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Extended Excerpt: Burn the Dark by S. A. Hunt

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Chilling Adventures of Sabrina meets Stranger Things in award-winning author S. A. Hunt’s Burn the Dark, first in the Malus Domestica horror action-adventure series about a punk YouTuber on a mission to bring down witches, one vid at a time.

Robin is a YouTube celebrity gone-viral with her intensely-realistic witch hunter series. But even her millions of followers don’t know the truth: her series isn’t fiction.

Her ultimate goal is to seek revenge against the coven of witches who wronged her mother long ago. Returning home to the rural town of Blackfield, Robin meets friends new and old on her quest for justice. But then, a mysterious threat known as the Red Lord interferes with her plans….

Please enjoy this special, extended excerpt of Burn the Dark, available now. Keep an eye out for the next book in the Malus Domestica series, I Come With Knives, in stores everywhere 5/19/2020. 


 

A girl perched in the cab of a utility van. In one hand was a baby-food jar full of liquid. In the other was a dagger, silver and glittering in the rusty glow of the streetlight outside. Her hair was a Mohawk of wavy chestnut locks, sides buzzed down to dark stubble.

On the dash was a camera, recording her half-shadowed face as she spoke. “Been trackin’ this one for weeks,” she said, punctuating weeks with the point of the dagger, her voice thrumming with a Southern drawl. “Looking for all the signs. Missin’ pets. Unusually lucky lottery plays. Over-population of cats. Weird accidents. And all that shit I told you about, you know, in the video about runes.

“I been huntin’ down all the runes in Alabama I can find, and here, in Birmingham, they’ve started to converge. There are more here than anywhere else in the state.” She tucked the jar into a jacket pocket and picked up the camera, aiming it out the window. “Like I told y’all, they always live in ‘the bad part of town.’

“But I don’t think they choose to live there because it’s the ‘bad part.’ I think it’s shitty because they live in it. They suck the goodness out of it, they eat the pride, devour the heart of the neighborhood until the people don’t care about anything anymore. There’s just drugs and poverty and garbage. And when there ain’t nothing left, the witch packs up and moves somewhere else. Like psychic vampires, or something. Tapeworms in the intestines of the world.”

She heaved a heavy sigh, much too world-weary for such an ethereally young face.

“If you got any doubt about what I’m doing, you gotta get this in your head right now: these fuckers ain’t Wiccans or hippies, they ain’t those chicks from The Craft, they ain’t Sabrina or the chick from Bewitched. These bitches are the real deal. Lieutenants of Hell on a vacation to Earth. Soul-sucking hag-beasts. And that’s what this one is.”

Across the street from the van was a board fence. Someone had spray-painted incomprehensible graffiti on it—could have been an ambigram for all she knew, legible upside-down as well as right- side-up.

“Lot of times they’ll hide the runes in the graffiti. Check out that sideways Jesus-fish in the middle—see how it’s a different color than the rest of it?” Robin’s arm thrust into the shot as she pointed at different parts of the graffiti with the dagger. The symbol she indicated was a simple diamond shape that crossed at the bottom to make the tail fins of a skyward-facing trout. “This is what I’m talking about. That ain’t no English letter, that’s a rune. It means home, or homelands. It’s there to let you know you’re in a witch’s territory. And you see that little crown on top of it? Means there’s a witch livin’ somewhere on this block.”

She turned the camera around and put it on the dash again. Tattooed on her sternum, just below the pit of her throat, was a symbol like a Y with an extra limb in the middle:

“The runes,” she said, “they’re there to help them find each other. I mean, there are seven billion people on this planet; even with the Internet—which a lot of them don’t use—it’s not easy. Taggers don’t even know they’re doing it, either. The witches, they…I don’t know, they influence them somehow, like they send out a radio signal the kids can’t help but catch. Like queen bees and worker drones. Maybe it’s . . . hell, I don’t know. Whatever it is, it needs to stop.”

The witch-hunter opened the door and got out of the van, slipping the silver dagger into a sheath hidden in the lining of her jacket. In vinyl lettering down the side of the white van was a sleek, utilitarian logo: CONLIN PLUMBING. The license plate was HEXTIME. She strode with purpose across the night-dark street, and approaching the board fence, she rounded the corner, holding the camera up so it could see into the front yard of a run-down tract house.

Overgrown grass around a lemon tree, shadowy front porch with no porch light. A rocking chair lurked in the gloom.

The girl in the video crept up the front walk of the tract house.

Hoo, hoo, hu-hu.

Halfway across the yard, she paused and turned to point the camera up into the branches of the lemon tree, the aperture whirring as she zoomed in on it.

A snowy owl perched in the masterwork of shadows some eight feet up, throat pulsing, hoo, hoo, hu-hu. The camera zoomed out as the owl took flight and left the screen stage right.

“Hello, honey,” croaked a subtle voice.

She whirled around and the world on camera whipped to the left, revealing the front of the white tract house and its shadowy porch, arrayed with boxes of junk, chairs, yellowed and fraying newspaper. A tribunal of cats sat on their haunches all over the porch, fifteen or twenty of them: calicos, tortoiseshell tabbies, midnight-blacks, two Siamese, an orange Morris with brilliant green eyes.

Someone stood behind the screen door, a smear of gray a shade lighter than the darkness inside the house.

At the top of the faint figure was the gnarled suggestion of a face. “What brings you round at this time of night, young lady?”An old woman, her voice kind but deliberate, with a hint of accent. British? Irish? Whatever it was, it wasn’t midwestern or southern.

Motionless cats reflected the streetlight with their lantern-green eyes.

Neva Chandler, said a voice-over from Robin. The self-proclaimed King of Alabama. Her voice was soft, introspective, an inside-voice that belonged more at a funeral than a YouTube video. Tinged with a faint southern twang.

The girl threw a thumb over her shoulder. “Ah, my car broke down. I . . . I was hopin’ I could use your phone.”

“Ah.” The old woman paused. She might have been folding her arms, but it was hard to tell. “I thought all you young ladies these days carried those—those cellular phones, they call them. With their tender apps and GPS-voices. Go here, go there, and so forth.”

“No, ma’am,” replied the girl. “I’m kinda old-school that way I guess.”

The old woman scoffed. “Old-school.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, if you’re going to come in, it would behoove you to do so, and get clear of the street,” the old woman said in a warning way, even though the girl was fully in her front yard by then. “It’s a dangerous place for dangerous people.”

The stoop leading up to the porch was made of concrete painted in flaking gray, and the porch itself was as well. Columns of wrought-iron curlicues held up the roof. At Robin’s feet was a china bowl with a few pebbles of dry cat food.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Stepping up onto the porch, she tugged the screen door open with a furtive hand. The old woman behind the mesh faded into the darkness like a deep-sea creature and Robin stepped in behind her, filling the video window with black.

Click-click. A dingy bulb in an end-table lamp burst to life, brightening a living room positively crowded with antiques.

A grandfather clock stood next to an orange-and-brown tweed sofa, tiny black arms indicating the time was a few minutes to midnight. Four televisions of progressive evolution clustered on top of a wood-cabinet Magnavox, rabbit-ear antenna reaching over them for a signal no longer being broadcast. No less than three pianos filled one end of the room, two player and one baby grand, all covered in dust.

All of a sudden the smell hit her, a wall of rotten musk. Boiled cabbage, farts, cigarettes. Dead old things, burnt hair, burnt popcorn. Cat shit.

Gangs of unlighted candles stood atop every surface, halfway melted into the saucers and teacups that held them. Lines of runic script decorated the windowsills and the threshold of the front door between her feet.

Another cat sat on top of a piano, running its tongue down the length of one leg. Robin let the screen door ease shut. “I’m so sorry to bother you this time of night.”

Chandler shuffled over to a plush wing back chair and dropped herself into it, crumpling. She wore a pink bathrobe, with steel-gray hair as dry as hay straw tumbling down the sides of her Yoda face. A whisper of mustache dusted her upper lip. She could have been a thousand years old if a day.

An old glass-top coffee table dominated the space in front of the sofa and armchair. Occupying the center of the table was a wooden bowl, and inside the bowl was a single pristine lemon.

