Late November 1961
Angry thunder rumbled from the thick, heavy clouds that hung low in the night sky.
A woman sat at her kitchen table, alone in the dark. The only light was a solitary candle that flickered in the center. The flame made eerie shadows move across her face.
“Are you there?” she asked, eyes tightly shut as she concentrated.
They opened with a start when she smelled the air around her grow sweeter. She trembled as she watched the flame weaken, as if something was drawing from its energy.
A voice whispered from the darkest corner of the room, “I hear you.”
The woman tried not to tremble. “Can you help me?” she asked in an unsteady voice.
“Help?” he asked, suspiciously.
“Will you give me the ability to do magic?”
“What would you do with it?”
The woman thought for a moment about claiming she only wanted to help others. But when she considered who she was talking to, she knew there was no need to pretend she was a better person than she was. So, she opted with the truth. “I want people to be afraid of me.”
“Afraid? Of you?”
“If need be. I want to be able to make my own justice, if I think I am being treated unfairly.”
“Justice? Don’t you mean revenge?”
“I suppose. I’m not currently seeking vengeance, but it would be comforting to know I could, if the occasion should ever present itself.”
The woman suddenly felt warm breath on her ear. “You know I crossed paths with your friends not so long ago. And you know how that turned out,” he chuckled. “Why would you risk dealing with me?”
“Who else can I ask? Besides, they were simpletons,” she snapped. “They didn’t know what they were doing.”
“And you do?”
“I know that in the end, you always wanted something in return. So, let’s decide what it is you want up front.”
The voice came from another corner of the room now. “What do you have that I would want?”
“A child—a son or daughter of your very own.”
The shadowy figure moved into the light, its hideous face now revealed. For a moment the woman regretted what she’d said. But, only for a moment. The creature sat down across from her.
He sniffed the air like a hound. “Your womb is barren. It smells of rot.”
The woman snarled. “I have relatives. The next child born into my family is yours.”
He mulled over her offer for a long minute before speaking again. The woman twisted nervously in her chair as she waited for his response. “I will decide when the time is right and which child I get—not you.”
“Makes no difference to me. Deal.” The woman proffered her hand so that they could shake. When the creature hesitated, she worried that maybe she had seemed to callous, even for him.
Finally, he reached out to her. His knobby fingers were covered in decaying flesh looking as if it might fall off the bone, like a rack of ribs that had been grilled for far too long. He turned the woman’s hand palm-side up, then took his claw-like nail and punctured her skin. She winced when he dragged his nail across the width of her palm, making a trail of blood. He then did the same to his hand, but a black mucus bubbled out instead of blood. It smelled like rancid meat, and the woman almost gagged. He laced her fingers tight with his and squeezed until a suction formed between their wounds. Their blood pulsated in and out of them both, mixing as it bound them to their agreement.
The woman never once second-guessed her decision. All she’d ever wanted was to be powerful and feared. And now it was going to happen.
Scarlett couldn’t believe she was wandering around town—alone at night. It wasn’t a safe area for anyone, much less a seventeen-year-old girl. Men turned in her direction when she passed and it frightened her, even though they seemed to look through her like she wasn’t even there. She pulled her jacket snuggly around herself and attempted to hide inside her scarf. The crisp air still managed to nip at her face.
She sighed. Only a moment ago, she’d been with her best friend—warm and safe in Ellie’s car, listening to her favorite song. Scarlett had been enjoying herself, even though Ellie had seemed bothered when Scarlett changed the station.
A moment later, they’d gone inside an unfamiliar bookstore, which Scarlett would’ve normally loved, but the store had been packed and loud. And lately, Scarlett had found herself not caring for crowds or noise. She’d had such an incredibly strong urge to leave, as if something was tugging at her. Ellie had ignored her pleas to leave. So, without another word, Scarlett had slipped out.
She didn’t understand what was happening between her and Ellie. Ellie had always been such a good friend. The one good constant in her life. But the last few days, Ellie had grown distant, their strained friendship quickly becoming another casualty in Scarlett’s miserable life. Still, Scarlett was desperate to hold on to it. Ellie was Scarlett’s only link to her past—living proof it had actually existed.
