1) Tell us about the stories you write/the story you have written for the event.
I’m Briana Michaels author of all things fae, demon, witch, and Hell Hound with romance on the wicked side. Each of my stories combines intense, dark-ish, fast-paced elements with suuuuper steamy scenes and a splash of humor.
Hell Hounds Harem series – Get ready to HOWL FOR YOUR PACK!
These badass men were created by Lucifer and run in packs. Devotion, loyalty, fierce protective instincts – these Hell Hounds have it all. Their job is to hunt down the malanum – malicious spirits - and send them back into Hell’s prisons. They work together to keep the world safe and, in all things, they have each other’s backs with fists clenched, blades drawn, and eyes blazing with righteousness. And in the bedroom, these big boys make their woman howl till her throat is raw and legs are weak.
When Lucifer suspects a traitor is in their midst, things go from suspicious to deadly with a flick of a blade. Hell’s walls are crumbling, packs are attacked, betrayal runs thick, and the bonds created are shaken down to their bare bones. Do these Hell Hounds and Angels have what it takes to not only save themselves, their packs, and Hell… but the humans they’ve spent their lifetimes protecting – or is the evil darkening the hearts of men too deep-seated to eliminate?
When war is waged and love is on the line, there is only one thing left to do: Raise Hell.
*This Reverse Harem series is written in trilogies with multi-POVs. 9 books, 3 harems, 1 hella massive story arc. All are in Kindle Unlimited.*
Restless Spirit (1): books2read.com/u/mdzzwE
The Dark Truth (2): books2read.com/u/3nvvMP
The Devil’s Darling (3): books2read.com/u/47rrJq
Hard to Find (4): books2read.com/u/4j22Mv
Hard to Love (5): books2read.com/u/bzooq9
Hard to Kill (6): books2read.com/u/mgZZyx
Raise Hell (7): https://books2read.com/u/49MlYM
Raise the Dead (8): https://books2read.com/u/b6ZK6M
Ruler of the Righteous (9): https://books2read.com/u/3kWARO
Sins of the Sidhe series – Get ready to sin with the rebels.
Everyone has a soulmate. Finding them isn’t the hard part; it’s keeping them that could cost you everything. Angels have cracked halos, Demons hide their horns, Fae are only as sweet as the revenge they seek, and they’re all coming into the human world. As the fabric of the universe begins to unravel, it’s hard to pick a side if both have good and evil, light and dark, war and peace. Choose carefully…
*This paranormal M/F romance series has urban fantasy elements with multi-POVs, is fast-burning, fast-paced with fated mates and intertwining subplots with massive story arcs. All are in Kindle Unlimited.*
Shatter (1): books2read.com/u/bP99wj
Shine (2): books2read.com/u/3LDD8M
Passion (3): books2read.com/u/4Azzde
Bargains (4): books2read.com/u/b555Jp
Ignite (5): books2read.com/u/m2VVJk
Awaken (6): books2read.com/u/38ZZJ7
Rise (7): books2read.com/u/4Dyyjd
Exile (8): books2read.com/u/bpOOMl
Discord (9): Coming Soon
2) What do you plan on writing next?
Right now, I’m in the middle of writing Discord, Book 9 in the Sins of the Sidhe series. I can’t tell you how much I love the two demons this story focusses on. Jackyl is a Goddess in the Underworld. Actually, she’s the first and only female to have power down there, and she is keeping busy showing her rivals what she’s capable of. All eyes are on her as everyone watches, waits, and holds their breath expecting her to fail… and she intends to make them all suffocate while she carries on with her badass self.
Chaos on the other hand? Well, he’s aptly named and has his hands full with a twin brother – Ruin - who is up to no good, an uprising in the Underworld brewing, a war camp to run, and an unknown enemy hellbent to destroy everything he’s built and holds dear – including the one he treasures most.
Squueeeee!! Back to the writing cave I go!!!
3) Do you believe in ghosts?
YES!! I grew up in a haunted house. Day and night, you could hear people moving around, thumping, pacing up and down the hall and talking in the basement. Lights flickered all the time and the stereo would turn on and off randomly. It went from scary to annoying within a few years.
And when I bought my first house just after getting married, that one was haunted too. They weren’t nearly as noisy and they almost always stayed upstairs. The bugaboo with that? My son’s nursery was upstairs (master bedroom was on the first floor.) So one day, while my son was taking a nap, I had his baby monitor on and I was in my bedroom. I hear the boots stomp into his room. I stared at the monitor (it had a line of red lights that glowed depending on the loudness in the nursery). The red lights flickered with the noise of the nursery door opening, then you could hear boots thumping and a man’s voice said, “Wake up, boy!” and he CLAPPED! Yes, you read that right. He. Clapped. Those damn red lights lit all the way up and my son started crying. Was I freaked out? Hell no. We’d lived with these ghosts too long for fear to set in.
I. Was. Livid. Did that ghost not realize how hard it was for me to get my son down for a nap??!!! I marched my ass up there and yelled, “Thanks a lot, you jerk!”
4) What is your favorite thing about Halloween?
That my house is covered in spooky stuff, fresh apple cider is available all over the place, and the woods I live in is super colorful and smells divine. I’ve always said I was Morticia Addams’s funky twin sister and Halloween gives me the best excuse to pull out ALL my skulls and bats and everything else my little gothic heart loves so much. I keep some of it out all year round, but Halloween is the one holiday I go wild with. Not an inch of my house is saved from bones, spiders, webbing, and bats. #TheWitchIsIn
5) How do you spend your Halloween?
We usually go trick or treating and throw a massive party complete with a haunted trail in the woods. But we’re skipping that this year. #Booooo
One tradition we will NOT skip is this: The Witch Cake.
Every year my kids and I bake a witch cake – it’s usually a pumpkin cranberry bread or spice cake. While it’s cooling, I crack open the windows in the kitchen to entice the flying witches to smell it and come to our house. Before going to bed, the kids leave a slice out for any witch who dares to enter our home and the next morning, the cake is gone and she’s left a present for the them.
Best. Tradition. Ever.
TRAPPED WITHIN A
A Romantic Horror Suspense
J. P. Uvalle
Copyrighted by Beautifully Twisted Publishing 2020
All Rights Reserved
They say that when you die in a dream, you die in real life. I can tell you that isn't true—I died in my dream, and what happened to me was much stranger than that…
Willow Divine, a goal-driven medical student with midterms around the corner, has enough on her plate. When she begins having a recurring dream with a shadow-like entity haunting every corner of her mind, the lines between fantasy and reality start to blend.
Axel, the lead singer of the college rock band, only complicates her situation. She believes his pursuit of her is more sinister than he lets on.
She discovers she’s right a little too late.
With no way out, Willow is trapped.
Can Willow discover the truth
and escape her worst nightmare before she’s trapped forever?
JP takes you on a thrilling supernatural journey, filled with terror and twists at every turn inspired by some of her most horrifying nightmares.
*Not for the faint of heart*
Another Day, Another Dream…
The library was my sanctuary, an escape from the busy world filled with murder, hate, and corrupt politicians driving humanity into the ground.
Others may have hated the silence, but I found comfort in it. It was the only place where I could genuinely gather my thoughts.
My mind was buzzing more than usual lately, my body off-kilter. Part of me believed it was because midterms were next week. The other part of me thought it was because of this recurring dream I had over the past few weeks.
A shadow bearing a resemblance to the grim reaper had been stalking me at every turn. When it moved—my palms began to sweat just thinking about it--the shadow was like a marionette dancing on a stage, turning everything, it touched into darkness.
I felt all this had to be some sort of sign. But what did this figure symbolize?
I opened another book about dreams and chugged my fourth coffee cup, thumbing through the creamed-color pages. The warmth of salted caramel somewhat put my soul at ease. I was determined to find my answer even if it took me all night. Or…until the library closed, anyway.
“Willow?” a familiar voice whispered from above.
I reluctantly craned my head up to greet bright brown eyes and a temptingly wicked smile framed by tousled black hair.
The face of sin, the poster boy for all things, dark, brooding, and utterly dangerous.
“Axel.” I went back to my research. I didn’t have time for distractions.
I heard the chair next to me move, and Axel’s broad, muscular body appeared in my peripheral. He pulled my chair closer to his; his jeans’ friction sparked a warmth against my bare thigh. Smirking, he placed a brown paper bag in front of me. “I thought you might be hungry.”
The smell of grease, cheese, and hamburger meat wafted into the musky air tangling with his cedarwood cologne—a potently tantalizing combination. My stomach clenched, a rumbling noise barreling through me. I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten. Glancing down at my wristwatch, I shook the daze from my head, fully aware of my hunger. I haven’t eaten since breakfast. My momma would take a belt to my hide if she'd known I’d been surviving on coffee alone.
Southerners didn’t play when it came to food. I didn’t grow up in the south, but my momma had ingrained her rich heritage into every part of our lives, bringing the southern charm to wherever we lived. Our neighbors certainly appreciated her home-style cooking; it kept her busy when my daddy was overseas.
Reminiscing about Southern eats had me biting my lip, anticipating the juicy, salty cheeseburger’s mouthwatering taste.
“Thank you, Axel.” I reached for the bag, but he slapped my hand away.
I turned toward him, pinning him with a glare. I should have known there was a catch attached to this meal. That’s how Axel worked; he always wanted somethin’ from me.
“Not so fast.” That devilishly handsome grin I loved to loathe grew wider, consuming his face.
“What do you want now, Axel?” I leaned back, folding my arms over my chest.
His gaze bee-lined to my chest, but with a blink, they have linked with mine again. “Relax. I just want to have a meal with my girl.”
I rolled my eyes, blowing out a breath. This guy was relentless. “I’m not your girl. We ain't even datin'.”
He leaned closer, his breath heating my ear. “We don’t have to be dating for you to be mine. Just make it easier for both of us and just accept it. Fry?” He dug into the bag and removed the carton of crisp and steaming waffle fries and waved it back and forth as if he were a hypnotist, and I was his powerless victim.
Who in the hell did this guy think he was? My second attempt to snatch the fries away failed, and he pulled them toward his chest.
“Just admit it, Willow, so we can eat.”
“No. I rather starve.” I didn’t understand his pursuit of me. I was startin' to think he had a bet going with his buddies because there was no way the lead singer of the college’s infamous rock band Devil's Descent wanted me to be his one true love when he could have any girl on campus.
His lips tugged into a frown. He set the fries down on the table and ran a hand through his shiny black hair. “I want to give you everything, but you just keep breaking my heart.”
“It ain’t my fault you won’t take no for an answer. I’ve been quite clear with how I feel ‘bout you.” My glare remained fixed. My momma warned me about boys like him, and I wasn’t giving in for anything.
He met my glare with his. “Suit yourself.”
He snatched up the fries and shoved them back into the bag, taking the entire and whispered, “sweet dreams, princess.”
His words froze me still, the chill frosting down my spine. Why on earth would he say that? It was still daylight. Maybe he was being his usually nosey self and noticed what I was reading.
I watched Axel disappear into the dark corner of the library without turning back.
After rolling my shoulders back to release the tension in my body, I continued my search, scanning the pages until a section caught my attention.
My heart strummed against my chest; my skin suddenly hot. My eyes widened as I blinked, not wanting to believe what I was reading. Had I found my answer?
The Dream Man:
Over twenty years, there have been reports of young women between the ages of 18-28 who had died in their sleep. In recent years, more deaths have followed before tapering off. The women had mentioned to family members and friends that a shadowy figure was haunting their dreams, nights before their sudden demise.
I snapped the book shut, sliding it across the table, unable to read anymore. The horror within the pages infected my mind. That can’t be true. Right? Things of that nature didn’t exist. Those were just myths and urban legends—ghost stories. I shook my head in denial. I’m just really stressed. The shadow…it means nothing.
I got up from the table, gathering all the books I took from the shelves, and put all of them back in their proper place. I then grabbed my tote and strolled to the exit, because the sight of a book suddenly made me want to vomit.
Home, sweet home...
On the way home, I turned the music on blast to drown out the troubling thoughts swirling inside my head. Those poor women. So many questions...
I parked my car in the driveway, and the quiet suburban street met me on the outside. The sun was starting to set over the horizon—a clash of orange, pink, and blue painted the sky. I inhaled deeply, trying to calm myself. I didn’t want to alarm Momma, so I needed to get myself together before walking through the front door. When I was finally ready, I slipped the key into the lock and turned the knob.
“Hey, baby girl,” Momma immediately greeted me, planting a kiss on my forehead. “I’m so happy you’re finally home. We have a guest.”
My Momma's smile beamed brighter than the sun, and the sight soothed my nerves.
The smell of chicken, spicy sausage, and shrimp lingered in the air, making our four-bedroom bungalow feel like we were in the middle of a heatwave as if the Florida heat wasn’t hot enough. Geez! It must be a special guest if she is whipping up her famous gumbo. Beats a greasy cheeseburger and fries any day. Maybe Papa was home.
Without another word, I sprinted into the kitchen, my heart pounding with excitement. Papa had been overseas in Japan for three long months. I couldn’t wait to catch up. Him, Momma, and I would spend hours on the porch, sipping iced tea, listening to his war stories, and world travels.
My heart sank when I rounded the corner. Not Papa.
Frozen in place, my hair on my arms and the back of my neck stood on end.
How did he know where I lived? Has he been following me?!
“Hey, babe.” That grin appeared—the one where it sounded like a sword being unsheathed from its holster, cutting through me every time. Nothing but the worst intentions loomed in his eyes. I knew it in my heart and my bones.
He turned back around and added more Cajun spices to the pot. “I think it’s almost ready, Mrs. Divine.”
“Please, call me Dolores.” Momma scooted passed me and gently squeezed the top of his shoulder. They shared a smile before she turned back to me with her hand hugging her hip. “Willow, your boyfriend said you haven’t eaten since breakfast.”
“Momma, he is not—”
“No excuses, Willow. Now, I’d done told you I don’t want you out there starvin’. I know how you get when you get preoccupied with somethin’.”
Axel peered at me over his shoulder with that same grin I wanted so desperately to smack off his goddamn face. “She is driven that one. One of the many reasons I adore her so. She’s so inspirational.”
Momma nodded. “And two…why have you been hiding this strapping young man from me?”
His deception ran deep if he was able to convince my momma he was no trouble. But arguing with Momma now was pointless. I just wanted to eat and avoid falling asleep.
“Sorry, Momma.” With my shoulders strung low, I made my way to the table and took a seat. Minutes later, Axel served me a steaming bowl of gumbo and some iced tea.
“Dolores said it was your favorite. I hope I did it justice.” He winked before stepping away and pulled out a seat for Momma, serving her as well. She immediately dove a spoon into the hearty mixture. “Um-mmmm. I’ll be damned if this boy can cook. Willow, honey, you better marry this boy. This gumbo is delicious.”
Oh God! Don’t give him any ideas, Momma. I groaned inwardly, shoving a spoonful into my mouth. An explosion of flavor took over my buds, and for a moment, I had forgotten he was even in the room. This is pretty damn good!
I looked up to find Axel staring at me from across the table, licking his lips as if he were a wolf fattening up his prey before eating it. My momma enjoyed her meal so thoroughly, and she was oblivious to the predator in the room.
I gulped. “It is not polite to stare.”
“My apologies. I just have a hard time believing you are mine.”
“Because I’m not.”
“Ah, you too, are adorable. How did you guys meet anyway? Momma wants all the deets.” She excitedly clapped her hands together.
“At a show. I’m in a rock band.”
“Oh, wow. My baby snagged her a musician. Isn’t that sweet.”
I rolled my eyes.
“We aren’t big-time or anything, but we have a decent following.”
“Either way, I’m proud of you, suga.” She ran her hand across his forearm, and I wanted to vomit in my mouth.
I wished I had gotten to talk to my momma about him before he dug his sharp claws into her. Now I’d never be rid of him.
Why couldn’t anyone else see past the charm to the devil hiding underneath? I didn’t have solid proof, but I knew something was off. Call it a woman's intuition.
After dinner, Axel offered to wash dishes while I dried so Momma could put her feet up and watch her stories.
I finally rounded on him when she turned the volume up on the TV. “What the hell do you think you are doing? Coming to my house like this, lyin’ to my momma about us,” I snarled.
“You refused to eat dinner with me earlier, so you gave me no choice but to take drastic measures. You need to take better care of yourself, Willow.”
“Bullshit. What do you want from me, Axel?”
The last time he cornered me in the girls' bathroom out of nowhere, said he was just checking on me. He was up to somethin’ and still was.
He placed the dishes he held back into the sudsy water. His eyes burned with such intensity; it was palpable like the spices lingering in the air. “I. Want. You.”
“You. Can’t. Have. Me.”
“That’s too bad.” He leaned in closer, the heat of his breath against my earlobe. “Because I’m not going anywhere, babe.”
“Thanks for dinner, and helpin’ with dishes, but I think it’s ‘bout time you left.”
“Not until I know you're in bed, falling fast asleep.”
“You're not going anywhere near my room, let alone my bed.”
Instinctively we both turned to find my momma asleep in the recliner.
“Who's going to stop me? Your momma? She’s dead asleep.”
I narrowed my gaze at him, a nagging feeling taking over my gut. “Did you put somethin’ in that gumbo, Axel?”
“Oh, c'mon. How awful do you think I am?” A laugh erupted from his chest.
“Pretty Goddamn awefuuulll.” I started to slur my words, my surroundings blending like paint on a canvas. I gripped the edge of the counter, desperately trying to keep my world from spinning. My muscles began to feel lax; my knees were weakening underneath me. “You, asshole,” I choked out.
“Aww, you're looking a little sleepy, there, babe. I think I should carry you to bed.”
No! No! No! I reached out to push him away, missed, and ended up in his arms anyway. The world seemed to dim around me, my vision tunneling. The darkness came to me with a confident smirk on his face. It told me that he had finally won this game.
But I told myself he hadn’t won the war as I slipped in and out of consciousness.
When Dreams Recur...
My recurring dream started as it usually did. I was a medical student with midterms coming up, so it made sense that most of my dreams pertained to me being a doctor in the Emergency Room. I wanted to become the best damn general surgeon there was...
It was dusk—the sun was setting behind the palm trees as I glanced out the window from the hospital’s fourth floor. The surgery team careened around the corridor, wheeling a gunshot patient to the operation room. Earlier, the EMS arrived with an unresponsive man, bleeding profusely from his chest; blood had completely soaked through the bandage I had applied moments ago, and he was now unconscious.
We don't have much time.
I said a prayer my momma taught me before following behind the team. Once we were beyond the double swinging doors of the O.R., I went in another direction from the surgical suite and entered the scrub room. I watched through the window as they maneuvered the patient onto the operating table from the hospital bed and prepared him for surgery. The time it took me to get into my surgical gear occurred within a blur…I was suddenly wrist-deep within the patient’s chest.
Times before, I had watched this man die on this table with my hands still in his chest. Because no matter what I did or said, the outcome was always the same; his death was haunting my waking life to the point I doubted becoming a surgeon altogether, which was why I didn’t want to experience the guilt associated with this again. Even if it were a dream, something had to give.
“The patient is in v-fib,” the anesthesiologist shouted.
“He’s losing too much blood. I can’t find the bleeder.” At this point in my dream, I would make the same mistake, the situation out of my control. I would continue shifting his organs around, asking the doctor to assist me in suctioning the blood away to locate the bleed. But this time, everyone moved around me in slow motion, their mouths pleading for what direction to take. This part hadn't happened before. Why does this feel different?
Unexpectedly, I was hypersensitive to my surroundings, my hands covered with blood, and his heart and lungs felt warm against my gloved hands. I narrowed my eyes, glancing around the surgical suite as a chill overtook me. Am I dreaming? If this was a dream, then maybe I could change the outcome if I focused hard enough.
Come on, Willow, think. What do you do?
I didn’t know his name or how old he was. Or if he had a family. I just knew I needed to save him this time.
I needed to correct the problem and fast. What his heart needed was...a jolt of electricity. If I could get him back to a normal rhythm, it would give me more time to find the bleed. That’s it! “Prepare him for defibrillation.”
My surgical team moved around with purpose and renewed confidence. The defibrillator paddle handles magically appeared within my grasp. Inhaling a breath, I closed my eyes briefly as my grip tightened around them: my heartbeat a stampede, the sound echoing through my skull. “Stand clear,” I said, pressing the thin paddles on either side of his heart.
No response. The cardiac muscle remained unmoved, taunting me with its stillness.
Dread trickled into my core. Please, come back to me. I ordered a nurse to turn up the voltage as I waited for my moment to try again. “Clear.” With my second attempt, the nervousness from my team and me filled the room like a flood. This had to be it. I was starting to feel the strain of standing there for hours in my neck, back, and knees, the sleepiness weighing my eyes down like an anchor.
His heart throbbed within his chest cavity, and we all glanced at the EKG monitor for assurance. Normal P, Q, R, and S waves. The numbers on the screen were crystal clear to me when numbers and words had been blurry before.
“Yes, normal sinus rhythm,” the anesthesiologist cheered.
Everyone joined in as my assisting doctor nodded in my direction. “Well, done, Dr. Divine.”
I smiled even though no one could see it hidden underneath my mask. “Now, we just have to find the bleed.”
Several hours later, the man was recovering in the intensive care unit. I made my rounds with the day shift doctors when I opened the door to find him being attended to by a nurse in purple scrubs.
What a second...our intensive care unit nurses usually wear red.
The other doctors didn't seem to notice the difference, but the more I stared at her, the more she looked familiar to me.
