Authors: Debbie Herbert
of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any print or electronic form without the permission of the author.
his is a work of fiction
. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance between persons living and dead, establishments, events, or location is entirely coincidental.
opyright © 2016
Dedicated to my father, J.W. Gainey, and my husband, Tim.
The wooden planchette on the Ouija board stopped as suddenly as it started. The two girls looked at each other in surprise.
“That’s not funny,” Skye said. “Stop it.”
“It wasn’t me, I swear,” said Callie.
A crackling noise, distant at first, increased in volume. Callie looked around her room for the source. The red ‘on’ light blinked on Mom’s old boom box by the dresser. It was unplugged. Through the static emerged a chorus of chanting voices.
“What are they saying?” Skye whispered.
“I can’t tell. I’m scared.”
“Look, whatever happens, we can’t let go,” Callie urged. “If we do, Grandma Jo says we might be haunted afterwards.”
The planchette whirled between them. It looked . . . angry. The wooden disk moved so fast they had trouble keeping their hands on it. They concentrated on calling out each letter it paused on.
‘D-A-N-G-E-R.’ it spelled again.
Callie gulped, looking up at the unplugged boom box. The chanting voices emerging through the static sent chills down her back. She never expected something like this.
The voices grew louder. One stood out through the garbled buzz, a scratchy voice delivering an eerie, monotone message: “I’m coming. I’m coming,” it repeated over and over.
“What should we do?” Skye’s face paled in the moonlight.
A cold draft shot through the room, bringing the curious mixed smell of licorice and menthol. It lifted a few strands of hair on the nape of Callie’s neck. She shivered. She was about to let go of the planchette, haunting or no, when it started moving again at a furious pace.
‘A D-A-R-K V-I-S-I-T-O-R F-R-O-M Y-O-U-R P-A-S-T I-S A-L-M-O-S-T
U-P-O-N Y-O-U B-E-W-A-R-E F–A --’
The unmistakable sound of shattered glass in her mother’s room broke the spell. Callie and Skye jerked their hands away from the board just as the door flew open.
Grandma Jo came in first. “I can’t believe what I’m seeing here. How many times have I—”
“What’s happened?” Callie’s mom flipped on the light switch. Her gaze took in the Ouija board. “What did it say?” she asked, darting quick glances all over the bedroom.
“It said we were in danger. Something about a dark visitor from the past and then the radio came on and—” Callie’s voice quivered and stopped.
Mom and Grandma Jo exchanged a guarded look.
“You smell that, Ginnie?” Grandma Jo asked Callie’s mom. “Artemisia absinthium.”
“Wormwood.” Mom’s voice was flat. “Mixed in absinthe.”
“Did someone break in the house?” Skye started to sob. “We heard a window break.”
“Everything’s going to be all right.” Grandma Jo was calm. “Nobody’s going to hurt you.”
“I’m going to clean up the broken glass downstairs and check things out,” Mom said.
Grandma Jo grabbed her arm. “I’ll come with you.”
“No, you stay with the girls.” They shared another silent look.
Grandma Jo nodded and dropped her hand. She eyed her granddaughter, hands on hips. “Didn’t I tell you Ouija boards invite wicked spirits who like to play tricks on folks?”
Callie felt less scared now that Grandma Jo was there, so she answered with a question of her own. “Am I in trouble?”
Her grandmother sighed and boxed up the game. “No. I don’t think you’ll be doing this again anytime soon.” She managed a smile and nodded in Skye’s direction. “What are you trying to do? Run off your best friend?”
“It’s okay,” Skye spoke up. “I wasn’t really scared.”
No one believed her.
Grandma Jo did a thorough sage smudging, taking special care to burn the dried sage at least twice around every window and doorway to chase the spirits away. The sharp scent tickled Callie’s nose.
But the smudging didn’t do any good. Callie and Skye whispered about it the rest of the night, afraid to sleep. If Grandma Jo said it once, she said it a thousand times—Ouija boards were a portal to The Other Side. It was not a toy. Advanced witches only.
Seven Years Later
ou have to go back
, Callie. You’re in real danger.”
Go back. Danger.
