Treasure in the Corn Field–Chapter 1

RosaTaylorCoverDraftHi all! I’m trying something new, and I’ll be posting my latest book, chapter by chapter, here on this blog. I’m planning on two chapters a month until the story is complete. I hope you enjoy reading about Ellie and Bartholomew and everyone else in the fictional town of Linewood.

Here’s the blurb:
Ellie Prater grew up hearing rumors about gold hidden somewhere on old Harmon’s farm and legends of the creature that protects it, but she doesn’t believe in buried treasure or monsters. She believes in hard work on the family farm, the love she has for her mother and friends, and the fact that no one will save her when bills pile up. But when Harmon, the neighbor she’s come to love as a grandfather, is on his deathbed, he tells Ellie that the treasure is real. She promises to find it before the farm is sold.

But the land’s protector—a coyote-faced cryptid named Bartholomew—is real and is tasked with keeping the treasure safe. Ellie must convince him she deserves to find it. If she doesn’t, her mother will lose her home to foreclosure, and Ellie will have to give up her dream of owning Harmon’s farm. As she spends more time with the mysterious Bartholomew, however, Ellie’s at risk of losing more than just her home. She just might lose her heart.

TWs: Grief, death of a grandfather figure, a bicycle accident, some blood and minor wounds

Without further ado, Chapter 1.


A howl in the distance cut through the night and froze Ellie’s already-chilled limbs. Her midnight trip to the Whitehall farm had been quiet up to this moment, but the sound echoed through the corn fields, haunting and terrifying. Frissons of fear traveled through her body.

It was a coyote. Just a coyote. The monster Ellie had grown up hearing about—the one with red, glowing eyes and long, sharp claws that lurked in corn fields and stole humans away, never to be seen again—wasn’t real. The monster was just a bedtime story for naughty kids caught sneaking in their neighbors’ fields.

Coyotes were the better option, though still dangerous.

After a few moments of silence, Ellie forced herself to move to pick up the shovel where she’d dropped it. The howl was far enough away that she knew she was safe, even if her body told her otherwise. She dug her shovel deep into the muddy earth, searching for the treasure Harmon Whitehall told her about on his deathbed.

When she was ten, Ellie started helping out at Harmon’s farm. Her mom thought she didn’t have enough to do at home, so she worked it out with Harmon that Ellie would go over there after school every day to keep her out of trouble. Ellie enjoyed the work and was glad for the pocket money. Over the years, Harmon had become like a grandfather to her, and at the end of his life, she’d stepped up to take care of him.

But from day one of working on his farm, Harmon’s other farmhands swapped rumors about a treasure buried on the property. Ellie had listened to the adults talking around her, saying things they normally wouldn’t have because kids don’t count as eavesdropping ears. They said Harmon could never have kept the farm running through the bad years without quite a bit of money set aside. After all, he was never down at the bank taking out loans like the other farmers in town. They said he kept his gold buried somewhere on his property, so well hidden no one but he could find it. Ellie had filed the information away for the future when she’d have a chance to treasure hunt.

As she grew older, though, she lost interest in the stories. She chalked them up to jealousy, the bitterness tingeing their voices allowing Ellie to understand what was really going on. They resented having to work for Harmon at all when they wanted their own land to work. Besides, Harmon didn’t need treasure to get him through the bad years. He didn’t have bad years. Even when the rest of the countryside was shriveled from drought or drowned in rain, his farm flourished, so he always made out with a profit.

So when Harmon summoned the energy to tell her to find it, Ellie knew the rumors had to be real.

He hadn’t been able to tell her what was in it. He’d barely been able to give her directions. His words stuck in his throat, and the beeping of the hospital machines drowned out his paper-thin voice. But she’d held his hand, weak and frail beneath her own, and she’d promised she would find his box of treasure.

Tonight, though, Ellie longed for her bed, for warmth and safety, but she had a job to do and not much time to do it in. Once Harmon’s son took possession of the property in two weeks, Ellie’s nighttime excursions would be at an end.

She blinked away tears at the thought of the old man. He’d been a loving and constant presence her entire life, until three months ago…

The howl sounded again, closer this time. Ellie stood as still as possible, trying to control her ragged breathing. She squeezed her eyes shut. The monster wasn’t real, but just in case, she wanted to make sure she wouldn’t see any shiny eyes staring at her from between the tall, dead corn stalks.

She spent several minutes like that as the late October chill settled in her bones. If she didn’t move soon, she felt like she would freeze to the ground, and no one would find her until the spring thaw.

The wind gusted through the field. The corn rattled and reached out its papery fingers to claw at her body. She felt a presence somewhere in the field with her, but as much as she wanted to run back to her car and never come out here again, she couldn’t. She had made a promise. When she didn’t hear the howl for several minute, she mustered bravery from somewhere, and opened her eyes.

A pair of red, glowing eyes stared back at her from the corn stalks.

Ellie’s breath hitched in her throat. The eyes hypnotized her and pinned her to the spot. Every fiber of her being told her to run, to get the hell out of there, but she couldn’t have moved even if she wanted to.

The orbs moved closer, weaving through the corn stalks, winking at her as they disappeared and reappeared. There was nothing else in the world except for those red pinpricks in the night.

Her phone rang with a text, the sound jarring in the otherwise quiet night. The spell broken, she screamed. Laughter broke out around her, and the eyes bobbed up and down for a moment, then flickered out.

With shaking fingers, she dug her phone from her pocket as two sets of feet stumbled through the rows of corn toward her. Ellie’s heart raced with leftover adrenaline, but at least the intense fear was gone. Anger bubbled up in its place. She knew that laughter.

Her two best friends, Adrianna and Rory, appeared in the moonlight, tears of laughter streaming down their faces. Adrianna’s petite hands were clasped around a seven foot pole with LEDs rigged to the top. Her red hair was wild and untamed. She looked like a mythical being out of the mists of time, intense and fey. Only she would wear a white flowing dress with work boots into a cornfield. Rory towered above her, five-foot-eleven and raven-haired, dressed in camo pants and a leather jacket. She stumbled out of the row behind Adrianna. They high-fived, the smack loud in the darkness.

Gotcha, read the text on her phone in their group chat.

“What the fuck, you guys?” Ellie’s temper flared now that the fear had fled.

“Sorry, El, we had to,” Rory said.

“How did you know I was even out here?” Ellie was practically shouting. Rory gestured placatingly with her hands.

“We’ve been wondering where you’d been disappearing to these past few months,” she said, “so we followed you last week. And then again tonight after we made that thing.”

Her friends giggled, but Ellie frowned and crossed her arms across her chest.

They didn’t understand how serious this was. If Adam came home before she found the treasure, she’d lose her chance forever. From what little she’d seen of him while she’d cared for Harmon in his last days, she was sure he wasn’t the kind of guy to move back home to the family farm after making a life for himself in the big city for the last thirty years. And whoever he’d get to buy the place would not want meddling locals on their land.

She hadn’t told her friends what she was up to. Maybe she should have, but it felt like this was a secret thing she couldn’t share. Wouldn’t share. She felt closest to Harmon when she was traipsing around the field on her own, trying to follow the directions he’d whispered to her, honoring his memory in her own way. Ellie wasn’t sure her friends would understand, and she didn’t know how to explain how much this meant to her.

But… With time running short, maybe it was time to try explaining. As much as she wanted to keep this quest hers, and hers alone, she was getting nowhere on her own. Ellie uncrossed her arms and followed her friends out of the cornfield. Maybe they could put their heads together instead of Ellie always coming up empty.

“Let’s go to Carter’s,” Ellie said, referring to Linewood’s only 24 hour diner. She’d fill them in there. Hopefully, they wouldn’t be mad. Hopefully, they would help her.

As they reached the edge of the cornfield, though, another howl rippled through the night, much closer this time. Ellie and her friends paused and looked back, still and watchful.

