First two chapters from The Witch's Throne, available now on Amazon

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CHAPTER ONE | OCTOBER 25

Today is a good day. Day 151.

I am dressed in clothing appropriate for public appearance. I am wearing shoes intended for outdoor use. I have showered. I have even located Juliet’s winter coat from the hall closet and tumble-dried it for twenty minutes to remove most of the musty smell.

I have, however, forgotten my own coat. My fingers grow numb clenched around a mug of coffee chilled in the early-morning air. The field across the street has been recently cleared, and the leftover shards of corn stalks sparkle with frost.

Across the field to the west, a skeleton reclines on the flat rack wagon parked in the Thompsons’ pasture. Carved and gutted pumpkins line the ring of hay bales around their fire pit, the aftermath of their annual fall bonfire.

“I want to play basketball,” say Juliet. She’s running circles around me, pumping a flat hand in a way I realize now is in mimicry of dribbling an imaginary basketball.

“The bus will be here any minute.”

“Not now,” she sighs, exasperated at my ignorance, then, shooting an imaginary basket, she shouts. “Liddy!”

Lydia emerges from the trees and walks toward us at the end of the lane. Without my glasses, which I have forgotten, I see only a blur slowly coming into focus. A crimson sweater over violet leggings and yellow boots, short and tousled white-blonde hair, her large eyes lined with black pencil.

My oldest daughter is my exact opposite every way: coloring, build, demeanor. Her natural hair is light brown, lighter than George’s, which she has been bleaching almost white for more than a year now. Her build is tall and thin. And her demeanor...she was once like George: forthright, honest, always happy and joking as a child. But that happiness has turned brittle over the last few years, the smiles jeering, the jokes sarcastic.

“Good morning,” I say as she joins us at the end of the lane. “Maybe you’ll hear good news today.”

She grunts.

Two weeks ago, she submitted her application to a work-study program starting next semester at the hospital. Competition is high. She worked on the essay for months. George helped her write the first draft.

“Orientation is the 20th. I’m thinking you’ll hear soon.”

“Whatever, I—” She scowls. “How do you know it’s the 20th?”

“I read the application guide.”

She exhales with force, blowing her bangs away from her forehead. “Of course you did.”

“I can sign up today,” says Juliet, bouncing on her toes in front of me.

“What?”

My younger daughter has my black hair with George’s curls, my dark eyes and long dark lashes with George’s cherub cheeks. She opens her mouth wide and exhales hot air, producing a cloud of white mist.

“Basketball! I can sign up today.”

“You already play softball and soccer and volleyball,” says Lydia.

Juliet swats the mist away. “But this year basketball has both boys and girls, and they’re getting purple shirts instead of the ugly yellow ones, and I want to play.”

“Sure,” I say. “Basketball.”

She bites her thumbnail. “There’s the shirt and the shorts and I need new shoes. Basketball shoes.”

“Okay.”

“Really? We have money? Liddy says I spend too much money.”

“We all spend too much money.”

“She says I’m going to have to get a job.”

“Not quite yet.”

“I want a job,” says Juliet. “I want to work at a bakery and bake cupcakes and get free cupcakes.”

“You can get free cupcakes at home,” says Lydia.

“Not the fancy ones.”

“If you can’t make fancy cupcakes, how are you going to get a job in a bakery?”

“Girls—”

“There’s Ben!” shouts Juliet. Her cheeks are rosy now. I look at the time on my phone. Where is the bus?

Ben stops his white pickup at our mailbox. I notice the phone in his steering hand.

“He’s not texting and driving, right?”

“Bye.” Lydia climbs into the cab and slams the door. Ben beeps the horn twice, waves, and pulls away. My oldest daughter stares straight ahead.

Lydia said “bye” today. A good day.

“There the bus!” shouts Juliet, bouncing on her heels.

Two months into the third grade, and she’s still excited when the school bus turns the corner and passes Ben’s truck. As it slows and stops, Juliet throws her arms around me, splashing cold coffee on her coat.

“Thank you for the basketball, Mom.”

The stop sign pops out, door opens. Juliet sprints up the bus stairs and down the aisle.

Judy the driver waves at me. “Looking good today, Thea.”