“No bother at all, my dear,” the old woman said, peering up at Robin with the baggy, watery eyes of a basset hound. “I’m usually up late. No bother at all.” As she spoke, she flashed black gums and the pearlescent brown teeth of a lifelong smoker. “Ah, the phone,” she wheezed, curling a finger over the back of the chair. “Over in there, in the hallway, on the little hutch. Do you see it?”

The camera soared past the armchair and toward a doorway in the back of the furniture-crowded room.

As it did so, Robin softly interjected a pensive voice-over. Sometimes when the witches have completely drained a neighborhood down to the bones and they’ve used it all up, all the—whatcha call it, the “life,”the soul—there ain’t nothing left to move with. They can’t mi-grate to a new town, they get stuck, and slowly wither away. They starve. They die from the inside out. The deadness slowly makes its way to the outside. Heinrich and I think that’s what happened here.

The old woman’s telephone turned out to be a rotary phone. Robin picked up the handset and pressed it against her ear, listening for a dial tone. She put it against the GoPro in her hand.

After a while they’re just a rotten corpse in a living-human costume.

Nothing came from the earpiece but a muted ticking, as if she could hear the wind tugging at the lines outside.

Death masquerading as life.

“So what is a beautiful young lady like you doing in a trackless waste such as this? This is a hobby town—there’s nothing to do, so everybody has a hobby. Painting model airplanes, collecting stamps, making meth, doing meth. Can’t be that, though. You’re not around to buy drugs.” The decrepit crone sat up, leaning over to pluck the lemon out of the bowl with one knobby monkey-paw hand. “No, Robin dear, ohhh, you don’t look like the others. You don’t look like shit.”

“No, ma’am, I don’t do drugs. I mean, other than medication.” Robin put the handset down. “I’m from out of town, visiting a fr—”

Chandler’s breathing came in phlegmy gasps and sighs, tidal and troubled. Sounded like she’d been running a marathon.

“How did you know my name?” asked the girl.

“Oh, honey, bless your heart,”said the crone, “I been expecting you all day.” She pricked the rind of the lemon with a thumbnail and peeled part of it away, revealing not the white-yellow flesh Robin had expected, but the vital and fevered red of an internal organ. “It took you longer to get here than I expected. But then Birmingham is rather Byzantine, isn’t it? I remember when I was a child, when it was all gaslights and horse-drawn carts, the layout was so much simpler then.”

Blue veins squirmed across the lemon’s surface in time to some eldritch beat.

The lemon had a pulse.

Lifting the thing to her mouth, Chandler bit into it, spritzing fine droplets of blood into the air.

Ferocious wet devouring-noises came from the other side of the chair, like wolves tearing into the belly of a dead elk. More blood sprayed up, dotting the wallpaper, the lampshade. The remains of the lemon’s rind dangled from the crone’s hand like a fresh scalp, bloody and pulpy.

Red dripped on the filthy carpet.

“My last lemon,” said Chandler, twisting slowly in the chair.

One twiggish hand slipped over the back, gripping the velvet and cherrywood. “I’ve been saving it for a special occasion, you know.”

Rising, she stared Robin down with eyes that flashed with a red light deep inside. Her teeth were too many for her mouth, tiny canines, peg-like fangs. The wrinkles across the bloody map of her face had smoothed. Her schoolmarm hair had gone from corn silk to black rooted in steel. “You think you’re the first to seek me?” asked the witch, her lips contorting over the bulge of teeth. The longer she spoke,the deeper her voice got, dropping in pitch like a toy with a dying battery. “My trees are composted with the rot of a dozen just like you.

“There ain’t nobody like me, lady. I eat assholes like you for breakfast.”

The monstrous witch blinked. “You eat assholes?” She giggled, which coming out of her throat sounded horselike.

“I, uhh—well—”

“If you’re gonna be a witch-hunter like your friends, you need to work on your one-liners!” Chandler spidered over the chair, pink bathrobe flagging over her humped back.

“Shit!” Robin ran. “Shit shit shit!”

Darkness swallowed the camera, shredded by light coming in through the witch’s window blinds. The image went into hysterics as Robin pumped her arms, running through the house.

Tripping over something, she went sprawling in a pile of what sounded like books. “Goddammit! Aarrgh!

The witch came through the house after the girl, her bare feet thumping the carpet, then bumping against the linoleum, meat clubbing against wood. “God won’t save you. You’ll not have me, little lady,” gibbered Chandler, invisible in the dark. “You’ll not have me, you’ll not have me.

Robin pushed through the back door of a kitchen, bursting out into a moonlit backyard. Turning, stumbling, she aimed the camera at the house.

Shick, the sound of metal against leather. Robin drew the silver dagger.

The back door slapped open. Something came racing out, a wraith shrouded in stained terrycloth, the lemon-heart blood coursing down her chin and wasted xylophone chest—and then the old woman was gliding across the overgrown yard, reaching for her with those terrible scaly owl-hands.

Heeheeheeheeeee!” cackled Chandler, instantly on her, shoving her into the weeds. Both went down in a heap and Robin lost the camera.

Whirling around, the video’s perspective ended up sideways on the ground, obscured by the grass, barely capturing the melee in one corner of the screen. Neva Chandler landed on top of the girl’s belly cowgirl-style and raked at her face with those disgusting yellow nails, deceptively sharp chisel-points, laughing, crowing in her harsh raven-rasp of a voice.

Even though Robin was fighting with everything she had, she couldn’t push the old crone away. An astounding strength lingered in those decrepit bones. Tangling her fingers in the girl’s hair, Chandler wrenched her head up and down, bouncing it uselessly against the grass.

“Get off me!” shrieked Robin in her thin, high video-voice, thrusting the silvery dagger through the pink bathrobe and into the witch’s ribs—SHUK!

Time seemed to pause as the fight stopped as suddenly as it had started. Chandler’s arms were crooked back, her fingers clawed in a grotesque parody of some old Universal movie monster. Her face was twisted and altered by some strange paranormal force, her mouth impossibly open until it was a drooping coil of chin and teeth. Robin withdrew the dagger, releasing black syrup. Then she plunged it deep into the old woman’s chest again, shuk, and twice, and thrice, and four times, shuk shuk shuk.

Black liquid like crude oil dribbled out around the blade of the dagger. The witch exhaled deep in her throat, a deathly deflating.

“Knife to meet you!” shouted the girl.

Not my best, said the voice-over. I’m learning, okay?

With a shrieking snarl, “Grrraaaaaagh,” the witch leapt backward—propelled, more like, as if she’d been snatched away by some invisible hand—and scrambled to the safety of her back stoop, cowering like a cornered animal. A stew of red and black ran down her sloped chin and wattled neck. “That won’t work!” she choked through a mouthful of ichor. Chandler had taken the dagger away, and now it glittered in one warped claw. “It’ll take more than bad puns and pigstickers to—”

Hands shaking, Robin produced the Gerber jar and threw a fastball.

The jar went wide, whipping over the old woman’s head.

Glass shattered against the eaves, showering her with the con- tents. Chandler flinched, blinking in confusion.

“This ain’t The Wizard of Oz, honey, I ain’t going to melt. You was having more luck with the dagger.” She flourished the dagger as if she were conducting a symphony with it. “You want this back? Come get it, little girl!

The witch-hunter reached into her jacket.

She whipped out a Zippo, the lid clinking open.

“What you got there?” The witch sniffed the arm of her bathrobe and grimaced. She looked up. “Oh hell no.”

Alcohol.

Flick, a tiny flame licked up from the Zippo in Robin’s hand, brightening the backyard. “Get away from me!” the witch shrieked, trading the dagger to the other hand and flinging it overhand like a tomahawk. Robin recoiled. The blade skipped off the side of her collar, inches from her throat, a sharp pain just under her ear as the blade nicked her skin.

Chandler turned and ripped the back door open, scrambling through. Robin snatched up the GoPro and followed, camera in one hand and lighter in the other. She caught the witch just inside the threshold, touching the Zippo’s tongue to the edge of her bathrobe.

The terrycloth caught, lining the hem with a scribble of white light, enough to faintly illuminate the grimy kitchen.

Oooooh!” screeched Chandler, tumbling to her hands and knees. “You nasty, nasty girl! You trollop! You tramp!” The witch stood, using the counter as a ladder, and fumbled her way over to the sink, smearing black all over the cabinets. Raking dirty dishes out of the way, Chandler disturbed a cloud of fruit flies and turned on the faucet. “When I get this put out, I’m going to—I’m going to—” She tugged and tugged the stiff sprayer hose, trying to pull it out of the basin.