Then she spoke. “Oh, Dr. Divine. Your patient is recoverin' nicely. Vitals are now stable.”
The ICU nurse continued to smile at me, no recognition of who I was in her eyes. I stepped away from the doctors’ huddle to walk closer to her, her bright smile only growing wider as the other doctors talked amongst themselves about previous patients.
My eyes narrowed in on her like lasers as I stood right in front of her, not entirely trusting my eyes. Oddly, me standing so close didn't make her uncomfortable. The nurse's emotionless brown eyes just continued to stare back into mine.
“Momma?” I whispered.
The room’s energy alarmingly shifted, the temperature dropping to a teeth-chattering cold—the conversation behind me about who was sleeping with who died down. My momma's smile slowly faded, her once-vacant eyes slowly dilated with fear. The pressure against my spine intensified as I craned my neck over my shoulder.
The team of doctors had vanished. Darkness taking over the room replaced their presence, and there in the far corner of the room was...the tall, slender shadow in the shape of a man. The figure that had been haunting my dreams. The epitome of all my fears. He crept closer, his shadow elongating, arms outstretched. His fingers grew longer, my name a raspy whisper on his tongue.
My mouth fell open, my skin erupting with goosebumps. No! Not again! I laced my fingers through the nurse's hand, well aware of the warmth of our hands together as I jerked us in the door’s direction. “C'mon. We have to get out of here.” As we ran past, the shadow's fingers grazed against my forearm, and black tendrils twirled up my arm; the coldness infecting my veins caused my arm to lock in place. Still, I couldn't allow this to stop me. Gritting my teeth, I suffered through the pain and pulled us into the hallway.
Chaos ensued around us. The medical staff was running back and forth frantically while the building shook violently, almost as if an explosion had shifted the structure off its foundation.
Great...here we go again. I avoided running us to the elevator because precedent times had taught me it was a deadly mistake, and there was no way I was going to let something happen to the nurse that was somehow my momma. Something doesn't feel right about all this. Things were starting to feel a little too real.
So, I led us in the opposite direction and around the corner toward the stairs. Up ahead, the single door with a glass panel opened with a squeal. It stood ajar, no one walking through. Then, darkness from the shadow billowed into the hallway. “Willow.”
What did this shadow want from me? I wasn't sticking around long enough to find out, especially after his mere touch locked up my arm. The elevator, it is. Maybe, we can get off on a different floor?
“Dr. Divine. What's the plan now?” A worried expression marred her face.
Looking into her eyes, I gulped down the lump in my throat, the past of my dreams flooding my vision. “No matter what...never let go of my hand, okay?” A single tear fell from my eye as my grip on hers tightened. I had saved that man's life; hopefully, I could save hers, too.
I nodded slightly, changing our direction, and we ran to the elevator. No one else was in sight. The hospital was so quiet now. What happened to everyone else? Even the room where the man was recovering was no longer there. What the…? I touched the wall where the door used to be, my heart heavy. We hadn’t gone through all that stress in surgery for him to just disappear.
“Dr. Divine?” Momma’s voice snapped me out of my transfixion, pulling me back into the present.
The shadow was gaining on us, his arms extending the length of the hallway. “Come back.” His voice eerily echoed through the hall.
We picked up our speed, pumping our legs as fast as we could. The lights overhead began to flicker in tandem with my heartbeat. We slid into the elevator door, and I absentmindedly pushed the button for the first floor. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon.” The elevator never came fast enough when you needed it.
A symphony of moans traveled down the hall, stirring up the fear already present within us. The shadow slithered closer, devouring everything in its wake--the hallway nothing but a black hole behind him. One by one, the lights went out, soon leaving us in complete darkness.
“Oh, thank you, Jesus.” Momma breathed out.
We stumbled into the elevator, and the doors sealed us in. When the elevator jerked downward, so did my stomach, rattled I had forgotten to press for a different floor. Oh, no! No! No! Thanks, dream for having the buttons numbered on the outside instead of in. The elevator walls seemed to close in on me; my muscles constricted around my lungs, making it hard to breathe. Screeching of metal on metal filled our ears, and the elevator shook, plummeting faster.
“We are going to die, aren’t we Doctor?” my Momma enclosed me into a tight hug, still holding my hand, and began to sob.
I lifted her chin with my finger, so her eyes of concern met mine. “No. We aren’t going to die...I am.”
She shook her head at me, confused. “But, we are stuck in here together.”
“Momma, I need you to wake up.”
“Momma? Why do you keep calling me that?" After studying every curve and line on my face, her eyes widened. “Baby girl, it’s you. It's really you. But how?” She moved a strand of my hair away from my face. “Where are we? What is happenin’ Wha--what was that thing?”
“No time to explain.” I spun us around, taking her place. I shook her again, letting go of her hand. “Momma, wake up, plea--”
The top of the elevator ripped away; sparks flew up all around us. We screamed at the top of our lungs as a large reptilian-like hand with sharp black claws snatched me out of the elevator. Its claws severed my spine, coming out through my chest. A mind-altering pain ricocheted throughout my core, setting my insides on fire. Still, I will rather be here instead of my momma.
“Baby, no,” she cried, reaching up to me.
Drops of my blood landed on her face as I let out a blood-curdling scream, succumbing to the pain. I watched the elevator drop into the depths below. “Momma!” My screams drowned in the blood pool, filling my throat, and my dream world evaporated into a blinding white light.
Where am I?
A disembodied voice called out my name, waking me up. Eyelids heavy, I forced them open to a dense fog floating all around me. I bolted upright after that, noticing I was lying on a bed, wearing a gray floral dress, in the middle of...where am I? I had no clue. Fear crawled into my flesh, trying to make sense of my surroundings. Was I still dreaming, or was I in a nightmarish hell? Although I couldn't see past the fog, the air smelled of salty seaweed, and an owl was hooting in the distance. Was I near a lake or some body of water?
A severe chill suddenly swept over me, and I rubbed my arms, desperately trying to keep warm. The bed I sat upon was only a mattress with no blankets or sheets. A rather odd place for a bed if you had asked me, but at this point, nothing was making much sense.
I glanced over my body, running a hand over my chest. There was no blood, no wound. I exhaled a breath I had been holding onto forever.
“Willow,” the voice said again, and it seemed to be coming at me from all directions.
I cursed the fog, not being able to see. Here I was a sitting duck, but where would I run? “Wh—who's there?” I shuddered.
A black figure appeared amidst the fog, strangely parting it like the sea. In a blink of an eye, the figure was far away, and the next, sitting on the bed with me before I could have any sort of reaction. I pressed my back into the carved giltwood headboard
decorated with shells and scrolling foliage—a design from another century. My God, have I gone back in time?!
A hand made of ice touched me on the arm. This time the figure was not a shadow...but a man wearing a gray hoodie, the hood shielding his face. “Willow.” His tone laced with warning. The cold from his touch seeped into my veins; my teeth began to chatter, unable to move, my scream caught in my throat. Not that it would matter, I was in the middle of nowhere.
The hood came down in slow motion, and my heart stopped mid beat, the hairs rose on the back of my neck. I slapped my hand over my mouth. It can't be.
“I didn't want things to be like this, Willow, but you have left me no choice.”
“How could you do this to me? Where in Sam hell are we?” My breath came out in a puff of cold air.
“Doesn't matter, there's no escape. You are mine. Forever.” A ghost of a smile crossed his lips. I knew Axel was trouble, but I never imagined he was the shadow man haunting my dreams. Then it dawned on me... trapped in a cage with the predator, and I was his prey. This Dream Man…was a killer, and I was his latest victim.
Did you enjoy this exclusive sneak peek?! If so, Trapped Within a Dream is available for preorder and releases on October 30th!
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In my twenty years working in law enforcement, I have encountered darkness. I removed flecks of blood from a murderer’s hands shortly after his heinous crime, heard a suicidal caller’s gunshot ring out over a phone line, struggled to locate a rape victim hiding from her attacker. Yet, when I look back over the times in my life I’ve felt intense fear, these moments pale in comparison to my experience on a sunny afternoon in mid-December, 1996. I will attempt to describe to you what happened that day and hope someone may be able to explain what I have never been able to.
I grew up in a small town in Indiana, in an average, middle class neighborhood on the outskirts of town. From our backyard, you could see farmer’s fields and acres of woods. We lived a few minutes from a nature preserve and recreational water reservoir fed by two rivers. While my home was a new construction, many of the houses and buildings in the area were not. One of the more historic buildings nearby was a massive grey and white building known as Evergreen Manor.
Built as a “poor farm” or county home, it was intended to provide shelter and support for less fortunate members of the community. Widows, orphans, the disabled or ill could live on the farm in exchange for what labor they could contribute. As time marched on, the people living at the county home became known as inmates. The focus shifted from sheltering the poor to treating the mentally ill. During the early 1950s, inmates experiencing mental disturbances were treated with procedures which, while now considered barbaric, were cutting edge science at the time. Electro-shock, hydrotherapy (metal cages and fire hoses), and frontal lobotomies were all used in the facility.
When these treatments fell out of favor, mental asylums began to reform or close. The building transitioned to an elder care nursing home under the name Evergreen Manor. As the building deteriorated and maintenance costs rose, the company moved their residents to a new facility. After nearly two hundred years of steady use, the building sat vacant. An individual then purchased the building and the acreage around it. He was a hermit, and moved into the sprawling building but lived primarily within one enclosed porch off the commercial kitchen, an area the nursing home staff once used for their breaks. The grounds grew wild and unkept as the old building sagged under its own weight. The county began to issue ordinance violations as the man’s behavior grew increasingly bizarre.
My school bus used to drive down the gravel road and pass the old building every day, turning around past it as the road was a dead end. That stopped when the owner began hanging deer carcasses from a rusted swing set frame alongside the road and glaring at us from the concrete steps leading up to his porch. The bus driver decided she’d better to turn around in a different driveway.
By the time I was in high school, the strange owner died, the old county home was condemned, and there it sat, abandoned and in disrepair. Spooky stories about the place flourished. It became a popular place for kids to dare each other to break into, or vandalize. I earned the precious freedom only a driver’s license could give, and no longer travelled a route past Evergreen and so it faded from my notice.
That changed my senior year, when a friend of mine came up with a brilliant plan to waste a few hours. It was December, and we were attending our Christmas dance as a group of four. Two guys and two girls, yet unwilling to officially refer to each other as “dates” because it was not like that. (Insert teenage angst and insecurities here). We had appointments to have our hair styled early in the day, because we’d slacked off and hadn’t bothered to make an appointment months earlier. As we sat around in my bedroom, Kristy sat bolt upright and said, “Wait! You live close to the haunted asylum place! Show it to me!”
After about twenty minutes arguing all the reasons it was a bad idea, including ruining our hairspray stiffened updos, I knuckled to peer pressure and began the three-minute drive to the old county home. Once I turned off onto the gravel road, an odd feeling of heaviness and dread settled over me.
“They patrol this pretty often now and the neighbors call if they see a strange vehicle so we should probably just drive by and head back,” I stammered.
Kristy turned to look at me, her eyes widening. “Are you scared? Really?” she asked incredulously. I was the unflappable friend, the one who was always the caretaker, the sober one who kept everyone else in line. Not the chicken. Yet as I drove, my knuckles were white on the steering wheel and I could not explain why. Maybe it was the strangely warm weather, maybe it was nerves about my first real formal, but the back of my neck prickled, and my pulse raced as the massive building loomed ahead. The main steps and façade had been swallowed by underbrush and small, scraggly trees, but there was no mistaking the size of the building. I slowed to a stop near the cracked sidewalk, unwilling to pull into the parking area. I could barely breathe, my head filled with a strange static as my friend chattered excitedly about how creepy the building was. I muttered something, ready to pop my car right back into drive and pull away, when Kristy jumped out of the car.
“Hey! No! We’re not going in!” I called out after her, but she was off and paying no attention to me. I wanted to drive off without her, every fiber of my being screamed at me that something was wrong here. But, I couldn’t see my friend anymore. She didn’t know anything about this place and could easily get lost or hurt. I forced myself to get out of the car, leaving my keys in the ignition and the door unlocked so I could make a quick escape.
Outside, I was immediately struck by how quiet it was. Too quiet. There was no wind. There were no birds. Nothing but a soft buzzing sound and my own panicked internal dialogue. Hoping to quickly find my friend and threaten her into leaving with me immediately, I forced myself out of the car. I was not going into that building whose broken windows seemed to be watching me like gaping black eyes. Stepping cautiously, I passed a discarded shopping cart, some broken liquor bottles. The buzzing grew louder. In the tall grass, a rotting deer head lay discarded and putrid, a large black fly crawling over one eye. Shuddering, my fear grew more and more palpable. I crept forward, each step a feat of self-control. My mouth had gone dry, lips glued together in mute terror.
A loud bang shook me, reeling backward several steps, ready to abandon my friend to her own stupidity until I saw her ahead of me. She stood on concrete steps, holding open a battered screen door as she leaned over the threshold. Her lips were moving, the excited and happy grin on her face in direct opposition to my own turmoil. However, I could only hear the flies. I felt myself pulled forward as she stepped inside the building, even as I tried to choke out a warning. In my head, I screamed at her to stop, not go any farther, but I do not think I made a sound.
Inside, Kristy poked around at trash scattered around on the peeling linoleum. Two yellow refrigerators sat side by side, the upper freezer doors open. Dark brown trails of dried muck leaked from pink Styrofoam trays heaped inside a freezer. Even though I knew it should have been years since that meat turned, I could smell the rot. A pile of discarded clothing was heaped on an old camp cot. The flies buzzed over everything. They flitted around the plastic sheeting on the windows and crawled on Kristy’s blonde hair.
I backed away, croaking out the word, “Now!” as I pointed toward the car. From within the building, there was another loud crash. This time it was metallic sounding and much closer. It was enough to finally send my friend scurrying down the steps and it was my cue to flee.
I raced for my car, stumbling and panting. My hands shook violently as I jerked open the door, dove into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. I cranked again, profanities spilling from my lips as Kristy shrieked, “Go! What’s the matter?!?” I cranked the key again and AGAIN. The fourth time, the engine roared to life and I stomped on the gas, spinning my little car around in the gravel like I was in a demolition derby. As soon as the car started, there was a whoosh, like a release of pressure. The normal noises returned, wind and birds, an airplane overhead and the absolute scream of my six-cylinder engine as I tore back home.
We sat in silence in my bedroom for an hour before I managed to calm myself enough to get dressed and get ready for our dinner reservations and the dance thereafter. When we met up with our friends, Kristy was eager to talk about our adventure. She laughed about how terrified I had been, and how it had even gotten to her since she’d never seen me freaked out before.
Our friend Phil rolled his eyes and said, “Yeah, right. Whatever,” and attempted to change the subject, but Kristy really wanted to talk about all the things she’d seen. She started to describe the large metal cage attached at the rear of the property when Phil cut her off. “Look, I know you’re full of shit and neither of you went there today so let’s stop, okay?” he demanded, exasperated.
“We really did go, and I really was scared,” I admitted reluctantly, puzzled by his reaction. He was normally pretty easy going and loved scary stories almost as much as he enjoyed teasing me.
“I don’t know why you two are lying, but I really don’t think it’s funny,” he practically snarled. I could tell he was genuinely upset.
“I don’t understand. Why do you think we’re lying?” I asked, hurt by his reaction.
“Because you know my mom is on the county council. She was there when they tore the county home building down. It is a hole in the ground. Has been since September, so if you’re going to make up a story, you should at least get your facts straight first!”
It took me six months to work up the nerve to verify his story. Finally, I had to know. I went to the local library and checked back issues of our local paper. He was telling the truth. The building had been demolished in early September, right after Labor Day weekend. By December, nothing was left but bare land. Even the hole had been filled in. I knew the date I’d been there, had it engraved on a silver picture frame and all, yet on that date, Evergreen Manor should have been dust.
Within a year, the land had been repurposed and a juvenile detention facility was built within a few yards of the old building. It didn’t remain in operation for long, but those are not my stories to tell. The approximately 200 acres which made up the county poor farm now holds a city park and nature trails. You can still visit the historic markers and the unmarked graves of the poor farm’s cemetery. The trails have beautiful views of the river, but I cannot drive that road without a clawing feeling inside my stomach. Will the building be standing yet again if I crest that hill? I prefer not to find out.
Erin McFadden is the author of three contemporary fantasy series; Descended from Myth, Hollow Man, and Confessor. Her newest release, Shattered Moonlight, is a co-write with K.L. Bone and is featured in Once Upon Another World: A Twisted Fairy Tale Box Set.
McFadden obtained a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and Criminology from Ball State University in 2001. She is the mother of two daughters and works full time in law enforcement. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, developing new story ideas, arts and crafts, and spending lots of time with her children.
1) Halloween - Michael Myers returns home to kill the local babysitters in this 1978 classic
2) Hocus Pocus - Three witches are summoned from hell when a virgin lights a black flame candle on Halloween night.
3) The Nightmare Before Christmas - Jack Skellington discovers a new land - Christmas Town - in this Tim Burton movie.
4) Trick R Treat - A compilation of horror stories which are all connected.
5) Monster Squad - The Goonies meets monsters.
6) The Addams Family - The Addams family welcome their long lost Uncle Fester home.
7) Poltergeist - A family are terrorized by ghosts who snatch their youngest child.
8) The Frighteners - Michael J Fox is a paranormal investigator who can see ghosts.
9) The Craft - Four teenage girls dabble in witchcraft with bad results.
10) The Thing - John Carpenter's classic horror fest set in Antarctica.
Danso and the Firefly: An African Vampire Legend.
In the midday heat of Ashanti, the air shimmered in waves before Danso’s eyes. He mopped the sweat from his forehead, licking chapped lips. But the moisture from his tongue was thick and salty, burning the cracks.
He was squatting behind a full bush with his hunting rifle. The sun burned mercilessly on his skin. He formed a fist and bought it to his forehead, two fingers pointing outward like antlers. Then he showed left, and to the front.
“Antelope spotted over there,” the sign announced to the other of the hunters.
Behind him the men acknowledged, ready for action. All eyes moved to the canopy of trees a few yards away. The commander raised a finger, and they rose. Danso, as the one who observed the target first, would be in front. If he failed, the others would step forward and triumph.
They rushed, bodies hunched low to draw less attention. Naked feet made barely a sound. Little wisps of soil raised into the air. Although they had shoes, they believed it great luck to hunt the traditional practice, with skin touching the Earth. Shoes, as their wives, stayed in the village.
Danso’s heart beat with the rhythm of the land, the rhythm of Ashanti. It was harsh and loud and fast. As they drew closer to the antelope, the sweat beaded on his brow and palms. He clung to his rifle, index finger on the trigger and thumb near the safety switch.
Lifting his rifle, he took aim. But the distance between hunter and deer was too large, even with the rifle. Behind him, a twig snapped. The sound travelled to the sensitive ears of the antelope. It lifted its head, looking around. The ears turned as it sniffed the air.
Everyone froze. Waiting. Danso made a note in his mind to punch the hunter responsible.
Then the antelope ran.
He followed, not waiting to see what the others were doing. His wife and child needed this meat. Winter was coming, and the herds would trek south soon. Danso kept his eyes on the fleeing antilope. His knees lifted high with each step, reducing the chances for tripping on roots.
The sweat turned icy on his skin. A mistake meant starvation for his family. With Ejo, his wife, pregnant with their second child, meat was important. The buck stopped, and Danso did the same, going onto his knees. Saying a prayer to the Gods, he pulled the rifle’s butt into his shoulder. Within seconds, the cross mark rested on the beast’s chest. He shot.
The deer shook, as if ridding itself of water on its skin. Then it fell with a loud crashed. The other hunters shouted in victory. Danso ran to the dying animal. With his hand on the animal’s head, he thanked the Gods for providing this sustenance. Then he plunged his knife into the throat, opening the blood vessels and cutting off air supply.
The other hunters gathered around him, slapping his shoulder in joyful celebration. They soon said their goodbyes, moving on with the hunt. He tied the animal’s feet together. It is about half a day’s journey home. By the time he arrives, it will be late afternoon.
He longed to see Ejo, and Kisi, his daughter. She was the light of his life, a bundle of laughter caught up in skin and bone. They knew her as the joyful child who carried smiles in her heart. And soon Ejo will bear another child. Danso was sure this was a son. The baby kicked like a buffalo.
Ejo noticed him from afar. She came running, Kisi close behind. Shouting with joy, they reached him. For a moment he considered lifting the animal from his shoulders, but then decided agianst this. It was enormous. The effort would be too much.
“You look tired,” Ejo said as she kissed him on the cheek.
Kisi tapped his thigh three times. He looked down to see the brightness in her face. Genuine joy shone from her eyes. Other members of the village joined them on the short walk to his home. One by one they tapped his body, always three times.
“Congratulations,” this meant. But none would speak the words aloud. To do so would attract the attention of evil spirits. No-one wanted them to notice Danso’s family.
“Is that all of it?” Ejo asked as darkness crept closer to their hut.
“I think so,” Danso told her. “Why don’t you rest? You look tired.”
“And you don’t?” she said. “You were away for two days. Carried the animal home by yourself. Why didn’t you ask someone to help?”
He shrugged. “Because then we’d need to share the meat,” he explained. “Then we would be short. I don’t think I’ll go on another hunt before winter. Even if they have one.”
Ejo rubbed her rounded belly. “We’d be fine,” she said. “Your brother is the Holy Man, and we have enough charms to ward off every evil spirit in the world.”