I raise my coffee cup to her. She checks the enormous mirror above her head, pulls the lever to close the doors, and with a cloud of exhaust, pulls away.

I close my eyes and inhale cold, autumn air.

I am okay.

Today is a good day.

Jesus, it’s cold.

Enough affirmations. I begin the quarter-mile trek back up the lane to our house.

My house. It was mine before I ever owned it. I grew up pretending that I lived in this house. On days when I remember to wear my coat, after the school bus leaves and I’m alone for the day and inclined to medicate and crawl back into bed, I talk myself out of it by walking as slowly as possible back to this house I love. The Manse, as George calls it.

Called it.

He never referred to the enormous Victorian relic as the Cole-Smith house, like everyone else in Homer. It’s haunted, of course. Haunted simply because a rich man built it, lived in it alone for seventy-four years, and then died in the upstairs bedroom. That’s how I convinced him to buy it in the first place.

“Way too much house,” he repeated as we reached the edge of town and spotted it high on the hilltop across the fields. “We’ve lived in a one-bedroom for the last eight years, for God’s sake.”

I let him grumble. He was here. We both knew he hadn’t driven four hours in a compact car with a six-year-old for no reason. I watched the house on the hill get closer. We were coming home.

We turned into the lane, and the full oaks, green with summer, tunneled over the car. I closed my eyes, thankful for the silence. We had dropped Lydia at my parents’ house for the afternoon, and I was enjoying the novelty of being free to think in peace.

George coaxed his puttering hatchback up the quarter-mile lane. As we emerged from the timber, I opened my eyes, and there it was: my hometown’s most famous structure, black and empty, windows like wide-open eyes.

“I know it’s big,” I said, “but we’ll soon be a family of four.” I patted my rounded belly, recently popped at only fourteen weeks, much sooner than with Lydia. “How much longer do you think we can keep our sanity in one bedroom?”

“Fine, but this?”

Seventeen rooms on two stories, all sharp angles and shadowy corners. The siding was peeling black cedar shake. Spots of original galvanized steel were exposed where the shingles have fallen. Built in three sections like stair steps, the west wing was short and squat, the center a step taller with a second-floor widow’s walk, and the east tower highest of all, topped by a coned turret.

“That could be your office,” I said, pointing to windows in the tower.

He arched an eyebrow at me but climbed out of the car and approached the house. I eased my awkward bulk out of the low seat and examined the lawn. Asphalt shingles had shed from the roof, dotting the tall grass.

“This porch is falling apart,” he said, kicking the first step. Wood crumbled beneath the toe of his boot. “This is the place all the kids were scared of, huh?”

“We used to dare each other to knock on the front door.”

“Are you daring me?”

He grinned, then arched back, taking in the looming house above. I waited while his wheels turned, acclimating to the idea, knowing he couldn’t resist the chance to own a real, live, reputed haunted house, to live in one even if it meant moving back to my hometown.

“If it’s that scary,” he said, “why do you want this place so much?”

“Good scary. Roller coaster scary. Horror movie scary.”

“I believe the word you are looking for is ‘thrilling.’”

“Plus, you’re here. I’m braver with you. You don’t believe in these things.”

“What, too-good-to-be-true deals on enormous houses?”

“Haunted houses. Ghosts.”

He stepped onto the warped porch, and I followed.

 “You don’t have to believe in them, either.”

“You say that like it’s so easy.”

The porch wrapped around the entire house, meeting at the front and back stairs. George pushed his toe into a board under the swing and it sunk several inches, then cracked. “Christ,” he stepped back, pulling me with him, “the whole porch needs rebuilt.”

Together, we turned around to admire the view. Timber surrounded us on three sides, but from the front door, we could see over the treetops and down the hill to the town below.

Homer, Illinois. My hometown. Eighteen hundred people tucked into neat ranch homes surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans. A school, a post office, a volunteer fire department. Equal number of churches and bars. Railroad tracks that still split the town in two, and a grain elevator for the tallest building.  

“We’d be instantly famous in Homer,” I said. “The people who bought the Cole-Smith house.”

“The Drakes in the haunted Manse on the hill. I like that.”

“It’s quiet here. The girls would have lots of room to play.”

