Authors: Katie Alender
Tags: #Fantasy, #Horror, #Young Adult, #Fiction - Young Adult
She’d backslid with a vengeance since her virtuous tarot card–burning days. For three weeks in a row, she’d come to Brighter Path with new stories of her paranormal adventures and new trinkets for the box.
As Savannah walked to the podium that day, Megan leaned toward me conspiratorially and whispered, “I’m starting to question her commitment.”
In the old days, that would have been a joke. And I would have had to pinch myself to keep from laughing and getting into trouble. But Megan was deadly serious, which made it about as funny as a funeral.
“Hello. Savannah, again,” she said, tossing her long ponytail and practically grinning. “Um…this week it was a Ouija board, levitating—”
Ben repeated, aghast.
“Well, we tried. And we made a chanting circle, and we found this book of charms and tried some of them.”
She held up a small blue paperback and shrugged. “None of it worked. I think it’s because my cousin wasn’t pure of intention, but—”
Savannah’s voice blurred in my mind as I stared at the paperback, grateful for once that Megan always wanted us to sit right up front so I could see the title of the book:
Charms for Containment of Hostile Spirits.
But more important, I could read the author’s name:
Walter Sawamura was the real deal. He’d written the book that helped me save my sister from the evil ghost that lived in our old house.
“Thank you, no need to go into detail,” Ben said hastily. He got up and held out the box, and Savannah piled her latest contraband—including the book—into it.
I was starting to think she might have a real problem, the kind of thing Brother Ben couldn’t fix. She was like a snorkeler throwing pork chops around in shark-infested waters. Eventually, some evil spirit was going to take a chomp out of her. I was even tempted to talk to her outside of Brighter Path.
One problem at a time, Alexis.
For the rest of the meeting I focused on thinking of a way to get to that book. I was so distracted that I didn’t even listen to Megan’s weekly testimony, and when she came back and sat next to me with that shiny hopeful look in her eyes, I didn’t have the energy to seem apologetic.
“Not this week,” I said.
She sighed and gave me a tiny smile. “Maybe next time.”
Yeah, sure. Not likely.
After Brother Ben delivered his closing “Choose the Brighter Path!” pep talk and said good-bye for the day, Megan gathered her things and looked at me expectantly.
“Um, hang on,” I said. “Wait for me outside, okay? I need to talk to Ben.”
Her eyes burned with curiosity, but she headed for the door.
Ben was packing up his plastic crate. He wasn’t even looking at the contraband box, which was unattended on a chair in the first row of seats. If I were slightly braver, I would have just opened it, grabbed what I wanted, and run out.
But I cleared my throat, and he stood up and turned to face me. “Lex! What’s up?”
I tried to look uncomfortable. It wasn’t much of a stretch. “I sort of have something to turn in. I couldn’t do it, you know, in front of…”
I was going to say
but Ben said, “Megan?”
He clasped his hands in front of his stomach. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“No,” I said. “Not really.”
His tiny eyes gave me a long appraising look. “This makes me feel a lot of hope for you, Alexis. I think you should be really proud of yourself.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“May I see it?” he asked.
Um. I hadn’t actually planned to produce an item. I was just going to pretend I had one and filch the book of charms. But I gave him a brave smile and dug around in my bag until I felt my fingers close around the first remotely suitable object—a Sharpie.
Ben’s expression was understandably confused when I held up a permanent marker.
“I’ve been, um, using this,” I said, “to create pictures. Of symbols and signs…and stuff.”
He nodded slowly.
“It’s more kind of…what it
?” I said.
“Of course,” he said. “Well, that’s very conscientious of you. Why don’t you go ahead and put it in the box?”
I smiled and turned away from him, blocking his view of the box with my body. I dropped the pen in with exaggerated loudness. But there was no way to slip the book out without his noticing.
“Good girl!” he said. “Now, want to help me carry this stuff out to my car?”
“Of course,” I said, picking up the box.