He knew she was right. Dozens of charms adorned her arms, neck and ankles. They protected her and the baby against any evil spirit that might attack during the pregnancy or the birth. All this come at substantial cost, though. Their chickens, goats, and cattle herds reduced to almost half.
“This is my son,” he said, placing his palm over her navel. “I want to be here when he is born.”
He didn’t tell her about the darkness that was growing inside him. She would only laugh at him. She always did. But for a week now there was something in his dreams that followed him into the light of day. He didn’t know what it was, only that it was terrible.
Even now, with this triumph of providing meat for the family, that premonition of something evil coming hung over his mind like fog. Danso shook his head.
“I’ll quickly prepare the liver,” Ejo told him. “The porridge I prepared earlier.”
“I can cook…”
She squinted at him, her chin lifting only slightly. But he knew that whatever he wanted to say would be met with resistance. And if he tried to go against her wishes, she would limit conversations for the rest of the week to nods and grunts.
“You can go wash,” she told him. The tone of her voice was higher than usual. Another warning. “And then you can sit down and rest. I will cook the meat like a good wife. And I will bring you a beer.”
“You made beer?”
“Your mother made beer,” she told him. “You were not away long enough for me to prepare anything.”
“If you didn’t make a batch of beer, it means only one thing.”
She turned her warm brown eye to his. “Yes, no-one allowed me to leave the village to fetch water. Like you told them too.”
“It was for your own good,” he told her. “You need to rest more.”
“I rested all day.”
“I am too tired to call you out on that lie.”
She chuckled at the victory. “Go wash, husband. I’ll have the liver ready soon.”
The night was dark and windy. The air pushed angrily at trees and huts. It screamed through the village like a woman on the warpath. Kisi woke up screaming. Not in fear of the sounds outside. She was in pain.
Nothing comforted her. Hour by hour she cried, the neighbors clicking their tongues in annoyance. In the morning, when the sun’s bright light shone down, Danso found the two little marks on her ankle. His body became ice cold as winter. Fear grabbed him by the throat.
Adze. The shapeshifter.
He lifted Kisi out of Ejo’s arms, and ran all the way to his brother, Kobina, the village Holy Man. At first, he did not believe the news that Adze was walking. Only after seeing the bite mark did he roll the sacred bones. The Ancestors confirmed Danso’s words.
“He came into your hut"?” Kobina asked.
“He bit Kisis,” Danso answered. “You saw the wounds.”
“If he wanted too, he could have drained her.”
“But he didn’t.”
Kobina’s hands flew like a flock of birds, gathering this and that from the rows and rows of pots and bowls behind him. He added a pinch of this and a piece of that to the mortar in front of him.
“You make that sound like a bad thing,” Danso said, his eyes firmly on the growing pile of ingredients.
“Don’t worry about this,” Kobina said. “This one is on me.”
Danso nodded. He didn’t even want to think about how many goats this will cost.
“And why are you making this expensive medicine?”
“Because it’s clear that Kisi wasn’t what he wanted. That is why.”
“Adze longs for innocent blood.”
Danse frowned. “Innocent blood?”
Kobina nodded as he lifted the pestle to stamp the ingredients.
“Well, I would never call myself or Ejo innocent.”
“Neither would I.”
Danso frowned. “Then who?”
“What can be more innocent than a newborn baby?”
“No,” Danso whispered.
Icy fear crept over him. His son was not even born yet, and already in danger.
“Fetch a goat,” Kobina told him. He was still pounding the mixture in the mortar. “I’ll be at your house within the hour. We need to purify it and call the Ancestors to protect your family. Adze will kill all of you to get to the child.”
That night and the next, Danso did not sleep. He walked around the yard looking for the Shape-shifting Firefly until his eyes were red and scratchy. But the yellow dot of light did not appear. The Firefly shifter did not come to their hut, but he visited others in the village. Several children cried until the morning. All over the village people woke to the sound, but none dared to leave the safety of their own homes.
Only Danso patrolled. But he didn’t find Adze.
“He is thirsty, this one,” Danso said to the Kobina on the morning of the third day.
They were sitting outside the hut, in a tree’s shade. His grandfather planted it on the day of his marriage. The sun was already fierce, even though it was early in the day. Soon Danso would have to go down to the river with buckets to carry water to the fields. This was a woman’s work, but no respectable man would let his pregnant wife walk alone with Adze around. Not even in the day.
“It must be a feeding frenzy,” Ejo said. “Maybe the elders were right when they talked about the dangers of the dam all those years ago.”
Danso looked at her, and without a word tapped her on the head three times. He would not say it aloud, but she was brilliant, for a woman. His daughter was brave. Not once during the night did she scream out. But to tell either how proud he was would attract the attention of evil spirits. And they had enough trouble already.
“He is going to be back every night,” Kobina said. “In a frenzy Adze can drain a child completely, drinking all the blood.”
Ejo shivered and hugged Kisi, who was sleeping. “We were lucky,” she said.
“Those charms protected us,” Danso added.
“Not enough,” Ejo whispered, softly rubbing my thumb over the two marks. “He should not even have gotten this close.”
“We could put out palm oil or coconut water,” Danso said. “Shapeshifters love that.”
“Not when they are in a frenzy,” Kobina told him. “Then they only want blood. Human blood.”
“Maybe an elder would feed the monster.” Danso made a short list in his head of the oldest members of their village.
“If one is willing,| Ejo said. “We should try. It’s worth the effort, I think. I’ve heard from grandfather it was a custom in the old days.”
“Not always,” Kobina said, shivering at the idea. “He said sometimes they only want children’s blood.”
“Innocent blood,” Danso said, a shiver running up his spine.
“I wonder if our wrongdoings leave a sour taste,” Ejo asked. “Do you think the blood of the guilty tastes horrible?”
“Maybe,” Danso said, clenching his hands into tight balls.
“Look,” Ejo nodded to the village center where they gathered for market days or celebrations. “Everyone is gathering. You should hear what they say, husband.”
Sighing loudly, he rose. He wished she would come along. The lack of sleep made his head slow, and he would need to pay special attention to everything said in this meeting.
“They are a bunch of fools!” he shouted as he entered the hut, slamming the wall with a fist.
Ejo pulled the Eland skin tighter around Kisi and glared at him with eyes that spat fire. “Sjjjjtt,” she whispered. “You’ll wake her.”
He shook his head from side-to-side and rolled his eyes upwards. She rose, poured him some beer, and waited until he drank it in large gulps. Filling the pot again, she waited for him to finish drinking and to calm down.
Then she sat down next to Kisi and patted on the grass mat next to her.
“Come sit here,” she said. “And tell me what they said.”
“They are going to call the holy men from the other villages,” he said. “And ask them to do a protective spell.”
“That will not keep him out forever,” she whispered. “And it won’t stop him. He’ll just go to another village.”
“See,” he told her. “When I said that, they all looked at me like I was not thinking clearly.”
“They must either feed it so that the children will be safe, or catch it.”
“They are too scared to catch it.” He waved a hand through the air, as if sweeping the idea away. “They have no bones within them. They fall like sacks of meat at the whisper of Adze.”
“What if it comes back tonight?”
“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “There is no chasing it away. Not really. Either feed it something or catch it and force it to shape shift. While it is a firefly, it is impossible to kill. Everyone knows this.”
“That would be horrible!” Ejo shouted, then clapped her hand over her mouth.
They both looked over to where Kisi laid, but she was sleeping soundly.
“It’s the only way to stop it feeding on our children,” he said. “It’s nine so far. At least none died, yet. Last night he drank from three in one night.”
Ejo folded her hands over her swollen belly. The child stirred within as if he understood everything that was being said. Humming a lullaby, she rocked back and forth. Danso watched her. It won’t be long before the child’s born-day. His boy.
“If the Adze comes for him,” Ejo whispered. “He will die.”
“That…” Danso poked an angry finger at the door. “That beast will not come near our son. I won’t let him.”
“You say this,” she said. “When he was at your daughter not so long ago? You cannot stop him, Danso. If he wants our son, he’ll have him.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but he knew it was futile. Ejo was right. If Adze wanted the boy, nothing would stop him. He rose, pacing up and down in the confined space. He was tired and angry all at the same time. But most of all, he worried about his family.
“You need to sleep.”
They jumped at the words spoken from the door.
Turning, Danso found his father at the door. He sat down slowly, filling the doorway.
“It’s not dark yet,” he said. “You need to rest before the sun goes down. I’ll wait here and wake you when it does.”
“Father…” Danso said.
“Don’t fight me on this,” his father said. “You are weak now. If he comes tonight, there won’t be anything you can do in your state.”
“There is nothing we can do anyway,” Ejo said.
“That is not true,” the old man said, smiling at her. “There is a way, but we will need to be strong and fast. And right now, neither of you are.”
“Are you going to sacrifice yourself?” Ejo asked. “There are others who are much more suitable for that.”
He waved a hand at her. “Stop speculating. Go sleep and give me time to think of a plan.”
“I thought you said you already knew what to do,” Danso said.
“I said we can stop it,” father told him with a stern look. “Because there are stories of this evil from the time before. Your grandfather was on the council when they started talks about the dam. He heard the stories of the burial grounds. The Elders insisted they must not disturb the graves. Everyone there heard it, but still they ignored the warnings. The promised progress that the dam would bring far exceeded any old tales or warnings.”
“But that was years ago,” Danso said. “Building is going well. It will be completed soon. Ten years they blasted into the mountain and build that wall. Why now?”
“They started blasting upriver,” Father said. “To open underground reservoirs and divert streams to all run into the river that will supply the dam. Maybe these new blasts awakened the monster from his prison.”
“Prison?” Ejo asked.
“Yes,” Father explained. “They imprisoned Adze. Almost fifty years ago. I was a young man then. Now it’s back and we will have to fight it again. And you will have to come with me, Danso. So stop talking and start sleeping.”
Danso laid down between Kisi and Ejo. He thought it would be impossible to sleep under the circumstances. But he was wrong. Within moments after resting his head on the grass sleeping mat, he snored.
Danso woke with a start. He sat up straight, darkness surrounding him.
“Ejo,” he whispered.
There was nothing but silence around him. Reaching out, he felt along the floor, but Kisi and Ejo were both gone. He rose fast, fighting the urge to scream, and looked toward the door where his father was before he fell asleep. There was no one waiting there. A waning moon shed dim silver light into the hut.
Ducking low, he stepped out into the dark night as quietly as he could. With two enormous leaps, he was standing against the tree his grandfather planted. He looked around the yard. Ejo kept her knives sharp and at the foot of the tree. His fingers closed around the wooden handle of her largest carving knife. He lifted it slowly, and finding nothing out of place, moved to the fence.
With great care, Danso crept along the edge of the property, inspecting the yard. On this night no children were crying, no grown-ups whispering, and no guard walked outside. The village lay in silence, unmoved by the fear that gripped his heart.
It was only him, alone in the night, in the village, in the world.
In the village sqaure, feet had disturbed the ground. Household items laid scattered: blankets, clothes, and cooking utensils. He stopped and stared at the chaos. They obviously left in a hurried bundle and decided that all these belongings were not worth the effort of carrying. Slowly he walked through, looking for anything familiar that would show Ejo and the children were with the rest of them.
But even after doubling back, he could not find a single sign. His skin became icy cold, his mouth dry.
Stomping his feet, he did another trip, but all this accomplished was to make his heart beat faster, and his neck and shoulder muscles tensed up even more. He tried to fight back the fear. It was his biggest enemy right now. It would tire his body quickly. It would make him weak.
He returned to the hut, gathering his spear, bow and arrow, and long knife. His father’s footsteps crisscrossed in front of the hut. Dad fought Adze, or at least tried to. He followed these around the corner of the hut to the back. Here they circled several times before zigzagging across the backyard to the fence. Keeping the knife ready, he climbed the fence.
He cussed. How did he sleep through everything? Why didn’t they wake him?
On the other side of the fence, Danso found his father’s footsteps and followed it into the forest. He needed to see if there was a fight, and who had won. His hand reached up and closed around the charms of protection. Adze came to feed. If father frustrated his desire, Adze might eat from him.
But maybe his dad had it trapped? Then they could join Ejo and Kisi, knowing it was safe to bring them back home His heart beat like a village drum as he ran, expecting to hear calls or cries. But the night was silent around him. Even the animals were too scared of Adze to declare their presence.
He came to a place with the footsteps left the path. For a moment he stood, contemplating what to do. They cleared the path often. It was an open space with good visibility. But to leave the path was risky. The jungle at night held more dangers than Adze.
Should he follow his father’s path deep into the forest, or should he return to the village and look for Ejo and Kisi?
He turned back to find Ejo and Kisi. If they were still alive.
Back at the village, he tied a blanket around his neck like a cape and tugged a rolled up bundle of rope under his arm. He did not take food; only an ostrich egg filled with coconut water. He turned to the village square and found the place where many footsteps crossed each other. Keeping his wife’s knife in hand, he ran, following the trail.
At least there was no blood or bodies in the village, or along the path they traveled.
He took a deep breath, feeling the grip of fear release somewhat around his lower spine. The group kept to the path leading down to the river. There was no bridge to cross the water, but none was necessary. His people did not like to go into water. The spirits of evil people waited there. If you bump into one, it would attach to you and follow you home.
Only once in the Kingdom’s history did they cross the water. His parents’ generation had done so, according to the stories told around the campfire many a night.
He knew there were shallows through which the strong could wade and carry the weak. It would be difficult at night, but not impossible.
At the crossroads he turned left and made his way to the river. Soon he stood amid a thousand footprints on the river’s bank. They left several items here before crossing the dangerous water. His mother always said that in times of trouble you learn what is the most important in your life.
To him it was Kisi, Ejo, and his unborn son.
At the edge of the river he bowed his head, saying a prayer to the God of the rivers and the fish for safe crossing. Then he mustered all his courage and slipped into the water. It folded around his feet with icy hands. He fought the feeling that made him want to turn around. Humans did not belong in water. He took another step and then another and another until the water reached his hips. If his family could cross this water, so could he.
On the other side of the river, he shook himself and then followed the footsteps. They would go into the caves high in the mountain. His jog turned to running. His heart was beating faster now. Fear grew in him like a dark boulder. Heavy. Hard. He did not know how long he was asleep, or what had happened since then.
He wanted to find his family. He longed to hear their news. What made them leave the safety of the village? At least huts protected them better than the forest. He wanted to have this night end. A blood-sucking monster was on the loose.
The path rose and he could hear voices now, so he added speed to his steps. Up the mountain he ran, swerving this way and that to avoid trees and boulders in his way.
The sound of the villagers’ voices became louder and louder. He ran faster and faster. Sweat stung his eyes, and he wiped it away with his hand. There was no wind, no sounds of animals, none of the night noises that belonged in the forest. And suddenly his feet on the ground sounded like mountains rumbling. His breathing became the northern wind.
They were close, Ejo and Kisi. He longed to see them, touch them, hold them in his arms.
Because he realized, suddenly, that father did not win the battle. They would not have continued this far up the mountain unless they could see that Adze was still alive. A sadness, unlike any he knew before, swept through him. The force of it overcame his joyful expectation of seeing Ejo and Kisi.
Don’t you cry now, you’re a man, not a boy.
But even as the thought entered his mind, he felt the pain throb in him.
And then they were right in front of him. A whole cluster of people gathered in a circle. Shouting. Screaming. Fighting something unseen with flailing arms. Their eyes turned upwards, roaming the sky.
“Ejo!” he shouted. “Ejo!”
No answer came. He ran around the group, looking for his wife and child.
“Kisi!” he shouted. “Kisi, where are you?”
The group had settled in a clearing, children in the middle and the men and women around them. He could see the fear in the faces, could hear it in their voices. The monster was near. There was no getting away from the shapeshifter.
It had followed them. Adze would follow them, no matter where they went.
He ran around the group of people in a large circle, looking up, but he could not see the yellow light surrounding Adze. Neither could he see Ejo or Kisi.
He took the ostrich egg out of his bag. Using his thumbnail, he opened the clay, which sealed the hole. This kept the coconut water from spilling. He put the egg down next to his feet and took off the rope, the weapons, and his cape. Free from unnecessary burdens, he rose.
There was no time for thinking. This was the time for doing.
His father said that they had fought this monster before. And won. He knew that they could win again. He pulled together all the courage he had, lifting the ostrich egg above his head. Some coconut water splashed onto him.
“Adze!” he shouted, “Adze, here it is!”
His voice sounded tiny compared to the villagers’ screaming. He stepped closer to them, dancing with knees lifted high and heart beating wildly.
“Adze, here it is!”
The villagers closest to him saw him dancing. They stopped screaming, then turned to those around them, calling for silence. Soon the only sounds came from the terrified children. Mothers and fathers lifted them, cuddling them close.
Danso continued to dance. Around and around and around the circle he went. He called the monster by name, daring him to come. And as the others fell silent, his voice grew louder. If nobody else would sacrifice themselves, he would be the one.
For Ejo. For Kisi. For his unborn son.
“Adze,” he called.
The silence was deafening.
“Adze,” he called. “Here it is!”
He danced and danced around the circle. Soon he knew the terrain well enough to close his eyes. He was no longer afraid. He was angry. But not the crazy angry of the day before. No, inside him everything was quiet and focused on the task at hand.
The villagers hummed to the rhythm of his feet on the sand. It was a soft sound in the enormous world. But it encouraged him and he felt the power pulse through his veins, strong and ready.
“Where are you? Are you afraid?”
There was a buzz around his head, like a group of mosquitoes. But this was no mosquito. This was Adze, the Shapeshifter. He came, as always, in the form of a Firefly. Danso opened his eyes.
The Adzo was large, his body ridged with thick veins. His tail was like a bony hand, closing around the orb of bright yellow light that gave him his name. Fire that flies. He was not only fire. He was also hunger. He was also death. Just behind his back were four large wings. Covered in veins, they shone silver in the moonlight. He could not see a face, but he knew it was there. So were the two sharp, long teeth. But he knew for now it was behind the lips, hiding.
“There you are,” he said. “I’ve been waiting.”
They watched each other, two hunters in the night. For a moment Danso felt the fear creep up his spine again. But he pushed it down. He could not let it win. Not now. Not again. He made his way around the circle one last time. Adze followed. The monster must be hungry, or thirsty, or ready for something else than blood.
Danso shook the ostrich egg, splattering coconut water all over the sand. The Firefly screamed. It came down on the loose sand and licked where the drops were seeping away. It was hooked. Coconut water was its favorite food when it was full of blood. And it was full of blood now.
He shivered, thinking it must surely be his father’s blood.
He dribbled the coconut water in a line behind him as he ran. The monster followed. Shrieking. When he reached the tree line of the forest, he threw the egg against a nearby tree. It shattered, spraying the water all over the trunk and nearby plants.
The Firefly rushed past Danso, hitting him on the head with silver wings. He ducked, stepped to the left and reached beneath the leaves of the large fern. The rope was waiting where he left it. Adze was now at the tree, clinging to the rough bark with his six legs, slurping coconut water.
Behind him it was so quiet that he would have sworn the village people either left, or stopped breathing. He stepped closer to the shapeshifter, unrolling the rope in readiness. Adze was so busy sucking the coconut water that it did not hear Danso’s approach.
He proceeded with great caution until he smelled the creature. It reeked foul and moldy, like an old antelope skin left outside in the rain. Shaking his head, he drew the rope tight between his hands, and then pushed Adze against the tree with his left shoulder. Hard. He slipped the rope around it and then the tree, reaching his arms out to encircle both.
He swapped the rope at the back of the trunk, crossing it as he struggled to keep the creature pinned. It was stronger than it looked. Two of the wings had escaped. Adze used them like arms, hitting Danso on the head and face.
Minor cuts appeared, beaded with blood. The shapeshifter became frenzied at the sight and smell. His lizard tongue reached out. It felt cold and wet as it touched Danso’s skin, licking from his left ear across his cheek to his nose. Danso almost stepped away in disgust, but he fought the urge. He could not stop the shiver that ran through his body.
There was no turning away; it would break his hold. The shapeshifter screeched loudly, its entire body pushing and shoving against him. The tail part was loose and reaching up to touch Danso’s thigh. It was not a hard punch at all. It didn’t need to be. The light orb was hot, burning into his flesh.
He screamed in pain, then in fear. The smell of burning flesh filled his nostrils. He shivered at the idea that it was his flesh. For a moment his attention diverted, and Adze renewed its resistance. The wings beat fiercely, and Danso had to turn his face aside.
The shapeshifter pushed hard against him, and his feet lost their grip. His shoulder slid down, allowing the other two wings to escape. Danso grunted and pushed even harder against the creature.
Ignoring the beating wings, he crossed the rope and tied a knot. Then he looped it around the tree a second time, just to be sure it couldn’t get away. There was a sharp screech, and then it turned into an anger-filled scream. A very human scream.
Adze also knew fear.
Beneath him the rock hard body of the shapeshifter changed, softened. He almost pulled away, thinking he must have broken the exterior husk of the body. He wanted to shout out in joy. But when he looked at the monster, it was no longer the Firefly he saw.
It had changed.
He tied two strong knots before stepping away. It was not exactly human. At least not entirely. The shape appeared human. From afar, in the night, any person who sees it would assume it was human. Tall, with two arms and legs and a head. Its back hunched forward peculiarly. As if there was a bundle resting high on the spine, but under the skin. It was blacker than night. Blacker than the shadows of the night. He had never seen skin that dark before.
The arms were free and reached out to him. He stepped away easily enough from the talons with brutally strong nails. The creature shrieked again, and the sound cut into his head like a knife. He covered his ears against it, but did not turn his back to the creature tied to the tree.