“Girls?” He raised an eyebrow at my small, rounded belly.

I shrugged. “I have a good feeling.”

He held up the key given to us by the agent. “You sure about this? It’s a lot of money.”

“Still more affordable than living in the city.”

“Liddy loves her school, though.”

I patted my stomach again. “But two kids at a private school? And a place with another bedroom? Here, you wouldn’t have to teach summer classes. You could write.”

He sighed and turned me toward the door, placing a hand on my back. “Let’s see the inside.”

 

Today, I’m too cold to admire my house. Wind whips across the fields and through the thinning autumn timber. I trudge uphill, arms wrapped around myself, head down, trying not to think of the little white pills and the relief of dreamless sleep they provide, and I’m almost to the front lawn when I notice the rectangle of light.

It’s a dull, dirty yellow light hidden behind the boxwoods in the space where the porch meets the steps. George left the basement light on again.

No.

Nausea churns my stomach. I freeze on the front step, but it’s too late. Bile rises to my throat. I gag, bend over, and vomit coffee on the mums.

On good days, I forget. For split-second moments, caught up in routine, mind distracted by ordinary matters, I wonder why he doesn’t answer when I speak. I wake up confused at the empty space in bed. Then I remember.

George is dead. He’s been dead for 151 days.

Hand braced on knee, still clutching my cold mug, I spit the sour coffee taste from my mouth and wait for my stomach to settle.

Mums?

My mother must have planted them. I haven’t planted a flower since last spring. Also, who mowed the lawn all summer? It’s neat and tidy, edges trimmed, leaves cleared. Dad? I focus on breathing. In and out.

Slowly, I lift my eyes. Yep, the basement light is on.

I didn’t imagine it.

Noses wrinkled, we crept through the front rooms. The house smelled like boiled eggs. Past the foyer and curved stairway, the dining room was empty, save for the layer of grey dust on the floor. All that remained in the kitchen were a few open shelves and the exposed wires of extinct appliances. Wood planks creaked beneath our shoes.

“What’s this?” asked George.

Behind the kitchen, a short hall led to a second set of back stairs. George noticed the corner trim of the wall had peeled away on the half-wall beneath the stairs, revealing a crack all the way to the floor. He wedged his fingertips into the crack, and it widened.

“It looks like a door.”

He tugged. The entire half-wall pulled away to reveal a narrow set of stone steps descending into black. A putrid cloud of frigid air blew over our faces. I turned away. George flicked open his lighter, and light from the flame penetrated about two feet into the void.

“Yes!” he said.

“No way.”

But he was already descending. I gripped his shoulder and followed. The descent was short, only a half-dozen steps, but the temperature dropped ten degrees. George held the lighter high.

The ceiling was close—high enough to stand upright but low enough to touch with a bended elbow. I felt the weight of the entire house sinking down on us. We crept, hunched over our meager flame, a few dozen steps until a stone wall appeared. George pressed his palm to it, and we followed it along until it opened into a passage.

“Please,” I said, squeezing his shoulder, “let’s go back up.”

He glanced back to the steps already out of sight.

“All right.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, it’s sectioned into rooms down here. We need more light. I don’t want to get lost.”

Relieved, I turned and led the way back, George holding the lighter up behind me, until the flame wavered, and he stopped.

“Wait.”

Slowly, he panned left until the light fell on a dark form, taller than us, backed into the corner.

I recoiled, hitting my heel on the bottom step. Arms flung out, I reached for the wall and missed, stumbled and fell back on the stairs, hitting my tailbone.

“Thea! Are you okay?” George knelt beside me. The form disappeared into the shadows as he moved the light over me.

“In the corner...something.” My heart pounded. Pain stabbed my lower back. George helped me up. I struggled to catch my breath.

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

“The corner…over there…let’s go, now.”

“Thea,” said George in his calm voice reserved to guide me through freak-outs. “It’s okay now. It’s fine. Deep breaths. See…”

With one hand on my arm, he stood halfway and reached into the dark corner.

“No.”

“Look.”

With a swift tug, a sheet fell to reveal two heavy trunks stacked with a smaller, third one on top. “It’s old trunks, that’s all. They were covered. Here.”