Flames trickled up the tail of Chandler’s bloody bathrobe, but they were going much too slowly for Robin’s liking. She reached over and touched the fabric with the Zippo again. This time the alcohol on Chandler’s back erupted in a windy burp of white and orange. The flames billowed toward the ceiling, a cape of fire, whispering and muttering.

As Robin lunged in to ignite her sleeve, Chandler reached into the sink with her other hand and came up with a dirty carving knife.

She hooked it at the girl, trying to stab her and spray herself with the sink hose at the same time. Robin jerked away. The plastic nozzle showered the witch’s head with cold water, soaking her hair and running down her face, washing away the blood and oil-slime. Chandler maneuvered around, trying to spray the fire on her back, but all she could seem to manage was to half-drown herself and shoot water over her shoulder onto the floor.

“Help me!” cried the flame-ghost, water arcing all over the kitchen. “Why would you do this to an old lady like me? What have I ever done to yoooouuuuu?

“You witches killed my mama!”

Flinging the refrigerator door open, Robin flinched as condiment bottles and a stick of butter clattered to the floor at her feet. Reaching in, she grabbed the neck of a bottle of Bacardi. The last bit sloshed around in the bottom.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Chandler shoved the fridge door closed, almost on Robin’s head. “HELP ME!” roared the slack-faced creature in the bathrobe. Her jaw had come unhinged, and two rows of tiny catlike teeth glistened wetly in the pit of her black maw. Her eyes were two yellow marbles, shining deep in bruise-green eye sockets. “HELP ME OR YOU’LL BURN WITH ME!”

Pressing her ragged stinking body against Robin’s, Chandler wrapped her arms around the other’s chest in a bear hug.

Prickly, inhuman teeth brushed against the girl’s collarbone. With an incoherent shriek, Robin pushed and slapped at Chandler’s shoulders and face. Those horrible teeth scratched at her hands and the witch craned forward, her throat engorged and fat like a python, her great moray-eel mouth clapping shut at empty air.

Crash! Robin clubbed the hag across the forehead with the Bacardi, shattering the bottle.

The liquor inside hit the flames and exploded.

“EEEEEEE!” the flaming figure keened, fully engulfed now and stumbling blindly around the kitchen, leaving little puddles and clues of fire all over the cabinets and the little dining table with the checkered Italian-café tablecloth. Stacks of old books on the table caught, the grimoires and cookbooks drinking up the heat, already shriveling.

“Burn, you evil bitch! Burn!” Robin fell back, escaping to a hallway that would have been too dark to navigate if it hadn’t been for the screaming bonfire.

“KILL HER,”Chandler howled from inside the flames. “KIIILL HERRR!

Cats appeared from everywhere, squirreling out of gaps and from underneath the furniture—black, white, calico, tortoiseshell. They ran straight at Chandler and kamikaze’d into the flames, igniting their own bodies in a zealous fervor.

In an instant, the kitchen was a meteor shower, a riot of immolated cats running in every direction, flailing and shrieking.

Running down the hallway to escape the madcap carnage, Robin came out behind a piano in the living room. She slid over the top of the thing on her belly, plowing through a feathery coat of dust and cat hair.

On her knees and then her feet, she shoved through the screen door and ran out into the front yard.

A crowd of thirty or forty people had assembled in the street. They stood stock-still and rigid in various states of undress, their hands dangling at their sides, staring at her, eyes shining green in the dark. Unkempt hair, awoken mid-sleep. Some of them slowly worked and flexed their hands.

Mrrrrrr,” hummed a man in a hooded sweatshirt. “Rrrrwww.

A burning cat pushed past Robin’s feet and out into the front yard, where it collapsed.

She juked left, running underneath the lemon tree and around the side of Chandler’s tract house, between the board fence and the clapboard wall. Mud and wet grass underneath the tree almost knocked her on her ass.

“Go go go go go,” she growled under her breath.

The pounding of sneakered feet made it clear the familiars were chasing her. The fence ended near the back corner and Robin vaulted the chain-link and jumped the sidewalk, almost losing her footing, then sprinted across the street. She opened the driver door of the CONLIN PLUMBING van and threw herself inside.

Through the window she could see half the neighborhood pouring out of the gap behind the fence like hornets from a nest, and just as terrifying.

Her key was already in the ignition. She twisted it until she thought it would snap off in the steering column. The van chugged a few times and turned over mightily, GRRRRUH!

When she went to shut the door, she slammed it on the meaty arm of a fat man in an old Bulls jersey, the collar frayed around his hoary neck.

“Get your own car, shithead! This one is paid for!” “Mrrrr!” he growled. His eyes were green screwheads.

Crazed, yowling people clustered around the van and hammered the panels with their fists, clawing at the windows. Jersey Man’s arm flapped into the cab with her, fighting her hands, and he found her throat with the fork of his palm, pressing it against her windpipe.

Her neck was pinned against the headrest. She couldn’t breathe. Thrusting her foot into the floorboard, she found the accelerator and put all her weight on it. The engine snarled, vibrating the van, revving hard, so hard for a second she thought it would come apart, but nothing else happened. The van’s cabin filled with an acrid burning smell.

“Fffffk,” she gurgled, fumbling for the gearshift.

The passenger window imploded in a tumble of glass and someone reached in at her.

Robin put the van in Drive and stood on the gas again. This time the machine leapt forward like a greyhound busting out of the starting block, pressing her against the seat. The engine coughed once, twice, the drivetrain rumbled, and then the crowd fell away and she was barreling down the street.

Bodies fell in the headlights, astonished faces flashing across the hood, and the van clambered over them, bonk-badunk-clank- bang. Driving with her fingertips, she twisted the steering wheel this way and that, trying to shake off the two men halfway inside the cab with her, but only the one hanging out the window fell. The van hauled back and forth, teetering with the gravity of a Spanish galleon on the sea.

“You will die,”said Jersey Man, his fingers still clamping Robin’s neck to the seat. She could feel her heartbeat in her face. “The Red Lord will find you.”

Jerking the wheel to the left, she sideswiped a telephone pole. The wooden trunk slammed into the man’s shoulder and knocked him off, his fingernails biting into the skin under her ear. Her tires barked and wailed as Robin fought to keep the van under control, and the telephone pole scraped down the side of the vehicle, beating on the hollow panels with a noise like thunder.

She glanced at the side mirror. Two dozen men and women were running helter-skelter down the street behind her, looking for all the world like a midnight marathon.

She did not stop. She did not slow down. She drove on.

The man’s severed arm lay across her chest, speckling the door panel with vivid red blood. She tore its reflexive grip from her throat and threw it out the passenger window, then tried to roll the window up, pushing broken bloody glass out of the gap.

When the camera abruptly cut to a new shot the sun had come up, turning the sky a sickly dawn gray.

Everything was quiet. A couple hours had passed since the chase. A fire truck’s silent flasher strobed red across the side of Neva Chandler’s house, or at least what was left of it. Black pikes jutted up from shards of siding and electrical conduits.

Robin crept into the backyard and lifted the silver dagger from the weeds, then retreated to her van.

Neva Chandler, the self-proclaimed King of Alabama, said Robin’s voice-over, her soft, measured, academic tone incongruous against the chaotic violence that had just taken place. The video faded to black, but she continued to speak. Almost as old as Alabama itself. My first real kill, my first real fight. There would be dozens more, all over the country, but I’ll never forget this one.

I just keep thinking, she went easy on me. If she was anything like the others that came after, she could have easily killed me. I think she wanted to die. Maybe she wanted one last tussle, one last knock down-dragout, she wanted to die on her terms, but yeah, she wanted to die.

Well.

If that’s the case, I was more than fuckin’ happy to oblige.

The camera cut to Robin’s point of view as she stood in a car wash, the watery blue dawn peeking through the clouds, spraying the side of the van with a water gun. Blood ran off in pink sheets, coiling and swirling in oily water as it spilled down the drain grate.

“That went well, I think?” she said shakily. Cut to black.