“Howl back,” Adrianna whispered.

Ellie and Rory stared at her, eyes wide. Ellie shook her head.

“We should just go,” Ellie said finally.

They headed toward Rory’s pickup. Adrianna lay the metal pole in the back, careful not to break the LEDs, and Ellie searched around for where she had left her bicycle. Once located, she tossed that in the back, too. She rounded the side of the pickup, and the silver paint gleamed in the moonlight. Ellie swore she saw two red orbs reflected on the side, but when she turned to scan the cornfield, nothing looked back at her.

She let out a huff of breath. Her mind was clearly playing tricks on her as badly as her friends had.

They all piled in. Rory backed out of the muddy field like she’d been doing it her entire life, her hands expert on the wheel. The backseat was cramped, but Ellie didn’t mind. It was better than being up front and having to keep Rory company by talking. The country music blaring from the radio was loud, her friends were louder, and the truck bumped uncomfortably over the dirt road from the farm to the highway. Ellie let the music and her friends’ conversation wash over her.

“Pop said Robbie lost his job last week,” Adrianna said. Ellie leaned forward, her interest piqued. “He’s coming home tomorrow.”

“Wait, really?” Ellie said. “What happened?” Rory turned down the music.

“Of course you’d be interested in that,” Rory said. She looked in the rearview mirror, making brief eye contact with Ellie. Rory’s eyes glinted with mischief. Ellie flushed, glad for the darkness to hide it.

“He’s got a girlfriend,” Adrianna said gently, turning in her seat to search Ellie’s face.

“I know that,” Ellie said. She leaned back and stared out the window. It’s not like she’d talked to Robbie in years, anyway. Adrianna reached her hand out and squeezed Ellie’s knee.

“I know you’ve missed him,” Adrianna said. “I have too, but he’s different now. And so are you.”

Ellie squeezed her eyes shut, wishing she hadn’t butted into the conversation.

Robbie Kinkaid. Adrianna’s older brother. Linewood’s handsomest heartthrob. Ellie’s first boyfriend. Ellie loved the high school thrill of dating a senior when she was still a junior. Adrianna hadn’t minded, though she hadn’t seemed particularly surprised when the relationship finally failed either.

Ellie still loved the memories of their short-lived romance. Stolen kisses under the stars. Picnics on the banks of the creek that ran through the Kinkaid’s backyard. How magical the summer was before Robbie went off to college seven years ago.

They hadn’t broken up so much as fizzled out, and Ellie couldn’t help but think that maybe it was because she wouldn’t sleep with him even when they’d been together for a while. He’d been a gentleman about it, and Ellie had hidden behind the religion she’d been brought up in, even though she knew deep down that wasn’t really the issue. But at the time, she didn’t have words for what the issue was.

Eventually, he stopped coming home for breaks altogether. And then he’d met his current girlfriend.

She’d felt nothing but a small pang when he’d ended things six years ago, and her heart had mended completely over the years. But she wondered how that would hold up to seeing him again. Like Adrianna said, they’d both changed.

Perhaps Ellie most of all.

Finding the term asexual had put everything into perspective. How she pretended to understand when her friends talked about how hot people were. How she spent too much time studying the act of sex like the emotions that followed for her friends would somehow be revealed to her if she just learned enough of the mechanics. How she skittered away whenever a boy wanted something more than a kiss.

Now that she was in her mid-twenties and the tumult of high school was over, she felt more comfortable in her own skin than she had in her entire life. And all from finding one little word.

The flashing neon Carter’s sign hit her vision like the eyesore it was, pulling her from her memories. A pig became a ham on a platter, and back again, a meat-lover’s favorite never-ending tango. The place sat on the outskirts of town, out near the highway, in the middle of a giant dirt parking lot. Ellie often wondered why nobody bothered paving around here, but she figured it added to the charm. At least the roads in town were paved.

Carter’s was decent enough food, but at one in the morning, the grease that permeated the air unsettled Ellie’s stomach. She ordered a slice of lemon meringue pie and tried to tamp down the queasiness.

They sat in their usual back corner of the diner. The fluorescent lighting was jarring after the darkness of the cornfield. The light held the night at bay, though, and Ellie was glad for that. She’d heard howls before, but never that close. And as much as she tried to tell herself it was just a coyote, now that she was safe in a brightly lit place, she could admit to herself that it hadn’t quite sounded like one.

She’d never heard such a haunting, lonely sound before. And the reflection of red eyes on the truck… She shuddered, and looked up from where she’d been staring at the table.

Rory and Adrianna watched her with concern, but the pity melted into smiles and overdone cheeriness when they caught Ellie’s eye. Ellie pressed her lips together in a frown. She hated that no one knew how to act around her anymore. She hated that she couldn’t pretend everything was okay. And, if she was being honest, she was still mad as hell at their prank.

“How are you, El?” Rory asked. She reached her hand across the table and took Ellie’s in her own. Under her friends’ intense scrutiny, Ellie’s cheeks flushed with heat.

“Fine. Still recovering from a shitty joke. How are you two?”

Her friends exchanged a look before Adrianna reached out and took Ellie’s other hand. She squeezed and gave Ellie a small smile. Ellie’s embarrassed blush deepened.

“You know we love you, right?” Adrianna said.

Oh fuck. Not an intervention. Ellie tried to pull her hands away, but her friends tightened their grips and held on.

“We’re just worried about you,” Rory said. “You’ve kind of been… not really here since…”

She trailed off, and Ellie felt tears prick the backs of her eyes. She shut them and lowered her head before the tears could give her away.

“Since Harmon died,” Adrianna said, quiet and gentle, sympathetic. Ellie tensed under their hands, fighting against the urge to run away and hit something.

“We just wanted to make you smile,” Rory said, hesitant for the first time that night. The look didn’t sit well on her usually confident features.

Tears escaped and rolled, fat and hot, down Ellie’s cheeks.

“Well, good fucking job,” Ellie sobbed.

She ripped her hands from her friends’ and ran out the back of the diner. The cold air met her, the taste of not-quite-winter on the air. She stood, staring at the sky, her hands balled into fists, wishing the diner’s lights would go out so she could see more than two stars.

She knew Harmon was up there looking down at her. Watching out for her. She missed the old man so much, she could barely stand it some days.

A sob wracked her body, and she crouched to the pavement. She buried her head in her knees. Only her friends could have gotten her to finally cry over Harmon’s death.

She’d bottled it all up. Put all the emotion into a little glass jar, like the ones she used to use for canning tomato sauce with Harmon, and buried it deep inside. Not even his funeral could break the glass, but her two best friends quietly tapping on the sides tonight shattered it in seconds.

Her sobs had quieted by the time the diner door slammed again, and footsteps crunched on the gravel. Ellie smelled Rory’s perfume, vanilla and lavender and a hint of musk, as her friend sat down next to her.

“I’m sorry,” Rory said. “We weren’t thinking.”

She put her arms around Ellie, but Ellie resisted leaning into her. Ellie didn’t want pity.

“I know this has been hard for you,” Rory continued. “Adrianna and I will always be here for you. Even if we fuck up sometimes. You don’t have to go through this by yourself.”

“Thanks,” Ellie said. She knew Rory wanted her to lean into the hug, to cry on her shoulder, and tell her everything she’d been feeling these past few months, but Ellie couldn’t do it. She wanted so badly to go back to how things used to be when she shared more with her friends, but nothing would ever be okay again. Instead of giving Rory what she wanted, Ellie stood, leaving her best friend sitting on the ground looking surprised.

Ellie wiped her eyes and then reached a hand down to help Rory up. If she couldn’t share her feelings, she could at least go back inside and try to be the person she used to be.

Rory looked at her hand for a moment before taking it. Rory was taller than Ellie by several inches, and she peered down into Ellie’s face searching for something. Ellie flashed a small smile hoping that would stop Rory from asking more questions or talking more about Harmon, but it probably looked more like a grimace. Rory met Ellie’s smile with a sad one of her own.