He lifted the crate and led the way. I followed a few feet behind, finally summoning the burst of daring I needed to open the cover of the box and remove the book, sliding it into my bag.
And then we were outside, where Megan was waiting on a bench, smiling bigger than she’d smiled at me in a long time.
Universe, 9 bazillion. Alexis, 1.
Then there was the question of how to actually
Ashleen. I turned on the local news as soon as I got home, hoping they would show a view from a helicopter. But Ashleen’s coverage was lighter than Kendra’s had been. They had a quick update about her—apparently the police had finally decided to get involved—and put her picture in a little on-screen graphic, but they didn’t go into much detail about the investigation.
The only way I’d get any information was to go after it myself. I grabbed my car keys and hurried out to my car before I could lose my nerve.
I stopped at the grocery store, bought a small vase of flowers, and drove across town to the Evanses’ house. Someone was home—there were cars in the driveway, so I walked up the front path and rang the doorbell.
Mrs. Evans pulled the door open. She looked at me vacantly for a moment, then blinked in recognition. One of the advantages of having white hair—people tend to remember meeting you. “Alexis?”
I held up the flowers. “Um, I brought you these.”
I’d intended to use the flowers as a reason to go there. What I hadn’t thought about was the fact that they made it seem like I thought Ashleen was dead. But from the way Mrs. Evans stared down at them, I realized my mistake.
“They’re to cheer you up,” I said stupidly, and she reached out and took the vase. She stepped back into the house, probably not intending to invite me in, but I followed her anyway.
We went all the way to the kitchen, where two boys, one older than me, one younger—both of whom looked like Ashleen—were moping at the table. They raised their heads when we came in, then slumped again.
“I wanted you to know how sorry I am,” I said, and Mrs. Evans startled and turned around, not expecting to see me behind her. “I’m sure she’s all right.”
Her eyes widened. “Do you know something? Something you want to tell me?”
“No,” I said. “Sorry. I’m just worried, and I thought coming here might…”
How to jump into the topic of where she might have gone?
Mrs. Evans went hazy again. But one of the boys at the table, the older one, looked at me.
“Did Ashleen like to hike?” I asked. “I’m just thinking if she had, you know, wilderness skills…”
The boy raised his eyebrows. “She didn’t hike. She rode horses. And she had plenty of survivalist experience. She did this ride last summer—one of those ‘live off the land’ things. She was gone for two weeks.” His voice swelled with pride.
“That’s great,” I said. “Where did she ride around here?”
“Mostly the trails over at Wyndham Forest,” the boy said. He leaned forward, his interest waning. “But they’ve searched it already.”
The younger boy looked up at me suddenly, his eyes burning. “Do you know how hard it is to find someone who doesn’t want to be found?”
“Shh,” the older boy said, putting a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “That forest ranger didn’t know what he was talking about.”
Then the younger boy started crying, and the older one glanced up at me.
“Thanks for coming by,” he said. “And thanks for the flowers.”
It’s time for you to go,
he didn’t say.
“You’re welcome,” I said, grateful for the opportunity to leave.
* * *
An expedition to a deep dark forest in the middle of the night wasn’t exactly my first choice, but there was no other way to get out the door without concocting an elaborate web of lies for my parents. So I passed the rest of the afternoon thumbing through the book of charms and marking the ones I hoped would be useful. I had a lot of faith in Walter Sawamura, so when the paragraph on the back of the book claimed it would help “send the lingering spirits of the dead onward to a state of permanent transitional resting,” especially since he promised “a minimum of trouble and danger to the executor of the spells,” I believed him. His work had saved a whole town full of women from my sister’s evil doll.
After my parents and sister went to bed, I slipped on a pair of jeans, a hoodie, and my Converse. I took a piece of chalk from the chalkboard that hung over my desk and dropped it into my pocket. Then I grabbed my coat, car keys, and wallet, and slipped silently out the front door.
