. Vree looked exhausted and ill. The green blanket Jack kept draped over the driver’s seat in his truck was wrapped around her upper body.
Vree left him and went straight to her bedroom. The others returned moments later and the place became a bustle of changing clothes, towel-drying hair, washing up, reheating dinner, and finally joining Lenny at the dining room table.
“I’m glad Vree’s okay,” Lenny said after Jack said grace.
“Me, too,” Evelyn said. But although she breathed a sigh that sounded like she was relieved, her worrisome look said otherwise.
Karrie, who looked worn and tired, blamed Vree’s actions on adjusting to the loss of Charles and their home, and moving to a new home. Lenny nodded. He knew about the loss of a parent. But because of the way his mother had died, he also knew about fear. Running away always crossed his mind this time of year. Whatever had caused Vree to run off must have terrified her. But it was too early for the haunting next door to start, so something else had caused her to run off.
He longed for the moment when the two of them would be together again. He really cared about her.
Dave interrupted his thoughts by bringing up the possibility of camping in the backyard—rain or no rain. Jack said it was possible, Karrie said it was okay as long as he slept on the air mattress, and Dave again invited Lenny to camp with them.
Lenny thought about the danger of being so close to the witch next door during her witching hours, but promised anyway that he would ask his dad for permission later that evening.
AFTER DINNER, EVELYN served blueberry pie for dessert; she took a plate of food upstairs to Vree. Meanwhile, Amy finished eating first; she found Evelyn’s black upright piano in the living room and played a song Lenny had never heard before.
“I wrote it,” she told him when he came to the piano’s backside and leaned against its top. She didn’t brag when she said it, but stated it matter-of-factly. “I wrote some lyrics, too, but I’m not crazy about them.”
“Will you sing them?” Lenny asked. “I’d like to hear them, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“They’re not very good.”
“It’s okay if you don’t want to. I know what it’s like to sing in front of strangers. I had to do a solo in sixth grade chorus. I thought I would faint in front of the whole auditorium.
Amy smiled. Then she shrugged, began fingering the keys, took a deep breath, and sang.
City winter nights
Ice and snow speak to me
And they’re telling me
Night rushes in my arms
Where I want it to be
That’s my destiny
Alone at night and free
Free to be alone
Knowing I belong here
That’s my destiny
That’s my victory
Karrie and Dave entered the room, stood next to Lenny, and listened. Amy had a beautiful soprano voice, and her simple lyrics were moving. Lenny felt the chains of his awkwardness around her fall away while she sang, and he nodded his head in time to the beat, impressed by her talents.
Freedom from your love
I will never know it
Never meant for me
Love’s a mystery
This life is cold as ice
I will always show it
True love wins it all
And I will always fall
Amy stopped, sat there for a moment, and stared at her hands poised above the last keys she had played.
“It’s awfully depressing,” she said. “I wrote it the day after Daddy died.”
Tears welled in her eyes.
Karrie sat next to her on the bench and embraced her.
Amy buried her head in Karrie’s bosom and wept.
Lenny stepped back. He hadn’t meant to make the girl cry.
He went to the table, asked Jack for a ride home to get his raincoat, and asked him for a ride to the restaurant at Alice Lake. Jack agreed, but only if Lenny let him finish his second slice of pie and cup of coffee before heading into the rain.
“Verawenda wants to see you before you leave,” Evelyn said as she passed Lenny, on her way to the kitchen. She stopped and said to Jack, “She ate some potatoes and drank some milk.”
Jack lowered his fork and nodded. “She’s eating and she wants to talk. That’s good. It’ll get her outta her shell and on the road to healing.” He looked at Lenny. “She’s taken a shining to you, young man. Be good to her.”
Shining? Wasn’t that an old person’s way of saying love? He recalled the word from an English quiz. Shining meant many things, but the word certainly meant someone developing a fondness or a preference for someone or something.
Fondness meant warm affection … like love. And love meant hugs, kisses, cuddling, caressing … surely Mr. Lybrook didn’t mean boyfriend/girlfriend relationships.
“Son, are you listening to me?” Jack peered with arched eyebrows at Lenny, his elbows planted on the table and at either side of his erect body, and his coffee cup in one hand and an empty fork in the other, both close to his crinkled mouth.
“Yes sir, sorry,” Lenny said. “Um … I should go see what she wants.” He hurried from Jack’s quizzical look and approached the stairs at the end of the living room. He stopped and peered up at the brown-carpeted steps that would lead him to Vree’s bedroom.
He turned to ask Dave to go with him, but the boy now sat on the other side of Amy who had stopped crying. She showed Dave and their mother a tricky chord on the piano.
Lenny gulped and started his long ascent to where Vree waited for him, shining.
AT 6:15 P.M., rain fell around Sarlic when he met Margga and Blood at the property’s edge. This time, the two other dogs, the shadows she had spoken of earlier, were there. She called them Chaos and Morbid, and Blood chased them around the property as though they were old friends. Like Margga and Blood, Chaos and Morbid were creatures with no valid explanation. At least, none that made any sense to Sarlic. But unlike Blood, the other dogs were featureless, like standing shadows of paled color. Chaos was a dull blue hue and Morbid was a drab burnt orange, matching the tones of Sarlic’s protective suit, which made him feel uneasy to see the similarity. Life here was so very different from the laws of nature on his planet—a place he knew well from the ship’s history logs. The logs were some of the few pieces of equipment that still functioned aboard the dying ship.
As the rain fell, Sarlic’s transparent force field kept him dry, but the hissing of rain evaporating against the field made it difficult to hear all of Margga’s instructions. But they were the same commands as earlier. She wanted the spell book, which was somewhere inside the house. Sarlic was to go in, locate the book, and return with it quickly.
“Before midnight,” Sarlic said over the hissing of evaporating rain.
“Any time sooner than that would be better.” The rain passed through Margga’s spectral body, which caused Sarlic to consider contemplating later on the scientific possibilities of life after death among his own people.
He turned away from Margga and her hellhounds, faced the house, and said, “Golpa is dead.”
“Is that a Roualen prayer before you enter someone’s home?” Margga asked, sneering at Blood who ran by and seemed to sneer back at her.
“The girl killed Golpa after I left with Yetka,” Sarlic said. “Nydru was able to redirect and increase the amplitude of her energy back at her, but it was too late. Golpa’s life support failed.”
Margga raised an eyebrow at Sarlic. “You’ve found a way to attack by redirecting her magic.”
“It did not injure her.”
“And now you must bury Golpa before you will rescue my book. Is that what you’re going to tell me?”
“No. Nydru is burying Golpa.”
“No. Not good. My people are upset. There have been two deaths today and they fear there will be many more now that you brought her back. Some are talking about taking up human weapons and killing the girl if you do not. We are holding council on the matter after Yetka’s body is contained.”
“Then be quick to find my book. The sooner I kill the girl witch with my magic, the sooner your people will be safe and won’t have to arm themselves.”
Sarlic’s visor blinked three times.
“Where do I begin looking?” he asked.
“Start at the upper level. That’s where I feel its presence strongest. But be careful that the girl doesn’t see you.”
The two red dots of light on Sarlic’s visor scanned the backdoor before he went to it and scanned for life forms in the immediate area inside.
“You have less than three hours,” Margga said before Sarlic entered the house quickly and quietly.
VREE SAT UP in bed and stretched to hand Lenny the drawing she had removed from inside the floor. He sat at the bed’s foot end and stared at the offering.
“I want you to take it from here,” Vree repeated. Her hair was mussed where someone had taken a towel to it, and she wore a clean white T-shirt. The rest of her was under her bed cover. She nodded at her dresser where the book still lay. “The book, too. I want no drawings of Roualens, or books written in secret code that only I can read. No more weirdness. My bedroom is my safe zone. No crazy woman with a skinning knife who vanishes and reappears. No guy whose head falls off because he was in an accident. And no talking albino crow that says there’s a witch wanting to take my powers … whatever that means.”
Lenny’s stare had traveled to her face. She flicked the drawing to him. It landed and settled on his lap.
He said, “I’ve always wanted to meet someone like you, Verawenda Erickson. Someone who can do what I’ve always want to do. All my life I’ve dreamed of seeing things no one else can see. And today, I think I did. And it’s all because of you. I’m sure of it.”
“No. Don’t you blame me—”
“Listen. I’m not blaming you for a bad thing. I’m saying you’re a good thing. You’re the best thing to happen in my life since … well, forever.”
“Go.” Vree pointed at the stairs. “Leave me alone. And take the book and—” she turned and pulled a white crow feather from beneath her pillow, “—this. It was stuck inside my pant leg.”
Lenny took the long tail feather. His eyes were wide with amazement.
“Is this for real?” He sucked in a breath. “It is,” he said. “This is special, Vree. I mean, wow. I have to leave for a while but I’m planning to come back later. I want you tell me everything that happened. Everything.”
“I’m done talking. Now go.”
Lenny went to where the book lay. He paused, wishing he could get out of washing dishes at his mom’s restaurant. He could see Vree in the dresser mirror; she had been through something terrible. If only she would talk about her wounds.
He turned and faced her and said, “Your brother is having a campout. Since it’s my birthday, I’m gonna ask my dad if he’ll let me spend the night. If he does, is it okay if I visit you?”
“My mom doesn’t allow boys in my room at night.”
“We can meet downstairs.”
“I won’t come down.”
“Why? I thought you liked me.”
“I wanna be alone.”
“Sometimes it’s better to be with friends.” Lenny stopped arguing and stared across the room. He pointed at Amy’s side of the room. “You should look at this,” he said.
Vree turned her head and followed the direction of his extended finger. At first, she saw nothing amidst the boxes and furniture there. When she saw the white crow perched on the windowsill, she gave a yelp of surprise.
“No,” she said as her hands found the edges of her bed cover, twisted it to her neck, and began to cry, sobbing like a child who had lost something dear to them.
Lenny crossed the room and stopped a few feet from the crow.
“The girl is not safe here,” it said to him. “She has killed Roualens; they want her dead. So does Margga. But if the girl comes with me, I can save her.”
“Gam Gam told me about you,” Lenny said. “You’re Enit Huw, the soul of time—past, present, and future. You bring hope for healing and new beginnings in life.”
“The girl chose to return. Now she must choose whether to live or die. I shall return soon for her answer.”
The white crow of hope vanished.
Vree rushed from her bed and down the stairs.
Lenny returned to the dresser where he took up the book, his drawing, and the feather.
On his way out, he passed Vree inside the upstairs bathroom. The door was open. He stopped and looked in. She leaned over the sink, her face buried in a fluffy blue towel that stifled the sobs that pushed from her. Her bare legs trembled below the yellow panties she wore.
Even in anguish, she looked beautiful.
Uncertain of what to say or do, he quietly closed the door and whispered, “Be safe until I get back.”
Once downstairs, he took a deep breath to slow his heart and to regain his composure. But his mind was sure that he was in love, head over heels, so soon, with no time to get used to the idea that he had just met the girl hours ago.
He took another deep breath, shifted the large book to his left arm, and looked at the time on his cellphone. He had seventeen minutes to be at his sister’s restaurant—the one that had belonged to their mother.
He cursed Margga’s name under his breath, then rushed to the piano and hurried his goodbyes to Amy, Karrie, and Evelyn. “Do me a favor,” he said, placing the book on top of the piano. “Keep this down here until I come back tonight.”
“Oh?” Evelyn lifted her head from the keys and peered at him. “You’re coming back tonight?”
Lenny winced. “I was hoping maybe I could camp out with Dave,” he said, shuffling his feet. “I mean, if it’s okay with you … and my dad, of course.”
Evelyn smiled. “I’m sure David will be delighted to have you spend the night.”
Lenny matched Evelyn’s smile. Then, “I gotta go,” he said. “I gotta be at the restaurant in less than a half-hour.” He hurried to Jack still drinking coffee at the dining room table. Dave sat at the table, too, reading an Avengers comic book. He looked up and reminded Lenny to get permission to camp outside.
Lenny thought about Margga next door. Would she try to kill him if he camped in the backyard that once belonged to her? If so, returning tonight could put everyone here at risk.
But Enit Huw had said Vree’s life was already in danger with Margga.
He rubbed the back of his neck and pulled at the chain that held the good luck pendant his grandmother had given him. He let go of the chain and hurried back upstairs. Vree cried out from her bed when he charged into her room and practically dived to the floor where his treasure lay buried.
He took from inside the floor a paper sack, and emptied the sack’s contents in his left hand. Then he returned the floorboard, went to Vree, and gave her one of the several arrowheads carved from flint.
“It’s real,” he told her. “I got it when I visited a Seneca Indian reservation. Arrowheads are powerful forces against evil spirits.”
Vree shook her head. “Stop it. I don’t wanna hear any more about evil spirits, witches, or—”
“I don’t have time to argue,” he said, going to the stairs. “Keep that with you at all times. It will protect you.”
He hurried downstairs and gave everyone an arrowhead. He left Dave, Amy and the two women admiring their arrowheads and headed out the backdoor with Jack to the garage.
The rain from the first storm had stopped. The other storm would come around eight o’clock and last until nine, right around sunset. He hoped there would be no sightings of hellhounds tonight and that no one would hear the death howl of the creatures.
Inside the truck, while Jack started the engine and clicked the wipers on to clear the windshield of the rain left from Vree’s rescue, Lenny turned and stole a peek at the attic window overlooking the garage. He hoped Vree was okay up there alone with the talisman he had given her. But more than that, he wished he were there, comforting her during her time of need, and going with her when Enit Hew came for her.
IT WAS 6:35 p.m. when Amy opened Lenny’s book. She was alone. Mom and Grandma had gone to finish drying the laundry that Grandpa had brought in from the rain, and he and Dave were in the garage looking at the tents.