Without another word, Rory took Ellie’s hand, and together, they went back inside.

Adrianna had eaten her gravy fries and half of Rory’s grilled cheese sandwich by the time they got back, but Ellie’s pie remained untouched. Despite herself, Ellie softened at that. Under normal circumstances, her pie would have been fair game, but sad folks deserved their pie whole and complete.

“Adam’s coming home in two weeks,” Ellie said while sliding back into her side of the booth. Adrianna stared at her, fork frozen halfway to her mouth.

“You’re shitting me,” Rory said.

Ellie shook her head. “Mrs. Innis told me that he finally got some time off work or something. ‘Until he gets Old Harmon’s affairs in order,'” Ellie said in a high pitch, mimicking Mrs. Innis’s nasally voice.

“I never thought he’d set foot back here,” Adrianna said.

“Wait, what did she mean ‘get his affairs in order’?” Rory said.

“Sell the place, probably.” Ellie’s voice cracked.

Silence spread like molasses over the table. They all knew the stories of how much Adam hated it here. Ellie had met Adam only a few times as she helped take care of Harmon towards the end. He’d drive up in his fancy Lexus and look at the dirt like he could shame it into not clinging to his shiny black shoes. His graying hair wasn’t yet quite silver, but it always shone in the sun, giving him the halo he thought he deserved.

Adam wouldn’t be living on the farm, and even though Ellie knew it made sense for him to sell it, she couldn’t imagine the farmhouse inhabited by anyone but the old man she loved. One of the giant farm corporations would probably buy it and tear down the quaint farmhouse to make room for more field.

“Oh, Ellie,” Adrianna breathed. “What are you gonna do?”

“What can I do? I work at the corner store.”

“Maybe he’d work with you…” Adrianna’s voice trailed off, and Ellie knew Adrianna didn’t believe that any more than she did.

Ellie shook her head.

“I just have to… accept that this is how it’s gonna be.”

“No.” Rory slammed her hand down on the table. “We’ll figure something out. We don’t even know if he’s really going to sell it, anyway. No point in getting upset until we really know what’s what.”

“I… might know what that something could be…” Ellie filled them in on her quest, grateful for the natural opening. Rory’s eyes grew brighter and brighter as she spoke. When she tried to give them the directions, though, Rory shushed her and looked around like a government spy was listening in.

“Not here,” Rory said. “Once we’re back in the truck.”

Adrianna pursed her lips in annoyance, but didn’t say anything. Silence hung over the table for a few beats before Adrianna broke it.

“This is amazing,” she said. “I can’t believe the treasure is real. And I can’t believe you’ve been looking for it alone these last three months.”

“It’s not like I’m new to geocaching,” Ellie said. “The directions this time are different than the map coordinates I’m used to, but it’s the same idea. Just a little more clandestine.”

Ellie shrugged and picked at her pie. Her stomach flopped over and over. She thought that would stop once she’d confessed her secret to them, but she’d been wrong.

“Why haven’t you found it yet, then?” Rory asked slowly.

“I don’t know,” Ellie said. “Maybe because it’s so dark when I go? It’s easy to get turned around…”

Neither of her friends looked convinced.

“You know those fields better than anyone in town,” Adrianna said. “That’s really weird.”

Ellie shrugged again and forked some pie into her mouth. Rory drummed her fingers on the table, a thoughtful look on her face.

“We’ll have a brainstorm session tomorrow at my place after work. I don’t have to work ’til ten. I’ll stop by the library in the afternoon to get some maps and whatever other useful stuff I can think of.”

“I get off at four, but it’s my day to help Mom take her sponge bath and make dinner and stuff,” Adrianna grumped. “And Robbie’s coming home. I suppose you’ll have to start without me.”

“What time does your mom go to bed?” Rory asked.

“Not ’til 8:30.”

“We won’t leave for the fields without you,” Ellie promised. “But it can’t hurt to start brainstorming.”

Adrianna perked up at that. Ellie shoveled some more pie into her mouth. The lemon burst over her tongue, and she savored the taste for what felt like the first time in months.

She should have known her friends would be there for her. It was too easy to get wrapped up in the grief and the mission and forget that people who were still among the living loved her.

They would find the treasure. They would save the farmhouse from Adam. They could do this.

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The Christmas Corridor

Grandma’s house was dusty and dark when we arrived for Christmas Eve. Her milky eyes and clawed hands weren’t so helpful for keeping a clean house anymore, but she was too proud to ask any of us for help. My mom sighed, and set about assigning tasks to us kids.

“We can’t decorate until everything is clean,” Mom said.

I groaned. Mom narrowed her eyes.

“Carla,” she said in that warning tone she often got with me, but I grabbed my cousin Ina’s hand and dragged her away to the parlor before she could continue scolding.

Good thing Ina was always more thoughtful than me, because she had rags and furniture polish in the hand I hadn’t grabbed. We worked our way around the room, turning on lamps, dusting off the thick layer of grey that coated everything, Ina chattering away.

“…and then Marcus said that he wouldn’t ever date Gina because she smells like pea soup…”

I ignored Ina as much as I could, but that was hard because her voice was loud and grating. She had no volume control, no inside voice I could remind her to use. Not that she would have listened to me. She was a whole three weeks older, which she reminded me of every time I tried to suggest she do something different.

She was still going on about Marcus and smelly Gina when I came to the fireplace. A whole year of grime lay before me, begging to be cleaned. I sprayed it with the polish and began rubbing.

The ornate carvings made it difficult, and I wished I had some q-tips and several hours to get into each crevice. Grape vines and dancing men, beautiful and pleasing. Grandma’s family must have been very rich, or very talented, to make this. I’d never asked her the story behind the mantle, easily the centerpiece of the house, but I would ask her this year.

Grandma was a woman of few words, but I hope she’d tell me the story. Her childhood was a mystery, and we’d all learned early not to ask too many questions. My mom answered any questions we had to the best of her ability, but always warned us not to ask Granny.

The one time I’d asked Granny about her life, she threw her spoon into her soup bowl and screeched about nosy children who didn’t understand their place.

I never asked another question.

“I hate cleaning,” I said, interrupting Ina and my own endless thoughts. “And I wonder if this is the year the curse will befall our family.”

“You don’t actually believe in that silly story, do you?” Ina asked. “I don’t.”

“Why not? Every grandmother in our line has died on Christmas Eve. Granny’s not looking too great, and today’s Christmas Eve.”

“Oh, shut up,” Ina said. She threw a dirty rag at me. “Besides, it’s not every grandmother. Just every other.”

“Okay, yeah. Every other. As in ours.”

Ina ignored me, and I returned my attention to the mantle. One grape on the right side was particularly grimy, and I rubbed it harder with the cloth.

“Damnit,” I muttered. “Get clean.”

“Language,” Ina scolded.

I shot her a dirty look, but she just returned it with an innocent one of her own. Damn Ina and her prudishness. It’s not like I’d said fuck.

I returned my attention to the grape. I pushed down with the rag, and the grape depressed into the mantle. Fear froze my body, icing its way from my head to my toes. I broke the carvings.

With shaking hands, I brought the rag away from the mantle. Ina hummed to herself behind me, lost in dusting the baseboards. At least she’d stopped talking.

The grape was pushed down deep, far lower than the other grapes around it. But, a small drawer had also opened beneath it, cutting through the chest of one of the dancing men.

Relief flooded me. I hadn’t broken it. I wouldn’t get into trouble.

A rustling noise behind me made me turn around. Grandma shuffled into the room, her slippers scuffing on the hardwood floor. She was bent and crooked, her figure imposing and terrifying even in its twistedness. I didn’t want to be afraid of her, but I couldn’t help it. She’d never been overly affectionate, which had led to my never really bonding with her. And now she was just a scary old woman whose temper got worse with every task she was no longer able to do herself.

