1757, Governing: "Guardian, Brethren and citizens alike should be warned never to speak to anyone or anything met in the woods, even a proclaimed rescuer; never to strike a bargain nor to make a deal with such a one that assuredly is an Agent of the Great Evil. This must never be done, no matter how tempting the bargain or deal, no matter how desperate the need."
~History, Knowledge, Governing and Prophecy of the Protectorate
"To take evil by the hand is to sell your soul. To run from evil is to save it."
~The Protectorate Book of Wisdom
October 31, 1991
The witching hour
"'Two of them stood in the window outside--a boy and a small girl. Pale, they were. Not ghosts. Not human. "Papa," they called as one, yet their lips never moved. They stood like corpses, unaffected by the driving wind and rain. Lightning crashed. Horribly white faces, eyes covered with a milky film, became illuminated in the glare. "Papa, we're lost in the woods. The witch will eat us. Help us, Papa. Find us--'"
A scratching noise, like fingernails down a windowpane, sounded, and sixteen-year-old Amethyst Phillips halted in telling her spooky tale. Across from her in the flicker of the candle--the only light in the room--her best friend, Diane Anders, sat cross-legged, her eyes round with fear. Amethyst fought an urge to jump up and turn on the overhead lamp. Her heart beat wildly in her chest. I've brought them. Conjured Hansel and Gretel with my telling, just like Daddy always warned me against... A scream began to form in her chest.
"Papa," came two wavery voices. Not Diane, trying to scare her with her own story. Contradictorily, the mingled voices seemed to come from a distance and yet close by.
Ghostly pale figures jumped at the window outside Diane's room. Amethyst and Diane screamed in unison. Instinctively, Amethyst flew into the space between the bed and the dresser and huddled there. Diane leapt to her feet to turn on the lights and blot out the fear darkness invoked. In the light, they saw Diane's twin brothers still wearing their Halloween masks. The ghouls didn't look anywhere near as scary as they had a moment ago.
"You jerks!" Diane shook her fist at her mischievous younger brothers outside the window.
They went lurching away, still crying, "Papa!"
Pushing her long braid back over her shoulder, Diane turned back to Amethyst. "Those jerks," she said again.
"Total dweebs," Amethyst agreed, trying to sound mad instead of afraid, but her voice trembled. When she crawled back out into the middle of the floor, Diane started giggling. Though her heart was pounding painfully, Amethyst tried to join in, but still felt too shaken.
"It's my turn to tell a spooky story," Diane said.
Amethyst sighed inwardly, sorry she'd made the pact with her friend to each tell a story at the witching hour this Halloween night.
Before she came to sit on the other side of the candle, Diane shut off the lights again. Amethyst crossed her arms in front of her tightly. She hated scary stories, but Diane had always loved them. As if there weren't already too many creepy things in the world.
"Mine's not really a story," Diane explained. "It's something my cousin in Chicago told me."
"Well, my cousin said the dad of one of his friends did this when he was a kid. He put a tape recorder in the scariest room in the house--an old cubbyhole that hadn't been used, like, since his family moved into that house. The first time he went in the cubbyhole, he'd been playing hide and seek with his older brother. But that first time creeped him out. He said he felt like he wasn't alone in there. The place was small and cold and dark, and he said it smelled like dead, rotting things."
Rotting corpses, Amethyst thought with a shiver, just like in the cellar in the basement at home.
"He decided to find out if anything did live in there. He put the tape recorder in the far back corner of the cubbyhole with a blank tape inside to record. He pressed record, then went to bed. When he returned to get it the next morning, he rewound it and played it. For a long time, he didn't hear anything. Then, toward the end of the tape, when he was about to give up, he heard odd scraping noises. Low growls coming from a distance. Then he heard a voice, whispering..."
"Whispering what?" Amethyst demanded when her friend paused for just a little too long. She just wanted to be done with these stupid stories over so they could go get a snack and forget all the spooky stuff.