 

CHAPTER 1

Two Years Later

Robin woke from another nightmare of trees and flame and gulped a deep breath as if she’d surfaced from the ocean. She lay staring at the carpeted ceiling, breathing hard and fast, trembling, trying to mentally scrub off the feeling of being a kid again, the smell of cut grass, the sensation of clutching that wooden hand again—

Condensation dribbled down the curve of the van’s rear windows, refracting stony gray light. Her cell phone told her it was a few minutes after ten the morning of October 23. She sat up and lifted a camcorder from its customary place in a tub lined with soft black foam, then wriggled out of her sleeping bag and dug through a tub full of rolled clothes.

The smell of burning bark still floated among the dust, as if the smoke had permeated her skin and hair. She wore nothing but a pair of gray panties and even inside the van, warmed by her farts and body heat all night, the air was graveyard-clammy, so she knew the late autumn morning outside would require something a little more substantial than usual.

Damn Georgia humidity, she thought, pulling on a pair of jeans and a light jacket over a band T-shirt. Makes the summers hotter and the winters colder.

The entire back half of the van was lined with rails, shelves, and wire frames in which nested dozens of small plastic bins containing all manner of things:

  • packets of trailmix
  • electronics parts still in their blister packs
  • condiment packets from just about every restaurant under the sun
  • barbers’ clippers
  • toiletries and shaving razors
  • USB cables
  • name-brand AA, AAA, D, and tiny dime-like watch batteries
  • a rats’ nest of power adapter cables

One tub held baby-food jars emptied of their contents and refilled with alcohol. Another tub contained handfuls of stacked twigs, another was full of something that might have been ginger root, or perhaps bits of wild mushroom.

A large pegboard occupied one half of a wall directly behind the driver’s seat. Several edged weapons had been mounted on pegs and held in place with little clips—a broadsword, a short-sword, a kuhkri knife like a boomerang with a handle, a wicked black tomahawk, a Cold Steel katana painted matte black, the gilded silver dagger from the video.

A fifteen-year-old stuffed animal, a fuzzy blue mosquito peeked over the edge of a tub, his own personal plastic sarcophagus.

Mr. Nosy’s proboscis was a lot more limp these days—both of his glassy wings and four of his six legs had been stitched back on at some point—but he was still whole and had both of his big white Muppet eyes. Robin leaned over and gave her oldest friend a kiss on the nose.

Once she was dressed, she put the camera on a screw-mount in the corner, facing her. There were several mounts around the van, including two on the dash and two clamped to the wing mirrors.

Tucked into the pocket of yesterday’s jeans was an orange prescription bottle. She transferred it to today’s jeans. Taking a moment to screw the heels of her hands into her eyes again to grind away any remaining sleep, she slapped a bongo beat on her cheeks to redden them, then turned the camera on and started recording.

“Good morning, Internet-Land,” she said, her whiskey-and- cigarettes rasp exploding like a hand-grenade in the silence.

She put on her socks and boots as she talked, long green army socks and a pair of comfortable combat boots. “Malus here. You might be able to hear I’ve got a bit of a sinus thing right now. And I think I might be getting a sore throat. Guess that’s what I get for not eating enough oranges?”

She paused, glanced down at the van floor as if to gather her thoughts, then went back to cramming her feet in her boots.

They were like big sneakers, with a padded ankle, an Air Jordan profile, and soles like tractor tires. She’d bought them at a PX in Kentucky earlier that year for almost two hundred dollars, and they had earned the nickname “shit-kickers” before she’d even paid for them. Postmodern punk-rock couture. Her jeans were snug enough the boots fit over them.

“If you’ve been watching my channel, then you’ll know what I’ve been through. Who I am. My purpose. Well, I’m here. Back where this shit all started.” She tied the laces into a big floppy knot, then looked directly into the camera. “Home,”she said, as if the word were a hex. “Blackfield.” She tucked the laces into her boots and turned the camera to point through the rear window.

Moisture on the windows made a swimmy, crystalline netherworld of the overcast day outside. Crows razzed at each other outside the van, chittering and muttering dark gossip.

She swiveled the camera back around, filling the tiny viewfinder screen with her pale face and the dark circles around her eyes.

Instead of giving her the tough rock-chick look she’d been going for, her wavy Mohawk and shaved scalp made her seem otherworldly and delicate, fuzzy with a week and a half of chestnut stubble.

This girl is going to go find a cup of coffee. Y’all ready for some BREAKFAST FOOTAGE?

Big black crows took flight in every direction when she opened the back door, complaining in their harsh voices. She stepped down out of the van and unscrewed the camera, then grabbed the vinyl messenger bag. As the doors met in the middle with a slam, a blue-and-red logo reconstituted itself: CONLIN PLUMBING.

“I know you ain’t here for the food, this isn’t a cuisine travelogue channel. But I’m starving.” She took some B-roll footage of the area. The van was parked at the edge of a large graveled clearing, and mild white-gold sunlight tried to break through into the day. Several tents had been erected in the grass some thirty yards away, and beyond them was a utilitarian two-story cinderblock building, with doors labeled MEN and WOMEN. From inside came the white-noise rush of hot showers running, and steam poured from PVC pipes jutting out of the roof. Simple graffiti was spraypainted on the walls: BITE MY SHINY LIBERAL ASS. ST. VINCENT. YEE-THO-RAH. Doodles of a monkey taking a shit and a robot on a motorcycle.

To her right, a sprawling split-level cabin lurked in the shadows of the woodline, pumping out the constant smell of cooking food. The back of the restaurant opened up in a large hangar-like seating area with five trestle tables. She scanned the shadows in the back, peering cautiously, looking for a familiar silhouette and staring green eyes.

“The Red Lord will find you,” the man had said.

Last time she’d seen what he called the Red Lord was three weeks ago, a jagged figure standing in the tree line on a back road out of Seattle just after dark. Time before that had been two months earlier, a dark shape looming in the corner of her motel room at four in the morning, watching her sleep with luminous eyes.

She sighed with relief.

“Malus inbound. Prepare for impact.”

Climbing a hill, she clomped across the front porch, where a smiling gray fireplug of a dog was leashed to the banister.

“Hello there, Mad Max,” she said, pointing the camera at him. “How are you today?”

The Australian cattle dog licked his chops and whined.

Miguel’s Pizzeria was dimly lit and claustrophobic, with clumps of ropes and climbing gear hanging from the ceiling, and stacks of shoe boxes by the door. A half-dozen booths filled the room, all of them empty.

Robin went to the counter, a glass case containing mementos and historical knickknacks, but nobody was there. A tip jar and a charity jar stood by the register (take a penny, leave a penny), and A4-printed photographs postered the wall behind the counter (take a picture, leave a picture).

The photos were of semi-famous people posing in their climbing accoutrement with the owners of the restaurant, and panoramic shots of the mountains around the valley. She thought she recognized Les Stroud of the TV show Survivorman in one picture, and maybe Aron Ralston of 127 Hours fame in another, his prosthetic arm around Miguel’s shoulder.

A Black man came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a bar towel. Wearing eye shadow, a silk do-rag covered in purple paisley, and under his apron was an eggplant halter top embroidered with curlicues that looked more suited to a Japanese tea house than a backwoods pizzeria.

Eyeing the camera in her hand, he tucked the towel into his back pocket and leaned invitingly on the counter. “You a bit early for lunch.” The nametag on his apron said Joel.

“That’s okay,” Robin told him. A glass-fronted mini-cooler stood on a counter behind Joel. She pointed at cans of Monster coffee inside. “I’ll have one of those, stick around and wait for lunch time. Cool with you?”

Joel regarded her with a tilted head, rolling a toothpick around and around his mouth. “You look super-familiar. Where do I know you from?” His weary tone and his delicate mannerisms were somehow masculine, yet . . . at the same time stunningly effeminate. He smelled like citrus and coconuts, strong enough to even overpower the burnt-bread smell of pizza crust coming out of the kitchen.

“I have a YouTube channel.” She indicated the camera as he took a coffee out of the cooler and put it on the counter. “Called ‘MalusDomestica.’ Maybe you’ve seen it?”

Joel rang up the coffee and gave her the total. “No, no, I think… I think I mighta went to school with you. Where did you go to school at? You go to high school in Blackfield?”

“Yes, I did.” She swiped her debit card and put in her PIN. “Do you have Wi-Fi here?”