I looked into the little drawer before she could make her way across the large room. A small key lay nestled inside. I grabbed it, and slid the drawer closed as quietly as I could. It closed with a small snap as the grape popped back into its normal position.

With a sigh of exhaled anxiety, I pocketed the key. I’d look at it later. For now, a semi-blind old woman was picking her way through the living room toward me.

“Not breaking things again, are we?” Grandma said. Her voice was thin and ancient, its sound even more grating than Ina’s despite its softness.

“No, Grandma. Just cleaning,” I said.

Ina popped up from the floor and held out the dusty rag. As if Grandma could see it.

“We’re doing just fine, Grandma” Ina said. “But thanks for checking on us.”

“Hmmph,” Grandma said. She began her slow scuffle back toward the door.

Ina and I stayed still, watching Grandma’s retreating back. I felt bad for the woman. No matter how intimidating I found her, she was still just an old woman trying to do the best she could and being told it wasn’t good enough. But those charitable thoughts were easier to have when she wasn’t staring at me, demanding answers.

I turned the key over and over in my pocket, waiting for her to leave. Waiting for the opportunity to look at it better.

The key was black and ornate. Heavy. Old. It lay in the palm of my hand in a shaft of moonlight streaming through a crack in the shutters, its heft more than I’d have ever expected from a key so small. It was barely half the length of my pinky finger.

Ina, Marie, Jessie, and Toni slept on the other futons in the bedroom we always shared. Their breath came regular and even. I risked life and limb by climbing my way through the minefield of spread-out cousins on the floor. The door creaked slightly as I opened it. I froze, held my breath for a few beats, but no one in the room stirred. I shut the door behind me. It didn’t creak going the other way, and it closed with a quiet click.

The long hallway lay dark before me, suggesting I return to the safety of the bedroom. But the key weighed in my hand, a promise of adventure and novelty in a house that had seen little of that my entire lifetime.

I’d never seen a mysterious locked door in this house, but I was determined to find it. If the key was hidden, the door may be too. I’d start with the fireplace.

For over an hour, I pushed on each knob and whorl, each carving and ornament. No dice. Strangely, even the grape that had spat out the hidden drawer at me was no longer working.

The grandfather clock in the corner struck midnight. I whirled around at the sound, heart pounding. The chiming mocked my inability to find that which was hidden.

I leaned against the mantle, hoping it would open a secret panel in the walls like I’d seen in so many movies, but the walls stayed firmly shut. I picked up each candlestick and nick-knack on the mantle, but each came away easily. I stifled a frustrated groan.

I flopped onto the couch in defeat. I sat until the grandfather clock chimed the half hour.

A shuffling noise down the hallway stirred my attention. I turned my head toward the noise as it grew louder, making its way through the darkened house and into the parlor where I sat.

My grandmother was even more terrifying in the dark. Her head was shrouded in a scarf, her white nightgown flowed behind her, both giving her a wraith-like appearance. If it weren’t for the scuffling of her feet, I’d have thought her a figment of my imagination.

“The door’s over here, dearie.” She pointed with her arthritic fingers toward the wall behind the television stand. No wonder I hadn’t been able to find it.

“Thanks, Granny,” I said. A little part of me suggested caution, but I hopped off the couch anyway and slid the stand away from the wall as carefully as I could. Only one small Santa fell off, his face contorted in the darkness into a scowl, censuring me for disrupting his slumber.

Grandma pushed an invisible spot on the wall and a false panel opened up, just like I’d hoped for. It revealed a wooden door, unimpressive and plain with a black lock that matched the key in my robe pocket. I’d been expecting something a little more exciting, but my hand automatically reached out, stuck the key into the lock, and turned it. That, at least, gave a satisfying ka-thunk as it turned.

I finally hesitated, a pit growing in my stomach. How had Grandma known what I was doing?

This had all felt so natural, her coming to help, my willingness to follow along. The magic of midnight hours made the strange feel normal, and hid the truth too well. A pang of fear jolted through me, and the certainty that I needed to be back in bed overwhelmed me.

I looked back at my grandmother, who smiled at me, a leer in the shadows of the dark. I opened my mouth to say goodnight, to leave this room and go back upstairs, but my body betrayed me. I smiled back, and I opened the door.

Behind was pitch black. Cold seeped out, giving the feeling of a large space. Impossible. My brain was churning out information about how on the other side of the wall was the dining room and there shouldn’t be space for a cavern inside the house, while my body swayed on the threshold.

Despite the chill, the unknown beckoned me. Something inside of me screamed at me to shut the door and leave, but I couldn’t have ignored the pull if I tried. The room drew me inside.

Grandma followed me in, her scuffling feet right behind me. I felt her clawed hands on my back, shoving me further in. And I felt the floor rising up to meet me as I tumbled into the dark.

Pale light from a weak winter sun streamed through the parlor windows, hitting my eyes and waking me. I hadn’t meant to stay here all night, but dragging my old body down the hallway and into bed had left me too exhausted to bother mounting the stairs and then picking my way through Carla’s cousins and into her own bed.

My bed now.

Granny had died in her sleep, on Christmas Eve, just as every other matriarch of the family died. The Family Curse, they called it.

A gift, I called it.

I slipped the key back into the secret drawer in the mantle, ready for the next generation to find.

The Magic Box

Happy Halloween, everybody! I hope you are all enjoying the spookiest time of the year. I know I am! I had a lot of fun writing this story, and I hope you enjoy it.

TWs: demon, blood, murder (not graphic), self-inflicted wound


The box was perfect despite its plain cardboard exterior, and it sat on the top step to Talia’s apartment waiting for her to get home from work. Though the day was dreary and a light rain drizzled its way down from the gray skies, the box practically glowed from within. When Talia rounded the corner of her street and saw the box sitting there, she broke into  a run, a giant grin on her face.

She tossed her umbrella aside and scooped the box up. It was heavy, but Talia didn’t want to put it back down to make it easier to grab her keys from her bag. She jostled the box around, managing to pin it to her side under her left arm as her right hand rooted through her handbag.

When she was safely inside, she tossed her raincoat into the corner of her kitchen, and tore into the box.

Nestled inside the crinkled black strips of paper sat her future. With shaking hands, she pulled the contents from their hiding places and placed them on the table one by one. A jar of black salt. A black candle. Three pieces of black tourmaline. A piece of chalk. A piece of parchment. Instructions.

Talia closed her eyes for a moment, her hands flat on the table. She took a deep breath. Then, she got up to put water on for tea.

She wasn’t a bad person. She just needed some help getting ahead. It’s not like Mariska meant to steal the promotion from her, but Talia couldn’t let another opportunity go by. She’d been working at the bank for seven years, and she was still a lowly teller. Mariska, on the other hand, was hired three years ago and made manager last week.

Talia ground her mug into the counter while she waited for the water to boil. The screaming kettle made her jump, but she appreciated its ability to let its feelings out in a way she couldn’t.

Tea in hand, she returned to the instructions.

First of all, THANK YOU for your purchase!

Secondly, witchcraft is very personal. As such, I will not be giving the step-by-step instructions I’m sure many of you were expecting. I’m going to tell you what each of the pieces in the box is for, and it’s up to YOU to decide how to use them!

 Talia threw the instructions onto the table and ground her teeth. She didn’t know anything about casting spells, and this rando from the internet wanted her to just… figure it out? She only bought the box because it promised to be an easy way to meet her goals, and yet now she had to put in some actual work.

She was less than pleased, but she picked the instructions back up and continued reading.

Black salt: Used to consecrate your workspace and ward against unwanted energies.

            Black candle: Invites the energies appropriate to your spell to enter your space.

            Black tourmaline: A protection stone. Use it to protect yourself from the spell.

            Chalk and/or parchment: Can be used to draw sigils.

 

            Happy casting, witches!