He handed me the lighter. I held it high as George stepped into the corner and, with the heel of his hand, knocked the latch of the top trunk open. He lifted the lid and reached inside.

“George…careful.”

“It’s just newspapers.”

He pulled a fistful of crumpled paper out of the trunk, threw it aside, reached in again, fishing around. He was lifted on the balls of his feet to reach all the way into the trunk.

“Wait, there’s something.”

He pulled back holding an object, and I lifted the light higher.

It was a small, metal orb with a stem. A baby’s rattle. Once silver, it was now coated with a greenish-black film.

“Great,” I said, rubbing my sore back. “That’s not creepy at all.”

“That guy who lived here…did he have kids?”

“No. Obviously, he kidnapped children and locked them in his basement.”

“Look.” He held the head of the rattle close to the flame and with his thumb, rubbed until letters appeared etched into the tarnished silver. “Alfred. Was that his name?”

I nodded. My back ached. My throat burned from inhaling decay. I climbed the first step. “Alfred Cole. That was him.”

“It’s his old stuff down here, that’s all. I wonder what else he kept?” He thumped the top trunk to the floor and cracked the heel of his hand against the second latch.

Though I was cold, creeped out, and slightly nauseous, I stood next to him on shaky legs, holding the lighter with both hands as he worked.

Smiling, because I knew I had won.

We moved in by the end of that month, and I never entered the basement again.

I like to pretend the basement does not exist and that our family home is simply built on a slab of concrete. I forbid Lydia and Juliet to ever set foot in the basement for any reason, and it’s the one rule that has never required enforcement. Each of them has stood at the top of those stairs, watched their dad descend into its depths void of all natural light or warmth, and made the wise decision to remain behind.

The only person to ever go in that basement—in the eight years we have lived in this house—was George.

Ghosts aren’t real. I know that. When I say my house is haunted, I mean it in the metaphorical sense. Haunted by stories of the old man who built it only to die in it. Haunted by years of standing empty, by rumors and scary stories.

And now haunted by memories of George, photos of his smiling, bearded face on every wall, the scent of his cologne in the bathroom, his clothes still hanging in the closets, an aura around every last thing he touched.

But he’s not here, in body or spirit. I know that.

Yet somehow the basement light is on. Regardless of how it came to be, I must turn off that light. I can’t let either of the girls see it. I stand upright, still clutching my stomach, and look over the trees down to the road. The bus is long gone. I have eight hours until it returns.

So shall be my task today: I must turn off a light.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

The kitchen is quiet, sunny, cinnamon-toast-scented. The coffeemaker ticks. The fridge hums. I leave my cold coffee on the counter by the open loaf of bread and half-eaten banana and step into the shadows of the back hall. I find the piece of loose trim on the concealed door beneath the stairs and tug on it. The wall opens to the narrow stone steps that descend into the basement below.

My phone is in my back pocket. I open the flashlight app and shine it down into the depths.

After we moved in, George returned to the basement almost daily to “explore.” He found the dirt-crusted window near the steps, cleared it the best he could, and installed a workbench with a battery-powered light beneath it. There, as he explored the basement over the years, he collected the relics he found, starting with that rattle. Coins, postcards, newspapers. Nothing of value, but he found the space fascinating, his own personal treasure hunt.

George was eager to explore any forgotten or neglected space—abandoned houses, vacant buildings, remote cabins—but especially the spaces in the homes where people still lived, their basements and attics.

But I never was.

All those trips with him, I constantly battled a queasy stomach, a dry throat. My first haunted house, I remember screaming in the attic in the dark.

But I can’t let the girls see that light.

I lower my foot to the first step. Already I smell the dirt, the cold stale air. 

Don’t think about it. Think about something else.

Martha Sassaman.

That was her name. The woman who owned the house. My first haunted house. That was back in the old days, when we all still went everywhere together: George, Mitch and Rita, Calvin. And me.

We sat on one of two matching gold velour sofas facing each other in Martha Sassaman’s living room. I wanted to stand, stretch, run down the length of the winding lane from Mrs. Sassaman’s three-story farmhouse, release all my pent up nervous energy. I had endured a full day’s drive crammed into a car with four paranormal enthusiasts discussing ghosts, listening to their tales of horror, reminding myself they were only stories. 