She wrinkled her nose at the drawing tucked inside, but admired the white tail feather. Then she perused the pages of strange language written in English characters. Their patterns looked familiar. She sat up when she recognized musical notes and chords. Someone had crudely penned sheet music. Capital letters of A through G with the pound symbol had to be sharp notes, and the ones with lowercase b had to be flat. Numbers one through five, with pluses and minuses told her where the notes fell on the staff, had there been one, and she was certain the inclusion of an ampersand and number seven meant treble and bass clefts, respectively. And 4/4 had to be the song’s time signature. It took her several more minutes to decipher the rests between the notes. When she did, she began playing the song, slow at first, and then in true time as the cipher became easier to read.
A haunting melody with suspended thirds filled the room and drifted through the house.
Outside, Margga’s keen hearing alerted her to the music.
“Yes,” she hissed, “an invitation. Keep playing, whoever you are.”
She closed her eyes, brought her fingertips to her shoulders, and lay back, levitating above the wet grass.
Inside the Lybrook’s living room, Margga’s curious face appeared in the oval mirror on the wall behind Amy.
UPSTAIRS, BEHIND THE closed bathroom door, Vree sat at the edge of the bathtub and listened to muffled voices and the hum of a dryer travel up the drain. Her grandmother spoke to someone, but Evelyn seemed too far from whatever was broadcasting her conversation for Vree to make out the words. A minute later, Karrie spoke distinctly about how musically talented Amy was.
“She’s a real prodigy,” Vree mumbled in response.
She guessed her mom and grandmother were in the laundry room, probably drying the clothes brought in from the rain. It had stopped drumming against the attic roof when Lenny had given her the arrowhead.
She listened for thunder and heard none. That didn’t mean the lightning had stopped, but she had waited long enough to take a shower.
Her feet slapped against the cool, cream tiled floor while she crossed the room to lock the door. Outside, an unfamiliar song from Grandma’s piano drifted through.
Amy played something new … always showing off.
Vree passed a wall of oak cabinets with polished brass handles when she went to a box of toiletries that her mom had left unpacked on the white sink. She ignored her reflection in the lighted makeup mirror above the sink and inspected the box’s contents. Among the creams, lotions, powders, makeup, and bath oils and salts, were her purple T-shirt pajamas of Snoopy, somehow saved from the fire. The shirt was a leftover from when she was twelve, and it smelled of her mom’s sunflower and sunshine laundry detergent … and Daddy’s cologne. She found his bottle of Polo Black at the bottom of the box.
She thought of him, hoped he would come to her as he had done in her bedroom, and waited.
After three minutes, when he did not come, she sniffed the shirt once more before she went to the bathtub and shower adorned with fluted brass faucets and ivory handles that matched the sink’s and turned on the water, adjusting the temperature to her liking. There, she stripped, found shampoo and a fluffy towel next to the tub, stepped inside, and closed the sliding frosted glass door. The thought of the knife-wielding woman crossed her mind, but she pushed at the intrusion, not wanting it to lead to memories of the man losing his head.
But the headless man was there at the edges of her thoughts, so she plunged her head beneath the shower’s pulsating stream of warm water and remembered better times.
She washed her hair with shampoo that smelled like coconut and cleaned away the remnants of her trip to the pond with soap that smelled like cocoa butter. Done and feeling better than she had since waking from her coma, she slid open the shower door and stepped from the tub.
When she reached for her towel, it was gone. So were her clothes. White cabinets had replaced the oak ones, and linoleum with daisies covered the floor. At the sink no longer adorned with fluted brass faucets and ivory handles, pieces of broken glass littered the water-stained basin.
Her father opened the door and stuck his head inside.
“How bad is the cut?” he asked. “Have you stopped the bleeding?”
Vree stumbled backwards and put her arms around herself to hide her nakedness. Only, she wasn’t naked. She wore a dry white T-shirt and a pair of blue jeans. Green tennis shoes with yellow shoestrings covered her feet. They and her clothes were covered with splatters of light blue paint. So were her arms.
“You’re gonna get blood all over,” her father said. Vree looked away from herself as he entered. He wore a white dress shirt open at the collar and black slacks held up with thin, black suspenders. She stumbled when he took her by an arm and led her to the sink.
“Open your hand and let me have a look,” he said. He held her right hand, pulled open her fingers, took away a piece of glass, and dropped it into the sink. Blood dripped from where the glass had sliced her palm and fingers. She felt no pain.
She looked up at the mirror over the sink. She had no reflection and it startled her.
“What’s happening?” she asked. “You said you were going to a higher plane.”
“Come,” her father said. “I’ll fix you up.”
“Where?” It was all Vree could think of to say before he led her to the bathtub as plain and rusted as the sink. They knelt together and he ran warm water over the cut. Vree felt sickened as she watched her blood swirl down the drain. She pulled away.
“Relax,” her father said, taking her injured hand again.
“What happened to me?” she asked. “Why am I bleeding?”
He made hushing sounds and told her again to relax.
“Is this one of those weird dreamy things, like the one with the spinning chairs?”
“Stop talking nonsense, Rebecca. I’m trying to look at your cut.”
Vree looked across the room and saw that she had a reflection now. The woman from the pond stared back at her from the bottom portion of the mirror. Becca!
Vree closed her eyes and wished the woman away.
It didn’t work.
Vree shook her head. So did Becca.
“This can’t be real,” Vree said. She crinkled her nose and turned her head slowly from side to side. Becca did too, mirroring every move.
Then Becca looked away and said, “I was trying to hurry before the first storm. You know how much I hate lightning … and being in this house, so close to the property next door.”
“The weatherman says sixty percent chance of clear skies tonight,” Vree’s father said, though his voice’s pitch seemed to change before he finished the sentence.
“We never have clear skies during July fifth on Myers Ridge,” Becca said. “The first storm will come between five and six and last an hour. The second will come around eight and last another hour before the haunting will start after sunset, just like every year. Let’s take the kids out of town tonight. We could stay at my parents’ camp overnight.”
Vree’s father held Vree’s hand beneath the tub’s faucet. A man’s voice she didn’t recognize came from him.
“I’ll try to convince my mom to come along,” he said. “But you know she won’t wanna go. And I won’t leave her by herself.”
“Then I’ll take the kids and leave you two here.”
“Or you could stay and help us find the book.”
“What book, Howard? Don’t you think that if there was a book in this house, we’d have found it by now?”
“I won’t give up helping her look. She says the special one is almost here. That could be tonight. Without the book, the haunting will continue.”
This time, Becca said nothing.
Vree looked away from the mirror and tried to pull away her right hand, but the man’s grip tightened.
“You’re not my daddy,” she said to the man who looked like her father, “so I’m gonna leave now.”
His grip tightened more, so she pushed him hard and yanked her hand from his. As he fell inside the tub, she pushed away and ran.
Outside the bathroom, she hurried down the hall, found the stairs, and flew down them, her feet barely touching the steps.
Downstairs, her feet found a solid floor of unfamiliar carpet. She tore through the living room filled with furniture that must have belonged to the people in the framed photographs she passed. She saw Becca in two of the photos—large studio shots done professionally. Becca stood next to an unknown man behind three girls and a boy in the last one. The boy looked like Lenny, but several years younger.
Vree called for her mom and grandparents as she ran through the dining room, to the kitchen that looked unchanged from Grandma Evelyn’s. No one was there.
She fled to the kitchen’s backdoor and entered a white blank sea of nothingness. She stood on the nothingness and saw nothing. She turned around and saw the house was gone.
Something cold—a wet hand?—touched her right shoulder. She almost screamed until she heard the drumming sound of the shower water striking the bathtub.
Vree opened her eyes and pushed away from the shower door. Her cheek was warm where she had pressed it against the glass door. She turned off the water that had gone cold. The tub drain gurgled until the last of the water passed through. When all she heard was the slow drip from the showerhead, she stepped from the tub and wrapped her body in the fluffy towel from where she had left it on the rack.
As she crossed the room, she saw her reflection in the mirror at the fancy sink that held no broken glass. A shiver crawled across her back before she unlocked the door and headed to her bedroom.
Moments later, Margga’s curious face looked out from the mirror between streaks of condensation. She squinted at the room, looking for Sarlic. Not seeing him, she left to search from other mirrors in the house.
AMY STOPPED PLAYING the unknown music on the piano. Upstairs, Margga’s face vanished from Vree’s bedroom mirror as Vree entered the room. A moment later, after Vree sat on her bed and examined the arrowhead she had left there, the white crow appeared on Vree’s bureau.
“Have you decided?” Enit Huw called out, almost cackling.
Vree closed her eyes and recalled the attack along the highway. She closed her left hand around the arrowhead and said, “Go away.”
“You are like her,” Enit Huw said, “full of magic, the power that stalls their equipment and kills them.”
Vree’s grip tightened, but her voice remained low. “I haven’t killed anyone, so go away and leave me alone.”
“He’s in this room right now, terrified that you will look upon him and stop his breathing apparatus.”
Vree’s eyelids flew open.
“Who’s in this room?” she asked, glaring at the crow.
“Across the room, stooped in the shadows near the corner.”
Vree heard Sarlic’s voice before she saw him.
“Do not look at me,” he said, cowering in the far corner and turning his back to Vree. “Spare my life. Please.”
“Look away,” Enit Huw said to Vree, “if you wish him no harm.”
Vree looked at the crow still perched on her bureau. “Get out of here, both of you. Now!” She pointed at the stairs.
“Sarlic needs the book of spells,” Enit Huw said.
“Yes,” Sarlic said, still cowering. “Give me the book and I will leave here and never return.”
Vree looked down at her clenched fist. A strand of wet hair dripped water on it. She pulled the bath towel tighter around her and said, “Why? What is the book to you?”
“It is a way of protecting the lives of my people and me.”
Vree recalled the book’s strange language. “It’s mostly poetry,” she said to the crow. “Why did you call it a book of spells?”
“It’s filled with magic,” Enit Huw said.
“I don’t have it,” Vree said, remembering she had given Lenny the book. “So, go, both of you.”
“You must be stopped from killing us,” Sarlic said. “If I leave here without the book, you will make enemies with many Roualens tonight. Their fear will bring you harm.”
“Is that a threat?” Vree glared at Sarlic who had stopped cowering. He now stood and faced Vree.
“It is a promise of things to come,” he said. “You can kill me, but others will come until you are destroyed. Sleep easy tonight, child, knowing it will be your last.”
Vree watched his eyes flash red at her.
“Look away,” Enit Huw said to her. “Roualens are peaceful people who want to return to their planet. They don’t wish to fight you. But they will if it means their survival.”
Vree kept her gaze on Sarlic. “You’re from another planet?”
“Indeed,” he said. “We await rescue while our disabled ship is marooned here.”
“Others like you are coming?”
“We hope so. But what is a rescue if my people and I are dead?”
Vree held her gaze on Sarlic for a few more seconds. Then she cast it at the floor in front of him. “How long have you been here?” she asked.
Sarlic told her of the ship’s crash landing on the planet, of the many years of snow and ice that buried the ship and the people inside it, and of the ice that pushed the ship and the land around it to the location now known as Myers Ridge. He also told her of his birth inside the ridge five hundred and eight years ago, and of the death of his parents when miners dug minerals from the hill.
“Over the years, we have adapted to some of your food and liquids for survival,” he said. “Our personal cloaking fields and garments protect us from the dangerous radiation bombarding your planet’s surface. But our cloaking devices are only machines. They will stop working. And our garments are thin.”
“I see. And somehow, my ability to see through your cloaking fields causes them to shut down.”
“Yes. The spirit of the one who called herself an enchantress, calls this ability magic.”
“My daddy calls it being psychic.”
“It is both,” Enit Huw said to Vree. “And it is how you’re going to repair Sarlic’s ship and help him and his people leave this planet tonight. So, get dressed. I will go with you to the ship.”
“I can’t just leave,” Vree said, looking hard at the crow.
“Leave is precisely what you did when you chose to run away,” Enit Huw said. “So, leave is what you shall do again. Now, get dressed. Sarlic and I will meet you at the road.” To Sarlic, he said, “She has the power. And she wishes to help, unlike the other who wanted you dead. Tell your people to ready themselves for their last few hours here.”
Enit Huw vanished.
Sarlic went to the stairs, stopped, and said to Vree, “Thank you.”
“I never agreed to this,” she said, glancing at him once before looking at the floor again.
“The spirit next door is the remnants of a horrible woman named Margga,” Sarlic said. “She possessed the same ability as you. But she chose to kill many of my people with her ability. And now, she wishes to kill you, as well. That is why she sent me for the book. It contains magic that she would have used to kill you.” Sarlic turned his head and rested his gaze on Vree. “I do not want that to happen. Not because of your ability to fix our ship, as the talking bird said, or because you are so very young. But because of the look I saw on your face when I told you my father and mother’s deaths made me feel lonely and sad.”
He looked away and descended the stairs, leaving Vree alone at her bed with her thoughts.
IT WAS TEN minutes to seven when Vree put on a clean, white T-shirt and a pair of blue jeans, and left a note on her bed that said she had gone for a walk. She eased her way downstairs and out the front door.
“Tell me again how I’m gonna repair Sarlic’s ship?” she asked over the sound of buzzing bees when she met the crow and Roualen along the road.
“You know how,” Enit Huw said. “I’ll meet you at the sinkhole.”
The crow vanished.
Vree followed Sarlic and the buzzing sound into the field across the road. She still wasn’t certain whether the sound came from her psychic powers, or from Sarlic’s protective suit with its life-support gear keeping him alive.
The path they traveled was wide enough that she didn’t have to keep him in her sight as she followed.
They said nothing while they went, though Vree read Sarlic’s thoughts and knew that with every step, he grew anxious and more excited about leaving.