"'You have made contact, mortal,'" Diane said in a deep, evil voice. "'Now your soul belongs to me. On a full moon, when the wind howls for blood, I will require your soul. You will know I am near when my icy fingers dance along your spine.'"
"That's it?" Amethyst asked, feigning boredom. The hair at the back of her neck stood on end, but Diane couldn't see that.
"No. That's not all. There's more. My cousin's dad's friend died a couple years after that. He was skiing at Mt. Hood. A storm blew up suddenly. They found his body the next day. Frozen in the snow. Somebody remembered there'd been a full moon the night before."
Amethyst tried to ignore the hair on her arms also rising. She didn't want her friend to call her a wimp.
"We should do that, Amethyst," Diane insisted with her usual overflowing enthusiasm. "Just to see what happens. Some people say the dead want to communicate with us, and they can use something like a tape recorder to 'move' between the spirit world and the real world."
"You wanna put a tape recorder in the scariest place in the house? Come on, Di. Nothing will happen. Your cousin was just trying to scare you. None of that really happened. It's lame."
"You're just afraid."
"I am not. This is all so stupid."
"If it's stupid, do it. I dare you. Or are you a scaredy-cat like everyone else in this town?"
Amethyst took a deep breath. "Fine. I'll do it if you do. Now, can we go get a snack?"
Diane's face showed her elation that her best friend had conceded to joining her baby steps into the paranormal world. "Yeah, okay. The Terrible Twosome probably ate all the Halloween candy."
The next day, Amethyst was doing dishes after supper when she remembered Diane's spooky story and the dare. Put a tape recorder in the scariest room in the house and see what happens. Ha! Lame. Totally lame. Why did I take such a stupid dare?
And yet the hair on the back of her neck stood up again when she thought of the cellar in the basement. She'd always believed something lived down there. But did she really want to know if something did?
Stupid. Nothing lives down there. If you really wanna delve into the paranormal, put the tape recorder just inside the woods. You're bound to get more than you bargained for there.
No, she definitely wasn't that brave.
Feeling as if her heart lodged painfully in her throat, Amethyst dried her hands and sneaked past the living room where her father listened to the radio and read the newspaper. In her room, she pulled out her tape recorder, rooted around for a blank cassette tape... Ninety minutes'll do. Swallowing hard, she slipped past the living room again. She wasn't sure why but she didn't want her father to ask her what she was doing. He just warned her against everything, like evil floated everywhere.
She carefully turned the knob on the peeling-paint door that led to the basement. It creaked when she pulled it open. In the silence that followed, she waited to see if her father would call to her. Probably asleep.
Reaching forward into the blackness, she flipped on the light. Even with that faint glow, the steps remained dark and shadowed.
Gosh, she hated going down there. Hated the pitch blackness, the cold, the stale taste of the musty air. Most of all, she hated the cellar, where they kept the potatoes and onions and canned goods.
Amethyst took a deep inhale that did nothing to tamp down on her wildly beating heart. She descended slowly and carefully, yet the top stair creaked in protest at her weight. The second stair did, too. They all did--they were badly in need of repair. She'd often wondered what would happen if the steps fell to pieces while she was in the basement getting potatoes to peel for supper. How would she get back upstairs? The thought of being down there, no way to get out...
But the stair creaks brought on the old fear she'd had from the first time her daddy sent her down for potatoes after her mother died. Would she awaken whatever lived and lurked in this horrible place?
She reached the rough concrete floor on the bottom, her gaze moving cautiously over the spider-filled windows, the shapes of the big, old cabinets, the wood-burning stove and wood piles. The floor was slightly damp beneath all the windows from the recent rain. Her nose wrinkled instinctively at the mildew stench it always brought.
Daddy forgot to come down and open the windows this morning. He forgets so many things without Mama.