For two days the words haunted her. Now she was on the road, the rhythmic sound of the tires on the highway putting her into a trance.
Danger, danger, danger
. The minute Aunt Mallory opened the letter with an Alabama postmark, everything changed.
She didn’t want to go back. Of all the nerve. She’d been exiled in New Jersey for seven years, and now Mom and Grandma Jo decided she must return at once.
Callie hit the gas pedal. The angrier she got, the faster she drove. What should have been a fourteen-hour drive due south, she’d cut to a mere ten hours. She’d never traveled so far on her own, and convincing Aunt Mallory to let her do it wasn’t easy. Especially since her old Volkswagen convertible, the ‘Dixie doodlebug,’ had over 150,000 miles.
Her heart skipped at the road sign, ‘Welcome to Alabama. The State of Surprises.’
No shit, Sherlock.
Not even a mile away was another green and white sign proclaiming ‘Entering Central Time Zone.’
More like the twilight zone.
Callie’s tension eased a bit as she neared Piedmont, the small town bordering Georgia and surrounded by the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. In the gathering dusk, the rolling hills had a magical, ancient vibe. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad here. It’s not like she had a choice anyway. Aunt Mallory made that clear. Mom and Grandma Jo had convinced her aunt she needed to come home where the coven could help protect her.
Callie rubbed her sore face. She’d clenched her jaw so long her temples throbbed. She consciously relaxed her facial muscles and rolled her shoulders. Much better.
The cell phone rang. Aunt Mallory again.
Callie smiled. “What? Are you going to call me every hundred miles?
“Smart aleck. Where are you now?”
“I’m about to enter the huge metropolis of Piedmont. According to its sign, the name literally means; ‘the foot of the mountain.’ Population: 4,964.”
“Great.” Aunt Mallory let out a whoosh. “I’ve been so worried about you falling asleep at the wheel. I still think you should have spent the night somewhere along the way. You remember how to get to Mama’s house?”
“Pretty much. The GPS can help me navigate the back roads if I get lost.”
“Call me if it doesn’t recognize the dirt roads.”
Callie rolled her eyes. “I know, I know.”
Aunt Mallory sighed. “Glad you’re almost there. Tell Mama and Ginnie I said ‘hey’ and call me when you arrive.”
Callie couldn’t speak around her tight throat.
I’m really going to see them again
. Silence haunted the air.
“It’s going to be all right, Callie. They’re excited to see you.”
Her aunt knew her so well. She cleared her throat. “If you say so. Change of subject. I’ve been finding sprigs of rosemary and basil everywhere in the car. What did you do? Dig up all your herbs?”
Aunt Mallory laughed. “Guilty. We cast a protection spell in the crystal for a safe trip, and you always have your mom’s amber talisman. But a little added herbal charm couldn’t hurt.”
“Better hope the cops don’t pull me over; they’ll think I’m a drug dealer.” Callie missed her aunt already. What would she have done without her all these years? “You’re the best,” she whispered.
The GPS kicked in. “Turn left onto Booger Hollow Road,” it instructed.
“Gotta go, Aunt Mallory.
“Bye. Don’t forget to—”
“—call you. I will. Bye.”
Callie made the turn on Booger Hollow. Cute. Road names in these hills and dales had kept her amused the past hour. The street narrowed then turned to red clay where the pavement ended. Was she still going the right way? According to the GPS, this was correct, but she slowed the car. It was dark, and she had visions of the road ending at someone’s home. Possibly someone with a shotgun. People lived in the middle of nowhere for a reason. They didn’t want strangers bothering them.
She touched the crystal pendant hanging on the interior mirror. Its faint prism glow in the moonlight soothed her frazzled nerves.
The disembodied voice broke in again. “Turn right on Lavender Mountain Road. Destination is .4 miles.”
She cut the doodlebug onto the rough, graveled road, relieved to recognize the location. “Arriving at—”
Callie unplugged the GPS and pulled into the long winding driveway where Grandma Jo’s house blazed with lights. Despite the chill of the late December air, Mom and Grandma Jo waited on the wrap-around porch. As the car’s headlights flashed on them, they rose from their rocking chairs, tossing aside quilts wrapped around their legs.