The way was long and winding. And it was wet from the storm; leaves dripped rainwater on them from the trees they passed under, and the field grass soaked Vree’s pants cuffs and tennis shoes until the insoles of her shoes were saturated by the time they reached a clearing fifty minutes later.
The atmosphere there felt heavy. The sky behind them had become bruised, mimicking the colors Vree had seen three hours earlier when she had run from her grandparents’ home.
She followed Sarlic through what once had been a cornfield, now grown over with dense weeds. She suspected that this was a part of the property her grandfather had been forced to abandon after last year’s harvest … the one with a sinkhole in it.
She knew from geology studies at school that sinkholes were roughly funnel-shaped and connected to subterranean passages, such as collapsed caverns or streams in the limestone. But she never realized how big they could be. The one Enit Huw waited at was half the length of a football field, maybe bigger.
As she and Sarlic approached the edge, she observed the slow, dancing flight of a small, brown butterfly with dark eyespots with yellow rims near its wingtips—perhaps a little wood satyr, she thought—fly into the hole.
Moments later, it reappeared, glowing green. It landed on some grass behind Vree, folded up its wings, and sat for almost a minute before it took flight.
“That butterfly turned green,” she said to Sarlic and Enit Huw who had left her and now stood along the edge thirty yards away. She recalled Lenny telling her about the green glow inside. She knelt on her knees at the hole’s edge and peered inside. Waves of green light traveled up the hole. She took a piece of brown grass, and stuck its tip into the hole.
“You are too close,” Sarlic warned. “Many of my people have fallen.”
Vree scrambled away from the edge and held up the grass. Its tip glowed green.
“There is netting below,” Enit Huw said to Sarlic. “Your people were never hurt.”
“True,” the Roualen said. “But we know how to land correctly so we are not injured or killed.”
“The girl will get you home,” Enit Huw said.
Vree ventured again to the edge and put her right hand in the hole for several seconds. When she took it out, it too glowed green. She did the same with her left hand. Then she held up her green hands for Sarlic and Enit Huw to see.
“If you are finished playing,” Enit Huw called out, “we can continue to the ship.”
“Where is it?” Vree asked.
“At the bottom, of course.”
Vree peered inside again. She tried to see the bottom, but it appeared there was none.
“How do we get down there?” she asked.
“Follow me,” Sarlic said. “I like to land on my back.” He took several steps back, then ran and jumped into the hole. “See you at the bottom,” he called out.
Vree gasped and looked at Enit Huw. “You expect me to jump into that?”
“Yes,” the crow said. “You’re not ready for astral projection, so you need to jump. Now.”
“Don’t make me come over there and peck your shins.”
Vree glared at the bird. “You wouldn’t dare.”
Enit Huw vanished, then reappeared on the ground behind Vree and squawked at her.
Vree whirled around. “Stop doing that,” she said, still glaring.
“Come to me, Verawenda. Then run and jump feet first. I’ll be with you the whole time, guiding you.”
“The whole time?”
“Yes. I will be at your side. You will hear me in your mind. And you can talk to me the same way; I will hear your thoughts.”
Vree looked at the hole. “It looks awfully deep.”
“I won’t get hurt?”
“I will guide you to the bottom. There, Sarlic and I will take you to the ship.”
“Are you sure I can fix it?”
“I feel your power, Verawenda. You can do this.”
Vree went to where Enit Huw stood, turned, and paused.
“Trust,” Enit Huw said.
Vree swallowed, then ran and leaped into the hole.
She fell hunched forward, her long hair streaming above her. Whistling cold wind blew up at her and robbed her of her breath. She shielded her face with her hands and calmed her anxiety by breathing through her mouth.
She heard the crackling sound of electricity where green bands of light encircled the walls. She looked between her fingers and saw that the bands increased in speed and intensity as they rushed upward, past her. Enit Huw’s voice entered her mind and told her that the green lights were transmission beacons from a generator below. The beacons were to aid in rescue should other Roualens ever come to Earth.
The crow appeared in front of her, glowing green and facing her. Its wings were tucked close to its body and its feet were pointed down. The wind rippled its feathers and created a crest on its head.
Vree lunged at the bird, wrapped her arms around its body, and held it close.
“Get ready to tuck your legs,” Enit Huw said. Its head was pressed against one of Vree’s ears. “When you land, stay still. You will bounce a few times on the netting. Once you come to a stop, you will then be able to stand.”
Vree squeezed the crow tighter.
“Let go of me, bring your legs up, and hold them with your arms.” Enit Huw vanished. Vree looked down at a floor of green light growing closer. She brought her knees to her chest, held them, and closed her eyes. Impact was soft and spongy. Her descent slowed and stopped before the netting lifted her into the air. She bounced atop the net several times before she came to a stop inside an emerald world underground.
She laid in a fetal position, suspended high above a cavern floor, and caught her breath. Through the netting, she saw stalagmites and rubble below, all glowing green. Even the wide expanse of net she was on glowed green. And so did she, including her clothes.
“Come” Enit Huw said, appearing at her feet and glowing a brighter green than he had during her fall. He hopped across the net. “Follow me.”
Vree followed the bird to a cavern wall. There, someone had carved steps in the stone, leading to the floor. She followed, being careful of loose rocks along the way to the bottom. There, they weaved around stalagmites, some of them towering eight or nine feet tall and standing like sleeping sentries guarding the cavern from intruders.
When they reached the place where Sarlic awaited, the sound of buzzing bees filled Vree’s head and overwhelmed her.
“Are you okay?” Sarlic called out.
Vree held her hands over her ears and looked away.
“It’s too loud,” she said.
“The life support generators hum like that before they quit operating,” Sarlic said. “Many are failing.” He pointed at a tall, greenish-black metallic box near them. It, like several others inside the cave, was rectangular and as tall as Vree. “Come,” he said and turned. “I’ll show you the ship. Follow me.”
He led them across the cavern, away from the sinkhole.
The section of cavern they walked through was tall and wide. Dangerous looking stalactites hung from the ceiling like ancient stone spears guarding the place from more intruders. Vree imagined them falling and crushing her to death if an earthquake happened.
High humidity pooled sweat on her skin. She pulled up the bottom of her T-shirt and wiped her face when Sarlic and Enit Huw stopped. Here, the buzzing was quieter and Vree could hear the drip of water against wet stone. She looked down at ancient rivulets carved in the floor, all pooled with green liquid that she assumed was rainwater. The one they stood at crossed in front of them and was two feet wide. On the other side stood a greenish-black disc as wide as the sinkhole she had jumped in, and as tall as her grandparents’ house.
“Flying saucers are real,” she said.
The spaceship was indeed a saucer, smooth and featureless, and apparently without lights, windows, and doors. It sat along the end of the cavern and tilted higher on the left where it sat on several enormous boulders.
“It has been flightless for more than twenty thousand years,” Sarlic said.
“How do I fix it?” Vree asked.
“Put your forehead against the machine,” Enit Huw told her, “and take one of Sarlic’s hands in yours.”
“Won’t I kill him if I do?”
“No. He will concentrate on the engines and you will see them. By placing your forehead against the ship, you will see deep inside it and see the engines as they are now. Whatever differences you see, you will change them to how Sarlic has them pictured.”
“By believing you can change things with your thoughts.”
Vree stepped back. “That’s an awfully scary thing to imagine.”
“It is who you are, Verawenda Erickson. It is how you are going to save the lives of Sarlic and his people.”
Vree sidled up to the ship and placed her forehead against it. Sarlic stood next to her and placed one of his hands in hers.
“Is that your skin?” she asked when she felt warm and dry leather in her palm. “Or are you wearing a glove?”
“It is part of my protective suit,” Sarlic said.
Vree held his hand, closed her eyes, and searched for the engines. She saw nothing.
“Look for twenty spherical units attached to a wall,” Sarlic said. “They are the color of your hair and shaped like large bird eggs, and they are in rows of seven.”
“Seven rows or seven units?”
“Seven descending rows. The first row has one unit. Below it is a row of four units, two on either side of the first unit. Next is a row of three, followed by four, followed by three, followed by four until the last row, which has only one unit.”
Vree searched through the darkness until she saw the engines just as Sarlic had described.
“I see them,” she cried out.
“Here is what they should look like,” Sarlic said.
Vree saw a separate image float in front of the first. That image contained the twenty engines in seven descending rows, but in a sequence of three, two, three, four, three, two, and three.
“This is our flight sequence,” Sarlic said. “But the units are stuck in the landing sequence you see inside. The release mechanism is damaged and poisonous contamination fills the engine room. Our suits are useless against the contamination, so we are unable to enter the room and move the four units needed for flight.”
“Your ship has been this way for two thousand years?”
“So, if I fix the release mechanism—”
“The room will still be contaminated. We must be in space before we can release the contamination. We need someone who can enter the room and move the ends of the second row to the first, and the ends of the sixth row to the seventh. Someone like you.”
“With my mind.”
“Yes,” Enit Huw said.
Vree looked again at the flight sequence. “May the force be with me,” she said.
MORE RAIN FELL at eight o’clock. It plummeted through the sinkhole, flooded the rivulets, and gushed across the floor, past the feet of Enit Huw, Sarlic, and Vree. The storm brought no thunder or lightning, and it lasted fifty-five minutes. During that time, Vree moved the first two engine units to their proper places.
Now, her body sagged against the ship. Sweat drenched her clothes.
“I need to rest a moment,” she said. She dropped to her knees at the nearest rivulet and drank the water with cupped hands.
When she quenched her thirst, she said to Sarlic, “When I entered your ship with my mind, I saw that many of the rooms are filled with liquid. Why is that?”
“It is the ‘atmosphere’ we live in,” he said, looking down at her. “It is lighter than your planet’s water, but heavier than its oxygen, which makes it appear like liquid. Unfortunately, our ship’s atmosphere has become almost uninhabitable with many of the life support engines inside shut off to conserve energy to our transmitters and suits. But once the main engines are in place and working again, we can flush it clean.”
“So, you’re like some sort of fish creature beneath your protective suit,” she said, keeping her harmful gaze away from him.
“We are more related to mammals on your planet than to fish, though we do have gills in our necks that take life-supporting gases from our atmosphere. And we can breathe through our mouths where we ingest food.” Sarlic touched the area above the long tube that looked like an anteater’s snout. “Our nasal discharge valves are on the tops of our heads, similar to the blowholes of your dolphins and whales. Our females have two valves, side by side. And like dolphins and whales, our females’ gestation periods last from thirteen to sixteen months. We even sing songs similar to your whale songs. But we have no fins.”
“How do you know so much about dolphins and whales?”
“From your books and TV.”
“My people have been here a long time studying this part of your planet, especially the humans here. After we deciphered your language, we took to your homes and learned from you. For many years, I have collected data from science books and TV reports about science.”
“You read books and watch TV in our homes?” Vree turned and glanced at Sarlic. “That’s really creepy.”
“Unlike you, most humans cannot see us,” Sarlic said. “We usually dwell in unoccupied rooms, though. My favorite rooms for relaxing are the ones you call bathrooms.”
“That’s even creepier.”
The two were silent until Enit Huw asked if Vree was ready to move the remaining engines.
“Take your time,” Sarlic told her. “Another hour will seem like a nanosecond compared to the years this ship has been on your planet.”
“Thank you,” Vree said. She stuck out her tongue at the crow before she stood and returned to resting her forehead against the ship’s outer hull.
“IT’S NINE O’CLOCK. The sun set three minutes ago. Where are you, Sarlic, you stupid Roualen?”
Margga paced the darkened ground where she had met with Sarlic earlier.
“I have a half-hour of twilight to work with,” she said. “I need to see the words if I’m going to kill the girl.”
She stopped pacing and glared at the lighted windows of the Lybrook home—the house that belonged to her until her death at the hands of the ancient spirit who had killed and imprisoned others for their misdeeds. It wasn’t long after her death that Reginald Myers’s daughter bought the house and disgraced Margga’s name by moving her family into the place.
“Sarlic is not coming,” a voice said from the darkness that spread toward the trees behind the house.
Onlin stepped past the darkness that didn’t affect Margga’s senses. The ghost witch whirled.
“What do you mean he’s not coming?”
“He is with the girl. She is fixing our ship’s engines. We will leave your planet as soon as she is successful.”
“You fools,” Margga hissed. “She is what I used to be. She isn’t fixing your engines. If anything, she’s sabotaging them. She cannot do anything else but bring harm to you.”
“By what ground do you make this claim?” Onlin asked.
“On the ground that she’s a witch. She will kill you all. If Sarlic had brought me my book of spells, I could have spared your lives.”
Onlin’s visor flashed. “I have seen the book you seek,” she said.
“Seeing and having are two different things, Roualen. You are empty handed. Without my book, this evening has been wasted. Sunset has come. The light of the moon is not enough to power any of my spells.”
“I have recorded the book. And I have the light of your sun with me. Look.” Onlin’s visor cast a bright light across the ground that lit up the air around her and Margga.
“Put that out,” Margga hissed. “Someone will see.”
The light vanished.
“Come, follow me,” Margga said. She led Onlin to and down cement stairs inside the remnants of the house’s foundation. Inside the cellar where she had trapped Charles Erickson’s spirit, she had Onlin repeat her performance with the sunlight.
The place glowed bright. Within the light, Onlin displayed a holographic image of Margga’s book. The book opened and the pages turned by an unseen hand.
Margga looked upon the image and squealed with delight. Then she moaned. “It’s backwards,” she said. “I cannot read it.”
“Stand behind me.”
Margga did and peered over Onlin’s left shoulder. The words righted and she watched the pages turn in front of her and Onlin.
“Stop,” she said after several minutes had passed. “That’s the spell I seek.”