“We sure do.” Joel printed out her receipt, operating the register in a bored, almost automatic way, not even looking at his hand as he tugged an ink pen out of his apron pocket, clicked the end, and gave it to her. “Password’s on the receipt.”

“Thanks.”

Sliding into a booth, Robin took a Macbook out of her messenger bag and turned it on. She hooked up to the Wi-Fi with the password on the receipt (pineapplepluspizza) and went to YouTube, where she signed in and started uploading the week’s latest video to the MalusDomestica channel. While it processed, she perused the thumbnails of the videos already posted. Almost three hundred vlogs, most of them no more than twenty minutes long, a few stretching into a half-hour. Her face peeked out from many  of them, as if the webpage were a prison for memories, for tiny past versions of herself, as if she continuously shed prior selves and kept them around as trophies. A packrat cicada, dragging around a suitcase full of old skins. She enjoyed browsing through the grid of tiny pictures, each one representing a day, a week, a month of her life—seeing all those chunks of time, those pieces of creative effort, fulfilled her, made her feel accomplished.

Millions of subscribers, millions of viewers’ worth of video- monetization ad revenue and MalusDomestica T-shirt sales. Their patronage was what funded her travels, what put food in her mouth, clothes on her back, and gasoline in her Conlin Plumbing van.

She clicked one of the thumbnails, opening a video from a  year and a half ago. Past-Robin’s hair was dyed pink and she was slightly heavier, pearish, a spattering of blemishes on her cheeks and forehead. Now-Robin clicked to the middle of the  video.

A pumpkin sat on a picnic table in a quiet park somewhere. The day was overcast and wind coughed harsh and hollow against the camera’s microphone. Past-Robin turned and flung a hatchet with one smooth lunging movement.

The weapon somersaulted thirty feet and planted itself neatly into the rind of the pumpkin with a morbid splutch.

“Good one,” said Heinrich’s velvet voice from off-camera.

Joel slid into the seat on the other side of the table, startling her. His tropical aura of perfume swept in behind him, pouring into the booth.

“Hello,” he said. “Hello, Joel.”

“Looked like you could use some company. And by the by, it’s not Johl, it’s…Joe-elle,” he said, poetically pinching the syllable at the end with an A-OK gesture. “You know, like noel? Or motel? Or go to hell?”

She smiled tightly. “Nice to meet you, Joe-elle.” “Likewise.”

“Do you always make yourself this comfortable with strangers?”

“Nah, nah—we ain’t strangers, hon.” Joel turned in his seat, throwing a leg over one knee and his elbow over the back of the bench. “I think I know you.”

“Oh yeah?”

“You think ain’t nobody gonna recognize you with that Mohawk, that rock-chick look, that extra muscle mass,” said Joel, flourishing fingers at her. His fingernails were polished, glittering in the fluorescents. “Which looks really good on you. Very Amazonian. Very punk. I likes. And you got the cheekbones for it.” He leaned in close, talking over the Macbook’s lid. “Your name is Robin Martine, ain’t it?”

She took him in with tightened eyes now, assessing him fully.“Your mama used to babysit for my  mama when we was little kids.” He sat back again, smiling like a satisfied house cat. “You and me, we used to play together. I know you, yeah, I do. We didn’t really ever talk much once we started getting into middle schoo—”

“My father wasn’t too keen on having other kids in the house in addition to—”

“No, honey, he didn’t like Black kids in the house.”

A blush warmed her face, tinged with the heat of anger at the memory of her father. “Well, he’s dead now, or so I’ve heard. So …”

“Oh, yeah. I know. Lot of tall tales around this town concerning you and your mama. Some of ’em are even true.” Joel took out a pack of cigarettes and packed them against his palm. Some brand she didn’t recognize, with a logo in flowery cursive she couldn’t read. “You mind if I . . .?”

She didn’t mind. He took one out, but paused, waggling the pack offeringly.

“No.” She waved him off. “Tryin’ to quit.”

Joel cupped the cigarette in one hand with a lighter, lit it and drew on it, then dragged an ashtray over and blew a stream of menthol smoke into the air. “Break a leg,” he mused, tapping ashes. “I’ve quit many a time. Not as easy as it looks.”

As slow as the Internet was, it would be useless while the video was uploading. Robin studied her keyboard and decided to pay more attention to Joel than the computer.

“So,” he said, kicking a toe to an unheard beat, “what does ‘Malice Domestic’ mean?” He smiled evilly and feigned a shiver. “It sounds so sinister.” He shivered again.

Malus domestica. Latin scientific name of the common apple tree.”

“Apple tree?”

Robin gave a half-wince, half-shrug. “Makes sense if you’ve watched the videos.”

Joel stuck out his bottom lip and nodded as if to say fair enough. She opened the can of coffee with a discreet snick! and dug the orange pill bottle out of her pocket, tipping one of the tablets out. Cupping the tablet with her tongue, she swallowed it with a swig of Monster, to be assimilated into the constant swamp-light still humming in the marrow of her bones from yesterday’s dose.

Joel took another draw and French-inhaled the smoke up his nose, then blew it back out. “What’s it about?” he asked, studying the cherry at the end of the cigarette. “Your YouTube channel.”

“It’s sort of like…a travel journal, I guess.”

“Whatcha traveling around doing?”

“Just, ah . . . trying to appreciate America.” Robin fumbled for the words. “Roadside attractions, restaurants, that kind of thing.”

“Kind of like a homeless Guy Fieri.”

Robin chuckled.“Well, I live in my van—but, heh. Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

“You are so full of shit.” He shook his head, the do-rag’s ties rustling behind his head like a ponytail. “Look at this thrift-store Lisbeth Salander over here, talking about highways-and-byways. You ain’t Jack Kerouac.” He leaned in conspiratorially again. “What you really up to?”

Robin hesitated, glancing down at the camera. It was still rolling. “Well . . . I hunt witches.”

Really.” Joe lashed his cigarette. “Fascinating.” He reached over and turned off the camera, surprising her.

“Hey!”

“You need to stop playin’. I assume huntin’ witches means killin’ witches, and there ain’t no way you’re videotapin’ that shit, cause me and you, we know the truth, but them out there, John Q. Asshole, they don’t know shit. They see a video of you shanking somebody, they gonna be all over you. Now, I want to talk to you without this camera here. Backstage, so to speak. Off the record. Cause I can tell you just putting on a show for the people at home. But I want real talk.” He smiled tightly. “I know what you doing. You looking for them, ain’t you?”

Her breathing had become labored without her realizing it. She felt cornered. “Them who?”

“The ones killed your mama.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“When it happened, my mama lost her shit.” Joel squinted in the murk of smoke hovering over the table. “I remember this vividly—because she scared the hell outta me. This was about… sophomore year? Junior year, of high school? She was out of her mind freaked out about it. Shaking, wide-eyed, locking-all-the- windows freaked. Like she thought the sky was falling, like she was afraid the Devil himself was gonna get in the house.

“Asked me all kinds of weird-ass questions about this and that—wanted to know what kind of person Annie was, what kinds of things she did. Why she had a speech impediment, why her tongue was like that. Did she hurt animals, did she do anything to me when me and Fish was little . . .”

“She never would have.” Robin stiffened. “Mom wasn’t like that—”

“Oh, I know.”  Joel traced imaginary hearts on the table with   a finger tip. “Annie was a good woman. A good-hearted woman. Weird, maybe, but good. I told my mama that. I still remember the way she cooked her bacon when me and Fish came over in  the mornings. I cook mine the same way.” He illuminated each point with his hands, forming invisible shapes in the air, snapping and wagging invisible bacon. “Crispy, but still floppy. Fatty but not gristly.”

Trying to visualize this, eating bacon for breakfast with her mother in their little kitchen, Robin saw two other little faces sitting at the table. Two quiet children, wide-eyed

(my name is fisher and his name is johl but mama calls him jo-elle)

and spooked like baby owls. The knot inside her loosened, and her jaw tipped open in surprise. “I do remember you.”

“Oh yeah?”

“It was the bacon that made me remember.”

Joel smiled and made a Hallelujah! raise-the-roof motion with his hands. “Ain’t nothing in this world good bacon can’t make better.”

“They made me forget a lot. The shrinks the state made me talk to. They made—or maybe let—me think I was crazy, and they brainwashed all the witch stuff out of me. Or tried to, anyway.”