Scarlett took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She still felt like she was being pulled somewhere. She didn’t recognize her surroundings, and it was so late now, so she knew she should probably just try to find her way home. But home was the last place she wanted to be. Home was her family, but they were gone and the brick and mortar that remained was now filled with strangers who didn’t love her… and didn’t want her there.
Scarlett felt like the devil had dug his claws deep into her life. When she tried to escape, when she even thought about being happy, he would dig in even more and something else terrible would happen. She felt like a fish fighting a hook, not realizing her efforts only made the hook embed itself deeper. Her throat burned as she strained to compose herself. She couldn’t break down now. She needed to be aware of her surroundings.
Scarlett’s scalp suddenly prickled—she sensed she was being watched. Someone was behind her now. “There you are,” said a smooth voice. Scarlett’s heart pumped so hard she thought the blood would burst from her eardrums. The voice came closer. Scarlett refused to turn around. Something inside her told her to keep going and not look back. Her eyes darted about, searching for help.
“Scarlett Rose.” The voice had a slight echo, almost like a song. “You got away from me once before, but not again.”
Excruciating pain shot through Scarlett’s head. Or was it her neck? She couldn’t pinpoint it, because the pain now radiated throughout her body. There was a ringing in her ears and then—quiet.
Scarlett realized how odd it was that she noticed the stars as she lay there on her back. Pinpricks of light in a canvas of endless dark. A warm calmness began to wash over her, reminding her of when she, Ellie and a boy named Leo had lain on the beach as kids and let the water run around their bodies when the waves spilled onto the shore. It was funny how her mind seemed to always travel back to that memory. As her eyes began to close, the stars became distorted. Their points looked elongated, as if beams of light were shooting from them. Even though she felt weak, she focused on them with intensity. And then, a strange thing began to happen. Scarlett’s chest tightened. It felt hot. It was as if she was being pulled up by her heart instead of by her hands—like there were invisible strings attached to her, tugging at her. And then it hit her all at once. For such an unusual experience, she realized she had experienced it once before. Hadn’t she?
The next thing Scarlett knew, she was on her feet. She looked around for help, and a faint light she hadn’t noticed before caught her eye—a gas lamp, jetting from the side of a building down a dark and narrow alley. She felt drawn to it. Had that been what had drawn her out of the bookstore in the first place? Hoping she wouldn’t regret it, she ran for the light as fast as she could.
The dark, metal lamp seemed older than the building it was attached to. A flame flickered from within the thick, antique glass, giving her just enough light to observe the wooden door it flanked. It was wider than an average door, very tall, and covered in flat, black paint. It looked heavy and sturdy. To the right of the door was a large, dense window that was impossible to see through. But the soft, yellow glow that came from it was inviting. Scarlett opened the door and warm air drew her in, scented with freshly baked bread and a hint of cinnamon. The hushed conversations inside suddenly stopped, and every eye rested heavily on Scarlett. Scarlett’s mouth suddenly went dry, and her throat felt like something was lodged in it. It reminded her of the time she’d gotten stage fright when performing in her fifth-grade play.
Scarlett could still sense the ominous presence getting closer. She wasn’t sure what to do. “Quick, close the door,” said a heavyset woman wearing an apron.
Scarlett followed her instruction. “How’d you find this place?” the woman asked next. Everyone in the room waited for an answer.
“Speak up, dear,” said the woman.
Scarlett felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment.
“For crying out loud, Trudy, give the girl a drink,” said an elderly man who looked like he could have just come from plowing his field with an ox.
Trudy rolled her eyes at the man, then went to the bar, retrieved a mug and handed it to Scarlett.
Scarlett gladly accepted the heavy, frosted-glass mug. She sipped its contents, then gulped it. It tasted exactly like winter. Scarlett shivered as she wiped the side of her mouth. “What was that?”
Trudy seemed pleased with Scarlett’s reaction as she took the mug back.
“Oh, come on now, Trudy. You can’t take credit for the water here.”
“I most certainly can, Thomas,” she snapped at the man in the overalls. “The way I serve it adds to the effect, I’m sure. Now tell us—how’d you find this place?”