She muttered while she read the page aloud. The light turned red. She hummed a song and manipulated the crimson sunlight particles in her hands as though she were making a red snowball from a handful of red snow. She held the red ball of light in her hands and grinned.
“Tell Sarlic I have something here the girl wants,” she said. “Have him tell the girl her father will remain trapped here unless she comes to me tonight. She has until precisely eleven o’clock. Any dawdling and I will destroy his spirit.”
VREE FOLLOWED SARLIC and the buzzing sound from the cavern where the spaceship sat with two of its flight engines still out of position.
They followed the widest rivulet and Sarlic led Vree across a wet floor of worn limestone where it steepened and the rivulet flowed faster and deeper.
They ducked into a cramped conduit, squeezing past damp marble and other metamorphic rock. The passageway widened. So did the flow of water, which had become the passageway’s floor and lapped over Vree’s tennis shoes.
Farther in, the floor steepened. A few yards ahead, it angled almost straight down. The water pushed at their feet, making the way difficult.
“Take my manus and hold tight,” Sarlic said, extending an arm to Vree. Then, “No, not manus,” he said. “That is not the correct word.”
Vree clutched Sarlic’s right hand with her left one. “I know what you meant,” she said. “My daddy had a book of Latin in his library.”
Images from Sarlic penetrated her mind when she took his hand, but she shoved them aside. Her father’s spirit was in danger. She would do whatever it took to save him.
Her shoes—those purple and white Nikes—lacked traction against the smooth stone. She slipped easily and fell several times on the water-worn floor that became steeper the farther they went.
She was sore, soaked, cold, and shivering when the wet and slippery stone floor leveled and widened into a streambed that deepened and reflected moonlight at the mouth of an exit straight ahead.
She hurried as best she could as Sarlic led her outside.
Bright moonlight lit behind the mackerel sky—rows of cloud, like a thick weaved scarf tinted with the fading remains of a midsummer sunset. The night’s darkness hid details of the stream and ground where boulders reared like fat monoliths and groves of conifer trees blocked the north and south sky on either side of the stream.
Vree estimated that they had traveled twenty minutes and that it was close to nine thirty. She had left her cellphone with its clock in her bedroom.
“Where are we and how much farther?” she asked. She shivered, though the night was warm.
“We are at the foot of Myers Ridge near Myers Creek,” Sarlic said. He extended an arm at the grove of trees at their right. “The road you need to travel on is that way. Follow it west until you come to an intersection. Home is less than a mile north.”
“I remember the road,” she said, wading to the stream’s edge nearest her. She stopped and shivered again, but not because she was cold.
“I can’t believe someone wants to hurt my father,” she said.
“Margga wants your power,” Sarlic said. “She claimed to want it so she could save my people and me from you. But I am certain now that she wishes only to use it to escape her imprisonment.”
“You mentioned Margga in my bedroom. You called her a spirit, a remnant of someone horrible. Lenny called her a witch imprisoned to the property next door to my grandparents’ place. He said she wants to kill him and his family.” Vree recalled the vision of the woman running from a witch who filled her heart with fear. “Both of you said she wants to kill me, too. But if it means saving my dad, she can have my power. But then she will kill Lenny and probably my family as well. And who will set the proper sequence of your engines?” She rubbed the back of her neck.
“Margga would rather see us dead than help us go home,” Sarlic said.
Vree groaned. “Is there no one else like me?”
Sarlic said nothing.
“I’m sorry, Sarlic, but I need to do this,” Vree said. “My father means everything to me. I would rather be with him in spirit than to have him destroyed.” She lifted her right foot to step onto the foot-high embankment when her left foot slipped and her leg buckled. Her kneecap struck a rock when her leg plummeted into the stream, and pain gripped her knee, causing her to turn and sit in the water.
“Ow,” she cried out. “I can’t straighten my leg. It hurts.”
Sarlic hurried to her.
“Where does your leg hurt?”
“My knee,” she said through clenched teeth.
Sarlic gently felt her knee and said, “I have studied human anatomy and I am certain I know what the problem is. The knee joint is locked. But these wet pants pressing against your kneecap are hindering my diagnosis. We need to get you out of the water so you can take off your pants.”
“I’m not taking off my pants.” Vree closed her eyes and pictured in her mind a healed leg. A wave of dizziness fell on her.
“I feel so tired,” she said.
Sarlic felt the sides of Vree’s knee. “The patella is dislocated.”
“Yes … all the way to the side. I must push it back in place and straighten your leg by pulling. It will hurt. And your wet pants will make the going slow and more painful. But it is your decision to make.”
Vree was quiet for almost a minute while she struggled to stay awake. Using her powers on Sarlic’s ship had exhausted her.
“How do you know it’ll work?” she asked. “You aren’t human. And don’t say you read about fixing dislocated knees in a book or that you saw it on TV.”
“Our skeletal structures are similar,” Sarlic said. “My mother had the same thing happen when I was young. I watched my father put it back in place.”
Vree swallowed. “Tell me what to do,” she said.
“Take off your pants.”
“I will not look at you as long as you remember not to look at me,” Sarlic said. He lifted her legs and removed her shoes without untying them. She wore no socks and Sarlic saw that she had cut and bruised the soles of her feet, perhaps by running without wearing shoes. His visor flashed while he quickly studied her feet. Then he placed her shoes on the bank while he held her feet with his other hand—or manus, as he had called it—and returned to studying her feet. He rubbed the foot of her injured leg, pushing at the sole of her foot.
“What are you doing?” Vree asked.
“Your feet are cramped and tense,” Sarlic said. “This will release the tension going up your leg and loosen the muscles around your knee. It will make putting your kneecap in place easier.”
He massaged her foot for a few minutes before he told her again to take off her pants.
Vree undid her jeans and, while Sarlic looked away, she braced her back against the embankment, lifted her buttocks, and pushed down her pants. Her underwear went down too; she fought to keep them on while she struggled to get her jeans past her hips.
Every movement seemed to amplify the pain while Sarlic lifted her feet and tugged down her pant legs while looking away from her. Finally, he worked her jeans over her wounded knee and slipped off her pants. He laid them with her shoes on the embankment.
Vree squirmed back into her underwear, pressed her thighs together, and awaited his instructions.
“I am going to place one of my hands on your kneecap and the other around your ankle,” he said. “Then I will pull on your leg,”
“Will it hurt?”
“Yes.” Sarlic knelt in the water, tucked her calf under his right arm to keep her leg elevated, then hunched over her knee and massaged the kneecap, working it back in place. Then he pulled her leg to straighten it.
Vree cried out, but only for a moment.
Sarlic kept her leg extended.
“You cannot bend it yet,” he said.
“For how long?”
“I will let you know.”
He said nothing more while he counted off the seconds in his head. When he reached three minutes, he helped her to stand.
“Lean on me and head to the trees. The pine needles will make a warm bed.”
“You need to rest.”
“I don’t have time to rest.”
“You need to rest and stay off your leg while I splint your knee.”
“I need to keep Margga from destroying my daddy’s spirit!”
A swishing sound came from somewhere nearby. It took Vree several seconds to recognize the sound of an automobile’s tires passing over a road’s rain-soaked blacktop.
She estimated that the road was a half-mile away—hopefully less.
She sat and struggled to put on her jeans. Her knee throbbed angrily at times, pounded like a jackhammer when she put on her wet shoes, and beat her spirit with crushing blows whenever her jeans pressed against the injured bone and cartilage as she hobbled away from Sarlic.
She fell after taking three steps.
“I can do this,” she shouted at Sarlic when she heard him approach her. He stopped and she searched the ground for a branch long and strong enough to use as a crutch. She found none, so she used her arms and good leg to lift her backside and crawl backward toward the sound of another car passing along the highway.
Lift, move, stop, rest, and catch my breath in between the pain. Then go on.
Every lift, every jostle across the terrain of field grass and rocks, made her cry out until she was hoarse.
But her chances of making it to the road increased with every move, so she crawled on until she came to the bank of another stream.
She crawled backward into the cold water and urinated before she crawled on. Sharp stones bruised her hands, and the rocks she crawled over worsened the pain in her knee.
She screamed at her misfortune, bullying her body to go on, pressing upwards along the embankment on the other side until she was across the stream and out of breath. She rested for several minutes until shivers wracked her body and tore at her knee. Determined to save her father, she pushed along, going up a hill and resting once when the pain became unbearable. At the top, she rested again before she made her way down, into a black field of brush and scattered trees.
The road beckoned below her. She heard the swish of a vehicle’s tires passing over the blacktop. She pushed on, her back forever facing her destination. Her hands were numb now. So were her buttocks. Her arms and lower back cried for her to rest.
She pressed on instead. The wet field grass almost made the going easier until she pushed her way into brambles that grabbed her, cut her, slowed her. Dense tangles held her by her shirt and hair for many minutes, and kept her from the highway.
Another car passed her, one more fleeting hope for salvation from this hell. She tore loose from the brambles and crawled into more. But she fought her way through until she was free and on her way through sparser grasses.
She came to the top of an irrigation ditch. There, she turned around and dangled her legs over the edge of the concrete precipice. Gravity pulled at her knee, but she refused to cry out.
The drop looked to be about seven feet but she saw no easier way down to the highway. She shut her eyes, pushed herself from the ledge, and clenched her jaw as she waited for an explosion of horrible pain inside her knee. It came swiftly as she landed feet first in the ditch.
When she came out of the red jaws of agony, she found that she was on her stomach and lying in bitter-tasting rainwater. Hand over hand, inch-by-inch, she crawled out of the ditch until she rested at the shoulder of the highway.
She waited. No vehicle passed, no car stopped—no one came for her.
She placed a hand against the highway and felt warmth there. She hugged the road’s glorious heat, and wept to feel it kiss her face.
When she opened her eyes, rainwater and exhaust fumes covered her. A car had passed along the highway’s other lane. It took the last of her energy to crawl onto the road, onto warmer tarmac. She welcomed the heavenly heat as she lay on her stomach and prayed that the next driver would see her and not run over her.
She heard Myers Ridge laughing at her.
She would not make it in time. Margga would destroy her father’s spirit.
She wished to be in her father’s arms, and for him to take her away from here.
Suddenly, the heavenly warmth of two strong arms lifted her from the road.
“Daddy?” she managed to say before darkness wrapped like a blanket around her and took her quick and without warning into the great oblivion of unconsciousness.
FOR TWO HOURS, Lenny bussed tables, washed dishes, and wondered about his new neighbors, especially about Verawenda Erickson.
Now, while Vree still followed Sarlic through the cavern at Myers Ridge, Lenny took a seat at the counter in the foyer that his mom had turned into a gift shop months before her death. The digital clock behind the cash register read 9:17. The place had plenty of customers still in the dining room, except for Mr. Phillips, a night janitor at Ridgewood Hospital who was just leaving.
Mr. Phillips, bald, squat, and wearing his usual navy blue work clothes, stood at the counter and received change from Lenny’s oldest sister, Lynelle. “Delicious as usual,” he said before he shuffled out in the night and left Lenny alone with Lynelle.
She saw him and disappeared through a doorway behind the counter. She emerged moments later with a plate of the evening special of two pork chops, a scoop of mashed potatoes and gravy, and a spoon of green beans that their father had held for him in the kitchen. She also brought him a glass of milk, which he drank greedily before attacking a pork chop.
“Chew before you swallow,” Lynelle said before wiping the countertop with a damp dishtowel she carried over a shoulder. Her long auburn hair was tied in its familiar ponytail and she wore a short-sleeved printed blouse and black Capri pants over her slim frame. She stopped cleaning and glanced at her slim gold watch. Lenny knew her on-again off-again boyfriend Henry James was coming for her at 10:30 and taking her to a late feature all the way over at the theaters at New Cambridge Mall.
“May I have some more milk?” Lenny called out, holding up his empty glass.
Lynelle took his glass and disappeared into the kitchen. When she returned with his refill, she met a thirty-something couple entering from outside. She put on her happy face and led them to the dining room. Lenny ate alone.
He thought about the curse on Myers Ridge, the one that the witch Margga had put on his great-grandparents long before his birth. He didn’t know the details, but a feud had developed between them. Margga killed his great-grandparents and was imprisoned on their property for her crime. Now, her spirit returns to the old property this time every year to kill his great-grandparents’ bloodline. So far, his mother, his father’s parents, and Gam Gam’s parents had died on July 5. And all between nine and nine thirty p.m.
He finished eating at nine thirty. Lynelle returned and took away his plate and glass, told him there was a German chocolate birthday cake upstairs on the table, and wished him a happy birthday before she entered the double doors of the kitchen and left him alone again. He left through the unmarked wooden door behind the restrooms, took the oak stairs to Lynelle’s apartment. Inside, he crossed the living room’s white shag carpet that matched most of the furniture there, and entered the kitchen where he flicked on the light inside the small cream-yellow room. A glass tin of chocolate cake sat next to a pair of glass salt and peppershakers and a glass sugar bowl on the glass table. Lenny almost tiptoed to the cake, afraid he might bump against the five-foot tall, white refrigerator along the way and knock over and break any of Lynelle’s glass animal figurines on top. Although it had been two years since he last broke anything, he dared not to risk paying to replace any of Lynelle’s expensive décor.
He removed the lid covering the cake, sliced a piece with a knife from a drawer next to the sink, and plopped it onto a glass plate from a cupboard. After returning the lid over the cake and putting the knife in the sink, he took a fork from the drawer and headed to the plush cream sofa in the living room.
He sat in the middle, facing the glass coffee table and an empty IC Lite Berry beer bottle next to a black remote control for the giant flat screen TV attached to the wall facing him. He fetched the remote and turned on a broadcast about twentieth century pop music. He ate his cake and watched TV until his fork fell from his hand, bounced off his lap, and headed for the floor.