It was weird. You’d think it would have felt like more of an event—giving up everything I’d spent a month trying to build for myself, jumping back into the fight.
But instead, it felt more like I was starting a really hard project for school—something I didn’t want to do but didn’t have a choice about.
As much as I hated the idea of having anything to do with ghosts, I couldn’t just sit back and let Lydia rampage around Surrey, hurting people. Until I found a way to stop her permanently, I might just have to stop her on a case-by-case basis.
Unless she stopped me first, of course.
As my headlights swept over the empty roads, I thought,
So much for normal.
PULLED DOWN A DIRT ACCESS
road and parked on the shoulder. In the highly unlikely event that someone came by, I’d just say I’d been driving home and got lost. That wouldn’t explain why I was wandering around in the forest, but if I combined it with a simpering helpless-teenager face, I was positive it would do the trick.
Logistically speaking, I felt pretty confident about the whole operation. The rain had let up, and the moon was full and round, bathing the night with blue light so bright that even under the canopy of the trees I could see the reddish-brown color of the pine needles on the ground. I had my phone with me, and approximately every fifty feet I checked to make sure the GPS signal worked so I could find my way back to my car. In case that failed, I also marked my trail, putting slashes of chalk on tree trunks to indicate which direction I should go to find the previous tree.
In other words, getting lost in the woods—not an option.
And I wasn’t exactly
of encountering Lydia—for all the awful things she’d done, she still had yet to really hurt me. I still thought of her as Lydia first, ghost second—more pest than danger. I couldn’t help it, even though I knew it would be smarter to see her as a real threat.
But my faith in the book of charms was nearly absolute. I had it tucked between my two sweatshirts, because just seeing it might even be enough to scare her off. I’d bookmarked “For Temporary Immobilization of Spirits” and “To Send Spirits to a State of Rest,” and I wanted her to stick around long enough for me to read one and dispatch her to the next plane. Lydia in a state of rest—someplace far, far away from me—sounded pretty heavenly, if you’ll excuse the pun.
An hour later, I was freezing through all of my layers and beginning to lose hope. My camera was slung around my neck, and I’d been taking pictures every twenty feet or so—trying to stay alert in case Lydia decided to drop a tree branch on my head (or the whole tree).
I’d seen one ghost so far—a Native American girl about my age, with a bullet hole in her shoulder and a healthy splotch of blood on her animal-skin cape. She was intent on some kind of hunt, and she didn’t even look up at the flash of the camera.
I kept moving.
The sound of every footstep, no matter how lightly I tried to tread, seemed magnified in the air around me. And the harder I concentrated, the longer I walked, the louder my breathing got. It became a complex little routine—walk, pause, chalk a tree, take picture, look at picture; repeat.
As the minutes continued to tick by, I wondered if I’d made a mistake. Luckily, not the terrifying kind of mistake I usually ended up stumbling into—more of a tactical error. Just because this was a place Ashleen knew didn’t mean I’d find her here. And if she wasn’t out here, what good would it do for me to be stomping around in the wilderness in the middle of the night? Like her brother said—they’d searched these woods already.
Two and a half hours in, there was no sign of Ashleen, the white light, or Lydia herself. If it hadn’t been for the fact that I was an ice cube on legs, I would have fallen asleep on my feet. A growing sense of futility began to overwhelm me. I gave myself five more pictures before I would call it a night and go home.
The next picture, nothing.
Or maybe just three more.
The next picture, nothing.
This will be the last one.
But in this picture—
nothing. Something up ahead, disappearing around a tree. I zoomed in on it.
The heel of a bare foot, mid-stride.
I hurried to that tree and took another volley of photographs, then started scanning them. Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing—
Ashleen. And she wasn’t lying on the ground, comatose. She was standing up, walking around.
I looked up. “Ashleen!” I called. “Ashleen! It’s Alexis!”
There was no answer. I sped up to a trot, as fast as I dared go on unfamiliar terrain.
“Hello? Ashleen? Are you out here?”