Callie had every intention of guarding her heart against these two. After all, they’d banished her years ago. And they hadn’t come to see her once, only wrote or called. And now when she
want to come home, they’d finally sent for her.
Still, her heart raced with anticipation as she got out of the car.
Callie!” Mom cried, running down the porch stairs to give her a hug. The wind whipped her long silver-white hair into a ghostly mane.
Callie froze at the tight embrace. She stepped back and eyed her MIA mother with wary curiosity. Ginnie Bradford was a pale woman with waist length, silver-white hair. Although a bit too thin and fragile-looking, with worry lines etching her face, it was obvious she’d once been a total babe.
“You’re so . . . grown. Nothing like the skinny child that was all eyes and legs when I last saw you.” The faded blue eyes watered. “I missed out on all your growing up. It’s so unfair!” Her hands fisted by her sides.
Fair? Oh no she
. She was the one on the raw end of the deal. The first few months of separation, she could understand. Mom had some kind of breakdown. But after that, it had been nothing but innuendos that she’d been shuffled away because of some vague danger.
Callie crossed her arms. “How do you think
felt all these years?
the one you sent away, and you never once visited.”
Mom hunched her shoulders and dipped her head. “I wrote you every week,” she whispered.
“Big freaking deal.” Those fluff letters full of no real information, empty prattle about her precious animals and her job . . . blah, blah, blah. And she had the nerve to end those letters with ‘Your loving Mom.’ Grandma Jo’s letters were equally as lame, filled with her latest Cause of The Week—campaigns for a cleaner environment, the plight of the polar bears, etc.
Callie wouldn’t have bothered writing back if Aunt Mallory hadn’t thrown a hissy fit. Every month, she made Callie sit down and write a letter. For spite, Callie wrote drivel about schoolwork and how much
it was living with her new family, and how
it was living in a big city, so much better than the freaking
of Alabama. She signed off her letters with ‘Your
Grandma Jo stood at the top of the porch stairs. “Ginnie, why don’t y’all come inside now,” she called out crisply. “Callie’s got to be exhausted from that long drive.”
Grandma Jo walked down the porch steps, calm and collected as always. She certainly looked too healthy and young to be anyone’s grandma. Only her short, spiky gray hair gave away her age.
Gripping her in a firm hug, Grandma Jo said in a strong, clear voice, “Let’s shelve all that unpleasantness until tomorrow. Tonight is your homecoming, and it’s awful good to see you. Now, come on in and tell us all about your trip.”
Callie resigned to play along. After all these years, she could wait one more night for answers.
inner was simple Southern fare
. Grandma Jo baked whole-grain bread, and Callie topped it with homemade ginger peach jam. Beef tips with barley and gravy and collard greens sat on the table in steaming bowls.
She eyed the spread with suspicion. Everything in this house was done with intention, and Grandma Jo was a master of kitchen witchery.
Callie plastered on a fake smile. “Let’s see, beef represents motherly love and grounding. Right?”
“An excellent memory,” Grandma Jo murmured.
Callie pointed to the other dishes. “Barley is for reconciliation and gravy for family comfort.”
. It would take a lot more than a good meal to erase years of neglect. “Collard greens.” Callie scrunched her forehead. “Oh yeah, they’re for protection.” She lowered her voice to a melodramatic whisper. “Guess that’s for the evil menace lurking out there.”
Mom sat down her glass so hard that iced tea sloshed on the table. “The danger is real,” she said sharply.
Grandma Jo lightly tapped her hand. “Not tonight.”
Callie squashed her impatience. She’d corner Mom later. “I could make a meal off the bread and jam,” she said.
Four slices later, she noticed Grandma Jo and Mom exchange glances.
“You won’t want the main course at the rate you’re going,” said Grandma Jo.
“Think so?” Callie loaded her plate.
“You must not have eaten anything on the drive down,” Mom said. “No wonder you’re starving.” She smiled nervously.
Callie shrugged. “Actually, I ate several donuts for breakfast, had a supersized lunch at McDonalds, and then snacked on bags of trail mix to keep me fortified along the way.”