He stopped its descent midair.
“Hey, kid,” a thick male voice said, intruding on Lenny’s magic moment.
Lenny snatched the fork and looked up at blue jeans holding up a potbelly inside a black HISTORY IS TO DIE FOR T-shirt heading his way. Above the shirt and directed at him, Henry James’s thirty-year-old whiskered face bore a frown.
Henry was an adjunct history professor at New Cambridge University who received lower pay than tenured professors and no health benefits, which made him attractive to Lynelle’s caring personality. All her life, she had taken in unfortunate stray animals … and Henry was no exception.
“Whatcha want, Henry?” Lenny asked.
“Don’t get snotty. I’m your ride. Where’m I taking you?”
“Down the road from my place.”
Lynelle stood next to Henry, looking anxious. “Be careful,” she said to Lenny.
“I have my pendant,” he said.
“Well, I need gas money,” Henry said. “I wanna take Linnie out to eat after the movie.”
“Lynelle,” Lynelle said, scowling at Henry. “I hate being called Linnie and you know it.” She shifted her weight to one leg and sent Lenny a pleading look. “If you hear any howling, go home.”
“I’ll be okay. Besides, we can’t stay locked up at home with the doors and windows locked and barred with salt every night of July fifth.”
“It terrifies me to know that this curse is real, that it’s dangerous, and that it can kill us if we get too close to it.” Lynelle frowned and bit at her lower lip. “Maybe you should stay here and go home with Dad after the restaurant closes.”
“Aw, that’s not fair. It’s my birthday.” Fires of anger gathered inside Lenny. It stung that his birthday was the day of the witch’s curse put on Reginald and Cathleen Myers and their descendants.
“Geez, Lyn, cut the kid some slack,” Henry said.
“My name’s Lyn-elle. Get it right.” Then she said to Lenny, “Lindsey and Leanne are spending the night with Reverend Anthony’s girls, where they’ll be safe.”
“Well, I’m not nine or seven, and I have my pendant.” Lenny reached into a pocket and pulled out some paper money. He handed the bills to Henry.
“Thanks, runt,” Henry said, snatching the money from Lenny’s hand. He counted the bills and said, “My history professor job has led me to some interesting books about local history. Did you know that some people believed they could fend off a witch’s curse with a witch’s bottle?” He crossed the room, removed a clay vase from atop Lynelle’s bookcase, and dumped out the change and buttons inside onto the coffee table. He handed the vase to Lenny. A medieval face was carved along its neck.
“During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries here, people who thought they were cursed put their toenails, fingernails, urine, and hair into these bottles. They would bury them in their yards near their homes to ward off curses and hexes and other evil stuff.”
“Ew,” Lynelle said, scrunching her nose. “Are you saying that thing had urine in it?”
Henry laughed. “Not this one,” he said to her. “I made this in a college art class.” He looked at Lenny. “What’s important is that like your pendant, if you believe that this bottle will ward off curses, it will.”
Lenny peered inside the bottle. “So, if I put my fingernails, toenails—”
Lynelle snatched the bottle from him. “Uh-uh. This stays here.”
Henry winked at Lenny. “Come on, kid,” he said. “Time to go.”
Lenny followed him down the stairs, his tennis shoes and Henry’s boots clomping against the wood.
“Be careful,” Lynelle called out before Henry and Lenny headed out into the cursed night.
AS SOON AS Henry dropped Lenny off in front of the Lybrook’s house at ten o’clock, Lenny scampered across the front yard and around the side where the brook separated the house from his great-grandparents’ property. No moonlight broke the cloud cover, so he squinted at the field where a grand mansion once stood almost a hundred yards away—the place where Margga had killed his great-grandfather.
He paused, certain he had seen the figure of someone standing on the other side of the brook. He scanned the darkness as he hurried to the flickering flames of a campfire behind the Lybrook house.
Dave and Amy sat side by side at the fire, roasting hot dogs on a stick. Three angular tents were set up behind him.
“Grab a stick and some dogs,” Dave said, seeming to awaken from a trance the fire had put him in when Lenny approached. Amy saw him, patted her sleeping bag and told him to sit next to her. He did, sandwiching himself between brother and sister, all the while smelling hot dogs and wood smoke and Amy’s perfume that smelled like oranges.
Despite the humidity and the heat from the fire, Dave and Amy wore sweatshirts. Lenny wondered about Vree while he snuck a glance at the lighted attic window.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Dave said. “Take a look at the property next door and tell me if you see anything.”
“Like what?” Lenny asked, peering straight ahead at his great-grandparents’ old property.
“Dave thought he saw ghosts,” Amy said. She gave him her whittled stick and a hot dog to roast. “First Vree, and now him.”
“They were dogs,” Dave said; “three of them as plain as day. One looked like a Rottweiler, but the other two were shadowy. All three vanished into thin air right before you came.”
“You saw a Rottweiler and two shadowy dogs?” Lenny almost dropped his hotdog while he fumbled to pierce it with the stick. “Was the Rottweiler black with red eyes? And did you hear any howling before you saw it?”
“No … no howling. But—”
Lenny looked again at the property. “My great-grandfather and his two hunting dogs were killed there … frozen to death on this night, long ago by a witch who once lived in the house you’re living at right now.”
He waited for derision from either Dave or Amy. Not many people believed in witches and ghosts, but Dave and Amy were silent.
“During the same night, the witch pushed my great-grandmother to her death at the cliffs here on Myers Ridge.” Lenny glanced at where the trickling brook separated the two properties. A half-mile away to his right, the brook fell into a steep-sided gorge called Widow’s Ravine. “Because of her crime, some witch council sentenced her to death. Now, every night on this date, she and my great-grandparents return here so that she may apologize to them for her actions. Instead, she refuses, and has cursed their descendants to die on this night. If we hear the howl of her hellhounds, we must run to the nearest cemetery and look for flames. Otherwise, we’ll die. Flames in cemeteries are sacred symbols that mean life.”
He kept his gaze fixed on the old property. Dave and Amy were silent while he scanned for any ghostly activity. Then, Amy sucked in a breath and said, “That would make a better Halloween story than a day-after-July-Fourth story.”
Lenny’s shoulders sagged. “It’s not a story; it’s true,” he said. He returned his attention to cooking his hotdog, and ate it without a bun or any dressing, just the way he liked them.
Meanwhile, Dave and Amy grew silent again. Dave kept his attention on the property next door until Lenny asked about Vree.
“She’s such a baby,” Dave said, throwing the remains of his hotdog into the fire.
“I get so tired of her wanting us to feel sorry for her,” Amy said, watching sparks rise into the night sky. “Just because she was struck by lightning and was in a coma, we’re supposed to treat her with kid gloves.”
“She’s the reason Dad died,” Dave said. “If she would have celebrated her birthday with us, she wouldn’t have been speeding to get the yard mowed for her stupid birthday party the day after. Then she wouldn’t have run over my ball glove and stalled the mower. And Dad wouldn’t have been struck by lightning pushing the mower to the garage.”
Lenny’s brows drew together in a scowl. Dave and Amy were being unfair to their sister.
He threw down his stick and stood. “I’m going inside,” he said.
“No one’s home,” Amy said. “Everyone’s on the road looking for Vree again.”
Lenny stopped and stared at the window of the room where he and Vree had seen Enit Huw. He turned and faced Dave and Amy. “I don’t know what all happened to Vree when she was struck by lightning,” he said, “but she’s different from us.” He thought about how he had stopped his fork from falling to the floor at his sister’s apartment. “She has special abilities that you and I don’t have. And that frightens her. But not as much as the witch next door.”
Amy groaned. “Not more witch tales,” she said.
Before Lenny was able to reply to her unkind comment, a stick snapped behind her tent and caused him to look. A dark shape floated around the tent and into their midst.
AT 10:20 P.M., Sarlic laid Vree next to the fire. He was almost certain that neither the boys nor the girl could see him. And by their expressions, he knew he had frightened them when he entered their camp and they saw Vree ‘floating’ above the ground.
He stayed with Vree until the boy with brown hair knelt at her side. Sarlic recognized him from the blueberry patch.
“She was actually floating,” the other boy said. He had a cast on his arm and the arm in a sling.
“I think she was carried,” the first boy said. He lowered his face next to Vree’s. “She’s breathing.” He patted her cheeks. “Verawenda, can you hear me?”
Sarlic crossed the yard.
“Leave her alone,” he said to Margga who stood near the brook and watched.
“I have the spell,” she said, showing him the lighted red sphere in her hand. “I can kill her now, take her power, and leave my imprisonment. It’s win-win for me and you … and your people.”
“She has no power for you to take,” Sarlic said.
Margga gaze fell on him. “What?”
Sarlic had never lied before. But he had seen it done among humans many times. He hoped the liar he spoke to wouldn’t see through his lie.
“She was fixing our engines and something went wrong. The ship drained her powers and nearly killed her. I had to carry her home.”
Margga stared at the place where Vree lay. “I sense magic still in her,” she said. “But it is weak, like you say.”
“It will likely take several days for her to be well again,” Sarlic said. “You will have to wait until next year to take her powers from her.”
“No,” Margga said. Her face contorted. “No, no, nonononono. I refuse to live this way another year. I will take what little she has left and hope it’s enough.”
“And if it isn’t?”
Margga glared at Sarlic. “You stupid, meddling space creature. This is your fault. All you had to do was bring me my book. But instead, you took the girl to your ship so you could fly away and leave me cursed to this place forever.”
She drew back her arm and released the spell at Sarlic. It struck him in the chest and exploded in a brilliant red flash. As he fell, Margga held up her hands. The red energy flew to her palms. She manipulated the energy until it was a sphere again.
Then she cast her sights on Lenny and Vree. With perfect aim, she could hit and kill both of them with her spell.
LENNY LOWERED HIS face next to Vree’s. “She’s breathing,” he said to Dave and Amy as they gathered around him. He patted Vree’s cheeks. “Can you hear me?” he asked.
Vree stirred, mumbled something, and fell back into unconsciousness.
Lenny placed a hand against her forehead.
The world around him vanished.
He fell into blackness, turning over a couple of times until he was on his back. The lumpy ground beneath his back pressed hard against his vertebrae. A snakelike arm coiled around his throat and squeezed.
He kicked and thrashed, fighting the source of the pain against his throat. It lessened the more he pushed up against the weight on him. He pushed until the blackness left and the thing on top of him skittered sideways.
A crimson spider’s giant, bulbous body moved away from him, its eight spindly legs tapping vigorously over the barren yellow ground beneath a blue-violet sky.
Vree rode the creature’s shiny, hairy back, her arms around its throat (if that is what it was), and pulled with all her strength. The spider stumbled and cursed, attempted to twist and roll free, but could not break Vree’s grip.
“Kick it in the butt,” Vree shouted.
“What?” Had he heard right?
“The butt,” Vree said. “Kick the spider in the butt. I can’t hold on much longer.”
Lenny scrambled behind the creature and tried to do what Vree had instructed, but the spider dodged his kicks.
“Hold still,” he said moments before he missed again. He fell this time and fell twice more before the spider stumbled and dropped its globular abdomen and backside close to the ground. Lenny took aim and managed to land a hard dropkick to the spider’s hindquarters. The creature hissed loudly as it lifted its back. Then its legs collapsed and it fell to its abdomen, which made a loud crunching sound.
Vree lifted her right arm over the spider’s head and brought a fist crashing down, splitting the head nearly in two. Dark, oily liquid spilled from the huge lesion.
She leapt from the dead spider and watched it for several moments before it vanished. Then she turned toward Lenny and revealed a scratched and concerned face to him. Her wounds looked superficial, but Lenny went to her to get a closer look.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” Vree said, letting him look her over until obvious discomfort set in. She stepped away and looked at the cloudless, blue-violet sky. She had on a black Pirates T-shirt and wore blue jeans shorts. Her shoes were green Keds with white polka dots. His clothes, however, were a swirl of attire that kept changing every second.
“Where are we?” he asked, looking away from his dizzying change of clothes.
“Of all the times I’ve had this dream, you’ve never asked me that.” Vree peered at him. “Then again, the guy who saves me is always faceless … until now.”
Blue trees sprouted from the ground as far as they could see and grew around them. “Come on,” she said. “We have to get out of here.”
“Where did you say we are?” Lenny asked. A fairytale forest of blue trees with orange leaves surrounded him and Vree.
“Another one of my nightmares,” Vree said. She pointed to a narrow path that developed in front of them. “Hurry. Let’s go.”
Lenny followed. Brush and smaller trees grabbed at their arms and legs as they went, limiting their progress. With every step, the path vanished behind them and Lenny asked, “Is this really happening?”
“Hurry,” Vree said. “Before the others get here.”
The woods were quite deep in most places, almost swallowing them in its darkness. Lenny hoped that Vree knew the way out because he knew he was lost in the foreign landscape.
They stopped next to a blue tree with white pears while Vree seemed to gather her bearings. Lenny heard faint noises coming toward them. He scanned the path as far as he could see and looked at every tree and bush near them, but he saw nothing.
He turned once, and when he looked back, Amy and Dave stood between him and Vree. He saw that they wore long, matching Pittsburgh Penguins sweatshirts because they faced him, looking at him, but seeming not to see him. They turned back and faced Vree when she said, “Take the lead, Amy. Dave, you follow. I’ll bring up the rear. Now hurry.”
Vree followed her siblings, leaving Lenny behind.
He shouted at Vree and told her to wait, but she did not pay attention to him. He ran after her and caught up to her minutes later when she and the others stopped at another blue tree with white pears.
“Is this the right way?” Amy asked.
Vree told her to hush. Amy did and Lenny heard noises again, but this time much clearer and louder.