Amethyst forced herself to enter the second room off to the right, where her father's workshop lay under a thick layer of dust. He used to come down all the time, not even minding the shadows and bugs and mice like she did, to repair the endless things that broke on their farm. But he rarely fixed anything anymore. Now he merely brought the things to his workshop and left them.
From the low ceiling hung a single bulb that cast eerie shadows all around, turning the busted chairs and old fixtures into menacing shapes. Amethyst swallowed hard, brushing away a cobweb she'd carelessly stepped through.
Put the tape recorder in the cellar and get the heck out of here.
Easier said than done. By all that was good, she hated that room. From the first time she entered it, when she was old enough to cook for herself and her father, she'd hated it. But when she took the potatoes and onions upstairs to store, they rotted and her father scolded her for her negligence and silly fear.
She reached forward to flip the hook out of the eye that locked the screen door of the cellar room. Sucking in an insufficient amount of air, she pulled the door toward her. It creaked loudly in the hushed silence.
Her heart hammered too hard in her chest. Her ears filled with the sound. Not being able to hear anything else increased her fear. What if she couldn't discern movement in the room over the sound of her own screaming heartbeat?
Calm down, calm down. Hurry up!
She took the few steps inside the small, black room. With a trembling hand, she cast about for the string that turned on the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. Always, she feared most reaching for the string and anticipating coming in contact with something else. Something other than a thin, tattered string. Something slimy, solid, deformed, hairy, strong. Something that waited in here for her. Waited to grab her. And, when it had her, it would emerge out of the blackness with glowing red eyes, a massive jaw and horrible, bloody fangs...
Her fingers grasped the string. She yanked it down, forgetting in her haste that the brittle, old string needed replacing. One hard pull and it might break, leaving her in the darkness until she mustered the courage to fix it.
The bulb flickered uncertainly for a few seconds, casting feeble light around the claustrophobic room. With the ability to see, her other senses seemed able to function as well. The first thing she noticed was the stink of rotting meat that filled her nostrils and made her gag. Her father had told her his parents used the cellar to hang slabs of freshly slaughtered beef from the ceiling. The cellar certainly qualified as the perfect place for it. Even in summer, it remained frightfully cold. Without a window, no light warmed it and it stayed dry. The stench from the old practice lingered even after her father stopped hanging meat there because mice, or something, had ripped off chunks of it.
Put the recorder down and get out of here, you goose.
Amethyst nodded at her own internal urging. She took a step forward and set the tape recorder on a shelf at eye-level covered with a thick layer of undisturbed dust. Quickly, she pressed the Record button.
She caught the scream that rose in high-pitched terror to her throat a second before it escaped. Her father's voice, calling her.
"You down there, Amethyst?" he called again. He had to be standing at the basement door, just above the cellar.
She yanked on the string and darted from the room, pausing only to flip the hook back into the eye on the door. Then she ran up the stairs, feeling the whole time that something chased her, close enough behind to make her neck icy from its hot, blood breath. As soon as she slammed the cellar door behind her, she vowed never to return.
Yet she found herself back in the cellar the next evening, after dishes were done. All day, she'd meant to go down, but school, homework and chores had prevented her. The tape recorder lay on the canned goods shelf just where she left it, the record button now off. She was about to reach for the machine when she noticed the marks in the dust around the recorder.
She frowned, leaning closer. Raising her hands, she compared the marks to her fingers. The marks were thin, much thinner, and much longer than her fingers. She couldn't have made them herself when she placed the recorder on the shelf last night... Could she have?
She moved even closer and saw something lying in the dust, near the wall. Reluctantly, she picked it up. Long, sharp, yellowed, a dark black substance coated the underside. Sticky, like blood. Suddenly, she realized it was a fingernail, a horribly deformed one. She dropped it, jumping back from the shelf.
At that moment, her entire being filled with the realization that she wasn't alone. She didn't hesitate. Grabbing the tape recorder, she raced upstairs with it.
Even after she closed herself in her bedroom, her heartbeat took forever to slow. Her breathing only reluctantly returned to normal. She could smell the sweat drying against her skin.