I went about fifty feet before stopping to take more pictures. If I could find the bright white light that I’d seen when I found Kendra, I’d know Lydia was nearby and I could force her to lead me to Ashleen. I took one last exposure and looked down at the screen.
“Oh,” I said, taking an unsteady step backward.
Ashleen was standing in front of me.
But only in the picture.
It was like I was suddenly two people: myself, stunned, mentally and emotionally; and also a version of myself who was vividly aware that there was a ticking clock counting down the seconds until I completely and utterly lost the ability to think or act rationally.
Ashleen, a girl I knew well enough to call a friend—a girl whose party I’d been to a few days earlier—was dead.
I’d never seen the ghost of a person I knew before—I mean, besides Lydia. But Lydia was no friend to me.
I wandered away and sat on a fallen log, squeezing my eyes shut to hold back the tears. I couldn’t let my emotions take over. I couldn’t let myself think about Ashleen’s mother or brothers—or my mother—or anyone at school or how they would react. Not out here in the middle of the woods. Not when I was a sitting duck for Lydia to attack.
“Stop it,” I said out loud. “Stop it. Get a hold of yourself.”
For a moment I sat among the soft sounds of the February night. There were no birds singing, no insects creaking—only the rustling of the pine trees around me.
I sighed and looked at the picture again.
Ashleen stood a few feet away from me, staring right at the camera. She was barefoot, wearing a light purple dress made of gauzy layers of fabric. The top was detailed, ruffly, and feminine. But the bottom of the dress just kind of…disappeared. I mean, looking at it, you couldn’t really say, “That’s the bottom of the dress.” It just dissolved into the air.
I stared at it, with a sense déjà vu, until it hit me: it was the dress from the dream I’d had the night of Ashleen’s party.
I looked around, suddenly in a panic, thinking that not only had Lydia just crossed over from bad ghost to evil ghost, but that there was a distinct possibility she could invade my subconscious mind, too. But even if she could plant dreams in my head, why would she use a purple dress? As far as I could remember, I’d never seen Lydia wearing a dress like that one. What could it mean?
I looked back down at the picture and studied Ashleen’s confused expression. Sometimes ghosts don’t understand what’s happened to them—they don’t even know they’re dead. So they just wander, thinking they’re in a dream.
But it wasn’t the look on her face—or even the dress—that bothered me the most.
bizarre thing was that, in her left hand, Ashleen held a bouquet of yellow roses.
In all my pictures of ghosts, I’d never seen one actually carrying something that wasn’t part of what they wore when they died. For example, one day I’d taken a picture of a woman downtown—she wore a long black Edwardian-era dress and walked hunched over, with her hands out in front of her. The whole effect was startling and horrible, almost demonic, like she was prowling around, ready to strike out at someone.
Then, after watching her pass countless living people without even noticing them, I realized what she was doing: pushing a baby carriage. Only, the baby carriage didn’t exist in her ghostly plane. Have you ever heard the saying,
You can’t take it with you
? Well, it’s true. Unless you’re wearing it, you can’t.
So why—and how—was Ashleen’s ghost holding roses?
There was something else in the last picture. I glanced at the photograph and noticed, over her shoulder, a bright white spot of light, barely shining through the trees.
My heart raced. I raised my camera, removed the lens cap, and flashed off a few more exposures.
Ashleen had begun to wander away, but the light was still there. It was getting closer, in fact.
“I’m sorry, Ashleen,” I said into the night air. But I wasn’t focused on her any longer. I had to get rid of Lydia before she could do this to anyone else.
“Lydia!” I called, in the direction of the light. “Stop being a coward and show yourself!”
I reached for the charm book and opened it to one of the pages I’d bookmarked. My hands shook as I looked over the spell. Should I immobilize her first and then send her away? Or just send her away? The immobilization spell was much shorter. I had a better chance of actually finishing it.
I began to read it aloud.
“Excuse me.” Lydia’s voice interrupted me. “What are you doing?”