To his horror, he saw them, three giant snakes—one black, one red, and the other one yellow—slither out of the brush and come at them. They were ten or eleven feet long, and despite their size, they came quickly and circled them and backed Amy and Dave against the pear tree. Vree stood her ground and so did Lenny.
“Oh God, Vree, I’m scared,” Amy cried out. Her fear could have shattered Lenny’s heart. Vree told her to be brave.
Dave, however, bolted and ran past them. He tried to pick up a fallen branch, perhaps to use as a weapon, but the black snake sprang at him, butted him in the chest and knocked him on his back. The snake rose partway up and opened a large, alligator-type mouth with rows of shark-like teeth. Two white fangs in front of its upper mouth sprang forward and outward like spears before the creature slammed its snout and those fangs into Dave’s chest.
Dave screamed. The snake pulled its fangs from him and raised its head for a moment before it attacked again, this time tearing away Dave’s shirt and stomach with its rows of sharp teeth before it slithered over his body and coiled around him and hushed his cries of anguish. It stayed there, its black body pulsating inches from Amy’s feet. Dave’s blood had splattered her sweatshirt and blue jeans, as well as her hands and the face she covered when she started to scream.
Lenny stayed very still and watched the other two snakes circle them as though trying to decide which one of them to strike next.
Their hisses became louder and their black, flicking tongues increased in speed and seemed very aggressive. The red one opened its mouth, baring teeth that could easily rip apart flesh and end their lives. Amy sobbed and Vree told her to hush and to keep still. Her sobs became violent and Lenny feared that any second the snakes were going to attack her and fill the ground with her blood.
Vree must have thought the same because she slowly inched her way toward Amy, who cried out, “How can this be? What hellish place has snakes this big?” As soon as she said this, the snakes stopped circling. They crouched low to the ground, readying to attack her.
“Don’t panic,” Lenny told her, though he said those words more to himself.
“We’re gonna die.” Amy wailed a horrible sound. Then she whimpered and cried miserably. She said, “Help me, Vree. I can’t take this anymore. Don’t let me die.”
“I’m coming to get you,” Vree said inching her way. “We can fight as a team, so please don’t make any sudden movements.”
The red snake saw Vree. It raised its head at her and hissed. She stopped.
“No,” Amy cried out, in a high-pitched voice. “Make this go away.” She repeated this several times. Then, “This isn’t real,” she screamed with determination deep in her voice. In a split second, she ran at the snakes. She made it only a few feet before the yellow snake head-butted her and forced her to the ground.
Her screams were gruesome. Lenny wanted them to stop, but he knew if they did stop, that would mean Amy was dead.
Vree shouted at the snake and demanded that it leave Amy alone.” The red one advanced a few inches closer. Vree flinched, stumbled, and fell on her backside. The red snake stopped and hovered over her. Next to it, the yellow snake hovered over Amy.
Amy stopped thrashing and screaming. Weakly, she said, “I don’t wanna die.”
Her eyes looked dull and almost lifeless. She wheezed when she inhaled. She said, “You can save me if you want to, Vree.”
“I want to,” Vree said. “Believe me, I would if I could.”
“You don’t love me anymore.” Amy whimpered.
“You’re wrong,” Vree said. “I do love you, Amy. I love Dave, too. But it’s you who don’t love me.”
“Do you truly love me, Vree?” Amy asked.
Amy nodded and closed her eyes. The yellow snake tore into her tender throat. Lenny shut his eyes and put his hands over his ears to muffle the sounds of her last moment alive.
His stomach began to hurt with an acid feeling that intensified, as though something wicked churned inside his belly, burning and ripping its way upwards into his chest and pressing cold against his heart. His stomach lurched and he doubled over and vomited on the ground.
When he opened his eyes and saw what he had done, he felt sure and unafraid. He had changed within that moment and he knew that he had the power to change what he saw. He stood and stared hard at the red snake above Vree. It was almost grinning as it flicked its forked tongue and moved from her and closer to him. He grinned back at it and felt anger fill his heart. His voice roared as he told it, “Be gone.”
He aimed his anger at the snake and watched it explode in a cloud of pink dust that rose through the leaves and ascended the sky. He did the same to the yellow and black snakes, erased them from existence.
The forest disappeared, followed by Amy and Dave until he and Vree stood again on barren yellow ground beneath a blue-violet sky.
“You have the worst nightmares,” he said. His gaze locked on Vree as she came to him and embraced him.
“Any more scary stuff in that pretty head?” he asked with obvious interest. “I feel powerful enough to take on the world.”
“Too many to count,” she said, releasing him. Her gaze dropped to his chest. “It’s a curse, I guess, of being afraid,” she said.
“It’s okay to be afraid,” he said.
“I know, as long as I don’t let it cripple me.”
Lenny, who had made a point of watching Vree closely in this strange place, examined the tilt of her head, her slight frown, and the noticeable high pulse in her neck near where she pulled at and fidgeted with her shirt. He saw scratches on the back her hand. Her tongue wetted her lips and made her more beautiful. She was terrified, for sure. But in her eyes, he saw a Herculean mettle growing.
“I love you,” he said.
She stopped and peered at him. A frown creased her forehead. “What did you say?” she asked moments later.
“Nothing,” Lenny said, pushing away the emotion that wanted to burst from him. “I’m just glad you don’t have my kind of nightmares.”
“And those would be what?”
“Going to school and finding out I forgot to get dressed,” he said and laughed.
A smile cracked her lips. He held her gaze in his own until her smile faded and she looked up.
Above them, a burning meteor entered the sky and fell toward them.
“Another nightmare?” Lenny asked.
“What does your faceless savior do this time?” Lenny asked as he watched the ball of fire fill the sky.
Vree pulled him into her arms and said, “Nothing. This is the one where I always wake up terrified and screaming for my daddy.”
LENNY AND THE meteor vanished.
Vree collapsed to the dream ground. Even in sleep, she was exhausted.
Except for a face that hovered above her, blackness overcame her. The face—her subconscious—said, “Hey, girly-o, now’s not the time to sleep.”
Vree groaned and told her subconscious to leave her alone.
“And let you hide from your problems all your life? No. You need to acknowledge your power and be strong with it. Stop being afraid.”
“Now you sound like every fantasy book I’ve ever read … every movie I’ve watched that has a hero who needs to stand up and face his fears.”
“Because that’s what heroes do.”
A white crow’s face appeared next to Vree’s subconscious one.
“The witch killed Sarlic,” Enit Huw said.
“No,” Vree cried out, but Enit Huw interrupted her mourning.
“Margga thinks you drained your magic power while you were fixing the Roualen ship. She is of no threat to you, your family, or your friend right now as long as you keep your magic at its current low level. She will leave at midnight and return to her incarceration in the abysmal darkness of Tartarus for another year, whence she will return to Myers Ridge and seek escape by magic again. Your magic. This event will play out for many years unless you stop it tonight by killing her.”
Vree shook her head. “Uh-uh, I’m not a killer,” she said. “As long as I keep my magic under wraps, no one else gets hurt tonight. When the witch is gone, I can fix the ship so the Roualens can leave. Sarlic would have wanted it that way.”
“As long as Margga is around, neither you nor your family or friends are safe. She has cursed your friend’s bloodline and has killed members of it. She will do the same to yours if she ever finds out you deceived her.”
Vree looked away and was silent.
“Margga will kill again as long as she is able,” Enit Huw said before vanishing.
“Heroes don’t hide from their fears,” Vree’s subconscious said before vanishing, too.
In the darkness, Vree struggled with the idea that her life and everyone’s lives connected to hers would always be in danger of a witch.
Even Daddy’s spirit is in danger, she reminded herself.
VREE SUCKED IN a breath, opened her eyes, and saw Lenny and Dave peering down at her. Awakened from her nightmares and sad to know that Sarlic was dead, confusion weighed on her mind as to where she was. She sat up with Lenny’s help and cried out in pain. Her knee throbbed. She looked at the tents and knew she was in her grandparents’ backyard. Someone had brought her here.
“How did I get here?” she asked.
“You were floating,” Dave said. His voice was accusing and he sounded angry.
“It looked like someone was carrying you,” Lenny said.
Vree scooted closer to Dave and surprised him by embracing him. “I love you,” she said. She looked at Amy who sat behind Dave. “You too,” she said. She scooted closer to the fire. Her shoes, pants, and lower half of her shirt were soaked. Lenny joined her, sitting at her right.
“Was I really with you in your dreams?” he asked, keeping his voice low.
She reached out and touched the back of his nearest hand. Darkness overwhelmed her. She let go of Lenny’s hand. His surprised look told her that something had happened to him, too.
She asked him, “What time is it?”
“Ten thirty,” Lenny said. “Maybe later. Why?”
Vree stood with difficulty, favoring her sore knee, and hobbled to the brook. She saw no witch waiting for her, but she sensed a presence. “I’m here,” she said. “Release my father’s spirit like you promised.”
She thought she heard someone say “You are damaged and useless” but the words were more like the sound of wind passing by.
When nothing more came, she said, “I never did you any wrong. But you have done me many wrongs. You have made me your enemy.”
A hand gripped her left shoulder and turned her around.
“I don’t know why you’re talking to the thin air,” Dave said, “but I’m going inside and calling Mom to let her know you’re back. She’s out looking for you again. So are Grandma and Grandpa.”
“There’s a witch next door,” Vree said. “She’s holding Daddy’s spirit hostage.”
Dave shook his head. “I don’t care what you say anymore. Dad died; he’s gone. There are no spirits or witches. Just your farfetched imagination.”
“David, I need you to listen and not make fun of me. After I woke from my coma, I developed psychic powers. I saw things no one else could see. Well, except for Grandma. She was struck by lightning like me and was able to see them too.”
She paused when Dave sighed.
“There are creatures here called Roualens,” she said. “They’re from outer space and wear protective suits that make them invisible. But I can see them, which is bad because my ability shuts down their suits’ life support and kills them.”
“Stop talking like you’re crazy,” Dave said.
“You promised not to make fun.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Well, I don’t care whether you believe me or not. I was helping the Roualens fix their ship when we got a message that Margga—”
Dave spun around and headed toward the backdoor. “If you wanna tell Mom about your crazy hallucinations,” he called back, “go right ahead. Just don’t expect her or anyone else to believe your crap.”
He stopped when Amy ran to him and told him to wait. She sounded upset.
“I just saw them,” she said, pointing at the old property on the other side of the brook. “I saw those ghost dogs … a moment ago.”
“So did I,” Lenny said. He had followed at her heels. He turned and stared at the property behind Vree.
Vree turned and looked; she saw nothing but patchy darkness.
Then, a guttural howl came to her, starting like a deep moan that rose in pitch and volume and sent shivers across her back.
MARGGA STOOD ACROSS the brook and watched unseen. She stood over Sarlic’s body and seethed with anger. The girl with the strange name was unable to see and hear her; she had indeed drained most of her magic while fixing Sarlic’s ship.
The red ball of magic Margga held was useless.
Her hellhound Blood howled his impatience while he chased Reginald Myers’s silly ghost dogs around the cursed property.
Fuming and cursing, Margga stepped over Sarlic’s body and paced along the brook covered over with grass and old leaves and years of neglect. Rainwater managed to trickle through the clogged artery that separated her old house and Reginald Myers’s desolate estate.
She cursed his name and spat at the ground. He was the reason she was damned as a spirit to return here year after year. The Council wanted her to beg him and Cathleen for forgiveness. Never! He had killed her father while hunting, claimed it was an accident, and never showed any remorse. Oh sure, he had said to her repeatedly how much he was sorry, but her father had suffered in those wintry woods while he bled to death and his body froze, all because Reginald left him and pursued a large buck he’d shot at and missed.
She spat again. Reginald had claimed he never knew her father had been shot. But how does someone shoot a rifle and not know they’ve shot another person with it? It made no sense because it was a lie. A lie that had set her heart and mind on fire and turned her to seek out dark magic. She’d spent years traveling to wayward places until she found the ancient book of songs written in an old language that few can read. Magic helped her understand the text and sing the songs. She read the songs of good and bad spells that had died centuries ago. And from the wickedest spells, she added her own. Saw visions and added them, too. She grew with power and caused Reginald and his hunting dogs to freeze to death, and Cathleen to jump to her death at the cliffs of Myers Ridge.
Now, turning and watching the curse of her punishment unfold behind her, she swore vengeance and cursed the Myers name. Reginald’s ghost wavered in the waist-high field grass that had been a well-kept lawn of soft, luxurious bluegrass. Blood howled in pursuit of his dogs she called Chaos and Morbid; they ran past her along the bank. Cathleen’s ghost cried from Widow’s Ravine as it plunged repeatedly to the bottom. And all Margga had to do was say she was sorry and her punishment and imprisonment would be over. Her death would be final.
She turned back and saw the magic. It was weak, two faint beacons side by side across the brook. They touched, became one, and doubled in strength where Vree and Lenny stood, holding hands. Could their combined magic be enough to set her free?
She called for Blood. The Rottweiler stopped his pursuit and bounded to her.
“Bring me the girl and boy who shine with magic,” she said.
VREE HAD LEFT the brook and now stood with Lenny beneath the light at the backdoor. They were alone. Dave and Amy had gone inside, away from the visions of Chaos and Morbid. She wondered if Dave was on the phone, telling their mother that he and Amy had seen ghosts. She hoped so. Let them be the freaks for once in their lives.
She stood at Lenny’s side and looked for the ghost dogs that had run and vanished inside the high grass. She barely felt his hand holding hers until he tightened his grip. Warmth filled her.
But a growl behind them turned her cold.
Lenny let go of her hand and they turned together. Vree saw nothing there.
Something pungent and foul smelling like rotten eggs—hydrogen sulfide?—pushed her backwards. She barely kept her balance. Her sore knee caused her to cry out.