When she calmed enough, she sat in the middle of her bed and hit the rewind button on the machine. The whirring seemed to take forever. When it finally came to a halt, she hit stop. Swallowing, once, twice, a third time, she forced herself to press play.
Silence. Nothing more than silence came through. She listened to it, her hearing attuned to the slightest sound. Fifteen minutes passed. Thirty. Forty minutes, and her eyes began to droop. Even when a soft scraping noise sounded, she barely heard it, not until the sound of scuttling footsteps followed.
Amethyst sat up again and leaned over the machine. Something stepping out of the shadows, slithering across the floor to the sound of the whirring...
A low growling came over the static.
But, with the surface static, the sound seemed to blow across it like just so much background noise. With her index finger, she pushed the grooved volume button all the way up.
"Amethyst," came the whisper. "You have made contact, mortal."
She sat bolt upright at the words.
That voice... Dear God, she knew it. The memory she'd tried desperately to forget, tried to make herself believe wasn't real, returned.
"Daddy, look! Look at the pretty fawn," she called to her father. At the age of seven, nothing mattered to her except her dreams of becoming a veterinarian. She loved animals. Standing at the edge of the clearing, just inside the shelter of the first trees, stood a beautiful fawn. It couldn't have been more than a few months old, yet the mother was nowhere to be seen.
Amethyst glanced back at her father. No, he was chopping wood. They often came out to this clearing to chop wood. Because of her tendency to wander off when bored, he'd recently assigned her the task of picking up the wood and putting it in the trailer. Sometimes the logs were too heavy for her, but she never complained. "The good Lord honors hard work, so you work hard, babygirl," he often said. But, as long as she didn't get behind on gathering the wood in the trailer, he rarely noticed her short absences.
She walked toward the lovely creature. Just before she reached the fawn, it darted away. Instinctively, she ran after it. Before long, she lost its trail. She stopped, realizing only now she'd gotten too far away from her father.
"Daddy?" she called. She didn't expect an answer, nor did she receive one. She turned back the way she'd come, her fear growing as darkness fell. The sound of leaves crunching and branches snapping behind her brought her terror full-bloom. She ran headlong through the trees, her own heartbeat and panting filling her ears.
She didn't remember collapsing to the forest floor. She only remembered waking in the dark, the word "Daddy" at the tip of her tongue.
"Amethyst," came the voice, one she didn't recognize.
"Never speak to anyone or anything in the woods," her father always told her. "And never take evil by the hand when it offers you help. Run from it, no matter what it offers."
"Amethyst, speak what you will and it shall be done," the unfamiliar voice urged.
She swallowed as she sat up cautiously.
Find Daddy. I have to find Daddy.
"I'm lost. Can you take me to my daddy? Can you help me find him?"
A hand appeared out of the darkness near her. "Take my hand, child. Trust me."
"What's your name?" she asked uncertainly, lifting her arm. She halted at the memories of her father's warnings about the woods and what lived here. But she had to find her father. She had to. She couldn't be lost in the woods.
She reached her fingers toward her rescuer. No, she couldn't anyone's hand in the woods. Hadn't her father told her over and over?
Her father! Calling for her. Close by!
She wouldn't take evil by the hand. To save her soul, she had to run from it.
She leapt to her feet, glancing back to see the hand--gnarled, gray, the yellowed nails sharp and long. Horror filled her, and she ran, her mind gorged with that last glimpse of glowing red eyes emerging from the darkness, a massive jaw and horrible, bloody fangs...
"Amethyst," the voice on the tape recorder called, "your soul belongs to me now. On a full moon, when the wind howls for your blood, I will require your soul. You will become my bride. The Guardian will try to take you from me, but he will have but one option. And I cannot lose. I will come for you, Amethyst, and you will know my voice. You will know my name."
Amethyst held her breath, knowing...impossibly knowing.
She leaned closer at the dragging voice that stretched across the static.