“You’re joking,” Grandma Jo said, spooning a large helping of collards on her plate.
“Nope. There’s no use lying about my huge appetite. You’re bound to notice all your groceries rapidly disappearing while I’m here.”
“How do you stay so thin?” Mom asked.
“A dynamite metabolism and high energy levels. Or don’t you remember how active I used to be?” Callie let a tinge of resentment slip through her voice.
Mom’s cheeks reddened. “Yes, but I thought you would have outgrown that by now.”
“That’s part of your special Gift,” Grandma Jo cut in quickly. “All that energy, when you learn to focus it, will make powerful magic. Do you still sleep only a few hours at night?”
“‘Fraid so. I’ll do my best not to wake you up.” Since when was being energetic a Gift? Didn’t seem like a witchy talent at all. Whatever. “If you want, I can read in bed by flashlight when I get up before y’all.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Grandma Jo said in her no-nonsense way. “As long as you don’t turn on rock music at full blast, we can survive your early morning wanderings.”
Grandma Jo thought anything recorded after the 1950s was rock music. “Deal.”
“But you’ve got to be tired tonight after driving all day,” Mom said.
Like you care.
Callie clenched her fork and stifled the words. She’d have it out with Mom soon enough, preferably without Grandma Jo around to run interference.
“Not really.” Callie finished the last of her beef tips. “Any dessert?” She raised her empty plate.
They stared at her in surprise.
“Okay, just kidding. Sort of.”
“Why don’t I fix us some hot chocolate, and we can sit on the porch a spell.” Grandma Jo rose from the table, her charm bracelets clinking. Somehow, when she made suggestions, there was never any question about following her lead.
The three women began clearing the table. Callie noticed the kitchen counter was stuffed with cakes, cookies and pies. “You baked all week or something?”
“Those are from your coven,” Grandma Jo said. “Check out the fridge.”
Callie opened it and grinned at the dozens of congealed salads. Yum.
“They’ll visit before long. I told them to give us a couple of days alone first.”
Mom peered at her timidly as she stacked plates in the sink. “You used to love your grandmother’s hot chocolate, remember? She melts real cream and chocolate together, none of that store-bought junk.”
“Sure. I remember
Mom’s smile faltered. “As long as you don’t forget to always carry the amber I gave you, that’s all that matters. Did you bring it?”
Callie patted the back pocket of her jeans. “Right here. I have it on me all the time. Just like you told me to do before you . . . went away.”
Grandma Jo came between them. “Callie, get a quilt and go on outside. You’ve had a long day, and it’ll do you good to relax.”
“I could run a marathon right now. Sitting in a car all day was torture.”
“I don’t know how you did it,” Mom said, shaking her head. “I can’t imagine taking such a long trip alone, especially not in one day.”
Callie believed her. Mom hadn’t changed much. Callie strode past her and went out on the porch, wrapping up in one of the abandoned quilts. Mom had always been on the timid side. Callie used to shield her from any kind of stress, even did most of the housework. But it wasn’t enough, and Grandma Jo moved in permanently to help out. Which was a good thing since it got worse after the night of the Ouija board incident. Mom quit her job and sat all day and night vegging out in front of a TV shopping channel, although Callie never saw her order anything.
The porch door opened, interrupting the unhappy memories.
“Here you go,” said Grandma Jo, handing her a small demitasse cup.
Cocoa and sugar for love and sweetness. Callie accepted it and tried to relax.
All three started rocking in syncopated silence. Each sipped their hot chocolate and gazed at the moon. Here, in the moonlight, with the forested mountains in the background, she was in tune with nature’s energy. Aunt Mallory always claimed that Piedmont, where the ancient Appalachians gradually bottomed out, was a special place filled with secrets, whimsy, and mountain lore of old customs and old ways. Callie could almost picture fairy rings deep in the piney woods.
“This is awesome, Grandma Jo. It has a hint of mint or some kind of herbal taste.”
“One of my special concoctions,” she answered, flashing a look at Mom.
“You’ll have to teach me to cook while I’m here.” Callie straightened in her chair. “Speaking of which . . . how long are you expecting me to stay?”
The question startled Mom, who looked to her own mother to answer.