Talia read the list again. And a third time. And a fourth. An idea was forming in her mind for how to create the spell, but she needed to do some research first.

The new moon was four nights away, and Talia thought she’d never be patient enough to wait for it. But the internet said that new moons were great for aggressive magic, and Talia didn’t want to blow her chance at getting that promotion. So, she waited, each day a special agony.

Mariska greeted her with a cheery smile every morning, but Talia knew that beneath that veneer lay a greedy woman gloating at her own success at the expense of Talia’s. Talia avoided her manager as much as possible, which wasn’t hard seeing as how everyone else fawned over Mariska, vying for her attention.

It made Talia burn. That position should have been hers. She should be the one everyone wanted to be around.

Just four more days. In the meantime, she would plan the spell and make it perfect.

On the night of the new moon, Talia gathered all the supplies she needed for the spell onto the counter in her kitchen. With the chalk, she drew a circle on the linoleum floor, along with a sigil in the middle.

She had poured every ounce of ill will and anger she possessed into creating that sigil. It had taken her days to shape it into something she was proud of. The result was a spiky, angry-looking symbol embodying her deep hatred and resentment.

Once the circle was finished, she poured the black salt over the chalk, then rested the three black tourmaline stones on top of the salt in a triangle around the circle. She used a knife to carve Mariska’s name into the black candle.

She set the candle down on the floor just inside the chalk circle and lit it. She stepped inside the circle, too. As the flame flickered, Talia raised her arms above her head and chanted.

“She stole my job, but it will be hers no more. She thinks she’s better than me, but she will learn the truth. She will burn burn burn with the fires of retribution.”

Talia was practically shouting by the time she finished the third recitation of the words she’d written. Threes were important, the internet had said, and Talia had listened.

She grabbed the piece of parchment. She’d pasted a picture of Mariska on it with the plan to burn it. Before she could, though, the candle flame blew out. Talia frowned. Not only could she not burn Mariska’s picture, but she’d read that it was important to let the candle burn down to nothing before extinguishing the flame. Should she relight it?

Unsure, she stepped out of the circle and reached for the lighter on the countertop. Her fingers barely brushed it when she snatched her hand back. It was burning hot to the touch.

So, no, she would not relight the candle.

She crouched down and inspected it. The bottom part of Mariska’s name hadn’t been melted, but Talia couldn’t see a way to help that. With a sigh, she plucked the candle from the floor, ran the wick under some water, then threw it in the trash.

She thought she’d feel different after the spell was cast, but as she cleaned up the circle, she couldn’t help noticing a distinct lack of relief. If the spell didn’t work, she’d have to try again next month.

The day dawned bright and cheery. Talia wanted to burrow back under the covers, but work beckoned. Her only consolation at braving the too-happy morning was seeing if Mariska’s life had started unraveling yet.

The train ride to work was interminable. Talia practically bounced with glee at the thought that she would soon be a manager wielding her power over Mariska.

“Morning,” she mumbled to the greeter at the desk just inside the bank’s automatic doors. The girl was young, perhaps in her late teens, and Talia didn’t know her name. The greeter girls all looked the same. It’s not like she had to have conversations with them.

“Good morning, Talia,” the girl said. “Mariska was looking for you.”

Talia glanced at her watch. 7:45. She was fifteen minutes late, but even so, Mariska couldn’t have been looking for too long…

“Thanks,” Talia said. She scanned her ID at the employees only door and pushed it to go through. She bashed her shoulder into the solid oak when it didn’t give. She tried her ID again. Still declined.

“Could you…?” Talia turned to the greeter girl and gestured at the door.

“Um. We’re not supposed to…” she said.

Talia clenched her fists, but let the slight slide. This girl must be new, because she clearly didn’t understand that when a higher-ranking employee asked you to do something, you did it. Talia approached the teller’s window next to the door instead of sniping at the girl.

“Hello!” she called. Her voice sounded strange to her. Too loud. Too much.

Mariska poked her head from the back room and frowned. “Yes?”

“My ID won’t scan me in.”

“Ah yes, that’s been happening to some other people this week, too. The tech guys are working on the system, I think.”

Mariska’s high heels clacked on the floor, one deliberate foot in front of the other. Talia’s already poor mood worsened. Mariska was taking her time on purpose. She waited for the spell to cause her manager to slip on a wet patch on the floor and break her ankle, but no such luck. Mariska opened the employee door, and Talia slipped past.

“Talia,” Mariska said.

Talia ignored her and made a beeline for the breakroom with Mariska close behind.

“Talia,” Mariska said again. “I would like to see you in my office.”

“I’ll just put my stuff away.”

Five sets of eyes followed Talia from the breakroom after she stowed her things in her locker. She didn’t dare make eye contact with any of them for fear of what she might see there. Pity. Relief it wasn’t them.

Mariska gestured to the wooden chair in front of her desk. Talia perched at the very edge while Mariska sank into the plush leather chair that should have been hers. Talia looked down at her hands clasped tightly in her lap.

Talia felt her boss’ eyes burning into her. When she didn’t look up, the other woman spoke.

“Some performance issues have come to my attention,” she said. Talia’s head finally snapped up. Mariska continued. “Late arrivals. Rude to customers. I’ve, personally, had multiple complaints over the last week or so, and I also looked through your personnel file. It appears that this has been an ongoing issue.”

Mariska paused, waiting for Talia to speak. Talia stayed quiet.

“Would you care to explain?”

“I don’t remember being rude to anyone,” Talia said. She hoped Mariska couldn’t see the lie in her eyes. It was only once. Maybe a few times. But sometimes people were rude, and Talia was expected to just take it? No. And after the news broke about the promotion, Talia had an even harder time just taking it.

Mariska sighed. Disappointment clouded her face, as though she expected this answer from Talia but was hoping for a different one.

“Well, consider this a formal reminder to keep your words in check. I was considering letting you go, but I’ll give you one more chance. And remember: the customer is always right.”

Talia bared her teeth. She hoped it look like a smile.

When Talia got home, she reached in her bag for her keys. When the keys were hard to find, she set her bag on the porch railing, and searched with both hands. They weren’t there.

Annoyance made her eye twitch. She knew she’d put them in her bag after locking her door this morning. There’s no way she could have left them at home, and she never took them out at work.

She took a deep breath. Her dad had a spare. She could call him. He would come over and unlock her door for her. Everything would be okay.

Her dad picked up on the third ring.

“Heya Tali Balli. What’s shaking?”

“Nothing, Dad. Just locked myself out of my apartment.”

“Sorry to hear that. I’d come over and let you in, but your mom surprised me with a trip to the beach, so we’re out of town. I can get Kevin to come over and change the locks, though.”

“Nah, that’s okay. You just enjoy your vacation. I’m sure I left a window or something open.”

She would do anything to not have to see Kevin. Her dad’s favorite locksmith gave her the creeps, and she didn’t want to deal with him ever, but especially not today.

Her dad hung up with lots of love and kisses. She went around the back of her apartment, looking for a way in. No luck in the window department, but the sliding glass door was wide open. The white curtains billowed out the door, blowing in the breeze.

She knew she should call the police. She’d seen every horror movie in existence, but still she couldn’t help but creep in through those billowing curtains.

The place was trashed. Kitchen drawers pulled out and emptied onto the floor. Glasses and dishes smashed, the pieces scattered across the linoleum. She moved deeper into the apartment. Glass crunched under her feet. Couch cushions were sliced open, the stuffing strewn about.

She didn’t want to know what her bedroom looked like.

This wasn’t supposed to happen to her. This was supposed to be reserved for Mariska. The job was supposed to fall into her lap while Mariska’s life was ruined.

Anger boiled beneath her skin.

A noise from her bedroom made her jump. Was the burglar still here?

Talia grabbed a leg from one of the smashed chairs in her dining room and crept her way down the hall. Her heart hammered in her chest, and she feared the intruder would be able to hear it. The anger in her veins propelled her onward.