“It changed shape.”
He jumped at the words. A hand touched him on his shoulder, pulling him away.
“In this human form it can release its spirit into a person,” Manu said.
The man was a friend of his father. He was old and wise and grey-haired.
They stepped back, out of the way of the reaching creature. Soon they were standing as far as they dared, but not far enough to not see it struggle against the rope. Other hands touched him now, softly on his head and shoulders. Each villager communicated the same message: three taps in a row. We are proud of you. You did well.
“Can we kill it?” he asked Manu.
“No,” the old man said. “But we can keep it in this form if it’s tied, or trapped in a cage. It’s weaker now.”
“But its spirit can jump,” Danso said, his voice sounding tight. “That is dangerous. What if it comes into one of us?”
“Not just into one of us,” the old man said. “It can go into any animal that comes close.”
“Which means we cannot leave it here.”
“No,” Many mumbled. “You will need to move it.”
Danso stepped back and took his eyes off the shapeshifter to look at the wrinkled face of the old man.
“Do you see any other brave men here?” the old man asked, chuckling.
“Maybe I’m not brave,” Danso hissed. “Maybe I’m stupid.”
“Either way will work tonight,” Manu said with a broad smile. “But you need to hurry, because the sun is coming.”
Danso looked to where the village laid in the valley. He heard the birds singing. Morning was on the way.
“Don’t look into its eyes,” the old man said. “The spirit jumps through the eyes.”
“Take some younger men,” Danso said. “Go up to the caves. Seek one that is deep into the mountain. Then use branches to build a cage there. But make it in a place to hook the ropes through. I’ll bring it to you.”
The old man turned around and shouted the names of several men, telling them to bring their long knives and their courage. Danso turned back to Adze. It had stopped screaming, but it fought the ropes. Muscles swelled beneath the skin.
Danso walked back to it, making his plans. There would be no time to waste. And a single slip of the hands or feet could mean the death of them all.
The death of Kisi and Ejo and his soon to be born son.
He came to the creature and lifted the end of the rope that hanged loose. Slipping it around the shifter’s shoulders, he tied it twice. It struggled against him, but did not scream again.
“They are making a place for you,” he said. “I’m taking you there now.”
“Do you have to?”
He stepped back in surprise and almost looked into Adze’s eyes. Almost.
“You heard me,” it whispered. The voice was human and female. Thick and sweet like honey. “You don’t have to do this, you know.”
“I do,” he told her.
Not her. It.
“That’s what your father said too, the last time I was here.”
“You know my father?”
“He was the one that trapped me then,” she whispered. “That’s why I came to your hut first. I knew he would come to protect you, and that was what I wanted.”
“You killed him, didn’t you?”
“His liver tasted wonderful.”
Danso’s heart went weak with pain. He sat down in the grass with a sigh. His limbs felt soft, like porridge. All his strength drained from him, running into the sand like water. A tear dropped from his left eye, rolling over his cheek until it came to the end of his jaw. It hung there a moment and then plopped down onto his hand.
He looked down at the little wet circle as if he didn’t comprehend what it was.
He cried for his father, who was dead, killed by this monster. No funeral rites. No sending off to the Ancestors. His spirit still roamed this world, instead of joining with those of his ancestors that have passed before him. The tribe could never connect to him in the ceremonies. This wisdom lost forever. Danso bit his lip, balled his hands into fists, and rose to his feet.
“If you let me go, I’ll spare you,” Adze whispered. “And your family.”
He looked up at her, but kept his eyes away from hers. Without a word he rose, finding the first knots he made, he undid them, and the second set too. Now the shapeshifter was no longer tied to the tree.
“Yes,” Adze said, lifting its hands. “Now, undo these too.”
Danso reached up, looped the rope he held in his hands around the creature quickly. It screamed in anger as he tied another knot and then repeated the action.
“They are all my family,” he said. “The entire world is my family.”
“If you allow me to take you,” it whispered. “I can make you strong. Stronger than you’ve ever been. Immortal too. You can live forever, Danso.”
He chuckled and pulled on the rope. It was tight enough.
“You don’t seem strong to me,” he said, smiling.
“Not now,” it said. “But when I’m a firefly…”
“You’ll never be a firefly again.”
“Don’t fool yourself, human,” Adze said. “I will get out of these ropes again. I have done it before. You can put me anywhere you want. Eventually someone or something will come close enough. And then my spirit will enter them. And I’ll be free again.”
Danso did not stop walking. The darkness was receding. He could feel it in his bones. Tugging hard on the rope, he stepped up the pace. Time was running out.
“Keep up,” he said. “And shut up.”
“You’ll die first when I escape,” Adze said.
They reached the row of caves. Manu waited at the mouth of the second one, directing the men on what to do. Danso tied the shapeshifter to a nearby tree, not wanting to endanger anyone else.
“This one is better,” the old man said. “It is closed at the back. There is also a secure place where we can tie it with a rope. Let me show you.”
Inside the cave, the men had made a strong wooden wall of thick branches. They had already filled the holes with grass and leaves.
“There are too many gaps here,” Danso said, touching the wall with his fingers. “Insects might get through.”
“I thought we could spend the rest of the day packing it with clay. The woman and children can carry it up from the river, and we men can make this wall strong.”
Danso nodded. They entered the doorway one-by-one. The cave was dark and dry. The walls were more stone than sand.
“Here,” the old man said, pointing to a rock shaft close to the back wall. “See, it goes from the floor to the roof. It’s strong too.”
Danso inspected the shaft of rock, pulling and kicking at it. It did not move or even tremble at his attack.
“Perfect,” he said. “I’ll bring it. Will the men be brave enough to close the gap we came through?”
“They made a door of wood already. It is waiting outside for you to push in.”
Danso reached out and tapped the old man’s head three times.
“Let’s get this done,” he said.
“Not us. You.”
“It has always been us,” Danso said. “Together.”
He returned to the tree. The shapeshifter looked tired and weak. This has been a long and difficult night for everyone, it seemed.
“Back again?” Adze asked.
“Still waiting?” he asked as he untied the knot keeping it to the tree. “Come on, time to see your new house. We built it especially for you.”
“This is your last chance then,” the shapeshifter whispered. “Choose wisely.”
“I have made my choice already,” he said.
In the cave, he bound the creature. Even if it somehow broke the rope, the wall would still trap it. And every day in human form it will grow weaker and weaker. Soon it would be too weak to move.
“But not too weak for a spirit jump.”
Danso shook his head. It could read minds.
He could look into Ejo’s eyes and read her mind too. And Kisi’s. And even when he put his hand on his wife’s belly, the unborn son kicked and kicked at him. And he knew the boy was impatient with the waiting. It wanted to be out of the prison of its mother, and be born into the wide, open world.
Anyone can read another. All it required was patience and perception.
He turned away from the shapeshifter with a smile. Outside the wall, the men stood with the door they made. He took it from them, and pushed it into the hole, making sure it fitted well.
“Bring the clay,” he said.
It was late one night, three months after the day his son was born. Ejo was at the river, fetching water. Kisi was watching her baby brother within eyeshot of Danso’s mother. She was sitting in front of the hut. Alone. But there was a smile on her face. There always were when the kids were close.
A strange man walked down the path, stopping at their gate.
“Are you The One?” he asked.
“What one?” Danso answered.
Danso did not answer. He observed the man, noting the tired face, the slumped shoulders and dusty skin. His chapped, dry lips. He had travelled far and fast.
“Why do you ask?”
“We need the slayer,” the man mumbled. “There is a shapeshifter at our village.”
“You are looking at him,” Mother said, nodding to Danso.
She had walked up to them without Danso being aware. Opening the gate, she motioned to the man to step inside.
“Sit,” she said. “Talk. I’ll bring you water and some meat to eat.”
Danso smiled. She had him trapped, and she knew it. If he told the man to leave now, he would disrespect his elder. The evil spirits would descend on him faster than the speed of a running leopard.
He nodded to the man, who sat down slowly.
“Did you come from afar?” Danso asked.
The man looked at him with vacant eyes for a moment. Then he sighed and shook his head from side to side.
“You look like you’ve been on the road for quite a while,” Danso said, his eyes now carefully examining the man.
“I can’t remember much about the journey,” he said.
“Where are you from?”
The man turned his face away slowly to where his mother was plating some food from the pots under the kitchen tree. Ejo, back from her chore, came out of the hut where she laid the kids to rest. She bowed to them.
The hair on Danso’s neck rose as he watched a gleam come into the stranger’s eyes. The man’s entire posture changed at the sight of Ejo. Suddenly he looked awake, more aware than before. He sat up straighter, wiped at the dust on his face and neck, and smiled.
But the smile was all wrong. It looked… hungry. Yes, hungry.
A shiver ran through Danso, and he turned his head slightly to look at the two women, but still kept the visitor in his peripheral view. The smile got weirder, more inappropriate.
“Ejo,” Danso called.
“Yes, husband?” She was a dutiful wife, always had been.
“Would you go see where father is?”
The two women did not look up in fear, or said anything about father being dead. He could see the slight pause in their hands over the pots and plates. Not long enough for the stranger to notice, but they understood the message behind his words.
Something was wrong, and they needed help. Divine help. Ancestral help.
“I think he is still with your brother,” Mother said.
“Then you should go fetch him,” Danso told her. “You know how much he loves getting all the latest news from travellers. And anyway, he was the one who told us how to fight off Adze.”
The stranger’s smile stiffened. Slowly he turned his head to look at Danso. Mother did not waste time at all, but ran out of the gate to Kobina’s hut.
Once they returned to the village. Adze sealed up in the cave, his brother sacrificed two goats and a strong bull. Speaking to the ancestors on behalf of the people. They told him about a drink that would make a shapeshifter half asleep. If he changed in this state, it would be slow. Grandfather said that they could kill it with fire, but only while it was in between changes.
“You did not say where you are from,” Danso said. “Or did I miss the name of your town?”
He has too many teeth in his mouth. Why didn’t I notice this sooner?
Ejo brought a wooden bowl of water, and a small skin for washing. She placed it at the feet of the stranger without trembling.
“The meal is almost ready,” she told them. “Why don’t you wash up before we serve?”
The man licked his lips, and this time Danso could not suppress the shiver running up and down his spine. Coldness reached out from his gut to cover him from head to toe. He leaned down and washed his face, feet and then his hands and arms. Maybe the man did not see his fear. Maybe he would attribute the goosebumps on his arms to the cold water.
I should kill him here and now.
Mother returned, carrying a calabash of liquid. She held it above her head with a genuine smile. Not once did her hands shake, or her body give any sign of fear. Danso was very proud of her, but did not tap her on the head at that moment. No need to make the stranger aware of their secret conversation.
Let everything be a surprise to him.
“Your brother sent this,” she said. “It is a special drink for weary travellers, but we can all have some. They’ll be here soon.”
Ejo brought a drinking calabash for each of them, and mother poured the golden liquid out.
“It smells wonderful,” Ejo said with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
The stranger did not notice these small little signs of fear and apprehension. He took the calabash mother held out to him, but waited until they each had one.
“To new friends and a successful hunt,” he said.
“To new friends,” Danso said.
The women both nodded, and then the stranger and mother drank. Ejo’s eyes found Danso’s and for a moment their eyes locked. Then he lifted the calabash and drank deep. It tasted mostly of ginger, but he knew there were more ingredients. What precisely, he didn’t care to know. He drank it all and then sat down.
The two women returned to the cooking. He wanted to rush into the hut, grab the children, and run. But he sat down again, fighting his instincts. For now.
“You have a nice family,” the stranger said.
“And you, do you have one too?” Danso asked. “In your village… hey, where are you from again?”
The man turned his head to the left, looking at the gate. “You father will come soon?” he asked, slurring.
Mother looked up from her work with a smile, but then turned away before the man could see. The stranger swayed and then reached out and grabbed at Danso’s arm. He did not quite manage this, because he toppled over onto the ground. His face changed then, becoming angry and ugly and somehow larger. Less human; more monster.
Danso leaned forward.
“I see you,” he said. “You cannot fool me. I have seen your face before. I will recognize it anywhere.”
The stranger reached up to him, his hands clawing at Danso’s neck. But he was groggy and missed. He shrieked, and even this was familiar to Danso’s ears. The hands changed then from human to talon, the nails long and sharp as it flew at him. This time he was too slow to move away, and it cut deeply into the flesh of his forearms.
Blood squirted out immediately. Not a lot, but enough to send the creature into a frenzy. The red life force dribbled down, falling onto the stranger’s face. It changed even more now, and the long thin tongue slithered out to lick.
Danso reached up, cursing himself for his foolish confidence in the monster’s face. His family were all here, and if he died, they would be defenceless.
“Bring a rope!” he shouted. “Before it transforms completely.”
As he spoke the words, the creature’s arms turned into wings. He fell down, forcing his shoulder into the stranger’s chest. It stopped screeching abruptly. But the wings, powerful sharp weapons, attacked Danso’s face and neck. There was no way to turn, no retreat.
“It’s getting stronger,” he said when Ejo appeared with the rope. “Get mother and the children and leave.”
She shook her head from side to side and stood her ground.
His mother stepped up, taking Ejo by the arm and pulling her away with words of comfort and encouragement. She nodded at Danso as they left, and he knew that she understood the danger, and would keep Ejo and the children safe.
He was bleeding more now, from wings beating and talons clawing. Taking one end of the rope, he gathered the fighting wings together and tied it neatly. The effort made the wound in his neck bleed, but he ignored this, and lifted the possessed man. Looping the rope around the shifter’s body, he made two strong knots.
He could feel himself become weak, but there was no time to waste. He had to kill it with fire.
Danso grabbed the stranger by his feet and started dragging him to the kitchen where his mother had stoked a beautiful fire. The half-man, half-creature rolled and kicked. But he kept changing his grip each time. They reached the flames shortly.
He rolled it into the fire-pit and used a long ladle to keep it there. It fought for a bit, but then the pain became too much. Instead of fighting Danso, it began flailing its legs and tied wings. The rope caught fire, and Danso cursed.
Where was everybody? It’s going to escape unless I have some help.
There was no answer. Danso kicked the creature back into the fire. At the gate there was movement, and he looked up with expectation. But what stood there wasn’t his uncle. It was dim, almost like smoke. Greyish against the dark shadows of the night.
“Help me!” Danso shouted and kicked at the creature again.
And then the shape was next to him, and he stepped away with a cry of fear. It looked like his father, but made of mist. A ghost.
“Let me help you, son,” it said, and laid down on the struggling creature, pinning it inside the fire. “Bring more wood. You need this fire to be bigger.”
Danso did not think about what was happening, but stepped away to where the chopped wood laid, and started throwing pieces into the fire. The effort made the wound in his neck bleed again, and soon he had to stop to place a hand there.
The creature looked more and more like the stranger who came to the gate. Father was holding it down well, and Danso sat down carefully to watch. It took longer than he would have expected, but when the birds started their morning song, the stranger was quiet.
“You have always been the one we can rely on,” father said as he rose from the fire.
Danso smiled, too weak to speak.
“I am so proud to have you for a son.”
“And I’m proud to have you for a father.”
“I am watching over you,” Father said. “You are never without my presence.”
Danso’s eyelids grew heavy, and he closed them. He leaned his head back against the tree Grandfather had planted. Family was everything. His children would grow in the shadow of their Ancestor’s love. Generation after generation.
Protected by wisdom of ages.
Finally, he slept.
Rita Kruger lives in Gauteng, South Africa. She surrounds herself with what enriches her body, mind and soul. Family. Friends. Nature. Great food. Good wine. Mountains of books. She writes novels challenging major themes of her life in the genres of fantasy and gothic horror, which she loves.
She wears several hats. Writer. Publisher. Author services.
The Hometown Network hadn’t played its cards very well at all.
By the time they got around to trying to set up a special Halloween investigation for their flagship ghost hunting series, Ghost U, all the best witch hunt-related locations were taken. Rockafellas, Proctor’s Ledge, the Joshua Ward House, the Witch House… all of them had been reserved for months by other shows.
The network, when it learned of its mistake, tried to interest one of those other programs in a guest investigator from the Ghost U team. Due to legalities and competition between networks, those cameos never came to pass, all of which left Ghost U on the outside looking in on what was essentially ghost hunters’ Christmas.
Emma Ray didn’t mind. She was tired from the rigors of the team’s investigation of the Henry Ross Murray House, a museum dedicated to one of the country’s lesser Founding Fathers, and she was more than ready to stay home in the apartment she and her roommates had recently reclaimed, handing out candy and watching the other shows’ live broadcasts.
Quinn Riley, on the other hand, one of her roommates and the putative leader of their little band, was irritated with the network, and when the news of their failure to book a proper venue for investigation was announced to them, he’d been furious. He’d wanted to give their producers a piece of his mind, but for once he decided that discretion was the better part of valor.
Emma was glad he’d put a cork in it.
Tyler Sullivan and Brent Hill, the other members of their foursome, were just as relieved as Emma was that they had dodged the bullet of an intense holiday investigation. The network might not be able to pull in high ratings for the special live event that they had hoped for, but it gave the four of them the chance to actually enjoy the holiday for a change instead of working.
The day before Halloween, Tyler came into the apartment with a handful of parchment envelopes. They were addressed with beautiful calligraphy, and he handed one to each of his roommates.
“My dad’s firm is throwing a Halloween party at the Salem Convention Center,” he said. “We’re all invited.”
Quinn accepted the envelope with a look of shock on his face. “Wait… what? I thought they were mortified that you were on the show, and they can’t be taking your change in major very well.”
“They don’t know I dropped out of pre-law yet. I’m hoping to avoid that conversation until after the holidays. As for the party… I believe we’re being invited at the request of his biggest client.”
Brent took his envelope and gave it the stink-eye. “Someone who wants to poke fun at us, or someone who wants to believe?”
Tyler sat down beside Emma and handed her an envelope of her own. His green eyes looked sad and almost embarrassed as he pushed his glasses back up his nose. “I think they’re believers, and they’re looking for a performance.”
“Is this convention center haunted?” she asked, looping her leg over his. He put his hand on her knee and shrugged.
“It’s Salem. I think everything is haunted there.”
She opened the envelope and read the invitation. “Costumes required. Uh-oh, boys. Guess we’re going to have to get busy.”
“RSVP,” Quinn shrugged. “We can always say no.”
“I already said yes,” Tyler admitted, chagrined. “My dad is a hard negotiator.”
Brent laughed uneasily, but Quinn just rolled his eyes.
“Should we all dress up in the same theme, so it’s obvious we came together?” Emma asked. “I mean, I can be Black Widow, Quinn can be Iron Man - the ego’s about right - and Brent, you can be Star Man from Guardians of the Galaxy.”
“Who should I be?” Tyler asked, smiling.
“Um… Vision, maybe?”
“No way. Spandex is out of the question.”
“I don’t know,” she grinned. “You’ve got the ass for it.”
He blushed. “Well… thank you.”
Quinn wiggled his eyebrows at him. “I concur.”
Tyler’s face flushed darker.
Brent hedged, “I don’t know. I mean, I for one would love to see you in a leather catsuit, Em, but… I’m thinking something more dignified. Historical, even.”
“Like what?” she asked, making a mental note to buy a leather catsuit for fun and games.
“What do you think about going as characters from Hamilton?”
Quinn laughed. “Man, you are obsessed with that show.”
“It’s awesome,” he defended. “And it wouldn’t hurt you to get a little culture.”
“Who even are you?”
“Didn’t you get enough of colonial America with our last gig?” Tyler asked.
“Well… kind of. Not really. I just thought it might be cool.”
“I know,” Quinn said, putting his envelope aside and wandering into the kitchen. He came back with a bottle of beer. “Let’s go as a ghost hunting team that can’t get a decent gig on Halloween night.”
“Ooh, pouty,” Emma teased.
“Yes, I am.”
Tyler put his arm around her and considered their options. “You know, I kind of like the idea of something historical, but maybe not colonial.”
“Civil War?” Brent suggested.
Emma smiled. “I could totally go in for a big ol’ 1860’s ball gown, hoop skirt and all. And you fine gentlemen in blue uniforms… sexy.”
The three guys looked at one another, and finally Quinn shrugged. “You heard the lady. Looks like the Union just recruited three more soldiers.”
Emma did some research, including asking around the theater department at the college they attended, and she finally tracked down the appropriate costumes. She managed to get the guys to come in and try on the uniforms, and after a few removable fitting changes, they were ready for the party.
“I still can’t believe we have to go to your father’s company party,” Quinn complained as they got into Brent’s car, which was chosen because it offered more room for Emma’s exorbitant skirt. She’d gone for crinolines instead of a hoop skirt, but it still occupied more metric space than any garment had a right to do.
“I still can’t believe he invited us.”
“Well, let’s just go and take advantage of the free food and free drinks,” Emma suggested. “I mean, we’re college students. We should be all about the food, right?”
Quinn laughed. “We’re college students getting paid to make a TV show that’s broadcast internationally. I don’t think we need to go around scrounging for freebies.”
Brent shrugged and started to drive. “I like free food.”
“See? One honest man in the car. Thank you.”
He beamed at her.
They drove for forty minutes to get to the parking lot of the convention center, and at least ten of those minutes were spent waiting for throngs of costume-wearing people of all ages, including at least one full coven of witches, to get out of the road.
“Good luck finding a parking space,” Quinn said.
Tyler smiled. “My father paid for valet parking.”
“Of course he did.”
They surrendered Brent’s battered Ford to the tender mercies of the valet company and made their way into the convention center. A woman in a Vampirella costume that left nothing to the imagination strolled by and winked at Quinn.