“I don’t even know where I am,” Scarlett said, her eyes wandering around the room. It was a tavern, she supposed. She marveled at the large, wooden beams that ran across the ceiling. A cozy sitting area consisting of two wingback chairs and a small sofa sat in front of an imposing stone fireplace that was burning low in the back corner. It illuminated the people who sat in mismatched chairs huddled around small, wooden tables. They were a blend of young and old, dressed in clothing from different time periods. They didn’t frighten her in the least, but there was something besides their clothing that seemed odd about them—something unusual about the way they made her feel.
Scarlett watched as the flames of stubby, white candles made shadows dance on their faces. The large amount of wax that had puddled around them made it appear as though they had burned for years.
“What happened, just before you found this place?” asked Thomas.
“I was running from… someone. Whoever it was caught me, but only for a second.” Scarlett felt nervous as she thought about how that thing had seemed to know her. He’d called her by name. And when he’d pulled her onto her back, it had felt like she’d died. But she didn’t dare tell these people—these strangers—all of this. “I got away.” She attempted to sum up the entire event like it was nothing consequential.
Trudy and Thomas shot each other a look and everyone in the room began to murmur.
Scarlett didn’t understand their reaction. Her uneasiness grew stronger. “I think maybe I tripped and fell and hit my head or something. I have to go,” she said.
“No, wait,” said Trudy. “It’s not safe.”
“I’m sure whatever—whoever it was is gone by now. And, like I said, I probably did hit my head. I’m sure I just imagined it all. I have to go ho—” Scarlett couldn’t bring herself to say the word home.
“Do you have a name, child?” asked Trudy, her voice so calm and gentle now.
Trudy looked at Thomas for a moment. “That’s beautiful. And now that I’ve gotten a good look at ya,” she said, glancing at Thomas once again, “I can see you look like a Scarlett.” Trudy seemed thoughtful for a moment. “My mother’s name was Scarlett, so I would know. A fitting name for such a beautiful young lady.” For a moment, Scarlett thought Trudy might hug her.
Scarlett took one last quick look around. She liked this place. It was cozy and inviting. She would’ve liked to sit down and stay for a while, at least long enough for a cup of hot chocolate.
As she turned and reached for the handle, Thomas called after her. “Don’t go, Scarlett.”
“Or at least let me go with you,” an unfamiliar voice called out.
Scarlett turned around. Her eyes panned the room for a moment before a young guy, not much older than her, stood up. He was tall and dressed in modern-day attire, jeans and a T-shirt. Beneath his long, dark, tousled bangs lay even darker eyes. The shadows under them matched the shadow on his jaw. “Please,” he added.
Thomas and Trudy seemed to be having a conversation without saying a word. Trudy finally said, “You should go with him, girl. Zep’s a good guy. He’ll watch over you.”
Scarlett had absolutely no reason to trust Trudy, but for some reason she did. And if she was being completely honest with herself, she wanted to believe her. She was afraid to go out alone.
“OK,” said Scarlett.
The corner of Zep’s mouth lifted. He reached for the black hoodie that was draped over the back of his chair and slipped it over his head. Scarlett’s heart raced as he drew near. He looked even bigger up close. He reached around her and pulled the door open for her. A gust of cold air lifted her long waves of chestnut hair as she stepped out into the darkness. When Zep protectively placed his hand on the small of her back to guide her out into the alley, she suddenly didn’t feel quite as cold.
The Book Signing
Ellie drove alone in the darkness. She wished Scarlett was with her and hoped she’d be able to give her the book she’d had signed earlier that night.
Out of habit, she reached to turn on the radio for company, but decided against it. It had been acting wonky lately, which made her feel anxious. She bumped up the heater instead. It was getting colder out, and she was glad. Even though she didn’t care for winter, summer carried too many painful memories.
Her phone startled her when it rang, but she welcomed the distraction.
“Hey Mom,” she said.
“Just checking on you. Everything alright?”
Ellie could tell her mom was worried. She didn’t want her to be. “I’m great!” she lied.
“Yeah, I had a lot of fun. I was able to get the book signed.”
“That’s fantastic! Are you still there?”
“I’m actually on my way home. But only because I’m tired.”
“Yes. I’ll see you in a minute. I’m about to pull in now.”