Weapon raised, she jumped around the corner and into the bedroom. A man rooted through her dresser drawers, throwing shirts behind him. Talia raised the chair leg and brought it down on his head as hard as she could.

The next few hours were a flurry of commotion. The police stalked through the house. The paramedics rushed the bleeding man away. Statements were given. Photos were taken. A warning to not leave town for a while was issued.

Talia wanted to curl up in bed with a cup of tea and a mindless show, but her house was tainted. She couldn’t even crash at her parents’ house because her keys were missing and even though Mrs. Jemp across the street had an extra key, she hated Talia and would never give it to her.

This wasn’t how this was supposed to go.

Talia wracked her brain for what had gone wrong with the spell. She was no closer to discerning the truth when three heavy knocks on the door sounded through the ruined space.

She picked her way through the wreckage of her living room and opened the door. A gust of wind and an empty porch greeted her. The gloam of the evening created an eerie atmosphere, and Talia’s skin crawled with goosebumps, even while she tried to convince herself it was just the kids down the street playing games. She shut the door, retreating to the spare bedroom.

That room was untouched by the filthy hands of the thief. Talia knew it would be her haven for a while.

That night, Talia woke in a panic. The room was too hot, too dark, too small. A noise from the corner caught Talia’s attention. She reached for the bedside lamp, but knocked it off with her reaching hand. The bulb shattered on the floor.

She was now trapped in bed, in the dark, her heart hammering in her chest.

“Who’s there?” Her voice disappeared into the corner, like the words were ripped from her mouth and devoured.

A husky laugh met her ears. Talia gripped the duvet and pulled it to her chest with shaking hands. Two red eyes opened, staring at her from the corner. Talia pulled the covers over her head, hoping that the childhood rule of “nothing under the covers is fair game to monsters” held into adulthood.

A few silent minutes passed. The air under the covers went stale with fear and sweat. The hairs on the back of Talia’s neck stood at attention. When she could stand the unknown no longer, she peeked her head out.

Her nighttime visitor hadn’t moved. It still stood in the corner, eyes staring, except now she could see white teeth in a grinning mouth.

The covers were ripped off of her. She felt exposed, naked, despite the ample nightgown she wore. She pulled her knees into her chest and wrapped her arms around them, making herself as small as possible. She squeezed her eyes shut.

And for the first time in twenty years, she prayed.

She prayed for her safety, for the thing to go away and never return, for forgiveness. She promised to be nicer, to be kinder, to not let things get to her so much.

The thing in the corner laughed again.

“You have to mean it for it to work.” Its words buzzed through her head, leaving pressure and pain in their wake. Talia thought her head would split open, almost welcomed the relief that would bring, but the pain of its words were not just physical.

The throbbing in her head reached a crescendo, and she passed out.

When morning dawned, Talia hardly noticed. She lay on her side staring at the lamp on the bedside table.

It wasn’t broken. There were no glass shards from the bulb on the floor. It sat, painted a cheery yellow with blue and white flowers, mocking her.

The previous night had felt so real. Had it been a dream?

No, she decided. It had happened for real. If she couldn’t trust her own mind, she was doomed. She’d find a way out of this. She had to.

She reached for her phone. The voicemail at her job picked up, and Talia thanked the universe for being this kind to her at least. She didn’t want to hear the gloating pleasure in Mariska’s voice while she explained the break-in and how shaken up she was. Talia hoped Mariska wouldn’t call her later to check in, but knowing her boss, she would want to make sure Talia wasn’t lying herself.

She sat up in bed and swung her legs over the edge. The floor was cool under her feet, waking her up even more. Talia wanted to hide under the covers, wanted to sleep until this was over, but she knew it would never be over until she fixed it.

She had a lot of work to do.

The shop smelled like incense and candles all competing to be the dominant scent. It was entirely unique and surprisingly pleasant. A bell over the door tinkled as Talia shut it behind her. If only Talia had come here in the first place, she might never have been in this mess. Local help was better than internet help any day.

The walls lining the short hallway into the main room of the shop were filled with skulls, bleached and mounted on shiny blocks of wood. Their empty eye-sockets followed her as she passed them one by one. Talia shivered.

A woman in black slacks and a white short-sleeved button-down shirt behind the counter smiled until Talia stepped over the hallway threshold into the open room. The woman’s smile disappeared, and she drew a symbol with her right hand in the air in front of her.

“I need some help,” Talia said.

“Clearly.” The woman hopped down from the stool she’d been sitting on, a strange look on her face. Talia couldn’t quite place it, but it almost looked like a mix of annoyance and clinical interest. “Come on. I’ll make some tea, and you can tell me all about it. The name’s Gussie, by the way.”

“Talia.”

Talia followed Gussie through a beaded curtain and into a small kitchen at the back of the shop. Gussie busied herself with the teapot while Talia took a seat at the small round table in the corner of the room.

“No offense,” Talia said, “but you don’t look like you can help me.”

Gussie sent a withering look over her shoulder. “And you don’t look like someone even remotely magical enough to make a curse work, let alone have it rebound.”

Talia’s toes went cold, and she clenched her hands in her lap.

“How…”

“It’s written all over you. I don’t care about the whys.” Her lips curled into a devilish grin. “I want to hear the how. What exactly did you do to cast the spell?”

Talia explained. Gussie listened, her smile growing wider with every word. They both sipped their tea.

“Well, good luck with that.” Gussie laughed. It was a harsh sound, unsympathetic.

“What?”

“You people are all the same. You think you can just order shit from the internet and play at being a witch, and then when it doesn’t work, you come in here crying about the results. You know what? I. Don’t. Care. You can just go away and deal with your demon problem yourself.”

Demon. Talia had been avoiding that word. It thudded in the air, worming its way into her stomach and sitting there like a rock.

“How much money would convince you to help me?”

Gussie leaned over the table, her dark eyes boring into Talia’s. Talia wanted to look away, but she felt stuck.

“Honey, you could offer me all the gold in the world, and I’d still tell you to go fuck yourself.”

Heat bloomed in Talia’s cheeks. She felt like the other woman had slapped her. Gussie rose from the table, and left Talia sitting there. The beaded curtain clacked behind her, a sound that wouldn’t normally have entered Talia’s consciousness, but today it sounded like a door slamming in her face.

A soft chuckle emanated from the corner of the room.

Talia had barely settled in at home before the doorbell rang. With a groan, she got off her bed and ambled to the door.

It was one of the detectives from the day before.

“Can I come in?” he asked.

Talia stood aside and let him in. He hovered in the entryway, but shut the door behind him.

“The man who broke in here, his name was Henry Foster. He died this morning from blunt force trauma to the head.”

The blood drained from Talia’s face. She’d killed someone. The detective was still talking, and Talia had to force herself to hear him over the rush in her ears.

“…warrant for your arrest. I’m sorry.”

He held handcuffs out, and gestured for Talia to turn around. She shook her head, not comprehending. He grabbed her arm and spun her around. This wasn’t happening. Couldn’t be happening. That man had broken into her house! She had been defending herself. Surely, the authorities would see that.

Except they wouldn’t. Not while she was being stalked by evil.

The cold metal bit into her wrists, and she bit back tears. Her father’s best friend, a talented lawyer, would have her out on bail by dinnertime, but she still had to deal with the shame of being marched past her neighbors bound by the law. The last thing she needed was for them to see her crying.

If ever the ground was going to open up and swallow her, now would be a convenient time.

Familiar soft laughter followed her from the house.

As she suspected, Mr. Caldicutt had her out of jail in time for the evening news. He offered her a ride home, but Talia declined, opting to take the train. She just wanted to be alone.

She felt the thing’s presence the whole train ride home. It felt like isolation and death, its cold breath of hatred on the back of her neck. It was watching, amused. Talia wished it would make itself known. The waiting was almost unbearable.