We were one semester away from graduation at that point. George, the self-indulgent, happy-natured, good-time frat boy (only his fraternity was the five of us) carried an extra twenty pounds on his solid, compact frame. He was barely five-ten. That winter, he had allowed his thick, curly brown hair to expand into a mane, with a beard he rarely took time to groom. On his right, Mitch—black hair and eyes, black eyeliner, head-to-toe black clothing—fiddled with his camera. Next to him, Rita, who had already asked Mrs. Sassaman’s permission to record our visit, held a microphone, the tape recorder whirring softly on her lap.

At the far end of the sofa, George’s brother Calvin reclined, ankle crossed over knee, arms crossed over chest. Five years older than the rest of us, he was the polished, older version of George. In his dark-grey wool coat and suit pants, Calvin Drake was our collective appearance of credibility. Before Christmas, he had begun his residency at Mercy Hospital in Chicago. George insisted we all address Calvin as Dr. Drake. The title encouraged trust.

I sat on George’s other side, awkwardly picking a thread on my scarf. I had no purpose in the group, save my relationship with George. We’d been a couple four years by that point, and the rest of them had grown used to me tagging along.

Mrs. Sassaman had set out a tin of assorted packaged butter cookies and seven grape sodas on the kidney shaped coffee table between the sofas. She was a tiny, smiling, and powder-scented lady in a mauve polyester pantsuit. Her glossy auburn hair was fluffed and shellacked into a high crown. After bringing in the refreshments, she placed herself—knees together, ankles crossed—on the edge of a dining chair her son had brought into the room.

If I ignored our group’s early 90s attire—George’s Smashing Pumpkins t-shirt, my combat boots, Rita’s neon yellow coat, Mitch’s Goth look—I could imagine time having slowed to a stop in Mrs. Sassaman’s living room around 1972. The décor was gold and green. A starburst clock hung over the mantle. The thick heels of my boots sunk into the shag carpet.

Half an hour into our interview, Mrs. Sassaman had not yet spoken, deferring to her son’s versions of the strange events occurring in her home.

George leaned forward, elbows on knees, smiling and nodding at Ted Sassaman as the middle-aged farmer continued his tale.

“And then I started to see things, shadows I mean,” Ted was saying. “I saw one at the end of the upstairs hallway, except...it wasn’t just a shadow. It was him. I know it was.”

“Your father,” said George.

Ted nodded, gulped his soda, and suppressed a belch by pressing a fist to his chest. It escaped with a puff of his mustache.

“What else?” George asked, directing the question to his mother.

Mrs. Sassaman patted her hair. As her son described each detail of the paranormal activity, her fidgeting had increased. She wrung her hands, placed them on her lap, tugged at her ear. She checked her hair repeatedly. For some reason, she kept glancing over at me.

I lowered my eyes to avoid her gaze and realized that pulling the thread on my scarf had unraveled a large hole. Embarrassed, I tugged it from my neck and stuffed it into my bag.

There, in my bag, was my Romantic Poets seminar notebook, and just for something to occupy my hands, just to seem official and professional, I brought the notebook out, turned to a blank page, and began to take notes.

And that was the beginning of me writing about George, about our investigations, as he called them. That was the moment I became the Watson to his Sherlock Holmes. Although Rita was recording the conversation and Mitch taking photos, I began to keep my own record of detailed notes and observations.

Ted waved his arms in the air. “Shadows. Shadows where there shouldn’t be shadows. Lights going on and off in empty rooms. And I heard...I heard a voice. A man’s voice.” Ted’s arms dropped. “You got to understand, it’s a big, old, creaky house. Hell, I grew up here, and I’m scared of it. My brothers used to tell our friends the place was haunted by a hitchhiker that killed a girl, buried her in the pasture, then hanged himself in the shed. Mack started that one. But it was easy to believe. Certain rooms had a feel, you know?”

Ted adjusted his cap, leaned over and placed his elbows on his knees, head hung low. “Here’s what I think.” He sat back and took a deep breath. “That voice...it could have been my brother Mack.”

“Oh, Teddy,” said Martha.

“Goddamn, Mom. Open your eyes!” He slapped his palm on the coffee table. “It sounded like Dad, but it’s not. I know it’s not. It is not the goddamn ghost of my father.” He turned to us.