Joel glanced toward the kitchen—or perhaps it was the clock— and back at her, giving the scruff-headed woman-in-black an assessing look. Finally, he said in a tentative way, “There was a rumor going around you said witches had something to do with it. I believed it then, and I believe it now.”

“Yeah. I told people. But they didn’t believe me. That’s why I had to talk to the shrinks. They thought I had PTSD or something. Thought losing my mother drove me crazy.”

“You ain’t found ’em, have you? That’s what you been doing ever since the shrinks let you out. You been looking for them witch bitches.”

She squinted out the window at the noonday sun.

Joel put both feet flat on the floor and stubbed out his cigarette, leaning on his elbows. He clasped his hands together and spoke around them. “So you for real, then. You doing this shit for real. How do you make YouTube videos about this shit? Ain’t this incriminating evidence?”

Robin’s fingernails dug into her palms. “You ever heard of Slender-Man? Skinny dude with no face, wears a black suit and a red tie, got long arms, creeps people out?”

“Can’t say I have.”

She did a search on YouTube for “Slender-Man” and turned the Macbook around so Joel could see it. “Half a dozen YouTube channels devoted to this paranormal being Slender-Man. Each one chronicles a different group of people trying to figure out the mystery surrounding him…they’re all setup as if the events happening in the videos are real. But, of course, everybody knows they aren’t—wink-wink. They’re each a scripted and acted horror series made to look real. Like, you remember The Blair Witch Project? How it was designed and shot to look like somebody found it on a camera in the woods, basically started the found-footage genre?”

Joel nodded. “Yeah. And you doing something like that, but theirs is fake and yours is actually real? But you make it look like it’s as fake as theirs. Ah ha-ha. Reverse reverse psychology.”

“Yes.”

Another man came out of the kitchen. His hair was going gray and his drawn face was a hash of wrinkles, but Robin recognized Miguel from the photograph behind the register. “Hey,” he called. “We got to get ready for lunch.”

“Untwist them panties, hero,” said Joel, grabbing at the air in a zip-it motion. “I’m just doing some catching up.”

“Who’s your friend?” asked Miguel.

“Her mama used to babysit me and Fish when we was kids.” Joel coughed into his fist and took a bottle of hand sanitizer out of his apron pocket, squirting it into his palms and wringing his hands. “Robin Martine.”

Miguel’s brain seemed to lag like a busy computer program and then he subtly crumpled. “Oh.” An awkward silence lingered between them, and then one corner of his bushy mustache ticked up in a wistful half-smile. “I remember hearing about, uhh. . .” His belly bobbed with one hesitant breath. “I’m sorry about your mother.”

Robin tried her best to be gracious, but didn’t know what to say, so she echoed his expression and dipped her head appreciatively.

“Real big shame, kid. I didn’t really know her,” he added, “but I heard she was a good person.”

“She was.” Robin’s hand found its way around the can of coffee, and she drummed soft fingers against the aluminum. The two men watched her with expectant eyes, the quiet pause only scored by the sound of furious washing and banging in the kitchen.

Robin looked down at the Monster can. “Five years ago. Decided this year I would come back to town and visit her. This year I’ve decided I feel like I can finally . . . finally push through the dark and say the things I need to say to her. I guess.”

“Well,”said Miguel. “Welcome back, Kotter. Mi casa es su casa.” Joel followed him back into the kitchen. “What he said.”

 

CHAPTER 2

 

Their new home cut an impressively Gothic silhouette against the stark white afternoon sky. The house was a two-story Queen Anne Victorian, an antique dollhouse painted the muted blue of a rain cloud. A wrap around porch encircled the front, and the whole thing was trimmed in white East lake gingerbread.

In places here and there, it was streaked with black like mascara tears, as if the house had been weeping soot from its seams. “What did I tell you?” asked Leon. He wore a blue thrift-store two-piece and a cranberry tie from Meijer. “Cool, right?”

Wayne unbuckled his seat belt and leaned up, pushing his glasses up with a knuckle. The boy gazed up through the U-Haul’s windshield at their new base of operations.

“Looks like the house from The Amityville Horror or something,” he said, and looked out the side window.

The neighborhood stretched out to their right, a mile and a half of red-brick Brady Bunch ranch houses, double-wide trailers with toys peppered across their lawns, white shepherd-cottages, a few A-frame cabins lurking deep in the trees. Across the road from 1168 was a small trailer park, eight or nine mobile homes marching in rigid lockstep toward a distant treeline. Since his window was rolled halfway down, Wayne could hear the far away mewling-seagull-cry of children playing.

Coins of light reflected off the lenses of his glasses. A feeling made him look back toward 1168, as if he’d almost been caught off-guard. Empty sashed windows peered down like eyes, darkness pressing against their panes from inside, as if the house were packed to the brim with shadows.

A grin crept across his face. “It’s awesome.” Leon beamed.

They got out of the box truck and clomped up the front steps. The porch was wider than he expected, four lunging steps across— wide enough to ride his bicycle up and down the length of the porch if he wanted to. A swing was chained to the ceiling where the porch angled around the corner.

A cat stood on the porch, a slender gray shadow with black feet and honey eyes.

Wayne smiled. “Hi, kitty-cat.”

“You the welcome wagon?” asked his father.

The cat muttered a hoarse miaow and trotted away, re-stationing itself down by the swing at the end of the porch.

“Guess not.” Leon waggled his finger for emphasis.“Remind me to get some cat food when I pop into town.”

“You mean we can have a cat?”

“I mean we can feed the welcome wagon.” A chuckle. “Let’s not put the cat before the horse.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“It’s a dad joke. It doesn’t have to make sense.”

Click. The portentous sound of his father unlocking the front door made him twitch.

“Check it out, it even locks with an old-timey key,” said Leon, showing Wayne the long, thin skeleton key. He pushed the door open with his fingertips.

Disappointingly, it didn’t creak open in that spooky, melodramatic way, but the doorknob did bump loudly against the opposite wall. Leon winced and stepped inside, checking behind the door for damage. Wayne went in behind him and stood there, turning in a slow circle, taking it all in. The thick, astringent smell of fresh paint cloyed the air. The front hallway was interminably tall—the ceiling seemed fifteen feet high—but it felt cramped, with only enough room for maybe three men to walk abreast.

To his right, a doorless archway led into a small den. To his left, a stairway climbed to the second floor and a dark bathroom yawned at the foot of the stairs, dim daylight glinting from the teeth of its chrome fixtures. Dead ahead, the foyer hall way went on past a closet door and opened into the kitchen, the floor turning into turtle-shell linoleum.

An intricate red carpet runner had been laid down by the real estate agent, new and clean. Regardless, every shuffling foot fall, every little noise they made, and every word they spoke reverberated in short, hollow echoes throughout the house.

“Hello?” called Leon.

For a terrifying second, Wayne almost expected to hear an answer from upstairs. He loved it. “Do you think it’s haunted?”

Leon tucked his hands in his pockets. “Who knows?”

The den was a cozy space, unfurnished as of yet with anything other than empty bookshelves and a cushioned reading nook in the front window. The walls were painted the same rainy blue as the outside. A modest fireplace occupied one wall, dark and empty. “Need to see if one of our neighbors might be able to give us a hand with the sofa.”

“I can help you.”

“I don’t know, it’s big. Don’t want to see you get hurt. We barely got it out of the apartment.”

They passed into the kitchen, where the walls had been wallpapered in yellow sunflowers that probably should have looked cheery, but were more forlorn and drab than anything else. Fridge was a new side-by-side slab of black humming efficiently in the corner, and the countertops were dark marble over dark cherry-wood cabinets.

Wayne decided the kitchen would not be his favorite room. Leon went around to all the windows, parting the curtains and letting sunlight in. Dust drifted in the soft white beams.

The pantry was surprisingly large, a narrow ten-foot space lined with three tiers of shelving. He started to climb them to see what was on the top shelf, but his father shut him down with a hand on his shoulder. “Nope. Come on, let’s go look at the bedrooms.”

The stairs were steep and creaked as if they were made of popsicle sticks, groaning and cracking and thumping.

1168’s second story seemed somehow more spacious than the first. As soon as they stepped up onto the upper landing, a narrow T-shaped hallway led some twenty or thirty feet toward a window at the bottom of the T, flanked by a pair of doors. The right one opened onto the master bedroom, unfurnished, with a walk-in closet that stank of mothballs. The left went into a bathroom, with a claw-foot bathtub and a porcelain sink.