She locked herself inside her house knowing that wouldn’t keep her safe. Gussie was right. She’d thought she could just take this power and use it without thought or training, and now her life was falling apart. It was all Mariska’s fault. If Talia hadn’t been passed over for a promotion again, she would never have had to order that magic box. But she wasn’t going to let her boss ruin her life. Things were still salvageable if only she could figure out how.

The candle was still in the garbage under the sink. Talia dug it out. It stank of discarded food and darkness, but she washed it off in the sink, then grabbed a knife and a lighter.

With what was left of the black salt, she made another circle, and she ringed it with the tourmalines. She sat inside the circle, and paused.

A dark presence prowled the outside of her circle, testing it for weaknesses. A growl rose up, emanating from nowhere and everywhere. It rattled around in her head, pain threatening to keep her from thinking or acting. She pushed past it.

She used the knife to carve away Mariska’s name. In its place, she etched the word “love.” She set the candle in the same place she’d put it the first time she cast the spell, and she held the lighter against the wet wick until it dried and caught flame.

Wind kicked up in the kitchen, whirling the shards of glass and broken furniture around in a frenzy. Inside the circle was a haven of stillness.

Talia used the knife to slice into the palm of her hand. Blood streamed out of the wound, and she dripped some onto the flame of the candle. It sputtered but didn’t go out. Talia took it as a good sign.

She stood. Howling joined the frenzy outside the circle. The pain of it lessened with each moment the candle stayed aflame. She raised her hands to the sky, one pale, one covered in blood.

“By my blood I end this spell. By my will I sever ties with this dark entity in my home. Leave this place and never return.”

She choked the words out three times, each time harder than the last. By the end, she could hardly breathe, her words quiet. She tried to give them power despite the difficulties she was having. The howling reached a peak, then died immediately after she managed to say the last word.

Shaking, Talia lowered herself back to the floor. She sat there all night, watching the candle burn down to nothing, until it finally extinguished itself.

Talia called in sick again the next day and spent it sleeping instead. When she woke mid-afternoon, she felt refreshed and energized, like the events of the previous week had been a dream.

She returned to work the day after, a spring in her step. She smiled at everyone, learned the greeter girl’s name, and was pleasant when customers were rude. After a week of this new Talia, Mariska made a positive note in her file.

The charges against her were dropped. She cleaned up her apartment, got new furniture and dishes, and even though she could only afford used items, she was grateful she had her freedom to buy them at all.

One night, several weeks after the night she banished the demon, she noticed a piece of paper wedged between the kitchen counter and the wall. She grabbed her tweezers from the bathroom, and fished around until she grabbed the paper and pulled it out.

On the paper, in jagged black marker, was the sigil of hatred she’d created. Her heart sped up, the blood drained from her face, and she felt light-headed. As she blacked out, she heard the hated laughter she thought she’d left behind.

Who Wants to Live Forever

Happy Almost-Halloween, everyone!

It’s been a while since I’ve had a story to post. It feels good to have one appropriate to the season, and I hope you enjoy it.

TW: serial killer, death of a father, on-page murder, grief


The dull sound of the knife going shk shk against the wood soothed the carver. His masterpiece would soon be finished. He held the doll up and studied the man sitting opposite him, his eyes darting from the doll to his guest.

During his struggles to get free, the man’s dark hair had fallen in his eyes, and he sat with his head bowed. The carver looked back at his doll. He hadn’t quite captured the air of quiet mystique that enshrouded his guest. With a frustrated groan, he tossed the doll behind him and picked up a new block of wood. This time, it would be perfect.

The other man squirmed in his chair again, struggling against the ropes binding him, his cries muffled by the cloth gag in his mouth.

“Now, now,” said the carver, “There’s no need for that.”

The man stopped moving. His hair had moved out of his eyes, revealing bruises and small cuts. The mystique was gone, and with it, the carver’s desire to start over. He retrieved the doll he’d thrown on the ground and dusted it off. It wasn’t perfect, but then again, neither was the man in front of him.

The man said something through the gag. Though the carver didn’t hear the words, he knew what the man was saying. They all said the same thing.

Please let me go.

            I have a family.

            I promise I won’t tell anyone.

            I’ll do anything. Please don’t kill me.

The carver learned early on to stuff their mouths full of cotton. It made things more pleasant for him as he shaped wood into perfection. If only they could see that they were part of something greater than themselves. The carver was sure they’d appreciate his artwork once they fully understood what was happening.

When he was satisfied with the form he’d sculpted, the carver brought out his paints. With a flourish, he dipped his tiny paintbrush into the paints and began. He ignored the mottled bruises on the man’s face, capturing the pale skintone and sparkling blue eyes instead.

The carver felt his guest’s attention as every brushstroke brought his masterpiece closer to life. He added hair, painstakingly attaching pieces cut from the man’s own head. He sewed a suit for the doll, the cloth for it taken from a ripped section of the man’s own clothing.

“What do you think?” the carver asked. He held the doll up for his guest to see.

The man shook his head and cast his eyes to the floor. The carver caressed the doll, an almost perfect reflection of the man opposite him.

One thing was still missing.

The carver picked up his blade and approached the man. The man’s eyes widened, and he renewed his struggle against his bonds. His skin tore against the heavy rope, but he didn’t stop.

“No point in that,” the carver said. “I was a Boy Scout a long time ago. Those knots will hold.”

The man slid his chair back until he ran into a wall. Blood dripped from his arms where the ropes had cut into him. A whimper escaped his throat, muted by the gag.

“There’s honor in this,” the carver said. “You don’t understand, but I’m helping you. You’re going to live forever.”

The carver plunged his knife into the man’s chest, and twisted it. The man’s soul coiled around the tip of the blade, a faint and fragile thing. The carver drew it out of the man, slowly, gently, until it was free from its mortal form.

With a flourish, the carver etched a symbol onto the doll’s back beneath its dapper suit. The symbol glowed blue for several seconds before the light faded into the doll.

For the first time in months, the carver smiled.

Ω

On a bright summer day, sunshine beamed down and illuminated Harry’s golden head as he played in the sandbox in his front yard. His mother sat on the front steps, half watching, half lost in thought. Harry wanted to hug her and tell her that daddy would be home soon, but when he did that last night, her eyes watered and she just shushed him as she tucked him in.

The phone rang inside, and Harry’s mother stood.

“Don’t leave the yard,” his mother called out to him. “I’ll be back in two seconds.”

“Okay, Mommy.” Harry returned to the sand.

Footsteps crunched on the gravel, and a man with tufty white hair approached. He had an orange vest and a hardhat on, and Harry was immediately in love. He wanted a hardhat, too!

The man glanced to the front of the house, but Harry’s mother hadn’t returned yet. He thrust a brown paper bag into Harry’s arms.

“Your daddy wanted me to give you this,” the man said. “He wanted me to make sure you promised not to tell anyone about it.”

Harry nodded, and gripped the bag with his tiny fingers. The front door slammed open, and Harry’s mother approached the man. She pushed Harry behind her protectively, and as she asked the man what he wanted, Harry scampered into the house.

Once he was safely in his room, he tore into the bag. He pulled a doll out. His eyes grew wide, his mouth broke into a giant grin.

Harry had always wanted his own doll, but his parents never seemed to want to buy one for him. Boys weren’t supposed to have dolls. He looked around for someplace safe to hide the doll.

Under the bed? Too scary.

In his dresser? Too slow to get to.

Under his pillow? Yes. Perfect.

The front door creaked open and shut, and Harry heard his mother’s voice along with a few deeper men’s voices. The voices went on for a few minutes until his mother screamed. Harry jumped.

He wondered what it was all about, but he didn’t want to leave the doll. He was afraid it would be lonely, so he kept one hand shoved under his pillow, stroking the doll’s short hair.

One of his daddy’s policeman friends came into his room and knelt in front of Harry.

“Do you remember me?” the man asked.