“Looks like the Army’s in town.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Quinn responded with a smile, turning on all of his considerable charm. He saluted her, and she kept walking.
Emma shook her head. “You are such a slut.”
“What? I was playing along.”
“Right.” She gave him a side-eyed smirk. “You can’t kid a kidder, Quinn.”
Brent laughed. “You know she’s right. Might as well own it.”
“Well… but did you see her boobs? They were awesome.”
“And here I thought I was wearing this low-cut dress with this corset so you’d look at mine,” Emma commented, smiling. “Keep talking. You’re digging yourself a nice little hole you’ll get to sleep in, alone.”
“I was just being friendly.”
“Oh, is that what they’re calling it these days?”
Their jovial conversation led them down the long foyer, with its massive grandfather clock and fake cobwebs, to the fourth ballroom, where the Law Offices of Sullivan and Shumer were holding their party. Tyler straightened his uniform jacket and looked at his companions.
“Here we go.”
Emma linked her arm with his and smiled at him. “Lead on, Colonel.”
They walked into the ballroom, and Tyler’s father, Donald Sullivan, turned to face them, a drink in his hand. He was dressed in an elegant Dracula costume, and it looked so natural on him that for a moment, Emma thought he had forgotten to dress up.
“Well,” he said with a smile that never reached his eyes, “Tyler. I’m so glad you could make it. Please introduce me to your friends.”
“Dad, you know Quinn and Brent. We graduated high school together and they were always over at the house.” Tyler looked at the young woman by his side. “And this is Emma Ray. Emma, this is my father, Donald Sullivan.”
“Ah. Miss Ray.” He said her name as if it tasted sour. “The psychic, I presume.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you for inviting us to your party.” She curtsied gracefully, playing up her costume. When she looked up at him, she caught him looking down at her décolletage, which seemed pretty on-brand for him. She wondered how long he’d been sleeping with his secretary. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
His opinion of her seemed to have changed along with his view. He smiled, and this time it looked genuine. “Likewise.”
Quinn muttered, “Pig.”
Oh, the irony, she thought.
Penelope, one of her spirit guides, laughed. -Pretty rich, him getting outraged over some other man’s sexist behavior.-
-Well, the boys have a little growing up to do, but that doesn’t mean he can’t call it like he sees it.-
Mr. Sullivan asked drily, “Tell me, Miss Ray. Are there any ghosts among us tonight?”
She smiled. There were several, but she didn’t want to get into it. “Maybe, but it’s my night off, so I’m trying not to look.”
“I see.” He looked at Tyler, and his eyes went cold. “I’m disappointed. I had hoped that you might provide some entertainment for my guests.”
“Like cold readings, or do you want me to drift around and tell them what their wives and husbands are really up to?” she asked sweetly. “Or maybe you’d like me to tell the man in the corner that he has three murder victims following him. Should I introduce them? Oh, wait. He probably knows them. I think he killed them, actually.”
Even though she hadn’t pointed it out, the lawyer knew exactly which direction to look in. He turned back to her. “Nothing too upsetting. Just general, I don’t know, parlor tricks.”
She folded her hands in front of her waist, holding back the urge to say things she would regret. “Mr. Sullivan, I don’t think you understand the nature of my gift.”
“I don’t think you understand why you were invited here.”
Tyler looked like he wanted to fall through the floor. Emma felt horrible for him. “Mr. Sullivan, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live with a parent like you. Tyler is a remarkable man to have such kindness after coming from such bitter stock.”
The attorney looked as offended as he should have been. “You weren’t asked to come here to judge me. I might have a few interesting things to say about you and your boyfriends, too, but I’d like to keep this evening civil. I’ve invited another medium here tonight, as well. It was my hope that you and she would conduct a seance at midnight.”
“Midnight’s actually not…” Brent began. Quinn stomped on his foot.
“What medium? I might know her.” She looked at Tyler with a smile. “Small community.”
“Her name is Trinket Mallory.”
Emma had heard the name before, but she knew almost nothing about the woman that a casual TV viewer wouldn’t know. “She’s from New Orleans, isn’t she?”
“She is. And she doesn’t come cheap.”
“Well, then, if you’re expecting entertainment and you’re willing to pay Miss Mallory for her time, I think I deserve more than free food and drink.”
“You mean I should pay you?”
Emma looked him in the eye. “If you want me to keep my ghosts and my information polite, yes. Maybe you could introduce me to Angela.”
He flushed but smiled tightly. “Of course. Tyler, text me the necessary arrangements and I’ll see to it that you’re paid after the party.”
Emma tilted her head, smiling up at him as sweetly as she could. “No pay, no play, Mr. Sullivan. Surely you of all people can understand that fees must be paid.”
He sighed deeply. “How much?”
“Five hundred for an entire evening.”
She shrugged. “If you say so. Angela is the one in the Vampirella costume, right? I guess I could see why you pay her so much and have to work so late, so often.”
The lawyer’s face darkened. “I don’t have my checkbook.”
“Do you have your phone? I accept PayPal.”
Brent snickered, and Mr. Sullivan gave him an evil glare. “And how is your grandmother, Brent? Still an alcoholic?”
“She died four years ago. But you knew that.”
Quinn looked as ready to deck the man as Emma was. Brent just looked hurt, which made Emma even angrier.
“Dad, I’ll send the payment for you from the office’s petty cash. I have the account information.”
He sighed. “Fine. Do it.” He looked at Emma sternly. “But you had better be worth the money.”
He walked away, putting on his friendly face again so he could talk to clients. Quinn told Tyler, “Man, it’s a miracle nobody’s shot him yet.”
Tyler didn’t look up from his phone. “The night is still young. Whoops. Extra zero.”
She kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks, Ty.”
“No… thank you. He thinks he’s super sneaky and nobody knows that he’s having an affair. We all do, of course.”
“Even your mom?”
“Well… No. She’s too busy at the hospital. But she probably wouldn’t care.”
Quinn shook his head. “Man. And I thought my family life was fucked up.”
Brent was silent, still stinging from the lawyer’s words. Emma took his hand. “Come on. Let’s dance.”
He started to protest, but she pulled him onto the dancefloor with her. The DJ was playing some obscure 80s dance track, and Brent told her, “I don’t know how to dance to this.”
“Nobody does,” she assured him. “And I know your grandmother was never an alcoholic. I’ve spoken to her many times, and she’s a sweet old lady.”
He nodded. “She really was.”
“And don’t worry. I have plans for dear Mr. Sullivan.”
While Emma and Brent danced, Quinn and Tyler walked around the perimeter of the room. They were recognized by many of the invited guests, either because of the show or because Tyler had spent a few months as a clerk in his father’s office. Either way, they were stopped several times for inane small talk.
They finally found the hors d'oeuvres tables. Uniformed members of a formal catering staff stood at almost military attention behind each station, dressed in black vests and trousers and crisp white shirts.
“Well, I’ll say this for your dad,” Quinn said. “He knows how to buy a good spread.”
“That was probably Darlene, the office manager. She makes all the arrangements.”
They pointed out which morsels they would like to eat, and the catering employees loaded their plates for them. They accepted the food and sat down at one of the round tables in the room.
“Should we get plates for Brent and Emma?” Tyler asked.
“I suppose, but I’m not sure what they’d want.”
“Well, Brent would want everything, and Emma would want fruit and veggies.”
Quinn smiled. “You know us all pretty well.”
“I kind of live with you guys. It’s hard not to.”
A curvaceous woman in a witch’s dress and pointed hat strolled up to the table. “Why, Tyler. You look positively dashing.”
He stood up quickly, catching the orange table cloth with his foot. “Ms. Markady,” he greeted. “Happy Halloween.”
“Happy Halloween to you, as well. I would have thought that you’d be otherwise occupied tonight.”
“Our network failed to arrange a venue for us, so here we are.” Quinn stood and offered his hand. “I’m Quinn Riley.”
“Oh, I know.” She slipped her small hand into his grip. “Bianca Markady, junior partner at Sullivan and Shumer. Please, both of you. Sit.”
She slithered into one of the chairs, and Quinn and Tyler sat down again.
“Dad told me that he hired another medium at the request of one of his clients. Do you know which client that might be?”
Bianca leaned on her hand, but one slender finger pointed into the corner. “Aaron Pritchett,” she said. “He’s the COO of Bosworth Pharmaceuticals. He has an unhealthy fascination with the paranormal and pays your father hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep him on retainer.”
“Ah. Money,” Quinn said. “The ultimate ass-kiss inspiration.”
Bianca chuckled. “Crude, but accurate.”
Tyler shook his head, glancing subtly over at the man in question, who was dressed like Frankenstein’s monster. “I’d never seen him before. I handled some of the correspondence coming in on his account, but… I had no idea.”
“Mmm. I’m sure there’s a lot in that office you don’t know.”
“If you mean my dad and Angela…”
She waved her hand. “Not that. Everybody knows about that. Just… let’s just say that we’ll all be happy if nobody does an audit anytime soon.”
“If you’re a junior partner, you’re in it up to your neck,” Quinn observed. “Why not turn some people in and save yourself? Maybe cut a plea deal?”
She laughed. “I have ambition, Quinn, and ratting out a partnership like Sullivan and Shumer will not get me where I want to be.” She ran her long, black-painted fingernail over the tablecloth. “No… sometimes you can’t be a white hat and survive in this world.”
“I guess I’ll find out.”
Emma and Brent arrived at the table with their own laden plates in their hands. Brent put his plate down, along with three bottles of beer he had carried as well.
“Hello,” Emma greeted the stranger in their midst. She offered her hand. “I’m Emma.”
They shook hands. Quinn could see a strange look flicker through Emma’s eyes. For a moment, she looked startled.
“A pleasure,” she said.
“I’m Brent,” he said, offering Bianca a handshake of his own, which she accepted. “Nice to meet you.”
“Ms. Markady… Bianca… is a junior partner in my father’s firm,” Tyler explained.
She studied Emma closely. “I know Tyler and Quinn and Brent from the television show, but you… I’m not familiar with you.”
Emma smiled, and now instead of startled, she looked guarded. What was going on?
“I’m their roommate. I help out with the show.”
“A little behind the scenes stress relief, eh? I suppose TV producers really do look after all of their stars’ needs.”
“Now, hey,” Brent said, frowning. “It’s not like that. That was really rude.”
“It’s okay,” Emma said, putting her hand on his arm. She fixed Bianca with a steady glare. “Sometimes we can’t see beyond our own experiences.”
Bianca raised her perfectly-drawn-on eyebrow. “Touché.”
Quinn said, “Emma is a psychic. She’s been added to the cast for this season, but none of the episodes she’s in have aired yet. We’re still filming.”
“A psychic? After your drawn-out complaints about how fake they are? Whose idea was that?”
“Our producer’s. And Emma… Emma’s the real deal.” He sipped his beer. “And I can admit when I’m wrong.”
She laughed. “I see. And is that professor of yours coming to the party, too?”
“Not to my knowledge,” Tyler said.
“Too bad. He’s a silver fox, that one.”
Emma smiled. “Foxes bite.”
“I hope so.”
A female laugh rang out through the room, and they all glanced in that direction. Trinket Mallory, star of Bayou Medium, was standing in the doorway, her white-gloved hand hooked through Malcolm Shumer’s arm. She was dressed like Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or possibly like Madonna in the video for Material Girl, wearing a strapless pink gown with long gloves. Brilliant stones sparkled at her throat and on her wrists, and she looked like she was already having the time of her life. Quinn couldn’t imagine that dumpy, balding Shumer was that much fun to be around, so he decided that Trinket must be quite an actress.
“Oh,” Emma said simply. “They’re here.”
“Trinket Mallory and her invisible entourage.” Emma pursed her lips and studied the doors as the pink-clad medium was escorted further into the room. “Makes sense that she’s from New Orleans. Lots of voodoo with her.”
Bianca nodded and smiled, but the expression was tight with barely-hidden disdain. “How stereotypical.”
Across the room, Trinket turned and looked at Emma, and she briefly inclined her head. Emma nodded back.
Brent smiled uncertainly. “What was that? The medium secret handshake?”
Bianca laughed. “Something like that, I think.” She turned and looked at Emma, and Quinn saw something like a challenge in that look. “We have a way of finding our own, don’t we?’
“So it seems.”
“Well, I must mingle,” Bianca said, standing gracefully. “I do hope you boys will save a dance for me.”
“Of course.” Tyler’s smile was as false as the attorney’s.
Quinn answered, “Not likely.”
Bianca laughed. “You’re an interesting one, I must say, but I’ll bet I can find out what makes you tick by the end of the night.”
“I’ll bet you can’t.”
She walked around the table as she left, and she ran her hand along his shoulders as she passed. “Challenge accepted.”
Emma breathed a sigh of relief as soon as Markady walked away. The demonic taint the attorney carried was calling to her own, and she didn’t want that part of her awakened. Not tonight.
Quinn was studying Trinket. “I didn’t recognize her name, but I know her now. Isn’t she the chick from Bayou Medium?”
“Yes,” Emma confirmed.
-Wow. I don’t know how to protect you from that,- Craig Whitehorse, another of Emma’s spirit guides, muttered to her, eyeing the spirit that had come in with Trinket.
-You can’t. If it starts to get dicey for any of you, get out of here.-
-Do you know who it is that she’s got with her?- demanded Betsy Seeley, her third guide. -That’s no mere spirit guide. That’s…-
Emma interrupted grimly. -A god.-
“Shumer is really slobbering on her,” Tyler commented, annoyed.
“Better her than me. Excuse me.”
She left her men and walked over to the vision in pink who still hadn’t made it through the door. She stopped a few feet away, feeling almost physically unable to approach more closely. “Miss Mallory?”
The woman turned her bright smile and Cajun accent on her. “Why, Emma Ray! What a pleasure! I’ve heard about your work from that rat Begay, and I heard you’d joined a show.” She beamed at Shumer. “Won’t you excuse me, Mr. Shumer?”
He was utterly charmed. “Of course.”
Trinket minced her way over to Emma and embraced her. In her ear, she whispered, “Man’s a pervert.”
“I saw that.”
They stepped back, and Trinket looked at the three men hovering nearby. “My, I thought I was lucky, but cher, you’ve got a harem and a half. Introduce us.” She hesitated. “And don’t let my bodyguard phase you. Papa’s just keeping his favorite girl safe on the busiest night of the year.”
“Papa. As in Papa Legba?”
“Open the door,” she nodded. “He’s on holiday.”
Emma had never encountered him before, but being this close to where he was hovering around Trinket was making her third eye throb like she’d been shot. The other medium seemed to understand.
“Papa,” she said over her shoulder, “take a bod.”
The force vanished, and Emma could breathe a little easier. “Thank you.”
“It’s okay, cher. I keep forgetting how rude he is when you’re not used to him.”
Emma’s three men came closer. Quinn put a steadying hand on the small of Emma’s back. She leaned back into his touch ever so slightly, grateful he was there.
“Trinket Mallory, these are Quinn Riley, Tyler Sullivan and Brent Hill.”
The other medium smiled broadly. “Oh, I know your faces! Y’all are so cute on your little show. What’s it called again?”
“Ghost U.” Quinn was smiling, but his voice was cold.
“That’s right.” She leaned in, all perfume and charm, and put her white-gloved hand on his forearm. “Beating the snot out of my little show in the ratings. So sorry to hear your producer bit the big one. Little bit of witchcraft, don’t you think?”
-She seems nice,- Craig commented.
-You just think she’s hot.-
-Emma, I’m an ascended spirit. I don’t have those urges anymore. Don’t be jealous.-
Penelope piped up, -And don’t be jealous of your boys. She’s not interested, and they’re just distracted by the sparkly. They’re still all yours.-
-I wasn’t worried about them. I’m worried about her escort. If he’s on holiday on Halloween, that means the door is unguarded, and all Hell’s about to break loose.-
-We’ll keep watch,- Betsy assured her. -Just enjoy the party, if you can.-
Trinket looked at the three spirit guides. “Good evening, ladies and gentleman. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Brent looked at her, then at Emma, confused. “Who is she talking to?”
“Why, the rest of the group, of course.”
Tyler explained. “Emma’s guides.”
The hot presence returned to the room, but this time it was personified in a tall black man in a black suit without a shirt. His face was painted with white makeup to look like a skull. He wore a tall black hat festooned with the tail feathers of a black rooster. Trinket beamed at him.
“Ah! My date.”
He joined them, smiling broadly. He went straight to Emma and bowed to her. She wasn’t certain if he was mocking her or not.
“An honor to meet such an esteemed person,” he said, his voice deep and rich. “Trinket didn’t tell me we would be meeting someone like you.”
“I don’t need to tell you anything,” the other medium shrugged. “You can figure it out for yourself.”
“Indeed.” He took Emma’s hand and kissed it, and when he did, she realized that the white wasn’t makeup at all.
She struggled to find her voice. “It… it must be… very difficult to break away from your work on a night like this.”
Papa Legba straightened and smiled broadly. “This is my easiest night of the year. The door’s always open on Halloween, so why should I stand around and watch everybody else have fun?”
“I owed him a favor, so I said he could come with me,” Trinket said. “Idiot forgot he needed a body to do it. Bête.”
Tyler offered his hand. “Tyler Sullivan. And you are…?”
“You can call me Papa.” He winked at Tyler. “That’s different from Daddy, of course, but I think you knew that.”
Tyler’s face turned beet red, and he backed away. Trinket laughed. “Aw, leave the boy alone, Papa.”
Mr. Sullivan joined them. “Miss Mallory, welcome. It was good of you to come.”
“Well, since you paid my ticket, the least I could do was let you punch it. And I mean that in the most platonic of ways, of course.”
He smiled thinly. “Of course. We’ve set up a table in the corner, as you directed.”
“That’ll do for me, but what about for ma soeur, here?” She looked at Emma. “Little sis’ll be working half the room. She needs a table, too.”
“That can be arranged.”
Emma shook her head. “I don’t do tables.”
“Oh? No traditional séances for you?”
“I prefer to walk.”
“Suit yourself.” She tucked her hand into the crook of Sullivan’s arm and winked at Emma. “Should be a fun night. ‘Scuse us, won’t you?”
She swanned away with Tyler’s father, and Papa Legba drifted off in her wake. As soon as they were out of earshot, Quinn asked, “What the hell just happened?”
Emma didn’t answer. Instead, she went to the punch bowl and waited while one of the people on the catering staff poured a drink for her. It was mildly alcoholic, which suited her fine. She drained the entire glass.
The boys had followed her, and Brent frowned. “Are you okay?”
“That woman is super powerful, and her friend… He’s a loa. I never thought I’d ever see a loa in person.”
“A loa,” Tyler echoed. “That’s really, honestly Papa Legba?”
“In the flesh. And it’s his own flesh, which is scary.”
Quinn stared across the room at the man in question, startled. “Wait. A real voodoo god?”
“Papa Legba, the voodoo god of the dead. He’s the one who guards the gateway between this world and the next.” She realized that she was trembling. “He’s the most powerful being I’ve ever encountered. Christ, my head hurts.”
“Do you want to leave?”
“Yes, but no. I want to see how this night is going to play out.”
They ate and drank and danced, enjoying themselves as much as they could with a voodoo god in attendance. The echo of his power filled the room, and it was impossible to avoid. Trinket was holding forth in the middle of the room, a glass of champagne in her hand that she wasn’t drinking, attracting middle-aged men like flies.
“It’s almost midnight,” Tyler said, handing Emma a bottle of water from the catering table. “I guess she’s going to start her séance.”
Quinn drained his glass. “Show time.”
They drifted toward the corner where Trinket had gotten set up. She was seated at a large round table ringed with chairs. Papa Legba stood behind her, nibbling on a plate of appetizers, and he winked at Emma as they approached.
“Hi, Princess,” he greeted. “You really should join us.”
“I think I’ll pass.”
Trinket pouted. “Aw, come on. You know you want to get in on this fun.” She looked up at the three men who surrounded Emma like an honor guard. “What about these Federals you got with you? Any of you boys game?”
“I’ll sit in,” Quinn said, pulling up a chair.
One of the junior partners at Sullivan & Shumer, dressed as a zombie for the evening, told them, “I’m not getting involved in this, but you’re all on that ghost hunting show. You should all sit in.”
“Yes,” Tyler’s father said, his eyes fixed on Emma. “You should.”
Papa Legba looked at the attorney’s zombie get up and laughed. “Right. There’s ten chairs here, and five seats taken. Who else is game?”
Emma and her men sat down at the table. She settled into the chair directly across from Trinket, who smiled at her as a group of onlookers gathered around the table.
“Just fun and games, cher.”
She wasn’t too certain about that. She took Quinn’s hand on the right and Brent’s on the left. Tyler sat down on Quinn’s other side. A dark-haired man in a black suit, his face marred by acne scars, took the seat between Tyler and Papa Legba. Three ghosts crowded in behind him, all of them still showing the bullet wounds that sent them to their graves. Emma and Trinket both looked at the spirits, then at one another.
“Table’s a little crowded, mister,” Trinket told the man.
“You’re being followed by three ghosts,” Emma advised him. “And they’re all murder victims. All men. One’s in his 30s, dark hair, dark eyes, wearing a Boston Bruins jersey. One’s in his 40s or 50s, balding, in a business suit. He says his name is Tommy.”
Tyler’s father looked horrified. “Stop!” He tried to cover his reaction with a false laugh. “My goodness, what a display!”
A woman in a black witch costume sat on Brent’s other side. She had piercing green eyes and a youthful face. “Continue. This is what I wanted to see tonight.”