I raised my voice and kept reading.
Lydia slapped the book from my hands.
As I knelt to pick it up, she got right in my face. “I asked you a question. Why are you out here in the middle of the night?”
“I know what you did,” I said. The bookmarks had fallen out of the book, so I flipped through the pages. I found the “move to a transitional state” first and held the book in an iron grip.
Lydia looked over my shoulder. “What does that mean? A transitional state? Permanently? Do you know what that sounds like?”
“It sounds awesome,” I said, starting to read.
“No,” Lydia said, having the gall to act appalled. “It sounds like limbo. Like a gray void. You would put me in a gray void forever?” She tried to knock the book out of my hands again, but her fingers passed right through it.
She was weak right now. I stopped reading and looked at her, unable to pass up the opportunity to tell her off.
“You made the choice,” I said. “You’re the one who killed Ashleen.”
Her eyes went wide. “Who’s Ashleen?”
“Give me a break.”
“No, seriously. Who’s Ashleen?” She looked around. “Is there a killer out here?”
Oh. My. God. “You’re already dead, Lydia,” I said. “And if you didn’t kill her, who did? And why does she have your yellow roses?”
“What yellow roses?” she asked. She was beginning to sound scared. “Alexis, I don’t
to go to a transitional plane forever. I didn’t kill anybody—”
whatever” in the history of humanity
I glanced down at the page and opened my mouth to read the spell, determined not to let her distract me again.
It swirled in circles just like it had in the empty field—a tornado of malevolent energy, with me at its center. I felt it pulse against my skin like the wings of a thousand evil butterflies.
And in one motion, the book was ripped from my hands.
It exploded into dust in midair.
I shrieked, unable to stop myself, and covered my ears with my palms. Then, in a panic, I turned to run, my camera bouncing against my side. I felt a crunch and the rough jolt of a tree trunk against my hip, and changed directions.
Still, the laughter followed me, wrapping around me as tightly as a spider binding its prey.
If only I could find my way out of the woods—back to my car—
But my mind flailed like a bird with a broken wing. There was no way I would be able to focus enough to find the trees I’d marked. I’d be driven deeper and deeper into the woods—and if I didn’t freeze to death or fall off a cliff, I’d be driven mad by the laughter.
Suddenly, my mad scrambling carried me through a pocket of freezing air.
As I tumbled out the other side, the laughter disappeared.
I plopped to the ground, my breath as loud in my ears as a passing train, and looked up to see Lydia standing a few feet away.
She pursed her lips and stared down at me.
“Why…?” I had to stop speaking to suck more air into my lungs. “
I couldn’t contain my tears anymore, and I started to sob.
It was the ultimate display of weakness, and I expected Lydia to try to hurt me, to torment me, to chase me farther into the woods.
But she didn’t.
A few minutes passed, and Lydia didn’t go away. She didn’t speak, either.
She just stood there, looking at me.
Finally, I got to my feet, my legs unsteady beneath me. “I’ll leave you alone. I won’t try to send you to the void. I swear to God. Just stop hurting people. Please, Lydia.”
Without speaking, she turned to walk away. Her body grew fainter and fainter.
“Please!” I cried, too exhausted for pride. “I’ll get down on my knees and beg you, if that’s what you want. Or take me—kill me—do whatever you want to me, but…”
She was gone.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket and groaned. The crunch I’d felt when I hit the tree had been the face of my phone cracking.
I drew in a breath of cold air, burning my throat and lungs.
I was totally lost, with no way to get back to my car.
Life’s not fair—I get it—but this was ridiculous.
And then there was a sudden sharp
and I looked up just in time to see a huge branch about to fall right where I was standing. I rushed out of the way, swinging around another tree trunk, full-on bear-hugging it like a frightened toddler hugging her mother’s leg.
After the massive branch crashed to the ground, and the dust and leaves settled, I took a step back…and saw the chalk slash on the bark of the tree in front of me.