Lenny stumbled next, as though an invisible force had pushed him too.
The awful smell returned and pushed her again.
Again, she kept her balance and cried out.
“It’s pushing us to the brook,” Lenny said when he stumbled backward again. He caught his balance, turned, and darted toward the tents. He took five steps and sprawled to the ground, as though he had been tackled. His right leg lifted and his body slid across the wet ground, heading toward the brook. He thrashed and yelled for help while Vree watched.
“Stop it,” she cried. She followed as fast as her knee would allow without causing her to fall. She wished she hadn’t tired herself while fixing Sarlic’s ship. Her powers were still weak, but not enough that she didn’t see the hazy shape of a big dog dragging Lenny by the pants leg across the brook.
Vree followed, careful not to lose her balance on the uneven ground.
She found Lenny on the other side, scrambling to his feet.
She ran to him.
MARGGA AIMED CAREFULLY before she released the red ball of magic.
Its forceful flash of red light struck Vree and knocked her off balance. The light engulfed her and made her sick to the stomach. She kept down the bile that rose in her throat, plunged through the red cloud of light, and found Lenny on the ground, lying on his back, his eyes closed. His face was pale but he was breathing. She touched his forehead and cheeks; his skin felt hot.
He opened his eyes, looked at her, and said her name.
Vree fell on him and asked if he was okay. Lenny’s lips moved against her cheek. She lifted her face and he said, “I hurt so much.”
“Where does it hurt?” she asked.
His chest raised and lowered as he breathed. He looked at her and smiled. He looked handsome despite the early stage of acne that seemed bright along his cheeks.
“Where do you hurt?” she asked.
“The sky is gorgeous,” he said.
“What sky?” She turned her head and could barely see the night air beyond the blanket of red light.
His whispered laugh caused her to turn back and shiver. He reached out, touched her lips, her chin, and her neck. “I love you,” he said. He ran his hands over her mussed hair that fell on his face when she leaned in and locked her gaze with his.
“Can you get up?” she asked before he closed his eyes and stopped breathing.
“Lenny?” She practically screamed his name.
He did not move.
“Come back.” She fell on him once more, but only for a second. She began CPR the way she had learned in Health class at school. “Come back,” she cried again as she applied external cardiac massage.
Moments later, she stopped and closed her eyes at the sight of his lips becoming blue and switched to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but he remained collapsed with no pulse and no breath.
The red light vanished but she barely noticed until she saw moonlight against his lifeless face.
“No,” she wailed. “Don’t be dead.” She looked heavenward. “Please, don’t let him die.”
A hawk flew overhead. She watched its liquid motion as it glided across the seemingly airless sky. She directed her prayers toward the hawk and imagined the mighty bird soaring to the secret reaches of heaven, her prayers following its wake.
She closed her eyes and wept.
An electric hum filled her head.
She heard Lenny snort and saw him draw in a deep breath through his mouth. He opened his eyes and she fell on him, pressed a cheek against his chest, and listened to his steady heartbeat.
“You’re alive,” she said and wept.
The hum in her head increased and vibrated down her back, to her arms and hands, on to her legs and feet. Her sore knee quit hurting.
She felt Lenny shudder against her. He struggled from her as he sat up, looked around, and asked, “Where are we? What happened? My body feels like it got pile driven at a football game.”
Vree saw that they were now bathed in white light that came from each other. Their skin glowed, grew brighter and hurt her eyes as night around them became brighter than any daylight she had ever seen. Warmth filled her; she felt joyful to be with Lenny.
“I love you,” she said. Her eyes filled with tears before she rushed him and wrapped her arms around him, nearly setting him off balance. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.” She knew it was a silly thing to say. And she knew that professing her love and crying in front of a boy she barely knew was silly of her, too, but she could not control her emotions.
“I don’t know why I’m being so emotional,” she said as Lenny held her and hushed her.
Moments later, a shadow passed over them. Lenny looked up at a tall, long-legged woman standing inside the light and looking down at them, her dark eyes wide and her ghostly white face drawn in perverse delight.
The fact that she wore brown leather sandals, short denim coveralls over a red T-shirt, and a hairstyle from the 1940s didn’t surprise Lenny. Spirits manifested their electromagnetic energy to the mortal world as an exhibition of their selves and personalities, which included fashions. And he had seen enough pictures in his great-grandparents’ photo album to recognize their nemesis and killer.
“LEAVE US ALONE,” Vree said, rising to her feet and facing Margga. The light she emitted caused the ghost witch to squint.
“My, my,” Margga said. “You’ve got balls … and a new surge of magic, don’t you?”
“That’s right,” Vree said. “And I’ll give it to you once you release my father.”
“It’s too late for that.”
Was it after eleven o’clock? Vree didn’t think so.
“Then you can’t have my powers,” she said.
“Oh, I’m already taking them. With every second that passes, I’m drawing your magic from you.”
Vree looked at her arms and hands and saw that they didn’t shine as brightly now. And the hum in her head had quieted.
“Then I’ll take my magic back,” she countered.
Margga laughed. “You really think so?” she hissed.
Vree cast her gaze away from Margga and saw Sarlic’s body on the ground. She went to him and placed her hands on his chest. She felt no movement beneath his suit.
“He’s dead,” Margga said. She laughed again.
Vree looked away. She looked for Lenny and saw that he was gone. Had he left in fear as soon as she confronted Margga?
Vree stood and faced Margga again. The ghost witch looked down and grinned at a large, black dog sitting at her feet. The dog seemed to grin back at her.
Like black cats, black dogs were familiars to witches. And if Margga were truly a witch, she would have to defend herself physically whenever confronted face-to-face by another witch.
But I’m not a witch, Vree thought. Am I?
There was one way to find out.
“I challenge you for the spirit of my father,” Vree said.
Margga sucked in air and looked up. The black dog looked at Vree and growled.
“No behind-the-back-magic-spell-crap,” Vree said. “Once a witch calls another witch to the carpet, they must cast aside their magic. That’s why they were so easily caught and put to death all those centuries ago.”
“Is that so?” Margga hissed.
“Yes. Which is why I’m calling you out, Margga, and why,” her voice rose, “I’m going to destroy you unless you release my father to me.”
“You? You sassy little girl. You think you’re powerful enough to destroy me?”
Hatred filled Margga’s face. Her dark eyes burned flames at Vree. “I’m much more powerful now than you are,” she said. She drew back her right hand and flung a red sphere at Vree.
Vree jumped aside and the spell shot past her and crashed against the ground behind her in a flash of red light.
“No magic,” Vree cried out.
“Does it frighten you?” Margga squinted and grinned. “I will drain all of your magic and it’ll be mine. Then I’ll show this town—no! I’ll show this world how frightening my power can be.” Her hands glowed crimson as she raised them to her chest.
“You’re not allowed to fight me with magic,” Vree said. “That’s the rule you are bound by. Now put away your spells and listen to me.”
“Foolish child,” Margga hissed, “those days are long gone. There is no honor code among witches anymore.”
Vree opened her mouth to argue, but the sound of a cat meowing stopped her. The orange, mangy tabby from earlier ran to her and rubbed its body against her ankles, purring. Pus still oozed from its closed right eye.
And by the wild look in Margga’s eyes, Vree knew the cat’s life was in danger.
“Here kitty, kitty,” Margga called.
The cat ran to her, meowing louder.
Margga’s hands brightened as they caught fire. “I call out your power to come to me,” she said to Vree.
Vree watched the cat stop and look back at her, as though it had become confused.
“No,” Vree said, choking back a sob.
Margga passed her hands through the air and flung a flaming spell at the cat. The animal yowled and vanished in a cloud of red smoke.
“No!” Vree screamed.
Margga threw another spell, this one at Vree and caught her off guard as she backpedaled. The fireball exploded against Vree’s chest and pushed her over uneven ground where she fell amidst a cloud of yellow sparks and red smoke.
“WHAT THE … YOU … you’re glowing white,” Dave said when Lenny entered the living room. He rose from the sofa and stared at Lenny. “And you’re soaking wet. You’re dripping water all over my grandma’s carpet.”
“No time,” Lenny said, out of breath. “I need my book.” He went to the piano where Amy sat at the bench on the other side.
“You mean the music book?” Amy asked. She stopped playing a tune and stood to hand Lenny the heavy book from her lap.
“Music book?” Lenny opened the book and read sections of poetry. Like Vree earlier, he could read portions of the book. Other portions were undecipherable to him.
“The thing is filled with music,” Amy said. She reached across the piano and pointed at a section he couldn’t read. “See. I’ll play it.”
While Amy sat and played the music, Lenny leafed through the book. “There was a feather here that belongs to a white crow. Gam Gam told me that a white crow feather is powerful magic for witches.”
Dave groaned from his spot behind Lenny.
Lenny turned on him, their noses inches apart. “Your sister is more than psychic,” Lenny said. “She’s a witch. A good witch like my Gam Gam. She saved my life. That’s why I’m shining all white. But a bad witch wants her magic and … and there’s no time to explain the rest. Her life is in danger unless I can get the crow feather to her.”
For a moment, Dave looked angry. Then the emotion on his face changed to surprise as he looked at the piano. Lenny looked too at the tub of movie theater popcorn that had appeared on top of the piano.
Amy stopped playing and the tub of popcorn vanished.
“I was thinking about hot, buttery popcorn,” she said to Lenny. Her surprised look matched Dave’s.
Wonderment passed between them. Lenny saw an arrowhead on the piano and said, “Keep that with you tonight at all times. And if your grandmother has enough salt, pour some at the front and backdoors. There are hellhounds loose tonight.”
Confusion crossed Amy’s face.
“Trust me,” Lenny said. Then he remembered why he had come for the book.
“I need the feather,” he said. He hurried around the upright piano and saw his drawing beneath the bench. The feather was there, too. He tucked both in the book and went to a bookcase. On top was a clay vase with plastic red roses arranged in a bouquet. He dumped the flowers on top of the piano and bolted from the room.
A FORCE OF red light pressed Vree’s back against a poplar tree near the bank of the brook. Red coils wrapped around her forehead, arms and legs, and fastened her to the tree. Another coil wrapped around her jaw, pressed against her mouth, and became a gag.
Margga lunged at Vree and struck her face with an open hand.
A flame burned in Margga’s heart to see fear on Vree’s bleeding face. A fire roared in the pit of her stomach from the girl’s magic inside her. Terribly, she laughed at the girl’s misery until pain in her head felt like a caged lion with razor-like teeth and claws ripping from within and trying to escape.
Terrible still, she wanted to kill Vree right away before all her magic was gone. But that would ruin the plan of hearing the girl beg for her life once she was powerless and faced death. They all did, whether witch or mortal … or stupid Roualen.
Margga slapped Vree again when she saw that the girl pitied her.
“Don’t you judge me,” Margga said as she removed the coils from Vree’s mouth. “And don’t you ever think you’re better than me.”
With a small shrug of her slim shoulders, Vree said evenly, “Kill me. I don’t care.”
Margga stared at her in disbelief. “Don’t lie to me,” she managed to say. She could barely speak. Then anger brought back her voice. “I know you’re afraid to die. I see it your eyes. ”
“My parents used to be rich. My dad was a lawyer and my mom was a well-paid teacher at a really good school. We lived in a beautiful house and were happy. Now my daddy’s dead and it’s my fault. My brother and sister hate me. We have to live in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere because of my carelessness. So if you think killing me is going to make things worse for any of us, go ahead. Kill me.”
Margga’s anger turned to disbelief again, and then to disappointment. “You’re pathetic. You don’t deserve the magic I’m taking from you. You’re not even worth killing.”
She spat in Vree’s face.
With no warning, pain screamed inside Margga’s head and she wanted to scream with it. She needed to hurry the transference of magic.
LENNY HURRIED TO the brook and saw Vree pressed against the tree, red coils of magic binding her. Margga yelled and slapped her, which he used as an advantage to go to the brook and dig up the soft earth. He looked for the Rottweiler and heard by its vicious barking that it chased the shadows of his great-grandfather’s dogs. He saw their blue and orange glow in the field grass near the road. He hoped the hellhound wouldn’t see or smell him.
But Margga had more than one hellhound. Gam Gam had told him they often appeared before midnight, circling the ghost witch before her disappearance back to Tartarus, the place where the worst witches went after death, sent there and punished by the Council of Magic.
Lenny scanned the area for the other hellhounds while he dug deeper at the edge of the brook and put Evelyn’s vase inside. He had everything he needed to ward off witchcraft inside the vase, including some of his urine. He covered the vase and nearly jumped when he heard car doors slam at Jack Lybrook’s garage.
Vree’s grandparents and mother were home. Dave and Amy were outside, standing at the backdoor and peering at the darkness beyond the brook. They had followed him outside. But they seemed afraid to go no farther.
While Vree’s grandparents and mother hurried to the backdoor behind him, Lenny crossed the brook at a different location and circled behind Margga. Coils wrapped around Vree’s mouth.
“Stay back,” Vree projected to him when she saw him. “Margga has taken most of my powers. I’m … starting … to weaken.”
Lenny hoped his thoughts would reach Vree without Margga sensing them.
What can I do to help?
“Just … stay … where you are.”
And then Lenny knew he had to create a distraction. He relied on the idea that Margga’s attention was focused fully on Vree, so he focused his on the small of Margga’s back as he ran, dodging the sudden leap from Blood who had returned from chasing Reginald Myers’s ghost dogs, and dived feet first at the witch.
He connected and propelled Margga past Vree, sprawling her face-first to the ground. Lenny caught his balance, opened the book to where he had put the feather, and hurried it to Vree.
“Do you have the arrowhead?” he asked.
“Yes. In my pocket.”
“Good. It’ll slow down Margga’s attack.” He stuck the feather’s quill into one of the coils around Vree before Blood slammed into his left side and sent him sprawling to where Margga lay.