“You must be the special client who wanted my services,” Trinket said. “Lucky for you, you’ve got a twofer. Emma, darlin’, keep going. Who’s the third ghost?”
“Francis. He’s in his 60s and feels very betrayed.”
Mr. Shumer, the other senior partner in the firm, shook his head. “Impossible.”
The man with the scarred face glowered fiercely. “I think that’s enough, ladies.”
Trinket smiled at Emma’s comment and leaned toward her escort. “Papa, be a dove and open the door for those three so they can go home, would you? They can’t be having any fun following a man who’s head blind. No use haunting when you can’t be seen.”
“I’m not being haunted,” the man insisted. “Never heard anything, never saw anything.”
Trinket’s smile turned into the grin of a canary-eating cat. “I’ll bet that’s what you said at trial, too, isn’t it?”
Tyler muttered, “He never went to trial.”
Emma looked at the two attorneys at the table. “Which one of you does criminal defense work?”
Shumer uncomfortably admitted, “Me.”
“You must be a hell of a lawyer.”
Tyler’s father spoke firmly. “He is. He’s my partner for a reason.”
Trinket clicked her tongue. “Okay, now. Papa…”
He shrugged and grinned at her. “My day off, babe.”
Emma looked at the three murder victims. -Do you even want to leave?-
The oldest of them turned a baleful glare onto the scarred man. -I want to see him burn in hell for what he did to me. If I can’t see him go to hell, I’ll see him go to prison.-
-Honestly, neither one is all that likely.-
-What do you mean?-
-I mean, unless you did something to earn the trip, you’re not going to see him in hell. You’ll be elsewhere. And I don’t think he’s going to be going to jail for as long as he has these two on his payroll… along with whomever else he’s paying off.-
The youngest ghost looked at the other two. -Maybe she’s right. Maybe we’re wasting our time.-
Emma nodded. She realized that Brent was staring at her, and she wondered what faces she made when she was talking to spirits this way. A glance across the table revealed that Trinket was watching her, too, her red-painted lips prinked into a smile. She sighed.
-You’re better off moving on to what’s next. Don’t let this fool keep you trapped. He’s already done enough damage.-
The three of them looked at one another, then back at Emma. -Thank you.-
-Don’t mention it.-
Papa Legba made a dismissing gesture, and all three disappeared in a flash of purple smoke. Emma was taken aback.
“Don’t worry, cher. They’re where they’re supposed to be. And look at you, doing God’s work, even though…”
She trailed off and shrugged.
“Even though what?”
Trinket only smiled.
“Looks like the table’s full,” Mr. Shumer said, eager to see the mediums in action. “Can we get started?”
“Just a minute,” Trinket answered.
Quinn leaned toward Emma. “What’s she waiting for?”
The clock in the foyer of the convention center struck twelve, its loud chiming filling the room. The DJ turned off the sound system, and someone else turned down the lights. A member of the catering staff brought over three tall candles, which she lit and put in the center of the table. Trinket nodded.
“Join hands, please.”
The people at the table did as they were asked. Emma felt bad for Tyler, who had to touch the scarred man, but he seemed to take it in stride.
Trinket closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She blew it out slowly, and as she did, Emma could see her aura turning gray around the edges.
“She’s a trance medium,” she whispered to Brent.
Another long, slow breath came and went, and then Trinket’s body language changed. All of her casual sexiness vanished as she bent over like an old woman with a dowager’s hump. She twisted slightly in her seat.
“I’m cold,” she said, in a voice not completely her own. “I’m so cold.”
Papa said, “Tell your name.”
“Elizabeth. My name… is Elizabeth.” She took a deep breath. “This is my land. Why are you on my land?”
“This land belongs to the city of Salem now. You don’t own it any longer.”
Trinket frowned in confusion. “Did the sheriff take it after all?”
Shumer leaned forward, excited. “Are you one of the witches from the Witch Trials?”
The medium began to wail. “I am innocent! God knows that I am innocent of anything in this nature!” She gasped. “They hanged me. But I am innocent!”
Emma couldn’t bear it any longer. “Elizabeth Howe, you do not need to stay here in this town. You earned your peace.”
-Want me to take her, if I can?- Betsy asked.
She watched as her guide went around the table, giving Papa Legba a wide berth. He watched Betsy, too, and when she had almost reached Trinket, he held up his hand.
The non-psychics at the table looked at him in confusion. He shook his head and flipped his hand, and Betsy vanished from sight.
Emma leaped to her feet without breaking the séance circle. “You can’t!”
“She’ll be back tomorrow,” he shrugged. “Or the next day. Or whenever I open the door for her. Meantime… sit back down. Show’s not over yet.”
Trinket shuddered, and her hunched body language relaxed. She sat up straighter, but she still had her eyes closed, rocking in her seat. “Hmm,” she hummed.
“Now what?” Quinn asked.
“I have no idea.”
One of the women in the group of onlookers commented to her male companion, “I can’t believe we heard from an actual Salem witch.”
“She wasn’t a witch,” Emma objected. “She was falsely accused.”
“Yeah. That happens,” the scarred man agreed.
Quinn glared at him. “I’ll just bet it does.”
Emma started to speak to him, but Trinket moaned again, and in the center of the table, the candles began to shake. She could feel dark gray energy gathering there, full of foreboding and malevolence. The more it gathered, the more she felt like there was a presence in the center of their circle, and it was glaring at her.
“I call you,” Trinket said, her voice impossibly deep for any woman. “I call you, Ashmodel.”
She had heard that name before, and apparently, so had Quinn. Her partner went pale.
The grey energy turned dark red in her psychic sight, and it began to take form. A horrible creature appeared, standing on the table and towering over them. It was an unholy winged amalgamation of man and goat, male and female, mammal and reptile. Its very presence made her feel coated with filth. It laughed, and its goat’s mouth was filled with long, needle-like teeth that gnashed together. It reminded her of the mouth of an angler fish, and she recoiled.
Trinket moaned, and the onlookers screamed and backed away. Shumer broke the circle and ran for the door, the scarred man right behind him. Quinn whipped an EMF meter out of his pocket, and the needle buried itself in the red.
“You called me,” it said, its voice deep and echoing like a dozen men speaking at once. “To what end?”
Papa Legba stood and faced it. “To ask you one question.”
The demon Ashmodel laughed in his face. “I was called here for you?”
The voodoo god stood tall. “You were.”
Ashmodel laughed again. “What are you willing to pay for the knowledge you seek?”
Trinket bent forward over the table, the effort of calling the demon into the world wracking her with pain. Emma could feel it from where she sat.
Brent put an arm around her waist and pulled her away from the table. “We have to get you out of here. Quinn! Put that thing down and come on!”
The majority of the people in the room were stampeding for the exit. Sullivan was rooted in his seat, his mouth hanging open in shock. Tyler grabbed his father’s arm and tried to pull him away from the table, eager to get away from the creature that had appeared. Ashmodel turned and looked at Emma. It smiled, and she felt foul all the way down to her soul.
Something foul at the bottom of her soul stirred in answer.
Quinn stepped between the demon and Emma, breaking Ashmodel’s line of sight. It fixed him with an annoyed glare.
“You cannot keep her from me for long.”
“Hey!” Papa snapped. “Over here. Deal with them later.”
Ashmodel smiled more widely. “Oh, I will.” He turned back to Papa Legba. “What is your offer?”
“I can tell you who’s opening the demon portals and depleting your armies.”
Ashmodel laughed. “I already know that. What do I care how many demons they release, or how many they kill? I am one of the devils, the original fallen angels who fought at Lucifer’s side. Do you really think you could know anything that I do not?” It leaned down closer to him. “Do you think your power even comes close to rivalling mine?”
Papa Legba grinned. “I know it does. You need to be summoned. I can come out whenever I choose.”
An armed guard raced into the ballroom, accompanied by Shumer, who was in a panic. His terror had become contagious, and the guard already had his sidearm in his hand. He fired a wild shot, the bullet striking Ashmodel in the side.
It bounced off.
“Quit shooting, you idiot!” Quinn yelled, shoving Emma to the ground. Brent and Tyler dove, too, and Tyler’s father crawled under a nearby table. The guard stood in shock, staring and shaking.
Ashmodel laughed and turned back to Papa Legba, beating his wings like an infernal butterfly. “Pay me and ask me your question quickly. I’m getting bored.”
“One question. Payment is three drops of my own blood.”
Ashmodel looked impressed. “Accepted. Ask me.”
“Who watches the Watchers?”
Trinket sat up straight, her eyes rolled back in her head. Ashmodel snarled at the voodoo god. “Keep your blood.”
As suddenly as he had appeared, Ashmodel vanished. Trinket fell face first onto the table. Papa Legba crossed his arms in annoyance and disappeared, as well.
“What the absolute…” Quinn began.
Emma rushed to Trinket and pulled her back from the table, sitting her up again like she was righting a toppled doll. Her lipstick had left a red smear on the tablecloth, and tears were rolling down her cheeks. Tyler brought a bottle of water from the caterers’ cooler, and Emma wet a corner of the tablecloth. She used it to swab Trinket’s brown and the back of her neck.
“Come on,” she said. “Wake up.”
The medium moaned and her eyes fluttered. She gradually regained consciousness, and Emma stepped back.
“Oh… child, that’s hard on the head…”
“What the hell were you thinking?” Emma scolded.
“I owed Papa. Is he still here?”
“He’s gone. You agreed to summon a devil for the voodoo god of the dead?”
Trinket grabbed the water bottle and took a drink. She repeated, “I owed him. Did he get his answer?”
She slapped her hand on the table. “No? That rat…”
“The question was something that the fallen angel didn’t want to answer.”
Trinket narrowed her eyes. “What was the question?”
“You didn’t know what he was going to ask?”
“The Guardian of the Gates keeps his own counsel, honey.”
Quinn, Tyler and Brent stood in a tight arc around the two women, shielding them from the gaping onlookers. “Who watches the Watchers,” Quinn told her. “That’s what he asked.”
“And he didn’t answer?”
“What, did Papa not offer good payment?”
“He accepted the offer, but didn’t take the blood,” Emma told her. “So I guess the agreement was nullified.”
“What does that question even mean?” Brent asked.
Trinket stood up, and she swayed on her feet. “Oh, child. That’s a story too long to tell. Look up the Book of Enoch and get back to me.”
She started to totter toward the door, and Quinn and Tyler hurried to support her. As the five of them walked out, an onlooker spat, “Witch!”
Emma rolled her eyes. “Shove it.”
Trinket chuckled. “Girl, we need to work together more often.”
Emma glanced back at the table. The woman dressed as a witch was still sitting there. She was about to go and check on her, but then the woman rose and walked away, a thoughtful look on her face.
“Tyler,” she said. “Who is that?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. She’s not part of the firm, and I never saw her when I was clerking there.”
“Don’t sweat it, cher,” Trinket advised. “She’ll come around again. Bad pennies always do.”
“Where are you staying?” Brent asked. “I can drive you to your hotel.”
“I’ll call a cab. You go on home.” She looked at the clock in the lobby. “You gotta get into your own space before Dead Time. You keep in touch, girl, and call if you need me.”
Emma felt a chill of apprehension at the other medium’s words, and she could see that her men sensed it, too. They got a cab for Trinket, who gave them copies of her business card, and then piled back into Brent’s car.
“Dead Time,” Tyler said as he shut the car door. “That’s three a.m.”
“It’s barely twelve thirty,” Quinn nodded. “We’ve got time to get home.”
Emma spoke quietly. “We’re not going home.”
They looked at her quizzically.
“We’re going to Montcalm’s condo. Don’t ask. Just drive.”
Brent just drove.
“I don’t know if we should bring this to the professor,” Tyler fretted. “He might not even be at home.”
“He’s at home. And he can handle himself.”
Quinn asked, “Does anybody know anything about the Book of Enoch?”
“I’ll look it up.”
They waited while Tyler did some quick research on his phone. “The Book of Enoch is an apocryphal book of the Bible, where the prophet Enoch is told about angels who fell because they began sexual relationships with human women. The children of these unions were called nephilim, and they were cursed because of the sins of their fathers.”
Brent snorted. “Boy. That’s fair.”
“Right? It talks about the origin of demons and angels, and it also talks about the Great Flood and the future reign of the Messiah, which was to last 1000 years.”
“And the angelic language is called Enochian,” Emma said. “And there’s an alphabet to match. It’s used in a lot of medieval grimoires and rituals.”
“So who are the Watchers?” Brent asked.
“Those are the fallen angels who sired children with human women.”
Quinn squinted. “So why would a voodoo god care about fallen angels?”
Tyler shook his head. “I don’t know.Competition? Power struggle?”
Brent said, “Hey, look up Papa Legba. Who the hell is he and what can he do?”
“Okay. He’s a god who originated in Dahomey in Africa. He’s associated with crossroads, gates and doors, and he grants or denies permission for humans to speak to the spirits of the dead. Offerings to him are tobacco, alcohol and candy. He’s associated with the colors black and red. He’s a healer, a fertility god, protector of children, and someone who can grant you forgiveness if you’ve harmed someone else.” He shrugged. “Doesn’t sound like such a bad guy.”
“So far,” Quinn commented darkly.
Tyler continued. “He’s also supposed to be a great communicator, speaking all of the languages of humanity. Handy. He’s also supposed to be a warrior and a trickster, and he removes obstacles. I guess that makes sense, since a door is an obstacle, and he opens the way for his worshippers.”
“The way to what?” Brent asked.
“The Other Side.” Emma looked out the window pensively at the streetlights as they passed. “I wonder what sort of deal Trinket had with him, and why he’d want to know about the Watchers.”
“He said something about knowing who opened demon portals,” Quinn pointed out. “I’d like to know that, myself, so I could find them and kick their asses.”
“Assuming you could.” She shook her head. “We’ve just run into something that I don’t understand. I hope Montcalm has the answers.”
Tyler put his phone away. “The only question is whether he’ll share them.”
He’d better, Emma thought. I might have to share some answers of my own.
-Don’t try to blackmail him,- Penelope advised, suddenly making herself known. -That’ll be biting off more than you can chew.-
-Funny you should use the word ‘bite.’-
Penelope snorted. -Yeah. I know. Look, I found Betsy. She’s okay, just mad as a wet hen. She’ll be back in a few minutes. There’s more doors than Legba watches, so he’s not all-powerful. And that might be part of the problem.-
Tyler hypothesized, “Okay, let’s think about this. There’s been an uptick in demon activity in the world over the past few months or years. Apparently someone is opening portals to let them into this world, and that someone isn’t Papa Legba. He’s probably pissed that someone else is infringing on his territory and opening all these doors without permission. And since Montcalm said that the devils were the angels that fell, and the demons are their minions, then maybe the Watchers are a subset of devils who the other devils are in competition with. I mean, if you’re going to betray God, who’s to stop you from betraying your new bosses, right?”
“I’m with you so far,” Quinn said. “Keep going.”
“So Legba wants to shut down these people who are opening the portals, and those people are probably the Watchers. And by asking who’s watching them, maybe he’s indirectly blaming the devils like that thing tonight for not taking care of business?”
Emma closed her eyes. “No. I don’t think that’s why he was asking. And there’s a reason why a devil would turn down something as powerful as a god’s blood to keep the secret.” She looked over at Brent. “He was asking who’s in charge of the operation. That means that there’s one master devil in our world who’s directing all of this, and the Watchers and the other devils are just doing his bidding. The devil we just saw was protecting his boss.”
Quinn laughed derisively. “Right. From us?”
“Yes. From us. Humans are the owners of this world, and ultimately it’s up to us to decide who stays and who goes. With enough of us banding together, we can force these demons and Watchers and whatever else back out.” She nodded, warming to her own theory. “He was giving us a hint.”
Brent shook his head. “But why would he do that?”
“Tyler said he’s a trickster, and maybe he has an agenda of his own. Like Ty said, maybe he doesn’t appreciate the fact that someone else is opening gates when that’s his job.”
“And if he’s a protector, maybe he’s trying to stop the demons from flooding the world, too…” Quinn tapped his fingers on his knee. “I’ll bet he’s an ally in the Work, whatever that is. We really need to get Montcalm to cough up some information.”
“He will. I’m sure of it.” She thought, I’m just not sure how much we’ll have to pay.
1) Tell us about the stories you write/the story you have written for the event.
I write a little bit of everything, but I’ve primarily written paranormal romance and fantasy. Almost all of my books have an element of the magical or supernatural. Out of all the books I’ve written, my favorite is my retelling of the King Arthur legend. It’s ultimately going to be a nine-book series, and the first three books have already been published.
2) What do you plan on writing next?
I currently write for two pen names, and my other pen name (Tiegan Clyne) is very busy. As J. A. Cummings, the next book I want to write is book four in the “Arthur Rex” series.
3) Do you believe in ghosts?
I absolutely believe in ghosts. I was raised in a family where my maternal grandparents were Spiritualist ministers and mediums, so ghosts were always just part of the landscape. I’ve had numerous paranormal experiences, and almost everyone in my family is sensitive to a degree. My mother appeared to me one week after she died, showing me that she was okay. It was a very healing experience.
4) What is your favorite thing about Halloween?
My favorite thing about Halloween is the feeling in the air that night. It really does feel like spirits are walking on Halloween night, and the sensation of walking beside the invisible is energizing for me. I’m also very fond of the Wiccan approach to the holiday, where you make contact with the spirits of your loved ones who’ve gone before, and if you don’t contact them, you honor them. It keeps them alive in a way, and still with me.
5) How do you spend your Halloween?
I light candles and try to connect with my deceased relatives, especially with my mother, who was very psychic. Then I like to walk in the darkness a bit, even though it’s sometimes not safe because of the human element. After that, it’s eating pizza while watching ghost shows on TV!
It’s not a phase.
Once you’re creepy, you’re always creepy. And if you stop loving the things that make your little black heart pitter-patter, then was it ever black to begin with?
My love of Halloween started young, probably around the time I discovered vampires (as a two-year-old; thanks Mom!). Halloween was a time when I could go into a store and see bats and skulls and ravens all over, a time when I could pretend to be whatever I wanted.
My favorite things to watch on TV when I was little were Scooby-Doo (all versions, but especially Ghoul School and The Legend of the Vampire, both of which featured fabulous Undead girls as prominent characters) and The Halloween Tree, as well as Kiki’s Delivery Service. Witches and vampires were the absolute epitome of cool to me when I was a little girl. As well as any female, Goth-coded villain or superhero (Raven and Shego, anyone?).
It was an aesthetic I was immediately drawn to.
At eight, I got a copy of the Queen of the Damned soundtrack because I loved the original tracks so much. I still do, and the original recordings from Jonathan Davis play a large part in my book inspiration when I write.
By the time I was twelve, I loved Halloween extra for one simple reason: I could buy my makeup easier. In 2005, it was nearly impossible to find black lipstick or red eyeshadow at Sephora or Ulta. But I could count on Walgreens to sell Wet N’ Wild’s Fantasy Makers line of cosmetics. Mom would buy a few lipsticks and freeze them so I could wear them all year round.
It was also easier to get my fishnet and striped stockings, especially when Hot Topic wasn’t having a sale. I could just waltz down the Halloween aisle at Target and get costume accessories that I could wear all the time.
Like the infamous skeleton-print fingerless gloves every emo and Goth wore around 2004/2005 thanks to Frank Iero of My Chemical Romance.
Halloween was a time when I didn’t have to feel like I was a weird person for wanting to buy “creepy” things like a raven skeleton or life-sized bat. (Said bat hung from our ceiling at home on a hook probably meant for indoor plants.)
I felt accepted at Halloween. I still do. It’s not a holiday or a season for me, it’s just my everyday life and appearance.
So when I started writing, I wanted to write books for creepy girls like me.
When I discovered Vampire Kisses by Ellen Scheriber, I was in Heaven, because FINALLY I found a protagonist who was just like me, in looks and attitude and interests. But … one character out of the dozens I read about as a teenager? It was disheartening, and I vowed to write about creepy girls doing creepy things with monsters.
And I did.
Creating Angelica Cross from The Paranormal Detectives Series was my greatest achievement, because I finally did, at age 21, what I set out to do at age 12. I had my perfect creepy girl protagonist who kept Halloween decorations up 24/7, listened to My Chemical Romance and Lacuna Coil and KoRn, wore all black, and was a vampire. She wielded a medieval sword, had a library of rare, leatherbound books, kept a taxidermy bat on her wall, and collected Edward Gorey art prints.
When I write, it’s funny, I usually avoid Halloween. Except for in The Coven Queen, the final book in my YA The Coven Series, I don’t write about it. Because to me, my books represent Halloween no matter the season.
Cold city, vampires and werewolves and witches running around, black on black clothes, and horror movie references. Halloween touches every single piece of art I create, because it is a part of me. It is something I and my family have enjoyed for generations.
My grandmother was Goth who loved White Zombie, Danzig, and Depeche Mode. My mother is the ultimate witchy mom who taught me how to apply black eyeliner properly. We love ghosts and spirits and everything macabre.
So if my family is Halloween-y all the time, why shouldn’t my books be? The Paranormal Detectives have been on must-read Halloween books lists multiple times, all while never once referencing the holiday itself.
Halloween is, as I said, a lifestyle. And I’ve been this way for nearly 25 years, so I think it’s safe to say that, despite what “normal people” claim, this is definitely not a phase.
Ministry said it best, “And I dress this way just to keep them at bay, because Halloween is every day.”
Lily Luchesi is the USA Today bestselling and award-winning author of the Paranormal Detectives Series.