“I can’t...I can’t catch him at it. I can’t prove it. That’s what you’re here for. Charlie said you could.”

Charlie was Ted’s grandson and a friend of George’s at school. It was Charlie who, when Ted confessed to seeing a ghost, told his father that George could help.

“You think your brother is doing all of this?” asked Rita. She and George did most of the questioning, George enthusiastic, Rita confrontational. “Pretending to be a ghost to scare you? Or your mother?”

“He wants to sell this house, that’s no secret. He’s been trying for the past two years to talk her into moving to the assisted living apartments in town. I think he wants to scare her so she’ll move. Place costs a fortune to maintain for one person. I say Mom lives here as long as she wants and damn the cost, but my brother...he’s voiced his opinion to the contrary.”

“Have you asked your brother?” asked Rita. “Confronted him?”

“Of course. And he denies it.” Ted suddenly buried his head in his hands, then just as quickly dropped them, rolling his eyes up to the ceiling. “But what the hell else could it be? What’s the explanation?”

Mrs. Sassaman stood, picked up the tin of cookies, and offered them to Mitch who dropped his camera and, with both hands, scooped up the two sections of pretzel-shaped ones. Mrs. Sassaman beamed at him.

“Mack is not responsible for this,” she said, holding the tin out to each of us in turn. “He wasn’t even here when the voices started.”

“In the attic?” prompted George.

“Yes,” she nodded. “I started hearing them over a year ago, then more frequently throughout the house, and then...the other things started.”

Her eyes shifted to her son.

Ted stood. “Enough. I’ll show you the attic. You can set up and get started.”

 

I descend another step into my basement, phone held out for light. The phone rings, vibrating in my hand, and I jump, a white-hot terror shooting up my spine. I check the screen. My mother. I touch the decline button, lean against the wall, heart pounding, trying not to throw up again.

From the depths, the fluorescent light flickers. I freeze.

George was always forgetting to turn off that workbench light. Through the years, he’d stored old equipment down here: EVP recorders, night-vision cameras, boxes and files full of old videos and photos and such, all the old gear he didn’t use anymore. He was always in a hurry, always a thousand ideas clashing in his head, and he would forget little tasks like turning off lights and closing drawers and cabinets.

The light flickers again. It’s faulty, obviously.

I descend another step.

He could have left it on last spring. Yes, of course.

Relief unlocks my chest as soon as the thought occurs to me. I take a deep breath, exhale slowly. That’s the explanation. George left the light on months ago. It’s been flickering on and off all summer. I’ve only now noticed it.

Another step.

I can’t let the girls see. It will upset them, and they’ve been doing so well lately, especially since school started.

One more step.

At first, I wasn’t scared in Martha Sassaman’s attic. Writing in my notebook helped, focusing on the solid details and descriptions instead of conjuring phantoms in my imagination. Mitch set up his tripod. Rita started the EVP recorder, an ordinary tape recorder she had customized herself. All our equipment was homemade back then. Hours passed. Sunset, moonrise. Ted went home to his family. Martha said goodnight and went to bed.

The attic covered the entire of the house. It had tall windows. I was standing at one, watching the tops of trees, wondering if it was normal for them to be so still, not a flicker of a leaf in the wind, when George slid his arm around my waist making me jump.

“It’s her,” he whispered in my ear.

“What?”

“The old lady. Mrs. Sassaman. She’s behind it all.” He nodded at my notebook. “Write that down.”

“But Ted saw the ghost, heard the voices.”

“Yeah. It’s her, I’m telling you.”

“Shhh,” Rita scolded, “I’m recording.”

As we settled into our sleeping bags for the night, I found a box of old magazines: The Farmer’s Companion. I abandoned my notebook and picked up the top copy, flipping through it. The first dozen pages or so were advertisements for seeds, pesticide, and used machinery. I scanned a section on readers’ tips.

One by one, the others fell asleep, even George, mouth open, snoring softly beside me. Mitch and Rita were tucked into a double sleeping bag. Calvin had stayed awake the longest, standing at the window and smoking one Marlboro Red after another, exhaling the smoke out the cracked window into the night.