Hands grabbed the book. He wrestled it away from Margga in a tumble of bodies rolling, struggling, pushing, slapping, and clawing until Lenny was on his back and Margga’s knees pressed on his throat. There was a triumphant gleam in her eyes while Lenny fought to breathe.
She pulled the book from his grasp; the air around them crackled.
“This is no fight for weak and pathetic children,” Margga said. She opened her mouth wide and laughed. And while she laughed, hatred overtook her triumphant look and her hands filled with magic.
Pinpoints of light filled Lenny’s vision. He worked his hands beneath Margga’s knees and pushed with all his strength.
The witch toppled forward.
Lenny sucked in air and rolled away. He looked up to see Margga’s hellhound rush at him. He closed his eyes.
The attack never came.
He opened his eyes in time to see Blood soaring through the air like a cloth doll. It landed hard against the wall of the Lybrook house, and then fell to the ground, its body limp and looking lifeless. A red glow appeared around the dog’s body before Blood vanished.
A redder flash of movement in his peripheral caused him to look back at Margga. She had opened the book and now sang with a horrible voice. Her right hand flamed and pointed at him. The flame’s light enhanced her face. Hatred twisted her face into a grotesque mask of evil.
The thought that she was about to end his life barely crossed Lenny’s mind before the fire coming from Margga’s hand surged.
But the air exploded from where Vree stood. A white bolt of energy struck Margga and sent her stumbling to the ground.
AS SHE FELL, Margga threw her fireball of magic at Vree.
Her coils were gone. At the last second, Vree twisted away and dropped to the ground, shielding her eyes as the spell’s crimson light bathed the tree behind her. There was a sudden rumbling beneath her, as if the ground prepared to split open.
“Release my father,” she yelled out to Margga. “I command you.”
In defiance, Margga’s burning gaze found Vree as she rose to her knees and gestured two flaming hands at the ground in front of the girl. Twin laser blasts of red magic shot from her palms. Vree leaped out of the way, her purple and white Nikes gripping enough of the wet grass to aid her leap. She felt a flash of heat as the twin bolts ripped a chunk of the ground away. Blood and adrenaline raced through her body as she rolled and then leaped to her feet.
“I command you to release my father’s spirit from your spell,” she cried out.
Margga, who also stood now, shouted her defiance and flung a single bolt of magic.
Vree dropped to her stomach as the bolt hurried past her, almost grazing her back. She countered with her own magic, replenished by the white feather she clutched in her left hand. Her magic struck Margga’s counter and it ricocheted away, flying across the brook and striking her grandparents’ house. Vree heard a crack come from the house, but she refused to look to see if there was any damage. She had Margga in full sight now.
This time, a rope of magic lashed from her eyes in a fiery whip that snaked around Margga’s waist and yanked her off balance. Margga fell and the whip pulled her across the grass and toward Vree.
“No!” Margga screamed as the whip brought her within a few feet from Vree.
The whip vanished and the air around Vree exploded again as she shot a sphere of pure energy from her forehead at Margga. The sphere burst on impact and covered the ghost witch in a spidery, weblike blanket of white magic that emitted sounds similar to ice cubes cracking in a glass during a hot day.
“No!” Margga cried again. She flailed at the magic that spun around her, cocooning her. Her fingers managed to pierce the weblike material. “I’ll destroy you and everyone you’ve ever cared about. You cannot win.” Her face glowed crimson; her fingers turned to flame and she shot transference spells at Vree again and again. But the spells bounced off an armor of white light that now bathed Vree.
Margga struggled, pushed, and tore the magic gripping her. She freed her right arm. Fire engulfed it as her wrath grew. She flung more spells.
Vree’s brows furrowed, her eyelids shut tight, her face fixed in concentration while she worked on maintaining the white sphere around her and the weblike magic still cocooning Margga. Spidery fingers of magic energy cascaded around her, dancing in little sparks. Lightning flashed across the sky. She opened her eyes as her hands raged in an eruptive white glow.
The ground shook as four angry hellhounds appeared behind Margga. Vree aimed her fingers at the dogs leaping at her in a snarling, frothy attack and sent them to oblivion in a flash of white. Then she dodged a transference spell from Margga and countered with a thunder of fireballs and lightning bolts. But Margga managed to deflect her onslaught that burst in flames and bathed them and the brook in unearthly light.
Margga continued to push her way out of Vree’s confinement spell during the deflection. Vree noticed the escape and backed away. Margga stood, shedding the spell like a snake shedding its dry, shriveled skin, and shot transference spells at Vree that bounced away, unable to draw more than a fraction from Vree’s energy.
The battle between them raged on. Vree hoped to last until midnight when Margga would have to leave by the authority of the curse that had brought her here.
But Margga would return next year and continue her revenge against Lenny and his family. And her.
Vree wanted this to end. Now. But how? Margga was strong and controlled the elements of her magic well.
“Think, girly-o. Think,” her subconscious said. “You can do this.”
Three of Margga’s fiery transference spells ricocheted off Vree’s protection spell and caught one of the tents and the roof of the Lybrook home on fire behind Vree. She knew she had to rescue her grandparents’ house from burning to the ground. But the power she had found inside her that night was waning while she tried to think of a way to defeat Margga. She had to stay strong and concentrate. But doing both was impossible. If Margga was going to defeat her, it would be soon.
Vree took a step back. Margga attacked and pressed on. Vree took another step back. And another. A plan formed in her mind. Her voice thundered. “You want me, Margga? Come and get me.” She took another step back. She felt her magic weaken more as Margga attacked and pressed on.
Vree backpedaled across the brook as Margga flung her flaming spells and charged.
The ghost witch flew at Vree and was almost on her when her eyes widened with a terrible realization.
She had crossed the line of her imprisonment.
Vree fell on her backside on the other side of the brook and turned away from the clenched fists and blackening body that exploded in a cloud of green and black flies that ignited in yellow flames. The burning flies fell on Vree and the ground around her like a thousand sparks from a thunderous Fourth of July firework.
Vree stood, slapped away the flaming flies, soot and ash on her, and used the last of her energy to put out the fires inside and outside her grandparents’ home. She did the same to the tent, though most of its canvas roof was gone.
With her energy low and almost depleted, she fell to her knees and welcomed Lenny with a tired embrace when he rushed to her side and held her.
The rest of her family, who had watched from the backyard during her fight with Margga, approached slowly, awestruck and fearful.
Vree’s stomach knotted when she saw their fear.
She was more of a freak than ever—still different from them.
She heard a great din in her mind—the buzzing of a thousand bees as thirty or more Roualens entered the backyard. They stayed several yards away, milling behind her family and saying nothing, only observing.
She closed her eyes and tightened her embrace around Lenny until he let go of her and stood, helping her up. She stood and felt the world spin, but kept her balance and wondered what to do. She was the center of attraction. She felt victorious but knew no victory party awaited her.
Then, Charles’s spirit came to her in a flash of white light that sent her family stepping back. Charles took her in his arms and embraced her.
“These powers,” she said, falling against him and wrapping her arms around his shoulders; “I don’t want them. I’m not like the heroes in my books and movies. This is real. People have died because of me.”
She pressed her face against his chest and wept.
Charles tightened his embrace. “And by the goodness in you, you have saved many lives,” he said. “More than you know.” He pulled from her, looked out at the others and told them not to be afraid.
“You see me because of Vree,” he said to his family. “I’m a simple spirit heading to a higher place, who’s been given a chance to see you one more time.”
Karrie hesitated, and then ran to him. She embraced him and sandwiched Vree between them.
Sometime during Karrie’s explosion of tears, Amy was first to join her in the embrace. Dave quickly followed.
Warm childhood memories engulfed Vree, putting visions in her head of weekend mornings when younger versions of her and her siblings took to their parents’ bed and snuggled.
“I have to go,” Charles said, ending the group hug and stirring a lament from Karrie. “I love you always and forever,” he said before he vanished.
Vree wept to see him leave again. A cold loneliness enveloped her until Karrie rushed her, took her in her arms and said, “Thank you.”
“For what?” Vree asked.
“For bringing him back to us one last time.”
Vree tightened her embrace around her mother and held her for a long time.
VREE REMOVED HER forehead from its spot against the Roualen ship. She had moved the last engine to its proper place. This time, she felt stronger, not as drained. She stepped back several feet in the cave that no longer glowed green, and watched through the ship’s dim yellow glow as Onlin opened a hatch door at the top of the ship.
Onlin peered inside. Then the Roualen waved. A cheer rose from the Roualens thronged around Vree. Despite her request that they not, many of the Roualens filled Vree’s mind with thanks. Although she had learned during the past seven days how to better control her psychic abilities, including not killing Roualens when she looked at them, she still had problems filtering her thoughts from the thoughts of others, whether Earthlings or Roualens.
She reached through the crowd and found one of Lenny’s hands. Their touch induced a mild shine of white light from their bodies clad in nondescript T-shirts, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. Lenny, too, had inside him what Margga had called magic, though not as strong as Vree’s. His was hereditary, passed down from his grandmother and great-grandmother, and only active when he and Vree were in close proximity.
He smiled proudly at her as he gently squeezed her hand. They stood together and watched the Roualens walk single file up a staircase carved in the cave wall near the ship. When they reached a spot above the ship, they climbed down a rope ladder that led to the hatch Onlin had entered.
Fifty-seven Roualens were leaving Earth, the planet they had been born on; they would soon be flying their saucer-shaped ship up the sinkhole and out of the atmosphere, heading to the galaxy and planet that their forbearers had come from.
Vree said a final goodbye to Sarlic, whose body had been taken aboard earlier. Then, “Time to go,” she said to Lenny when the last Roualen stepped away from the cave floor and ascended the stairs. She looked around. Someone had removed the equipment, including the net she and Lenny had landed on earlier. Even the fallen stones and rubble had been removed from the cave, as though someone had meticulously swept the floor.
She scanned the cave for Enit Huw, hoping the white crow would be there.
She didn’t see him. The magical bird had vanished the night she defeated Margga. It was a vanishing as mysterious as his appearances had been. All that remained was one of his tail feathers inside the book of magic spells on her dresser.
“Hold on tight,” she said to Lenny as they started through the tunnel that would lead them from the cave. “The journey ahead is a bit dangerous.”
“As long as we stay together,” he said, “I’m sure everything will be okay.”
And as he squeezed her hand in his, Vree was certain he was right.
About the Author
Steven L. Campbell pens contemporary, paranormal fantasy in his undisclosed lair in northwest Pennsylvania. He has a bachelor's degree in studio art and graphic design, and graduated magna cum laude from college. He has been a wildlife artist for 30+ years and an avid reader of all genres of fiction since the age of 5. His passion for writing developed during high school, but it took a backseat after college while he painted art for a living. Now, passionate again about writing, his books feature characters living in Ridgewood, a fictional Pennsylvania town based on his own hometown where his relatives fueled his imagination with their ghost stories and urban lore, prompting him to write his own fantasy tales for everyone in love with the genre and young at heart to enjoy.
Margga’s Curse began as a story idea in 1971 when I was 14 and wrote a short story called “Ghost Dogs.” Thirty years later, I rewrote “Ghost Dogs” and published it as a short story called “Night of the Hell Hounds” at my website. Twelve years after that, I rewrote “Night of the Hell Hounds” and published it as an e-book short story for Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The latter story featured teen characters Lenny Stevens and Vree Erickson who played different roles than the ones presented in this novel.
Margga’s Curse would not have been written without the encouragement of my readers, friends and family.
Of my few persistent acquaintances through the World Wide Web, huge thanks go to Lola Gentry-Dey. Lola is a young female SoCal writer, poet, artist, musician, and photographer whom I met at an online writing group in 1999. We liked each other’s writing, so we sometimes bounced story ideas off each other, usually via emails that went “Hey, I wrote some paragraphs of a story that has no direction, so go ahead and add whatever you think works and get back to me.” She helped me write the ending of the first short story version of “Night of the Hell Hounds” at my website. Now, fifteen years later, she freely and with an overly generous heart has allowed me to feature some of her story ideas in this book, as well as include some of the wonderful poetry she wrote. Plus, she has been a valuable beta reader, finding errors and challenging my ideas (she proofread the final draft of this book and, yes, challenged several of my ideas). Thank you, Lola, for your benignity: tis greatly appreciated.
Many thanks go to four other beta readers: Tova Lelandes, Kim Logan, Tina L. Tanner, and Maggie Winans; their meticulous attention to detail was invaluable proofing this book.
Thanks also to April Helmuth and Bruce Pratt, two friends, co-workers, and ebook authors who let me share story ideas with them in the break room, and who always want to know when I’m publishing my next book. Your curiosity, insight, and comments are invaluable.
Biggest thanks go to my wife, Jennie, who allows me to devote time to the stories that fill my head. I love you, always and forever.
And finally, thanks to my loyal readers. I hope you enjoyed reading this story as much as I did writing it. And I hope I raised some excitement and at least a few goose pimples during our fantastic ride together.
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Other Books by Steve
Please visit your favorite ebook retailer to discover other books by Steven L. Campbell:
Old Bones: A Collection of Short Stories
Kismet: A Ridgewood Tale
15-year-old Vree Erickson and her family are forced to move upstate to her maternal grandparents’ home on Myers Ridge near Ridgewood, Pennsylvania after lightning strikes her, kills her father, and burns down her family’s home. To complicate matters further, the lightning strike leaves her with psychic powers. On the day of the move, she sees and hears mysterious invisible creatures and becomes a victim to the annual “Night of the Hellhounds” when the vengeful spirit of a witch returns to the property next door and reigns terror there. With the help of the boy from up the road, she embarks on a difficult journey to save her life and destroy the ghost witch who wants her dead.