Her young adult Coven Series has successfully topped Amazon's Hot New Releases list consecutively.
She is also the co-owner of Partners in Crime Book Services, where she offers a myriad of services alongside her business partner Annie Smith, including editing.
She was born in Chicago, Illinois, where many of her stories are set. Ever since she was a toddler, her mother noticed her tendency for being interested in all things "dark". At two she became infatuated with vampires and ghosts, and that infatuation turned into a lifestyle. She is also an out member of the LGBT+ community.
When she's not writing, she's going to rock concerts, getting tattooed, watching the CW, or reading comics. And drinking copious amounts of coffee.
Hard to believe she’d finally done it. The struggles of six years of a degree in elementary education with her focus on special education, on top of another two years of receiving her Maryland Certification in American Sign Language. Now she was going to be working her first internship at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, Maryland.
Since she’d been a young girl in middle school, Kasie Rider had thought of nothing else. She’d given up so much to pursue and focus on just this goal. And now here she was. Standing on the large front porch of the old Victorian home just off of the campus grounds she awaited the Dean of Admissions to stop by and turn over the keys to the newly renovated interns house the school had bought a few years back and restored as temporary housing.
“Hello!” An elderly lady rode up near the front curb on a classic bicycle with a white wicker basket attached at the handle bars and called out cheerfully. “You wouldn’t by any chance be Ms. Rider would you?”
“Yes. I am.” Kasie stepped a few steps down off the porch as the woman moved her kickstand into place and let her bike lean a bit as she maneuvered off. “Can I help you?”
“I’m Victoria Snyder, a friend of Dean Dorrine Koontz. She told me you would be here by now and that she was terribly sorry but wouldn’t be able to meet with you tonight to turn over the keys to you. She asked if I might be able to drop them off and make sure the house was okay for your arrival since I was going to be visiting a friend in the area this evening.”
“Oh. That’s fine. I appreciate it, Ms. Snyder.” Kasie smiled.
“Please, everyone around here calls me Vickie.” She walked up to the house and unlocked the old wooden, refurbished door with the skeleton key. “Dean Koontz made sure that everything would be ready. She was so excited for you to be here.”
“I don’t know why. I’m still an intern.” Kasie laughed.
“Yes. But one in which she’s hoping you might be able to work with one of her children she’s been having trouble with lately.” Vickie stated. “She mentioned you had a degree with special education, too.”
“I do. But I didn’t know she needed me for that.”
“Is that going to be an issue?” Vickie went about turning on the lights in the front parlour. “The house was fully refurbished with period antiques. I think it just adds to the ambiance of the old girl. Don’t you?”
“It’s absolutely beautiful! I noted the copper downspouts and gutters trimming the turret. I can’t imagine the cost but it will be beautiful even when it’s aged from the patina.” Kasie noted.
“Well, it’s yours during your internship here at Maryland School for the Deaf so enjoy and take good care of her. And if you need anything, just let me know.”
“Thank you so much Vickie. I will. I appreciate your help.”
Kasie thanked the elderly woman, who probably had more energy and spirit in her than most young people her own age. She wasn’t sure how old she actually was but had a feeling she was older than most people thought. Still, it was nice to have someone check on her who seemed to know something about the school dean and the house.
“He’s one of our youngest students but needs a lot of help. “ Tonya explained as she led Kasie through the hallway of the Maryland School for the Deaf. “Ms. Koontz wants you to work with him one on one, see if there is anything you might be able to help him with.”
“So I won’t be working with any other children at this time?”
“No, not right now. Ms. Koontz thought it would be a significant start to see what you did one-on-one with Jacob before sending you on to a classroom instruction.”
Kasie didn’t mind. She was being paid the same and had room and board, she really didn’t care. It would be nice to get her feet wet first. Though she had been excited about a room full of students.
The hallway ended. Kasie realized they were in a deserted wing of the school. The echo of their steps dominated the atmosphere. A sense of quiet and unuse surrounded her along with an eerie sense of being watched.
“Here you go. This is your classroom and office for now.” Tonya unlocked the old wooden door.
A small room with large windows that faced the row of houses on the street where she lived now, gleamed with a fresh coat of paint, the wooden floors glistened with a new sheen of lacquer. An old blackboard lined one far wall with the American Sign Language finger-spelling alphabet boarding over it. A wooden teachers desk stood in the far corner of the room and small wooden desks with attached chairs, like old time schoolhouse desks, made three smart rows for no more than fifteen students.
“I know it’s kind of dated and sparse but just let me know what you need to make the room yours and I’ll get it for you.” Tonya smiled warmly.
“Thank you. It’s charming in its old fashioned way. But yes, I think some colorful warmth to the room, a few plush things for texture to add some softness and welcoming feel would go a long way.” Kasie stated. “Perhaps some happy displays of the basic fundamentals up on the bulletin boards.”
Nodding, Tonya smiled. “I was thinking that, too. No problem. I will let Ms. Koontz know and we will get them for you. In the meantime, Jacob should be here shortly. Oh, by the way--just a word of warning, Jacob can be a bit flighty.”
“You mean disruptive or unfocused. That’s natural in any child.” Kasie dismissed the issue. She knew kids could be easily distracted, unruly at times, even the best behaved.
“No. I mean flighty. He’ll be here one minute and gone the next...physically. He does that. That’s why we need you to help.”
“What can I do to help that?” Kasie found it rather odd. Would she be chasing this boy up and down the hallway to get him to learn and understand?
“You have the ability to talk to him, on his terms, with his disability. You have a special gift, Kasie. That’s why Ms. Koontz hired you.”
None of this made sense. Suddenly confused Kasie felt a bit uneasy. Tonya wasn’t making much headway.
The other woman laughed. “It’s alright, Kasie. You’ll figure it all out. You’ll be fine, I promise.”
Sitting alone in her classroom, Kasie waited for Jacob to show up. What did Tonya mean by all of it? It sounded oddly cryptic. Now she wasn’t sure what she had gotten herself into. Still, she had been hired specifically by the dean as a number one choice. How many could say that? And what she was about to undertake was selected by Ms. Koontz herself, based on the resume she’d sent in when she’d applied.
Staring out the window she could see the other kids playing. It was recess time. The quiet fun they shared was enlightening and she wondered if Jacob was out there with them and would come in later. She needed to prepare. Turning around to do just that she encountered a boy sitting on her desk. Neatly combed hair, a pair of black slacks, button up shirt with a black tie--he looked like a young, business man or on his way to a wedding--or perhaps a funeral with the sour look on his face.
“You must be Jacob--” she started to say only to remember he’s deaf.
She walked to him, making sure her feet vibrated the floor to announce her presence.
He looked up, swinging his feet against her wooden desk. Smiling, Kasie signed an introduction and spoke verbally in case he read lips, as some had the ability to do.
“Hello Jacob? My name is Ms. Rider. I’m going to be your teacher this year. Perhaps you would like to choose your desk?” She pointed to the neat rows of desks.
Jacob cocked his head at her, watching her hands fly using symbols to represent words she spoke. He stared at her with confusion, his brow knitted. Repeating herself he only looked away and went to the window instead.
They stood there for moments looking out at the children playing. “Do you want to go outside and play with the others?”
He only looked up at her with disinterest, returning to his fascination with the other kids outside.
“Would you like to play a game?” She pantomimed.
He didn’t respond, just sat there staring at her with the blank look.
“Okay, well--I’m going to go make some pictures. Join me if you want.
Kasie went over to the blackboard and began drawing. She didn’t know what she wanted to draw or what Jacob might find fun. He looked rather intelligent for a boy of possibly ten years old so she drew simple animal cartoons, something she used to draw all the time using simple shapes to make the animals come to life.
Soon she had the results she wanted. Sensing his presence more than hearing him she didn’t turn around or make an indication he was there watching her, she wanted him to make the move without fear so she went about her drawing, leaving him room and chalk to join her.
Picking up the piece of chalk, Jacob began to draw. Watching from her peripheral vision, Kasie didn’t say a thing, just let him draw peacefully beside her. She didn’t even care what he was drawing, as long as he felt comfortable enough to participate. Moments went by, probably a good half hour, and not wanting to interrupt him as he was so engrossed in his work, she went to her desk to find some other tasks to accomplish once Jacob grew tired of drawing. Smiling to herself, Kasie took pride in being able to find some small way to get to the boy with not too much effort. It made the day worth her while.
Her original assignment she had planned for the day was shot. She had a feeling with Jacob it wasn’t going to be an easy ‘daily planner’ kind of teaching routine. That was fine. Kasie liked a challenge.
A few minutes of searching for a new task he might find interesting she turned back around to see if he was finished drawing or if he was still diligently creating his masterpiece. Jacob was no longer there. That was impossible! He hadn’t passed by her to the door and there was only one door in and out of the classroom. Had she been so engrossed in not wanting to disrupt or scare him away that she hadn’t seen him leave? That was impossible. She wasn’t someone to just ignore a student to the point of being distracted. But he was gone. Plain and simple.
All that remained was a detailed chalk drawing of a house, as if drawn by a skilled architect. And not just any old house--her house across the street.
The rest of the week Jacob hadn’t appeared in class. By Thursday of her first week Kasie was beginning to worry. Should she call his home? Or social services?
“Good Morning, Kasie!”
Looking up from her daily planning Tonya had walked in carrying a box and loaded with some grocery totes full of supplies draped over her arms.
“Tonya! Oh Lord, let me help you with that stuff.” Kasie said, coming out from around her desk.
“Oh don’t worry. I’ve got it. I’m just going to set it here on the table for you.”
“Is there any more I need to help with?”
“Nope. This is all on your list for now.” Tonya went to the chalkboard. “Wow! Did you draw this?” She asked in excitement.
“No. Jacob drew that.” Kasie smiled proudly and went on to explain their first interaction together on Monday.
“...and then he just disappeared!” Kasie finished, looking at Tonya questioningly.
Shrugging Tonya sat on the corner of the table. “I told you he’s flighty.”
“Um, yeah--no, I mean he ‘disappeared’ like poof he was gone.” Kasie reiterated.
“And now I’m worried, I haven’t seen him in a few days. Should I contact his home address or social services?”
Puzzling over the issue, Tonya nibbled her lip. “No.” She sighed. “It wouldn’t do you any good. There is nothing they can do.”
“Why not? His parents should be taking control of him.” Kasie said admently.
“It’s not that easy. They can’t communicate with him.”
“Because he’s deaf?”
“Yes...but it’s a bit more complicated than that. This is why you are here. We need your help in helping him.”
Kasie threw her hands up in the air. “I can’t help him if he’s not willing to be here for class. I don’t think he wants to work with me. I was only able to get him to draw the other day--a house that no boy of ten years old should be able to draw that well, with such detail. I don’t think AutoCad could have created a better drawing.”
“Oh, I agree.” Tonya mused looking back at the drawing. “You have to be patient. He will come around to you. We are hopeful. Just looking at what you got him to accomplish the other day--again, Wow! It’s so much more than anyone else has ever gotten him to do.”
“I don’t know--”
“Please, Kasie. Give it some time. This is only your first week.” Tonya begged.
“I know. I shouldn’t give up this easily.” Kasie sighed, shaking her head and laughing. “I’m not one to throw in the towel without a valiant effort, and you’re right, it’s not even been a full week yet.”
Tonya winked. “That’s the spirit!”
The gloaming settled around her as she sat on her front porch swing. The fall night was a perfect combination of crisp air and the smells of the earthiness of mulch. Her neighbors and the landscapers taking care of the property had just prepared the flower beds for the upcoming season.
Kasie loved the fall. Always had. She looked forward to the crisp days darkening early, the leaves changing color, the smell of wood smoke as people prepared their fireplaces or backyard fire pits for family gatherings of roasting marshmallows and drinking warm cider, or tea, as she was now.
Looking over to the school building she felt a deep pride in achieving the goal of actually having her dream job. She just wished working with Jacob had been easier. She hadn’t seen him in a few weeks. Tonya kept telling her to ‘have patience’ but she was just worried about not being able to do her job to the best of what
The reflection of the street lights and security lights around the building cast shadows across the brick walls. Kasie could tell her room from the others in the empty wing due to some cut out clings she had placed on the four windows to depict fall. Just a tree on the far left followed by various leaves--oak, maple, elm, and birch. But the far window to the right, she left bare...but it wasn’t empty tonight. A lone figure stood in silhouetted relief staring out across the way. Perhaps it was the custodial crew. She looked at her watch. No, they would’ve been gone by now. She looked back up. The figure still stood there. Perhaps it was just a shadow from the light...but no...the figure moved, placing his arm up against the window as if to lean on it or...wave? But then he disappeared.
It took Kasie a while to fall asleep that night, thoughts of what she might have seen or did see in the window of her classroom echoed in her head. She must’ve fallen asleep at one point though because she woke up to the sound of a door slamming.
It sounded like it came from downstairs. Looking at her alarm clock it was only three-sixteen in the morning. Creaks of the old house settling had her anxiously listening for any other noise. Maybe she dreamed it. The sounds of someone moving around downstairs had her hackles up. Should she investigate? Call the police? Stay here and hide under the covers?
Oh get real! Take your baseball bat with you and go investigate.
She kept her softball bat, “Wicked” with her beside her bed. She didn’t believe in owning a gun, but “Wicked” could take out someone in a heartbeat--a clean blow to the knees, the head...yeah. And she’d been a champion softball player in college, one thing Kasie Rider had going for her, she was a hard hitter. When she struck, she made solid connections.
Slowly, cautiously she made her way with “Wicked” at the ready out into the hallway. Looking over the banister to the main floor below she thought she saw a shadow cross the hallway, the light from the outside street lamp on Market Street shining in from the living room.
“He..Hello?” She called out tentatively. Maybe if she called out it would either send whoever was there running, if they were a thief, or they would answer back if they were a friend. Who’d be visiting at three o’clock in the morning though? Her feet made creaking noise on the old wooden steps definitely alerting anyone of her approach. “Who’s down there?”
She waited. No reply.
Making her way down the steps, her heart pounding in fright, her adrenaline going off the charts, she stealthy made her way to the far wall of the archway into the living room. “Come out now!” She called out. Her fright turning to anger as she wanted to confront the trespasser on her own terms, “Wicked” held high ready to battle.
Nothing. Finally she got enough nerve and peeked around the corner.
Jacob sat in his same dress clothes he always wore, on her Victorian sofa, waiting as if nothing was wrong, his legs swinging with the impatience of a ten year old boy on a church pew. Putting “Wicked” behind her and setting it in the corner of the hall she walked into the room. Jacob looked up.
“What are you doing here, Jacob?” She asked as she signed. “It’s three o’clock in the morning.”
As usual he didn’t respond or even acknowledged her talking. He looked at her hands making the gestures but wasn’t in the least interested. Kasie sighed. She was at a loss as to what to do, how to communicate with him. Then she remembered his chalk drawing of the house. Could she maybe communicate through drawing?
Going into the study across the hallway she found a notepad and pencil and gave it to him. He only looked at it in confusion and handed it back. She made the first gesture and drew a crude picture of herself and pointed to her chest.
“Kasie.” She signed handing the pad of paper and pencil back to him.
Understanding, he took it and began drawing. The details that flew from his young fingers were astonishing. He drew a very precise likeness of himself and spelled out Jacob in rough handwritten letters. Kasie was ecstatic! They had a form of communication. She pointed to each letter in his name and showed him how to make the letters with his fingers.
They sat there for a good long time drawing things back and forth while Kasie instructed him on finger spelling and writing the words down. How long she didn’t know until she looked up at the clock. Her heart skipped a moment when she realized she’d forgotten about class but then she was here working with her one and only pupil.
Stopping to get some brunch Kasie figured they should both be hungry. Going out and preparing some grilled cheese sandwiches and chips she brought it back out with a couple of colas. But Jacob was nowhere in sight. She put down the tray of food on the coffee table and went in search of him. He was nowhere in sight. She hadn’t heard him leave, no closing of the doors or stomping off.
Sitting back down in the living room/parlour where they had been all morning she noticed the notepad. He had drawn another picture before leaving--it was that of the living room, she could tell by the bowed out windows in the turret room and the cozy fireplace along the wall. But seated in the smaller Victorian sofa were a couple who looked like husband and wife seated as if watching them from across the room. She looked up at the sofa in question and no one was there. But she had the odd sense of feeling like they were--or had been.
“...I dare you to walk up there.” Kasie heard the sounds of a gaggle of kids below the open window in which she was sitting.
“It’s just an old house. What’s the big deal?” he continued in a bullying voice.
“Yeah, but I’ve seen lights on inside there at nights as if someone is there.” Someone else cantered.
“No one’s there. It’s been abandoned since the fire forty years ago. Everyone who’s tried to renovate it has encountered the ghosts.”
Kasie laughed. Kids! Ghosts? Really. She remembered being that young and naive at one point. She’d been dared to do silly things, everything from Spin the Bottle and Truth and Dare to taking a chance on riding the craziest roller coasters around. She still loved roller coasters.
“Come on! Scaredy Cat!”
“I’m not scared. It’s private property. What if we’re caught by the police?”
“Really? You think they care. Hell, they probably did the same at one time.” The bully said. “Okay, I’ll bet you my Zulu cards that you won’t do it.”
“Only if you have the Mega Zul.” The other said. Kasie knew the trading card game the kids played these days. She’d played some in her day--Sailor Moon and Pokemon. “Otherwise, forget it!”
“Fine. I’ll bet you my Mega Zul that you won’t.”
Kasie got up from the chair near the small table she was sitting at reading and followed the sounds of the kids coming to her front porch. She was all for this. She wanted to have some fun with them.
“Fine but if I do and nothing happens?”
“You get your card.” Bully shrugged.
“What will you do?”
“I’ll ring the doorbell, too...after you do it. That’s the deal.”
Oh this was going to be so much fun! Kasie couldn’t wait. Hiding behind the foyer wall she anticipated what she was going to do, trying not to bust out laughing.
The first kid, a red-haired boy of about thirteen stepped up to the porch. It creaked under his steps. Odd. She’d need to get that checked out. Didn’t sound too stable.
He came up to the door and rang the old doorbell. A sharp ring echoed through the great home. Not moving Kasie waited.
“Ring it again!”
“No! That wasn’t the deal...you said once!”
“I’ll throw in a Hecta card if you do it?” Referring to another prized and rare collecting card in the game.
“Fine…” Red rang the bell again. Still, Kasie did nothing. “Your turn, Turdball!”
“You are such a baby, Richie.” Bully, “Turdball” stepped up to the door as Richie the Red head scampered back down the porch steps, but keeping his eyes on his friend and the door.
The bully rang the door in consecutive patterns letting the shrill, old sounding ring overlap. He laughed at his frightened friend.
Kasie pulled open the door so quickly and with such force that the bully fell in, flat on his bottom into her foyer, he screamed like a sissy girl. She laughed so hard tears streamed down her cheeks.
The boy freaked out and looked around as if she wasn’t even there and then got up and ran like hell, jumping halfway down the steps of her front porch before running with his friend all the way down the street. She thought she heard them scream something about ghosts. But she ignored them and closed her door and walked back to read her book.
Every few days, sometimes at the classroom and sometimes early morning at her house, always around three, Jacob would be there waiting for her. Either on the corner of her desk or the sofa in front of the window, just sitting here swinging his legs impatiently. Sometimes she heard him come in, waking her up--other times he’d make noises to alert her that he was there and she would wake up and join him.
He was learning quickly with the help of his drawings and every time he disappeared, only when she left to take a break or get them food, which once or twice he stayed for cookies and milk, he would leave a picture of the couple he’d drawn the first time he’d shown up at the house.
The woman had a loose bun on top of her head, rounded cheeks and a classic figure. She was always dressed impeccably but had a sad look upon her face. The man was sturdy, handsomely attired and warm eyes. She had no clue who they were and when she asked about them to Jacob he either pretended he didn’t understand or ignored her completely by changing the subject of drawing.
“So how is it going with Jacob?” Tonya asked when she’d stopped into the Kings Mill Historical Society to visit.
“Slow but I think we are getting somewhere. I haven’t seen him for a day or two and I’m always concerned when he’s gone. He just disappears--it’s strange.” Kasie sighed, sitting down heavily as Tonya went through some old photos she was carefully restoring from the county areas she’d been sent by various patrons wanting to share their family history with the Historical Society.
“Yeah, I figured. Ms. Koontz told us he’s an illusive tyke.”
“But his artwork--he’s an amazing artist. So much talent in those small hands. It’s the only way we can find to communicate. It works though.”
“Ms. Koontz.” Kasie scoffed. “How is it you can communicate with her but she hasn’t even had the decency to introduce herself to me. I’ve been here for two months and I haven’t seen her once.”
“She’s been away for sometime--on sabbatical.” Tonya looked up from her work. “She comes and goes. All I know is that she was impressed with your resume and wanted you for the job on hand. She knew you’d be able to help Jacob. She’s very attached to the young man.”
“Still, I don’t think it’s fair that she hasn’t even called me to talk to me or say hello.” Kasie groused watching Tonya separate old, dog eared photos, nearly faded with age.
A small picture faded with aged patina caught her attention, she nearly grabbed it in her curiosity. Tonya smacked her hand with her cotton gloves she wore to keep oils off of them.
“Who is that?” The picture was of a couple sitting on a Victorian sofa. Her hair coiffed on top of her head, the lace dress an impeccable Victoria era dress with a high lace collar. Beside her sat a debonair man around the same age, a bowler hat on his lap and sharp tuxedoed suit.
