I think that whatever is going on here is catching up with the rest of Black Lake. I have Mr. Herman’s History class first period and like half of class wasn’t there.
“There a bug going around?” Mr. Herman asked, bemused, as he checked off all the absent students from his list.
But I don’t think it’s a bug. I think it’s just hauntings. I heard Lucy Stumpton telling Maisie Jorna that she was having terrible nightmares, and Warren Miller’s drawings have taken a turn for the spooky. I think we’re all feeling it in one way or another.
Julian was right about my house. My mom was pretty confused by the salt lines in front of the windows but she hasn’t cleaned them up. Maybe she thinks it’s a weird grief thing I’m doing. Maybe it is. But I’ve slept like an angel since whatever they did.
We drove out to the Black Lake Coven site after school. The Hawthornes followed us up past the Circem Street house, up along the logging roads, just past where Madelyn’s car was found.
“You really came out here?” Tilly asked.
“Years ago,” I said as we parked. “We were ten, I think. We wanted to be witches so bad.”
Tilly smiled. It felt like it did back then, for just a moment — all wild and exciting and make believe. But then the Hawthornes got out of their car and their silhouettes against the trees were too serious to be something a kid would come up with. Even weird twisted kids like Madelyn and I were.
It wasn’t a long walk to the old coven site and there was a path that lead right to it. I remembered the path being narrow and overgrown but that wasn’t what we found. It was wide enough for a car, and judging by the treads in the dirt, it had seen cars come through. I figured that was just my memory, but then when we arrived at the old homestead that was less overgrown, too.
“Huh,” Tilly said, loping out of the trees and up towards the porch. “This isn’t so bad. I thought it would be… spookier, I guess.”
I frowned. “It was,” I said. “Or it used to be.”
“You sure it’s not just your memory?” Neal asked. “Ten year old girls have active imaginations.” I scowled at him.
“Yeah,” I said. “And it’s my active imagination that planted pumpkins, too.” I pointed at the little scrap of garden around the side of the house. The fence was still rotting and dilapidated, but the pumpkin vines looked cared for and there were piles of weeds by the gate.
“Shit,” Julian said. “Someone’s been out here.”
When he said that something in my chest kicked. I ran to the door and wrenched it open.
“Hello?” I shouted into the house. And then, quieter, “Madelyn?”
No one answered. Tilly came up behind me and took my hand.
Last time I was there it was dim and miserable and covered in sixty years of dust, but this time it was clean. The floors had been scrubbed and patched, the furniture polished. It looked like someone might be living there.
“What the fuck,” Tilly murmured.
Neal cursed. “Witches,” he sighed. “Of course this case turned out to be witches.”
Julian went to the window and picked through the things on display there — a knife, a small bronze woman, a bowl full of dried herbs, a bundle of feathers.
“Girls, stay here,” Julian said. “We’re gonna go check upstairs.”
“Wait outside,” Neal added.
I started to argue but Neal shot me one stern look and I shriveled and did as I was told. I think I might hate Neal Hawthorne.
Tilly and I stood on the old porch. It had been patched and repaired so it was stable. “I wonder if this is where my dad’s cult meets,” she said casually and I laughed.
Rather than avoiding the possibility of Tilly’s father being a terrifying cultist and kidnapper, we’ve gone in the complete opposite direction and talk about it at every opportunity. It highlights how utterly absurd it is. Every time she says something about it it becomes less possible. It’s very comforting.
“They probably keep the girls in the cellar,” I joked back and she laughed, too. But then we sorta looked at each other. I lead the way down the porch steps and along the side of the old house to the old slanted cellar doors. They were chained shut, but the padlock wasn’t locked.
Something cold happened in my belly.
Without a word we pulled off the padlock and unwrapped the chains. We paused after opening the doors, standing staring down into the yawning pit, but then I steeled myself. Maddy would go anywhere for me.
I didn’t shout down here. There was a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling but when I pulled the string it didn’t come on.
“There must be a generator,” Tilly said. “It must be off.”
There were candles on a shelf illuminated by the shaft of light from the one low window. Tilly lit it.
There were pumpkins on the shelves and apples in barrels. There were many more candles, and casks of wine and a distiller. My heart was thundering like I was going to see something really terrible, but actually it was just a charming, old fashioned cellar. Summer cherries crowded into brandy jars and there were rows and rows of blackberry jam. There was hardly even dust.
When Tilly grabbed my hand I nearly dropped the candle.
“What?” I whispered. She didn’t say anything. She pointed to the corner.
There were shackles, literal old fashioned shackles, attached to the wall. My heart about stopped.
We clung to each other as we approached them, as if they might come alive and trap us there, but of course they didn’t. Just inert iron shackles, attached to the dirt wall by a loop. They sat on an old wool blanket. Within reach there was an empty tin bucket.
“What the fuck,” Tilly whispered. I knelt to peer at the loop. The dirt around it had been carved back, as if someone had tried to dig their way out of it.
“We should get out of here,” Tilly said. I knew she was right — my heart was screaming at me to run the fuck away — but even so, I reached and put one finger into a divot around the loop. It fit perfect. When I pressed the hard dirt bent back my fingernail.
“Shi please,” Tilly said, slightly shrill. “I don’t like this.”
But I’d seen something on the wall behind the shelf. I bent forward and reached with the candle and scratched there in the dirt it said in jagged letters
Serena Wiley was here and then, under it: Madelyn too
I dropped the candle and it went out and Tilly screamed. We stumbled in the dark for the stairs, but the Hawthornes burst down the steep steps before we could make it back to the cellar doors.
“What is it?” Neal said.
“We’re okay,” I gasped though Tilly and I were clutching each other. “I just dropped my candle. We found something.”
But Neal had already seen the shackles. “Well fuck,” he said.
“They carved their names on the wall behind the shelves,” I said. “Madelyn was definitely here.”
Tilly and I sat on the stairs while the Hawthornes investigated with their flashlights. They didn’t find anything else except Julian picked a single long, silvery hair off the wall. It was thick and smooth like a horse hair and almost phosphorescent in the gloom.
On the way out of the woods Julian and Neal discussed needing to keep an eye on the house to see who was coming and going.
“We can help,” I said but they shut me down.
“Obviously if they’re kidnapping teenage girls we’re not going to send them teenage girls,” Neal said, and even I couldn’t argue with his logic.
Instead they invited us to go see a different coven.
“They’re in Seattle,” Julian said. “And they’re not a particularly old coven, but they’re surprisingly powerful. We need to ask them about any witch activity they might be aware of out here.”
“And you’re sure it’s okay if we come?” Tilly asked.
“It’s probably better if you come,” Neal said. “Witches trust women over men.”
“So you need us,” I said and Neal rolled his eyes.
“We don’t need you,” he said. “But you’d make it easier on us.”
So we agreed to go. We told our parents we were going to band practice tomorrow. I’m terrified and also so excited. Like, what if they really do magic?
But look — Madelyn was there in that basement, chained to a wall. That’s real evidence like actual solid evidence!!! We’ve never got that before!!!
FUCK I just remembered last summer at the diner — her wrists were all bruised and chaffed. Like she’d been fucking tied up. She’d been chained up in a cellar and didn’t tell me. I asked her and she didn’t say a word and I know she must have been trying to protect me or some shit but damn that feels just awful