Beware

Fog drifted in from the depths of the mountains. It flowed into valleys and dry riverbeds, congealing the night’s blackness into a pool of sacrificial blood. The townspeople of Bruxin drew their curtains tight shut and whispered to each other about spirits and demons. The cool October fog whispered back: Beware.

Tucked into a grove of oak trees at the far edge of town lay a small cottage. Puffs of smoke tripped up the chimney to join the Halloween gloom. Through a small crack in the worn curtains, flickering light spilled onto gnarled tree trunks and watching eyes.

Ava Jenkins struck a long match. The flame sputtered to life before settling in to consume itself. She lit the circle of white candles one by one before blowing out the match. The halo of sea salt around the votives shimmered in the soft light. She sat cross-legged at the center of the circle. The clock on the mantle ticked softly.

“This is so stupid,” she said, loudly, as if to make sure any lurking phantoms heard. She stared at the Ouija board she’d dug out of the closet. Its letters were faded, smoky black. Hello, Yes, No, Goodbye. The last word filled Ava’s mind, echoed there, taunted her, reminded her that Mary hadn’t even said it.

The planchette stood innocently in the middle of the board, waiting for her touch to give it life. The glass center watched her chip off black nail polish. The shimmering raven flecks found the board like ash from a far-off fire. Light from the circle of candles bled through the glass and cast muted rainbows over the board. Rain tapped the window steadily.

It had been exactly a year since her best friend died. Ava had drifted through today, a ghost in her own right, unable to think or speak or breathe past her grief. The hole in her chest where Mary used to be felt especially cavernous, yawning wider and wider until Ava thought it might swallow her whole. As the last bell of the school day rang, she made a decision: it was time. She needed answers.

“I can’t believe you left without saying anything,” Ava whispered to the planchette. It regarded her wordlessly. A tear slipped from the end of her nose to join the bits of nail polish. She balled her fists tightly, relishing the bite of nails into palms.

The house shifted as old houses are wont to do. Thunder rolled across the sky two towns over and up Ava’s back, a warning.

Ava unclenched her fists. Crescent moons lay on her palms, two rows of four headstones. Trembling fingers found the smooth wood of the planchette. Careful not to move, not to pretend the board worked when it didn’t, Ava spoke.

“Mary?”

Silence answered. The white candles burned around her without wavering. Voice shaking, she tried again.

“Mary? Mary, are you… are you here?”

The planchette jerked to one side. Ava’s eyes widened and she snatched away her fingers as though bitten.

“Nope, nope. Too creepy. What was I thinking?” Ava stood. Her long, dark hair brushed the board. A little hysterical laugh bubbled up from deep inside.

The planchette skittered across the Ouija. It bounced to a halt.

Three letters shrieked up at her through the glass eye. Yes.

“No way,” Ava breathed. “I just knocked it with my hair. That’s all. She’s not here. No one’s here.” But even as the words fell from her lips, she couldn’t bring herself to leave the protective circle.

The planchette twitched left, then right. Back on Yes.

For a moment, there was only the sound of creaking trees and Ava’s heartbeat. Her gaze slid up, up, up from the planchette to the mirror on the wall. An unfamiliar pale face stared back at her, head tilted curiously, framed by curtains of greasy black hair. Blood dripped from charcoal eyes, soaking into the girl’s stained nightgown.

“You dare to summon Mary?” the apparition asked, sharpened teeth glinting in the candlelight.

“W-wait. How…? You’re not —” Horror dawned on Ava’s face. “Oh no.”

The creature’s grin stretched as it watched panic play across its victim’s face. “Oh yes.”

Mary grasped the mirror’s frame, cracked fingernails digging into the gilded metal. She pulled herself forward and stepped out of the mirror. Gore spattered the wood floor with each halting step. Her joints crepitated sickeningly, but still she advanced on another unwitting victim.

Ava stumbled backward. Candles toppled over behind her. Their flames stared longingly at the wood below them, but they stayed their hunger, for now. Salt whispered beneath her feet. Don’t break the circle it said. Too late.

Mary let forth a shrill scream to the heavens. As if on command, the candles’ flames began lapping at everything they could touch.

At her back, Ava could feel the heat of the newborn wildfire. Her eyes darted to the door just as an icy gust swept Mary toward her. The scent of death and decay followed close behind. Frozen fingers found her neck and dug in, lifting her to the ceiling. Ava scrabbled against the demon to no avail, legs flailing uselessly.

“Please,” Ava choked. “I’m sorry. I was just trying to talk to my friend.”

Bloody Mary bore down harder. Her mouth split with the force of her grin. Crimson blood dripped from her lips.

“You will. I took her, too.”

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