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.”

Symptoms of a Haunting: Part IV

Armed with my newfound, albeit Googled, knowledge, I marched out of my apartment. I needed to talk to Edna.

Edna was the first person I met upon moving to this Washington town. I chose Washington because of its near-constant cloud cover and reputation for standoffish people. Somehow, I felt more myself when not in direct sunlight and when being ignored by passersby. Edna was the exception. I had just moved into my quaint home at the end of the street and was confused by the complete lack of a mailbox outside my house. How was I supposed to get mail? Did this town completely rid itself of the snail mail system? My next door neighbor saw my confusion and walked over to help. Her kindly smile in her aged face was just the thing to make me smile in return.

“Having trouble, dear?” Her voice was precisely what one would imagine a grandmother would sound like, especially if that grandmother had a particular proclivity for baked goods.

I smiled sheepishly. “That obvious?”

“Everyone is confused at first, no need to be embarrassed. We used to have a community mail box system at the front of the street, but it didn’t catch on. Now, we have a tradition of buying our own mailboxes and setting them up. You’ll have to call the Post Office to arrange to have your mail delivered here, but it’ll work out.”

I cocked my head to the side slightly. What an odd system. “I’m Emma,” I said, holding out my hand.

“Edna,” the old woman smiled, grasping my hand tightly in both of her own. When our skin touched, Edna’s eyes glazed over and her mouth formed around the word, “oh.”

I pulled my hand from hers with perhaps more force than was absolutely necessary, feeling the fear build up in my chest. Had she discovered me so easily?

“I’m so sorry that happened to you, Emma,” she whispered, stepping closer to me. I could count each white eyelash shading her grey eyes.

“What?” I breathed, so softly I was surprised she could hear me.

“No one should have a gift like yours and be persecuted in that manner.” Edna’s face softened and my chest ached. She wasn’t afraid of me; she pitied me. And, it seemed, she harbored a secret of her own.

“Would you like to come in?” I asked, suddenly bold. I was breaking my own rule of not associating with people, not trusting people, but in that moment all I cared about was inviting this sweet soul in for tea.

Edna smiled and took my arm, letting me lead the way past the blooming garden into my home. Since that day, Edna and I held a kind of unspoken pact to stand by the other in times of need. I never fully trusted her, but us freaks needed to stick together. This was definitely one of those times.

I hurried through the November drizzle, feeling a warmth in spite of the weather at the thought of seeing my friend. I came to her door and rapped sharply on the deep green-painted wood. I heard a shuffle behind the door as the woman came to answer my call. The door opened with a creak, displaying a much more tired Edna than I was accustomed to.

Immediately, I stepped forward, touching the woman’s shoulder. “Edna, is everything all right? You don’t seem quite yourself.”

Edna pulled her white cardigan closer about her body and glanced out the door to the street beyond. “Yes, yes. Everything is okay.” I was skeptical, but allowed her to usher me inside without a word.

Once the door was securely latched, Edna turned to me and pulled me into an unexpected tight hug. After a shocked beat, I returned the gesture. “Edna…”

“Emma, I’m so glad you’ve come.” Edna took me by the hand and led me to her cozy living room. We sat before the fire, the leather of the couch beneath me warming my bones. I smelled cookies in the oven, or maybe that’s just how her house always smells.

“Emma,” Edna began, her voice cracking with fatigue. She paused, taking my hand in her warm ones and daring not to meet my gaze. Her eyes glowed with the reflection of the fire, standing out starkly against her pale face. “Emma, I’m seeing him, too.”

The Water Diviner

Rain pounded the window of the taxi, sending rivulets down the glass. It seemed as if the water absorbed the lights of the city around me, becoming something else, something new, something ethereal. Traffic was at a standstill, of course. Whenever I needed to get somewhere, traffic seemed to magically appear. I glanced up as lightning seared across the blackened heavens. My bad mood continued, though perhaps making it storm was a bit over the top. I breathed in deeply, willing myself into passable tranquility and watching the sky above follow suit.