The bathroom’s wainscoting was done in rose-pink and teal tiles, but halfway up the walls and ceiling became painted dry wall. Leon touched it. “I just realized—this is gonna be hard to keep mildew out of. I am diggin’ this pink, though.”

Wayne screwed up his face. A big hoop of metal was bracketed to the ceiling, and a diaphanous plastic curtain hung into the tub. “What kind of bathtub has feet?

Back in the hallway, he stood dejectedly with his hands in his pockets. “Where’s my bedroom?”

“Ah.” Leon searched the hallway, even looking out the window and peering into the master suite again. “Thought I forgot something. I guess you’ll have to sleep in the garage, chief.”

Wayne’s heart sank. “You’re full of crap.”

His father rubbed his goatee, then thrust a finger into the air and hustled away as if he’d suddenly remembered something. “One last place we haven’t checked. There’s a closet out here on the landing you can sleep in, if you can fit.”

“A closet?

“Yeah, like Harry Potter.”

“Harry Potter lived under the stairs.” Wayne followed him in a daze back out to the end of the landing, then traced the banister down to a window that cast out onto the back of the house. From here, he could see a rickety tool shed and a huge backyard.

Next to the window was a door, which Leon opened to reveal a set of stairs leading up into soft sunlight and around a spiral, climbing out of sight.

Leon shrugged. “After you.”

Wayne ascended them, hitching his knees high, almost clambering up them on all fours. The stairs spiraled once and a half, opening onto a small room inside a dome of windows that made him think of the belfry in a church steeple. The room wasn’t a perfect circle but an octagon, with eight walls.

The ceiling was just high enough his father didn’t have to stoop, but he stood there with his fingertips pressed against it as if he were trying to hold it up.

“It’s called a cupola,” said Leon. “What you think?”

The “cupola” seemed small, but as Wayne went from window to window assessing the view, the room proved to be larger than he initially gave it credit for. Plenty of room for his bed, and each of the four windows stood atop a small nook bench that folded open to reveal storage space. He climbed onto one of them to look out the window.

Across the street, a long gravel drive snaked between a trailer park and a series of cottages, climbing a hill to a building that looked like pictures he’d seen of the Alamo. Mud-pink walls topped with Gothic wrought-iron teeth, brown clay roofing tiles. A man drove a riding lawnmower up the hill out front, cropping dull green grass.

“I like it,” said Wayne. To the south, he could see the tops of buildings in distant Blackfield, rising over the trees behind the house.

“Then welcome to your new Batcave, Master Wayne.”

“The Batcave is underground.”

Leon continued his Atlas impression, hands against the ceiling. “Work with me, here. I’m old and out of touch.”

“Batman’s older than you are.”

“Keep it up and I’ll make you sleep in the garage anyway!”

 

*  *  *

As the afternoon wore on, Wayne and his father managed to get most of the boxes and furniture into the house, with the exclusion of the sofa and dining-room table. The most troublesome items by far were Wayne’s mattress and box spring, which Leon could handle well enough by himself (with Wayne pushing helpfully from behind) until they got into the spiral stairway to the cupola. That became an arduous trial of swearing, sweating, and banging around in the stuffy space that left them flustered and irritated with each other.

To get the dining-room table in, they carried the table up onto the front porch, then turned it on end like a giant coin and rolled  it through the house. Leon ushered Wayne in ahead of the table, confusing him at first, but when his father started humming the Indiana Jones theme and pretending the table was the boulder from Raiders of the Lost Ark, he couldn’t help but run away from it in slow motion.

As they worked, the gray cat maintained its distance, sitting on the porch railing down by the swing, watching them bustle boxes into the house. A curious intelligence glimmered in the animal’s brilliant honey eyes, as if it were sizing them up.

“You could help, you know,” said Leon. The cat answered him with a raspy chirp.

Their steel-blue Subaru already sat in the gravel driveway, in front of the U-Haul; Leon had brought it down before the move. They took a break to run to town in the car for hamburgers at Wendy’s, and they came back to failing light as the evening came over the trees to the east.

“Hate to bug anybody this late. These rednecks givin’ me weird looks,” said Leon, unlocking and opening the U-Haul. “But I’d really like to get this truck back as soon as possible. Guess we’ll finish tomorrow afternoon.”

“Hey,” said a husky voice behind them.

A chubby white kid with brush-cut hair was making his way up the driveway,his hands buried in his hoodie’s pockets. He seemed to be about Wayne’s age, if several inches taller. Wayne thought he looked like Pugsley Addams gone mainstream, or maybe the older brother from Home Alone.

“Hey,” said Leon.

As if this were the cat’s cue to vamoose, it leapt off the railing and trotted across the yard toward the trailer park on the other side of the highway.

Pugsley’s voice was the high-pitched rasp of a boy accustomed to shouting. “You guys movin’ in?”

“Yep.”

“Cool.”

A weird silence settled over them. “Nice to meet you,” Leon offered, smiling. “Anything we can help you with?”

Pugsley seemed to snap out of a trance. “Oh! I, uhh, wanted to say hi, and . . . maybe see if you needed any help. But it looks like you’re pretty much finished.” He stepped forward and held out a stubby pink hand. “I’m Pete.” Pointing across the street at the trailer park, he added, “Pete Maynard. I live over there. With my mom. I go to school over in Blackfield. Fifth grade.”

Leon visibly relaxed, shaking the offered hand. “Nice to meet you, Pete. Leon Parkin. This here’s my son Wayne.”

Pugsley-Pete shook Wayne’s hand and said to his father, “Welcome to Slade.”

Leon stuck his hands in his pockets. “Well. I reckon since we got you here, you can help if you want.”

 

CHAPTER 3

 

With much grunting and swearing, the three of them got the sofa down out of the U-Haul, up the front stairs, and into the den. To get it out of the foyer and through the den door, they had to turn it sideways and angle the armrests around the door frame. Wayne mashed a finger and Leon got pinned against the wall, but they finally managed it.

Once they’d gotten it into the room, screwed the feet back onto the bottom of it, and pushed it against the back wall, the boys sat on it to rest. “So what are you guys doin’ out here?” asked Pete, watching Wayne buff his glasses with his shirt. “Don’t think I know anybody that dresses up to go to work.”

Leon had taken off his jacket and loosened his tie. “I took a teaching position at Blackfield High School.”

“Yeah?”

“Gonna teach literature.”

“Cool. Maybe I’ll be in your class one day. I like to read.”

“Maybe. That’s good. More kids your age should read. Hey, you had dinner?” Leon took the tie off. “I got us ice cream for when we got done with everything.”

“No,” said Pete, “but I don’t eat dinner most days.” Wayne’s head tilted. “Why not?”

“Just . . . not really hungry. My mom says I eat like a bird.”

He couldn’t imagine that. “Birds eat their own body weight in food every day. That’s what I heard, anyway.” Pete’s hoodie was straining at the sides under his love handles. The slope-shouldered boy was taller than the short, gangly Wayne by several inches and outweighed him by a dozen pounds.

The ice began to settle again.

Wayne broke it. “You like Call of Duty?”

Pete rubbed his forehead. “I don’t know. Guess it depends on which one you’re talkin’ about. Only got the first one for the Xbox. I haven’t, uhh—haven’t really played any of the new ones.”

“Sounds like you guys have your evening figured out,” said Leon, standing up. “Pete, does your mom know you’re over here?”

“Oh yeah. Yeah—she’s cool.”

Leon rolled up his tie like a giant tongue, giving Pete the teacher stink-eye. “That sounds suspiciously like a no.

“She knows I came over here. She don’t really care when I come back, as long as she knows where I went and I stay out of trouble.” Pete sounded noncommittal, lax. Wayne got the feeling he was accustomed to being autonomous. “And I’m not like my dad. I stay out of trouble.” He jerked up straight all of a sudden and put up his hands as if to ward off a blow. “Oh, I can head out of here if you guys—”

“Oh no, no-no, you’re fine, man.” Leon picked up his suit jacket and beat the dust out of it, laying it over his arm like a sommelier with a towel. “You look like a good kid to me. And Wayne needs friends. He’s the FNG. The F-in’ New Guy, remember?”