Ellie didn’t like lying to her mom. But she wanted to make her feel better.
Ellie’s mom was waiting at the door, her bright auburn hair—which Ellie had inherited—glowing in the porch light. She was overprotective, but when Ellie wasn’t feeling annoyed, she understood why.
“Hey,” Ellie said as she stepped out of the car and walked towards her mom.
They chatted in the den for a while, long enough for her mom to decide she was OK, Ellie thought, before calling it a night.
“You go ahead, Mom. I was just going to watch TV for a minute, and I’ll lock everything up.”
“OK. Goodnight, sweetie.” She leaned down and gave Ellie a kiss on the top of her head.
Ellie didn’t really want to watch TV—she was just stalling. Hoping in vain to put off the inevitable. She knew if she pretended to accidentally fall asleep on the couch again, her mom would get suspicious, and she didn’t want that.
With a sigh, Ellie finally turned off the TV, and all but one lamp. She made sure the doors were locked and made her way down the hall on the other side of the house, glad to see that all her nightlights were working to light her path.
She felt better once she turned on her bedside lamp. Then she turned on her TV for noise and jumped in the shower.
When she slid between her sheets, she signed. Tonight was going to be peaceful. She was so certain, she turned the TV and lamp off and shut her eyes.
“So, what exactly was that place?” asked Scarlett the second the door closed behind them.
Zep shrugged. “Just a hangout.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“A hangout for oddballs?” Scarlett teased.
“Oddballs, huh?” Zep laughed. “We are a little different, I guess.”
Scarlett looked Zep up and down in the triangle of streetlight they were passing through. She wondered for the first time who he was.
“So, what were you doing there?” she asked, trying to learn a little bit about him. She didn’t know Zep well enough to share silence comfortably with him, the way she used to with Ellie and Leo. And she figured as long as he was talking, he probably wasn’t contemplating her murder.
He shrugged. “Hanging out. What else would you do at a hangout?” A slow grin crept across his face. He was showing signs of being a smart ass, and Scarlett wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. “So, you were surprised to find me there, because you don’t think I’m odd?”
“No. You seem pretty cool. I guess.” His grin got a little bigger. “Whatever.”
Zep wasn’t much of a conversationalist. His thoughts were obviously elsewhere. And even more unnerving, now and then he would look behind them and from side to side. Scarlett couldn’t help but worry. Was he looking out for a boogie man, or for any potential witnesses?
Scarlett began to question her sanity. Maybe she had a subconscious death wish? She felt herself morphing into the insecure teenager she thought she’d overcome and she wondered if Zep regretted offering to walk her home. Pathetic, she thought.
“So, how about instead of going home, we go find something to do instead?”
Scarlett was glad he didn’t seem to regret being here, but she didn’t think it was a good idea to go roaming around with him either. “It’s tempting, but I’m beyond tired.” And she was. She couldn’t remember ever feeling this tired before. This weak.
“Oh, come on, would you look at this night?” He gazed up at the sky. “How can you possibly want this to end? We should climb on top of a roof and stare at the moon a while. Something—anything.”
“I feel like you’re trying to keep me away from my house.” Scarlett was teasing, but she thought for a moment Zep looked guilty. She shrugged it off.
She was beat. In fact, the whole night had been so crazy she had to consider the possibility she was actually asleep that very moment. And didn’t she have school tomorrow? Ugh, school. Her grades had really been suffering lately. And being on the honor roll was the least of her concerns. Her thoughts had become so jumbled and sporadic, it made her head hurt.
She was relieved when they finally came to a stop in front of a small, single-story house. “This is me,” she said.
Zep stared at it and the surrounding houses for a moment, taking it all in. “It’s kind of dark.”
“No one’s waiting up for me. They’re probably hoping I won’t come home.”
He crinkled his forehead. “Why would you say that about your family?”
“My family is dead.”
Maybe Zep was just shocked by her answer, but he seemed awfully hurt by the news.
“They died? How? When?”
“My dad had a brain tumor a few years back. And about a year ago, my mom and my little brother were killed in a car accident.”
Zep swallowed, like he was trying to wash down shards of glass. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered. Looking at his shoes, he asked, “So who are you living with?”