I thought to ask him if he was watching the trees, if he thought they were unnaturally still, but he looked deep in thought. And angry for some reason. I wrote my thoughts in the notebook instead, occasionally peeking at him from the corner of my eye, until he too went to his sleeping bag, curled up on one side with his head resting on his arm, and closed his eyes.

When I was a little girl and scared, my mom always told me to read until I wasn’t scared anymore, so it was The Farmer’s Companion and me for hours that night. Alone, exhausted, but unable to stop the conjuring of ghosts and demons in my imagination, I read in detail the correct method for achieving tight splices on an electric fence, a list of cold-hardy chicken breeds, the profile of a man and his award-winning recipe for fertilizer. I took notes on all of it. Learning always calmed me. Rote writing, memorizing, even those irrelevant and outdated agricultural particulars were soothing in their mundanity and straightforwardness. I would have read old phone books had Mrs. Sassaman stored a supply in her attic.

When I heard the noise, my body froze while my stomach flipped. I shook George, and he woke with a snort, sitting straight up. “What? What is it?”

“Listen.”

Our movement had woken the others, and they sat up slowly, straining to hear. Calvin pushed up on one elbow and rubbed his eye. Rita tilted her head, listening.

We sat motionless.

A shuffle. Deep in the shadows of the dormers in the far reaches of the attic. Slow, then quick. Another. Like someone limping.

My breath quickened. I struggled to remain still while my insides screamed at me to run.

Shuffle. Scraaaaaape. Shuffle.

Then…

Chunk.

Heavy, but with a metallic rattle, like a jar of pennies dropped to the floor.

That’s when I screamed. Rather, I should say that a scream released itself from deep within me, from the pit of my rolling stomach. I had no control over it.

“That’s it.” George stood up. “Enough of this bullshit,” he said. “Ghosts don’t exist.”

He charged into the dark, no shirt, no flashlight. I stood and shouted his name. Rita lifted the recording equipment but didn’t follow.

Mitch was digging in his duffel bag. “I can’t find my goddamn light.”

“Here,” said Calvin, joining us holding his own flashlight. He shone the beam into the back of the attic, sweeping it back and forth, one spot visible at a time. Sheets covered bulky forms I assumed were furniture. Against the walls leaned flat panels—mirrors or framed art, I guessed—shrouded in the same manner.

George had disappeared among the clutter. The noise had stopped. Rita held the microphone at arm’s length. Mitch lifted his camera and shot. The camera clicked, then whirred as the film advanced.

We heard another shuffle.

Calvin stepped forward. “George? Who’s back there?”

Silence.

“George!” shouted Mitch.

Then George popped out from behind an enormous armoire a dozen feet away, brushing cobwebs from his beard. I jumped again at his sudden appearance.

“It’s nobody,” he said. He was grinning. He held up both hands. In one, he held a bundle of wire attached to a metal box about the size of a cigarette pack, in the other, a pale torso with a faceless head—a dressmaker’s dummy.

I reach the basement floor of century-old packed dirt. Hunched and cowered, I turn to the workbench beneath the window.

The fluorescent light flickers, extinguishes.

My heart pounds.

“Enough of this bullshit,” I whisper. “Ghosts don’t exist.”

A faulty light. That’s all it is. Still, I never want to come down here again. Ever.

In three swift steps, before I lose my nerve, I reach the workbench, spot the hammer and swing backhanded, smashing the fluorescent bulb in one crazed shout of fury and terror before dashing, half-sobbing up the stairs, light from my phone app swinging wildly over the stone walls. I slam the door behind me with all the force I possess at that moment and stumble into the kitchen.

I do not stop to catch my breath. I push from the counter, reach for the high cabinet over the fridge. I need the pills.

Today is still a good day.

Ghosts do not exist.

But I need the pills.

There they are. Exactly where I left them, hidden behind the slow cooker. I dump my cold coffee, fill the mug with water. I am prescribed two tablets, twice a day, plus two more at bedtime if I’m having trouble sleeping.

I put four on my tongue and gulp them down with water. It trickles from the corners of my mouth, down my neck, under my sweatshirt. I wrap my arms around myself, shivering, freezing.

Ghosts do not exist.

But I am still terrified of them.

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