Pete smirked, but Wayne gave his father the side-eye.

“So yeah, hell. Hang out, by all means, this creepy-ass house is gonna need some cheerin’ up anyway. Me and him, we can’t fill it up all by ourselves. We’re from Chicago, we’re not used to this kind of quiet, you know?”

“Okay,” said Pete, in obvious gratitude.

Leon looked pointedly at Wayne. “Why don’t you head upstairs and start on putting your clothes up and make your bed? When you get done, feel free to play video games to your heart’s content. Once you start school and start getting homework, your downtime is gonna be at a real premium.”

Wayne feigned belligerence. “Do I gotta?”

“How are you gonna sleep in a bed if you ain’t made it? At least make the bed. We’ll worry about unpacking when that’s out of the way.”

The two boys got up and left, creaking and crackling up the stairs to the second landing. They sounded like two colonial Redcoats marching across bubble wrap. “I can hook up the TV and PlayStation while you make your bed and stuff, if you want,” offered Pete.

“You got a deal.”

Wayne led his new friend across the landing. When he opened the closet door to reveal the steep second set of stairs, Pete seemed impressed, if confused. “Wait, your dad’s got you in the tower?”

“Yeah. It’s the only other bedroom in the house. If you can call it a bedroom.” They started up the almost ladderlike stairs. “Why? What’s wrong with it?”

“Nothin’, man, nothin’. I think it’s freakin’ awesome. I’m surprised, is all.”

With the dressers and the bed in it, the cupola was a lot less spacious. Wayne and Pete had just enough room to sit on the floor between the bed and the television, a modest flatscreen set up on one of the windowsills. There weren’t any power outlets in the cupola, so his father had bought a dropcord on their dinner trip and run it up from an outlet on the landing. The cord draped down the stairs for now, but they’d use nails to pin it out of the way later.

A lamp was plugged into it. Wayne turned it on.

To get them out of the way, he had already pinned up his posters on the narrow strips of wall between each of the cupola’s windows.

One of them was a movie poster for a Friday the 13th movie, with a full-body shot of the hockey-masked Jason Voorhees coming at you with a machete. Another depicted the cast of the TV show The Walking Dead, with the character Rick standing on top of a school bus aiming his giant revolver. Romero’s original black- and-white Night of the Living Dead. The popular zombie game Left 4 Dead 2.

The mattress was naked and had four cardboard boxes on it. Wayne opened a box and found it full of clothes. The next one had the video games in it: a PlayStation 3, a tangle of wires, and a handful of disc cases. “Here we are.”

Pete carried the box over next to the TV and went to work on untangling the adapter and video cords. Wayne opened another box to find his bedclothes.

He was on his hands and knees trying to pull the fitted sheet over a mattress-corner when something occurred to him. “Hey,” he said over his shoulder. “Uhm. Do you know if this house is . . . Do you know if it’s haunted?”

Pete stared at Wayne as if he hadn’t said anything. His eyes were flat in the arcane honey-glow of the lamp, but he slowly reached up and rubbed his cheek as though he had a toothache. The gesture seemed self-comforting, as if he were petting his face. Took him a full seven seconds to answer. “I don’t know. Never been in here. But some people say it is.”

“Why?”

“Well.” Pete got to his feet and pulled the TV cart out, examining the connection jacks on the back. “You really want me to tell you?”

Wayne’s curiosity was a bonfire, straining for secrets. “Are you serious? Of course I want you to tell me.” He turned over and flopped down on his butt at the edge of the bed, the sheets for- gotten. “Let me guess—what is it, there’s an Indian burial ground under the house? ‘They never moved the bodies! They never moved the bodies!’”

“No, there’s—”

“A serial killer used to live here?” The more he talked, the more animated he became. He was clenching his fists in anticipation. “And he buried his victims in the basement?” Made him wonder if they even had a basement, and what it looked like. He made a mental note to go check in the morning.

“No, dude, somebody died in this house.”

“Is that all? Man, tch . . . people die in houses all the time. Somebody died in the apartment next to ours back in Chicago. If people dying in a place made it haunted, nobody would be able to go into a hospital because of all the ghosts.”

Pete grinned a creepy grin. “Why do you think hospitals freak people out so much?”

Wayne deadpanned at him and went back to making his bed. “Anyway, this one, people say she was a witch.”

“A witch.” Wayne was incredulous. “You’re shitting me.”

Both boys looked down the stairwell to listen for Mr. Parkin, then Pete continued. “No shittin’.” He sat down on one of the thin- cushioned windowsill seats. “The cops and the newspaper said it was an accident at the time, but I hear she was pushed down the stairs by her husband.”

“A witch with a husband?” Pete shrugged.

Wayne made a face. “I didn’t even know witches could have husbands. Anyway, maybe it was an accident. Maybe he didn’t mean to push her. I can’t believe Dad didn’t tell me about this.”

“I don’t know,” said Pete, going back to untangling the controller cables. “My mom says he used to beat her and her daughter.”

“So what happened to the husband?”

“I heard he died a few months later in prison.”

“What killed him?”

“Nobody knows. I heard it looked like tubber—ta-bulkyer—” “Tuberculosis?” Wayne asked helpfully.

“Yeah, that. But they never could find anything. What’s this?” Pete held up the tangle of cords so he could see underneath them. He laid the tangle down on the floor and reached into the box, lifting out a Nike shoebox. Wayne abandoned what he was doing and politely took the shoebox, putting it on the bed.

“It’s, ahh . . . just some old stuff.”

Inside was a pile of photographs, a bottle of perfume, a gold ring with a simple ball-chain through it, the kind of necklace that usually has dog tags on it. Wayne took out the ring and reverently lowered the chain around his neck, letting the wedding band rest on his chest.

“Nice ring, Mr. Frodo.”

Wayne looked up. “It was my mom’s.” He picked up the photographs and shuffled through them with delicate hands.

The photos depicted separate events and locations—one seemed to be a very young Wayne celebrating a birthday in a dark kitchen, everything washed out by camera-flash, his face underlit by the feverish glow of a birthday cake; another was Wayne with his father and a pretty, small-framed Asian woman. She was in all of the photographs, always smiling, always touching, embracing, or pressing against her son.

Presently Pete came out of the funk and went back to pulling at the knot of cables. “What happened, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“She died a couple years ago. In Chicago. Cancer. Throat cancer, I think? Lung cancer? But it wasn’t really the cancer did it. Dad said, like, ‘complications’ or something. I don’t really know what that means. Something got infected.” Wayne lifted the ring to his eye as if it were a monocle and gazed through it, the gold clicking against his right eyeglasses lens. “A couple of months ago, Dad was like ‘man eff this shit, we need to get out of here, there’s too many memories here, we need a change of scenery,’ so he got a job down here and we packed up and left.”

“Damn, dude. I’m sorry.”

The eye inside the ring twitched toward Pete. Suddenly the soft brown eye seemed a decade older. “When I miss her, I like to look through the ring like it’s a peephole in a door. I pretend if I look through it I can see into a—uhh . . .”

“Another time? World? Dimension?

A weird door twelve feet up the lunchroom wall?

“Another world, yeah.” Wayne breathed on the ring, buffing a smudge with his shirt. Emotion etched a sudden sour knot at the base of his skull. “Feel like I can see into another world where she’s still alive. You know, like Alice in Wonderland, lookin’ through the lookin’-glass.”

Pete seemed as if he were about to say something, but cut himself off before it could get out of him. Wayne thought he knew what he was about to say. He had thought it himself before, hundreds of times. What if you look through that thing one day and she actually is there? he thought, peering at his tiny reflection in the gold gleam of the ring. What then, wise guy?

A glint of vivid red traced across the curve of the ring between his fingers.

Three hundred and six.

Glancing over his shoulder, Wayne expected to see his father’s cranberry Meijer tie, but nobody stood behind him.

“What was that about?” asked Pete.

“Hmm?” Wayne blinked, twisting to look down the stairwell. “Thought I saw—thought I saw something.”

Tense silence stretched out between them for a brief moment, and then Pete screwed up his face. “Don’t even go there, man,” he said, and went back to digging through the boxes, gingerly this time, as if afraid to move too quickly in the dusty solitude, and with a few hesitant glances up at the other boy.

Copyright © S.A. Hunt 2020

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