“My mom freaked out when my dad died, so she got married again right away, to a guy named Jay. He lives here.” Scarlett nodded toward the house. “And his girlfriend, too.”
Scarlett took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She had to lie down. “It’s late. I guess I’d better get inside. Thanks for walking with me.”
He seemed reluctant to let her go, but he didn’t protest. He also didn’t walk away, as far as she could tell. She wondered if he would stay out there all night…
Scarlett quietly slid her bedroom window open and climbed through, immediately jarred by what she saw. There were boxes stacked everywhere. Her room looked like a warehouse.
She stuck her head out the window. “Are you still there?” she called in a loud whisper.
Zep raced across the lawn. “Yeah.”
“I told you they didn’t want me here.”
Zep looked through the window at the boxes stacked on the floor of Scarlett’s room, and on her bed.
“I mean—just look at this!” Before Zep could stop her, she swung back her arm and sent one of the boxes slamming to the floor. A picture of her family was among the contents that spilled out.
Footsteps from down the hall grew louder. “Come on, Scarlett! Let’s get out of here!”
Scarlett escaped, and Zep shut the window just before the room lit up. A woman screamed. “Look, Jay!” she said as she pointed with a shaky finger at the spilled contents of the box. “It was her again! I know it was!”
“Scarlett?” Jay called out in an uncharacteristically meek tone.
Zep pulled Scarlett by the hand before she could respond.
“Where are we going?” asked Scarlett.
“Away from here,” said Zep.
“I’m not afraid of them.” Scarlett’s weak voice caught his attention more fully than if she had yelled at him. He stopped at the edge of the yard and looked down at her. That was exactly what she was—afraid. She closed her eyes when he touched her cheek, pressing her face into his palm for a moment.
“I can go stay at my friend’s,” she said when she pulled away.
“Hey.” She gave him a playful push, not much more than a touch. She was getting even weaker. “Don’t sound so surprised. I admit it, Ellie and I have been going through a rough patch. But she still lets me crash there when I need to.”
“What is it?” asked Scarlett when Zep didn’t respond.
“Nothing. It’s late. That’s all.”
“It’s just right here.” She pointed.
Scarlett took off and managed to give the window a tap before Zep caught her arm.
“What are you doing?” she said, incredulous. “Who else can I stay with?”
Scarlett felt staggered by his offer, and leery. She would feel guilty if he was just trying to be helpful… But how could she not be suspicious of his motives?
A light in Ellie’s parents’ bedroom came on.
“Where?” asked Scarlett, desperate.
“I know a place I think you’ll like. The people there are a little odd…” He grinned. “But it’s warm and safe and we can get something to eat.”
Ellie woke with a start. She could’ve sworn she’d heard a knock at her window, but apparently not—there was no one there when she checked. She crawled back into bed and gazed out into the night, finding it hard to go back to sleep. Her mind traveled straight to the book she’d had autographed.
Brisco Kain was one of Scarlett’s favorite authors, an ex-detective who had written several books about crimes he’d solved.
Who Ellie found most interesting, though, was Brisco’s wife, Agatha. Though not a detective herself, Brisco had turned to her for help in solving a number of cases, describing her in his books as “insightful” and having “very strong intuition.” Ellie wasn’t exactly sure what this meant, but she was desperate, and thought it couldn’t hurt to speak with her. Lucky for Ellie, the couple had recently moved to their summer home in Misty Waters, and Agatha had agreed to meet for a cup of coffee in the morning.
Scarlett was sure she was paying attention this time, but the gas lamp seemed to appear from out of nowhere yet again. She must’ve been even more exhausted than she’d realized, if her eyes were starting to play tricks on her. But she was so grateful for that glow. It was like a lighthouse, beckoning her.
She stumbled. “Careful,” Zep said gently, “or I’ll have to carry you.”
Scarlett smiled nervously and wished she were with Ellie and Leo.
He pulled her close to him. She felt like a small bird, pulled under the protection of a strong wing. She drew strength as well as warmth from him, and thought if she could stay close to him like this, she might be able to walk another hundred miles.
Before Zep could even reach the handle, Thomas opened the door for them, as if he’d been waiting.