Tonya picked up the photo carefully and examined it. “It’s faded but there's some print on the back...let me see.” She retrieved her magnifying glass. “The Angelo’s...Charles and Linda...no Lydia.”
“So those are the Angelo’s!” Tonya gasped. “Small world. They built the house you live in now, the one in Frederick.” She looked up at Kasie. “Why did you ask about them? They familiar? Have you seen a photo of them before?”
“Yes…” Kasie slowly nodded. “They are the couple Jacob draws, sitting across from us in the parlour...every time he’s there.” A chill ran through her. Was her house actually haunted?
She didn’t want to think about them. Kasie didn’t feel as comfortable in the house now when she went back. It had been days since Jacob had been around and she expected to see him tonight, or in the morning at three. True enough he was there, sitting on his sofa, staring across the room at the other sofa--the one he drew with the Angelo’s sitting there.
Feeling a bit ill at ease she still had a job to do.
“Good morning, Jacob.” She signed. Kasie hoped he’d been practicing his hand gestures enough to communicate.
“Good morning, Kasie.” He signed back.
He had been practicing! Good. They sat there together and communicated back and forth, no longer drawing pictures and not quite strong enough to quickly communicate but enough that he could get the gist of her words and phrases. She was ecstatic! He’d come so far in such a short time.
They worked on their skills until Kasie thought her hands would cramp up but it didn’t matter. She was just thrilled that he’d picked up on the signs. He would get quicker as he associated with others. Perhaps next semester he could attend a regular classroom and not a one-on-one.
“I’ll be right back. I got some brownies the other day and thought we could have one or two.” She went to retrieve a few of the fudge brownies Tonya had brought her from the bakery along with some milk. He’d probably be gone when she got back but maybe he’d stay for a brownie. She couldn’t imagine anyone giving up the opportunity for a chocolate fudge brownie.
Kasie returned carrying a glass platter with the brownies and two cups of milk. What she saw as she rounded the corner was enough to stop her in her tracks.
Jacob stood in front of the Angelos couple, Charles and Lydia, signing to them. Lydia smiled, tears streaming from her wide eyes as she signed back--tentatively but communicating. Charles added to the conversation. Kasie didn’t catch it all but managed to make out ‘son’.
Jacob turned around. “I have to go now. It’s time.”
Kasie was astounded. He spoke plain English...a bit formal for a ten year old but he spoke it planely.
“Go? Go where? What’s it time for?” Looking from Jacob to the older couple.
“Home. Now that we can talk, I’m not afraid of going.”
Shaking her head, Kasie wasn’t sure she understood--a deep, part of her did but she didn’t want to believe it was happening.
“I have to go, Kasie. You taught me what I needed to know. Thank you. I can go home now and be with my family.” He smiled moving towards the couple standing by with smiles on their faces. They brought him closer to them until they stood there as a family. Jacob smiled and so did Charles and Lydia as they signed ‘thank you’ over and over--until they disappeared.
Kasie dropped the tray . Glass shattered into various pieces mushed with fudge brownies floating in a riverlet of milk.
“She’s in shock.”
“Well of course she is Dottie! For goodness sake what did you expect?”
“Grams! Aunt Vickie would you two stop!”
Kasie came to and found herself sitting up in her wingback chair in the study.
“I didn’t know what else to do.”
Kasie knew that voice. Tonya. And Vickie? Was that Victoria Snyder from her first day here?
“Is she going to be okay?” A ragged voice called out. Kasie could barely make out the words but knew it was someone with a hearing impairment due to their ragged speech.
“Yes Dorrine, I believe she will be fine in a while.”
Kasie’s eyes finally focused on all the women belonging to the voices. Most were standing around. One was on her knees fanning her but the other sat in a chair across from her.
“Well, look who’s awake!”
“Jacob! He...he…” Kasie began but her mind couldn’t grasp the concept of what she remembered.
“Yes, we know--” an elderly woman patted her hand. “It was time, poor thing.”
Tonya stepped forward nibbling on her bottom lip. “I’m sorry, Kasie--I didn’t want to tell you and have you freak out. We needed your help to get through to Jacob...so he could move on.”
“Are you saying he was a ghost?” Groaning, Kasie wasn’t sure if she was going to be sick or not.
“No. At one point he was a young boy--Jacob Angelos.” The woman across from her said with a warm smile as she signed her words rapidly. “My father.”
“Your father? But he was only ten?” Kasie shook her head slowly so it didn’t explode, signing back.
“He was ten at the time his parents died--in the fire.” The woman said. “He always regretted the fact he couldn’t save them. He couldn’t communicate with them--couldn’t wake them when the fire struck. He went to get help that morning--three o’clock,,,”
“Of course. Three o’clock in the morning. “ It all made sense now. “So you had Ms. Koontz hire me to work with Jacob. But that’s impossible. How can I work with a ghost?”
“You have a special gift, Kasie.” Another woman, Tonya introduced her as April Miles. “And Ms. Koontz knew you were the one to help.”
“I can communicate with ghosts?”
“Not everyone can.” The elder woman, Grandma Dottie Wilton stated.
“I hired you for my fifth grade class because of the resume you sent me. But then we had an issue that kept you from teaching a full class of students. But the situation became a blessing in disguise and I knew you could help Jacob.”
“You’re Ms. Koontz!” Kasie laughed. “I wondered when I would meet you, Dean Koontz.”
The other lady laughed. “Yes well--unusual circumstances I suppose.” The other ladies nodded.
“So now that I’ve helped Jacob to learn to communicate and move on--what do I do now? Will I get my own class?”
“Well yes but not here at Maryland School for the Deaf. There is another school that could use your skills. It’s one I’ve become associated with lately--and I would like for you to join me--if you would like. It’s a great place with a heavenly campus--there’s so much love and joy to be found there. You’ll fit right in.”
“I don’t know...I’ve always had my heart set on working for the Maryland School for the Deaf--but if you think I’ll be more suitable at this other school, I trust your knowledge, Dean Koontz.”
Kasie thought she sensed a collective sigh from the other women around her but they all just smiled, Dottie Wilton had a sheen of tears in her old eyes. “Let me know when we need to be there.”
“We can leave whenever you are ready.” Dorrine Koontz said.
The women around her gave her hugs and blessings, saying good-bye to both of them as they made their way to the door.
Kasie raised her arm over her face to shield herself from the bright sunlight as she walked away with Dean Koontz.
Tonya folded the page of the four month old, Frederick News Post back sighing as she carefully cut out the picture and small article for the archives that had been :
Dorrine Anne Koontz passed away late Sunday night from a long illness. Born Dorrine Anne Angelos, to the late Margarat Marie Toole-Angelos and late Kings Mill artist Jacob Andrew Angelos of Kings Mill and Frederick, Maryland. She was the long time Dean of Admissions at the Maryland School for the Deaf retiring shortly before her passing. Dorrine was surrounded by friends and family in her final days. A memorial will be held for her at the Maryland School for the Deaf on Wednesday at three o’clock in the afternoon. Donations to the Maryland School for the Deaf are greatly appreciated by the family.
Tonya hoped the Dean was at peace now. She’d been working so long to help her father find the peace he so needed after such a long time. Placing the obituary of Dorrine to the side Tonya looked longingly at the other picture. So young...so much to look forward to.
Kasie Marie Rider, 28 was killed in a car accident between Annapolis and Frederick, Maryland early Tuesday morning. A recent graduate of University of Maryland she had completed her internship at Gallaudet and been accepted to teach at Maryland School for the Deaf as her first full-time teaching position. She was to have started teaching the fifth grade class starting next Monday. She is survived by her parents and two brothers and sisters. A memorial donation to Maryland School for the Deaf has been set up in her honor
Elsabeth’s Dance: A Shoalman Chronicles Story
The Shoalman Chronicles Series
Copyright 2020 © by Kira Decker
Death faced Rockshoalman.
Others might recoil and flee in fear, but after five hundred years, death’s ability to intimidate him had lost its power.
Darkness surrounded him, cold and unfeeling, the moon cowering behind the patchy clouds as if afraid to intrude. Only his breath leaving trails of silver vapor in the air proved life existed amongst the ruins. Nestled on the highest peak of the parish lands, the manse sat high on a cliff overlooking the local village in the valley below. Rockshoalman stepped gingerly toward the edge, careful in the lamplight not to lose his footing on the dew swept stone—although not even that fall could kill him.
Traditional wood and stone houses stretched out before him. Gas lamps lined the village streets, twinkles of light against a midnight black canvas. A hundred years ago it had been the same. The village and surrounding area—much like himself—remained ageless against time. Wisps of music floated on the air. The inhabitants celebrating in the local pub most likely; the day forgotten in drink and song. Forgotten like him.
The click of the caretaker’s gnarled wooden cane against the cobblestone paths turned Rockshoalman towards the two-story manse once more. No such life reached the stone manor house remnants before him. The multi-hued and speckled granite now dull and muddy in the tentative moonlight. Weathered and rotting boards covered the first-floor windows like haunted eyes peering across the expansive and overgrown front lawn, while withered ivy strangled the two Roman columns in a death grip. It could be the subject of one of his paintings—the kind his curse forced him to paint. The ones he despised.
Despair reached its insidious fingers around his heart, abrading the hope he clung to in desperation. Rockshoalman stared at the horse-drawn carriage, the only means of transportation to the manse he could procure, and the uncertain future it offered. Could he be free to live if the shadows of his past remained?
“This is a mistake,” he whispered to the icy wind tugging at his navy blue, wool overcoat. “I should not have returned.”
With a heavy sigh, he resigned himself to a half-life. Before he took more than a step towards the carriage, the moon escaped past the clouds to cast a pale moonbeam on a splash of color. His breath caught.
A single pink bloom graced the otherwise barren flower garden that edged the cobblestone path leading towards the front entrance. Life challenged death.
She is here.
Kneeling, Rockshoalman picked the peony. Cradled within his palm, the floral scent swelled around him, edging the darkness away with happier thoughts. The layers of petals reminded him of the lace and ruffles of a time a hundred years past. He sighed and tucked the flower into his lapel. The kernel of hope within his heart dared to flare brighter.
“Not sure this is a good idea,” the gruff voice of the estate’s caretaker complained as the old man reached his side.
“Nothing can harm me here.” Not physically at least. Rockshoalman pushed the morose thought away. Returning here was a risk. If his demon found him, there would be nowhere to run. Provided provoking the past didn’t send him into an abomination painting frenzy first. Rockshoalman closed his eyes, fighting to control the memories and the painful guilt of loss that threatened to allow his curse to overtake him.
“Why is your Guardian not with ya?”
Rockshoalman glared. The caretaker blanched almost as pale as his silver hair.
“He has no place here tonight.” Only Ciprian Solvak had set foot on this estate, and he had died for that choice.
No more Guardian’s deaths would plague his conscience because of the manse. He had not wanted Lucien Solvak, Ciprian’s great-great-grandson and current Guardian, haunted by the memories of death Rockshoalman might experience tonight. No Guardian should have to relive their predecessor’s demise.
Only after hours of arguing had Lucien agreed to remain behind. That and a confession. This place was a scar he needed to heal by himself.
Rockshoalman stood and pointed to the entranceway. “Open the manse.”
Hobbling up the front steps, the old man unlocked the padlocked double doors but drew back the hand poised to open them. “Can this not wait ‘til morning?”
“No,” Rockshoalman stated in a flat tone, his shoulders taut. Ghosts are best faced in the darkness where they dwell.
“Suit yourself.” A weatherworn hand turned the brass doorknob on the iron-bound doors and pushed. Hinges shrieked their displeasure at being disturbed. The old man flinched and made a quick sign of the cross.
Rockshoalman ignored him. Long strides carried him to the mahogany spiral staircase, pain infusing each creaky step and crack in the plaster walls until he reached the second-floor landing of the once grand house. Blood pounded in his ears as his heart rammed against his ribs. Rockshoalman fought to control the trembling coursing through his form. The hair on the back of his neck prickled. Power lingered within these walls still—a chill air painted with memories. Echoes of long-gone children’s laughter as they ran down the main hallway to his left settled amongst the broken furniture and leaf-strewn debris, the musty scent of mold heavy in the air. The buzz of forgotten voices hovered in the smoke-stained high dome ceiling over the central curved stairway. Each sound, each smell tearing at his control.
The weight of centuries pressed in. Could he do this? Could he face a past he would rather forget? Except, part of that past, he feared to let go—a death grip that kept him from living. With a ragged breath, he forced himself to push through the gaping maw of the dilapidated grand ballroom.
Running his hands down the carved wood archway, moisture and cold coated his skin along with ageless soot. How long had it been since he last stood here? Almost a century younger at least, yet Rockshoalman’s dark Roman-Romani lineage and youthful appearance remained unchanged.
Are you here?
No answers came from the shadows, only the pulse of loss. Mist rose and swirled across the floor. A low moan rumbled, vibrating the ancient oak floors beneath his feet. The very stones of the house groaned in pain. Faces flashed. Young. Old. Remembered laughter turned to screams. Rockshoalman staggered. Heat licked the palm pressed against the old wood for support. Sucking in a breath, he gagged on the putrid scent of burnt flesh and hair. Still, he persisted. One step. Another. With each forgotten memory clawing for release from the dark recesses where he kept them chained, a suffocating need to paint death increased. If he gave in to his curse, the painting would destroy his soul and his future forever.
“Help me,” he whispered to the spirits. “I must proceed. To live. For myself and for her. Else we are both lost.”
Heart threatening to beat out of his chest, Rockshoalman slipped a smooth quartz agate from his pocket. The stone warmed as he rubbed his thumb back and forth, the healing energy infused into the worry stone by Lucien, giving him the strength to battle emotions he had only recently learned to embrace. Head bowed, the perfume of the pink peony soothed his ravaged mind. A cool breeze caressed his face, drying the beads of sweat on his brow before chasing the fog of guilt out through a crack in the wall. By the time the slow shuffle of the aged caretaker caught up to him, a temporary calm had returned.
“After a hundred years of decay, the local kommuner wants to demolish the entire place as an eyesore within the month.” Flickering lantern light cast harsh shadows upon the flame-kissed beams of the caved-in roof and rubble strewn across the expansive room.
“A century ago, the manse was the jewel of this small, quiet village,” Rockshoalman lamented.
“Aye, but no longer.”
Behind the layers of soot and dust, brass chandeliers now lay festooned with cobwebs instead of candles. The crystals adorning the many branches dirty and lifeless, yet glimmers of moonlight sneaking through cracks in the boarded-up windows set an odd bright spark dancing across the walls and floor. As though the crystals clung to the hope they might once again dance free.
“You must decide soon. Or the Councillors will choose for you.”
Rockshoalman nodded. “Go wait by the carriage. I need to be alone.”
“As you wish, Domnule.”
Domnule. A Romani title of respect and perhaps, a final plea for Rockshoalman to leave. The footsteps hesitated for a moment longer before the click of the caretaker’s cane disappeared into the distance.
Rockshoalman shivered as ghosts from the past kissed his skin in the moonlit silence. Only this time, the spirits beckoned him. Had they understood his plea? Closing his eyes, Rockshoalman let the walls of the ruined manor house fade. Lilting strains of a forgotten melody grew stronger. Only he heard it, but that was enough to transport him to another place, another time.
Back to her.
It was a dream come true, winning a trip to San Francisco, all expenses paid. I’d never expected to win that photography contest, but I’d submitted my red-filtered pic of the London Eye, regardless. And then I won. And here we were: me and the cute boy I called my friend but whom I secretly had a big crush on.
We docked at Alcatraz Island as dusk set on the horizon. It was a small gathering, a tour no bigger than fifty people. Visiting Alcatraz had been on the itinerary from the start, but taking the evening tour of the legendary prison had been my idea. Eric agreed, he couldn’t be more excited about the wonderful view.
As the captain called for all passengers to disembark the ferry, my heart pounded hard against my chest, thrilled to set a foot on this historical site, famous for the notorious escape of Frank Morris and his posse back in 1962.
As soon as we reached the dock, the tour huddled on the platform. Our guide arrived soon to meet us and led us in a most challenging walk uphill.
The night fell upon us in the middle of our quarter of a mile stroll. The chilly wind picked up fast. I zipped up my jacket, but the cold persisted. Restlessness and curiosity tangled inside me. I couldn’t understand the feeling, so I dismissed it fast.
“Look at all those houses,” Eric said, pointing to a complex of abandoned buildings, dilapidated and forlorn, with dusty windows and tattered curtains. They reminded him of a video game, he said. We later learned that guards and their families used to live on the island. Not only did Alcatraz have its own morgue, but at some point, it also had a bowling alley and a convenience store. About 300 civilians lived there.
I didn’t like lingering in that area. The scholar in me pushed me to stay, but I could not deny the increasing alertness rising from my core. It was a silent warning, a natural instinct instigating me to leave that place as fast as possible… We took a few pictures and that was that.
That feeling of foreboding only increased as we climbed higher. Soon, I began to realize this was not the tour I’d had in mind when I’d booked it. Not once had I stop to consider that a setting such as this could contain more than history.
I sighed in relief when we entered the prison, believing I’d left that bad feeling behind.
But I was wrong.
We chose the audio-guide to take our time discovering the prison instead of running after the fast-paced tour guide. And so, the tour moved forward, and we lingered, enjoying the silence, the stillness in the dimly lit prison blocks. We walked into cells, sat on the beds, took many photographs. At one point, I stood inside the prison and held the door’s bars. Quite unexpectedly, I got a sense of the harrowing solitude suspended between those walls. It was a sadness that shook me to the core, a soundless despair so dense it was almost tangible.
Voices echoed in the room ahead. A team of four people, three men and a woman, had also distanced from the group. They were having a conversation in the library, their voices so low I could not make out the words.
Driven by curiosity, we decided to have a look. We peered into the library and spied on them for a few minutes. Eric and I thought it was interesting, the way they held their bearings, too formal and spread about the spacious room in a circle with the woman sitting on a bench in the center. I soon realized they were holding a seance.
One man took photographs, while another held up a voice recorder.
“I guess they think she’s a medium,” I teased, shrugging my shoulders. Eric uttered a quiet laugh.
At last, the team of paranormal investigators left the library. We were free to explore on our own and take pictures while listening to the stories of the many riots that issued in this prison block. There were still bullet marks on the floor.
The paranormal investigators were always one room ahead of us. I thought it was funny, how the men uttered oohs and aahs whenever the medium pointed at something in the air. I was certain they were filming for a television show, so I didn’t pay much mind to their alleged findings.
At length, we reached the visitor booths. Through the doorway stood the lighthouse, and that marked the end of the tour. The paranormal team was long gone. Eric and I were left on our own to take pictures with the wonderful backdrop of the empty cell block’s aisle.
“I have an idea for an awesome photograph,” I told Eric. “You step outside to the visitor’s area, and I’ll stay here. That way you can take a picture as if you were visiting me!”
It sounded like the most original plan.
Eric agreed. He went outside, heading towards the visitor’s booth. Meanwhile, I waited inside, completely alone, knowing the designated park ranger would lock the cells in a few minutes.
I looked through one of the visitor’s windows, waiting for Eric to appear, when suddenly, I sensed someone standing behind me.
That’s odd, I told myself. I’ve never been too cautious, so I decidedly turned around.
I was relieved to discover a mannequin only a few feet away from me. It was standing in the corner, outside one of the cells. There were so many wax figures spread about the prison as part of the exhibit. I’d simply missed that one.
The figure was a man, garbed in vintage prison clothes: brown shirt and pants. Narrowing my eyes, I moved closer to study it with detainment. I now stood about four feet away from the wax figure, and was able to appreciate the stitching of its brown hat, tilted down enough that it cast a dark shade on its eyes. Still, the nose and the lips had been chiseled with great detail. The quality of this mannequin was absolutely amazing.
My eyes swept the figure downwards, paying attention to the shirt’s buttons, the trousers… How true to period the clothes looked, even worn with time.
I looked further down, following the trousers’ length when the fabric abruptly faded.
This wax figure had no feet.
This was not a wax figure.
My eyes widened. My jaw must have dropped as I stepped back towards the window where Eric tapped, ready with the camera.
“You have to see this!” I told him, but he couldn’t listen to a word I said. I then turned, pointing at the ghost standing behind me.
He was gone.
I looked into the deep hallway. It was vacant as it had been for a long while.
Eric tapped the window again, waving the camera.
I went to the window. He finally took the picture. Good.
I then ran out of there as fast as I could, shocked and bewildered, my mind whirling to find an explanation to what I’d just witnessed. Altogether, this unique experience had lasted three or four minutes, which seemed an eternity.
When I stepped outside, Eric welcomed me with a warm embrace. I wanted to tell him what had happened inside the visiting area, but as we stood under the blinking lighthouse, with San Francisco’s lights twinkling in the dark horizon, Eric held my shoulders and stared into my eyes.
“I want you to know that I love you,” he said, “and that I want you to be my girlfriend.”
Tears loomed in my eyes. Never would I have imagined it, that for weeks, he’d planned to tell me those words at exactly that point in the tour, with that wonderful landscape for scenery.
I must have said yes a hundred times… nay, a thousand.
Eric’s eyes glistened with impending tears. He glided his hands on my jawline and leaned closer to meet my lips in one unforgettable, heartfelt kiss.
It was a dream come true, winning a trip to San Francisco, all expenses paid. And here we were: ghosts, me, and the cute boy I called my friend but whom I secretly had a big crush on… And he’d loved me all this time.
And now, some pictures of that evening. These are part of the raw, original footage.
About the Author:
S. K. Gregory is an author, editor and blogger. She currently resides in Northern Ireland.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”