Harry nodded  his head, his grip on the doll tightening.

“Mr. Granger. Daddy’s friend. You’re the policeman.”

Officer Granger nodded.

“Your mom asked me to come talk to you, and I’m sorry to tell you this,” Mr. Granger said, “but your daddy won’t be coming home.”

Harry’s stomach sank. He suddenly wanted his daddy very, very badly.

“Why not?” Harry whispered.

“Well, your daddy was taken by a very bad man. The bad man hurt your daddy, and he died. Do you understand?”

“It means I won’t see him again,” Harry whispered. His eyes filled with tears, and he sobbed. Mr. Granger gathered Harry in his arms and held him while he cried. The long, comforting strokes on his back weren’t enough to calm him.

“I promise I’ll do everything I can to catch the bad man and make it so he can’t hurt anyone ever again,” Mr. Granger said. Harry cried harder.

After a while, his mother came in and Mr. Granger transferred Harry to her. Harry clung to her, afraid that if he let go, the bad man would get to her, too.

“We’ll be in touch soon,” Mr. Granger said to her. “Let us know if you can think of anything else.”

Harry’s mom nodded, never breaking her shh-shhing, and back rubbing, bouncing Harry around the room on her hip like how she used to when he was a baby. Normally, he would have balked at the treatment, but in that moment, he wanted nothing more than to be close to her.

Eventually, the tears dried up, and Harry’s mom put him to bed, but it wasn’t the same without his daddy to tuck him in. In the dimly lit room, he pulled the doll out from under his pillow and hugged it to him. He tried to cry quietly.

The doll looked just like his daddy, right down to the color of his suit.

A gentle pressure on his bed made Harry sit upright. A shadow perched near his legs, just where his daddy used to sit to tuck him in.

A low song, hummed by a soft voice, filled the room. Harry looked from the shadow to the doll. He lay back down, holding the doll to his chest, the song filling his head with good dreams.

Something, or someone, moved his covers up, tucking him in for the night.

Guest Story: Insubstantial

Happy Friday the 13th, everyone! In honor of today, please enjoy a story written by my wonderful friend and writing buddy, Kate Sheeran Swed.

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Image from Pixabay

 

Calliope cannot convince her blood to circulate.

It is the sensation of waking with one arm splayed on the pillow, the limb drained and temporarily useless—only it tingles throughout her body. She can’t convince her numb fingers to grasp the doorknob.

The window is open, and she sneaks onto the slope of the roof more easily than ever before. Though she can’t manage her usual grip on the gutter, her ankles don’t smart when she lands.

She is weightless. She almost giggles, thinking of how she will surprise her mother by walking in the front door. But a cold feeling against her spine stifles her laughter. It is like getting up to use the bathroom at night, when the darkness convinces her to waste no time in returning to her room, lest the monsters should realize there’s a morsel out of bed.

If she loses her grip on the earth she will fly away, a balloon without a tether.

Calliope gives her head a shake, willing the dizziness to pass. Soon she will go inside, where her mother will press a cool hand against her forehead and check for fever. For now, she scans the yard for something familiar. The trees tilt, and she blinks to set them right. The flowerbeds wobble from daffodil to snapdragon, a double exposure in her brain.

Through the chaos, she catches sight of her lunchbox, anchored in the grass. She tries to remember the last time she held the handle, but it’s hard to distinguish the difference between days and years.

It should not be here. It belongs on the kitchen counter, jaw unhinged, waiting to be sated with peanut butter sandwiches and notes from her mother: Don’t forget to hand in your lunch money! Always with a heart.

On the street, kids hurry by, backpacks quivering as they cast wide-eyed glances at the house. Calliope kneels before the lunchbox. She expects damp knees, but no sensation leaks through her jeans.

There are two boys beyond the fence now, poking noses and fingers between the bars and whispering, jabbing one another with elbows. Calliope cannot hear what they’re saying. She wants them to leave her alone.

The lunchbox is decorated with a unicorn. There are rainbows on the thermos. But the hinges are rusty, the unicorn’s horn all but faded away.

Calliope reaches for the clasp.

One of the boys squeezes between the bars of the fence, pauses, looks back to his friend. The friend urges him on with a bright red sleeve.

“What do you want?” asks Calliope. The boy looks past her and swallows, then darts toward the porch.

Calliope decides to pay him no mind. She touches the tip of her index finger to the clasp on the unicorn lunchbox.

Her finger disappears. When she pushes forward, alarmed, the rest of her hand follows.

She jerks it back.

The boy reaches the porch, touches the bottom step. For a moment, the house settles in Calliope’s vision, and she sees it as if for the first time.

The porch swing hangs drunkenly from one chain. The welcome mat is gone. The kitchen window is broken, mold-black curtains hanging dirty and frayed.

It’s disorienting, like stumbling into a carnival and searching for a familiar strain through the cacophony of clashing tunes.

The boy hurtles back down the walk while his companion giggles.

Calliope is heat. She pours it into her fingers, curls them around the handle, and hurls the lunchbox with all the substance she has left.

The boys scream when the box hits the fence. They run.

Calliope sinks once more to her knees and tries to piece it all together, her thoughts no more solid than the ground beneath her feet. She will grow too heavy for the surface and descend through layers of earth, forget her place in time and fall through the years, until everything exists at once. She will hear the reason for the cockroaches, and how they keep the melody of the world from tilting off key.

The day slinks on.

*

Calliope cannot convince her blood to circulate.


Kate Sheeran Swed loves hot chocolate, plastic dinosaurs, and airplane tickets. She has trekked along the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, hiked on the Mýrdalsjökull glacier in Iceland, and climbed the ruins of Masada to watch the sunrise over the Dead Sea. Following an idyllic childhood in New Hampshire, she completed degrees in music at the University of Maine and Ithaca College, then moved to New York City. Her stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Electric Spec, and Fantasy Scroll Magazine. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Pacific University. You can find her at katesheeranswed.com or on Twitter @katesheeranswed.

If it’s safe, say yes

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The view from Devil’s Den, Gettysburg

Ghosts. Spirits. Hauntings. Whether you’re a skeptic or believer, you probably have some strong opinions on the subject, but I’m not here to convince you of anything. I’m just going to relate a story.

When I was in college, my dorm suite was haunted. Other people might have explained it away, but my roommates and I believed that the creepy things that were happening weren’t caused by living humans. We believed so much we had my friend’s father, who is a Russian Orthodox bishop, come to the school and bless our suite. After that, the activity stopped and that just solidified my belief.

I spent this last weekend in Gettysburg, PA at a paranormal conference organized by a company called Strange Escapes. It was a weekend full of ghosts and theories, battlefields and talks, and wonderful camaraderie. It was soul-filling in a strange way and I got to see my writing friend, Christie, which just made the weekend even better.

The most eye-opening talk for me was given by John Tenney. I’ve been mulling over two things he said since Sunday.

The first was that he doesn’t like the word “paranormal” because these experiences are shared by so many people that they are more normal than not, but most people talk about them in whispers. This was mostly just an interesting tidbit that slightly realigned how I see things.

The second he said was that if someone asks you to do something crazy, and it’s safe, always say yes. And he proceeded to tell us amazing stories of things people have asked him to come see.

My life has been pretty routine lately. Work sleep work sleep ad nauseum. I haven’t been saying “yes” to many things lately. Maybe this one line spoken from the front of a crowded lecture room in amongst the weird ghostly happenings of the weekend, is the thing I needed to take away from this conference. I need to hang on to the sentiment and learn how to say “yes” more.

I’m back in the “real world” now and it’s a little jarring. There’s a definite lack of magic in the way I carry out the humdrum of my daily life and this conference really showed me how unacceptable that is.

I want to live a weird, wacky, amazing life. And acknowledging that is the first step, so I think I’m on the right path.

I’ll write more about the actual conference at some point, but this has been what I’ve been thinking about since I left yesterday.