Zep walked Scarlett toward the quaint sitting area, in front of the fireplace in the back corner of the room. A large ottoman had been pushed up against the couch, forming a makeshift bed. Resting on the ottoman was a pillow and a neatly folded, handmade quilt of colorful mismatched squares. Scarlett couldn’t believe how much it reminded her of the one her mother had made with the help of her grandmother. Scarlett loved that quilt. Her family used to snuggle up under it to watch TV.
“Here’s some hot potato soup.” Trudy set a couple bowls on a table, and the steam rising from them carried a delicious aroma into the air.
Scarlett’s bowl was almost empty when she realized Zep had barely touched his. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“Not really.” He looked like he was holding back a laugh.
“What?” Scarlett suddenly felt self-conscious and wiped her mouth. She blushed when she realized she’d had a spot of soup on her lip. “Well, that’s embarrassing.”
“Don’t wipe it off on my account. I think adds character, like a scar or something.”
“Very funny.” Scarlett spoke in an annoyed tone, but he made her stomach tickle.
Trudy took their dishes. “That was wonderful, Trudy. It tasted like—I mean exactly like—my grandma’s.”
“Glad you liked it.” She placed her hand on Scarlett’s cheek. “Sleep well, dear.” She patted Zep on the shoulder and then went up a creaky staircase.
Zep and Scarlett moved to the fireplace and sat on opposite ends of the couch, listening to the orange coals pop and crackle. The only light in the room now came from the fire.
Scarlett stole glances at Zep’s profile. She couldn’t help but admire his strong jawline—he looked as if he’d been chiseled from stone.
“What?” asked Zep, without looking away from the fire.
Scarlett jerked her head forward, realizing she’d been busted.
He turned towards her, and she could feel the weight of his stare. “You were looking at me.”
She found it hard to breathe, much less speak. And she didn’t know what to say anyway.
“Hello?” he prodded.
“I wanted to see what you looked like.”
He chuckled. “Well?”
“Well what?” Scarlett felt a little annoyed. “I’ve just met you. And this is the longest I’ve seen you in the light. Sheesh.”
He placed his arm on the top of the couch and leaned back, giving her a better look. “Whatta ya think?” he said with a cocky grin.
She reached for the pillow and threw it at his smug face.
He caught it, fluffed it, and then placed it on his lap. He looked up at Scarlett through his bangs with remorseful puppy-dog eyes and invitingly patted the pillow. Scarlett hesitated, but only for a moment. Before she could change her mind, she lay down and rested her head on the pillow, watching as small flames flickered in and out of the charred wood. Zep reached for the quilt and covered her with it, then kicked off his shoes and put his feet up on the ottoman. He leaned his head back and let out a deep sigh.
Scarlett couldn’t help but wonder if this place and its comfort were too good to be true. If it all turned out to be a dream when she woke in the morning, she’d be very disappointed.
When Zep first touched Scarlett’s hair, her scalp tingled from his unfamiliar touch. But with each stroke, her eyelids grew heavy, until it was the last thing she remembered.
Ellie made it to the diner a few minutes before nine. She sat in a window booth and ordered a coffee and a cup of tea. Beginning to feel warm, she removed her scarf and laid it on the table. Seconds later, a car pulled into the lot. That’s Agatha’s, Ellie assumed. It’s old and small, just like her.
Ellie was right. She watched as Agatha eased out of the car, crazy curls springing from her head to form a white halo around her face. Even before Agatha’s shoulders had started to bend with osteoporosis, Ellie bet the petite woman had stood under five feet tall.
Ellie suddenly felt nervous. She couldn’t believe she was doing this. She thought about leaving five dollars on the table and darting out the side door, but when an image of Scarlett flashed through her mind, she knew she had to stay.
A bell jingled when the door opened. Ellie raised her hand and waved at Agatha. When Agatha smiled, Ellie’s fear swirled down an invisible drain. “I hope this is OK?” said Ellie as she motioned towards the booth.
“This is perfect, dear,” said Agatha. “I like booths best and I always sit by the window—even if I have to wait.” She slipped her tiny frame between the table and the bench.
“So, you were able to find this place without any trouble?” said Ellie. She felt a bit awkward attempting to make small talk, but she wasn’t brave enough to ask what she really wanted to know.