Ready for your fiction fix? Well, we’ve got you covered! Michael Critzer offers up a brand new witch tale, and this one should serve as a sound reminder that sometimes, it’s best to just leave things be. Especially witches. Those broads can be dangerous, and this story’s lead antagonist, Cole, is about to learn that firsthand.
After the thunderstorm had passed, the large moon rose out of the clouds to crest the surrounding mountains. Occasional gusts of wind still rattled the windows, but Wren didn’t notice. She sat at her vanity, staring at the candle flame in the surrounding darkness and felt guilty for not crying anymore—for sitting there in her nightie and trying to brush out her hair as though nothing had ever changed. Her grandmother was dead, and after the hysterical sobbing, all she could do was go through the motions. Maybe Wynter was just doing that as well, but the idea of cleaning and dressing a dead body, even the dead body of their grandmother, was too much for Wren to wrap her head around. It wasn’t her sister’s fault that the sheriff or coroner couldn’t make it out on the flooded roads, but beneath her grief was the lurking suspicion that Wynter had chosen the macabre duty out of spite. Wren could imagine it being lorded over her later, “You didn’t have the stomach to take care of grandma. While you called friends and family, I did what had to be done.”
Her tears came again as she realized that even in her grandmother’s death she was taking time for her petty sibling feud. Maybe she wasn’t the granddaughter she thought she had been. After all, she had been away at college for two years while Wynter played nursemaid alone, but that’s what her grandmother wanted, for Wren to escape the life of an Appalachian housewife. Neither of them worried about Wren’s older sister. Wynter so encouraged the rumor that they were all witches that few in the town would speak to her. Sometimes Wren wondered if her sister did not actually believe her own stories.
If only Wren could get back to making the calls she could at least keep her mind busy. But everything went dead after these damn storms, and the phone had barely outlasted the power. She clenched her fist recalling the moment the lines went down. Ms. Susan had found the audacity to invite her to a family dinner. “Cole misses you,” she’d started in on again.
Wren was ready to let go of a lifetime of self-control, but, “Grandma passed away—” was all she could say before the line went dead.
As Wren sat seething, she noticed a flame floating in her vanity mirror. She turned around, and saw it through her bedroom window. Someone was approaching the house from a distance, carrying what appeared to be a torch. Her anger turned to panic as old nightmares surfaced in her mind. Why else would anyone bring a torch to the house of a “witch”? She grabbed her robe, and ran down the hall. The door to her grandmother’s room was closed, so she knocked and called out, “Wynter? Are you still in there?”
She opened the door to the warm glow of multiple candles, but what she saw inside chilled her blood. Her grandmother was laid out on the bed in a white gown with her hands placed around a Bible, and Wynter sat crossed-legged on the floor amidst the candles, clutching a large black book against her naked body. They stared at each other for a moment before Wren finally whispered, “What are you doing?”
Wynter’s expression went from surprise to indignation. “I’m taking care of grandma,” she said, with a tone that implied she was the only one who had ever done so.
But Wren was too concerned about the scene in front of her to argue. She was about to demand an explanation when they both jumped at a loud pounding on the front door.
“That’s what I came to tell you,” Wren said. “I saw someone walking this way from the woods.”
Wynter put down the book to stand up, and Wren noticed some blood on her fingers. “What happened?” she asked, trying to grab her sister’s hand to inspect it.
“It’s nothing,” Wynter said, pulling away and putting on her own robe. “I pricked my finger. No big deal.” She brushed past Wren, who was about to demand more explanation, but the pounding was becoming more insistent, so they went downstairs without another word.
The flame of the torch expanded and contracted through the frosted glass around the entryway, as though still deciding what shape it would take when they opened the door. Wren felt a strong urge to stay inside and hide from whoever it was, but before she could suggest it to Wynter, her sister threw open the door so suddenly that the person who had been knocking on it stumbled forward a step.
It was Joshua, Cole’s simpleminded cousin. There was another man to the side, with red hair who held the torch. Wren didn’t know him, but behind them both stood the tall and severe form of Cole, with his dark, glassy eyes glaring down at her over a square angled jaw. She felt sick as she recognized the look in those eyes, the one that said he had been drinking just long enough to disregard the consequences.
“Hello Wren,” he said slowly with his deep, determined voice.
She felt exposed and pulled her robe tightly around her body.
“Yes?” Wynter demanded.
Wren placed a restraining hand on Wynter’s shoulder. Her sister didn’t really know Cole.
“Your sister could learn some manners, Wren,” Cole said, as he flicked the ash from his cigarette. It was then that Wren noticed the rifle in his hand.
“Look, we can talk, if you want.” Wren pleaded. “There doesn’t have to be any trouble.”
“Well that’s going to depend on you.”
Joshua had a rope over his shoulder and kept looking to Cole, as though for some kind of permission.
“This house is tainted and needs cleansing,” Cole said, “and you’ve got one chance to come out willingly.”
Wren tried to think of some way to stall them. If she could just keep him talking, maybe the alcohol would wear off or the sheriff would make it over the bridge. But before she could think of anything to say, Wynter snapped, “And you had to wait for an elderly woman to pass away before you big brave boys could come crusading?”
Wren gasped, and Cole said, “Take ‘em.”
Joshua grabbed Wynter and pulled her out of the house. Wren screamed, but the redheaded man had his arms around her waist and was pulling her out as well. She kicked and beat at him and almost got away by slipping out of her robe, but he caught her wrist before she could break into a run, and he continued to pull her along the path to the garden.
When they stopped at a tree, Wren saw Cole behind them, loosely aiming the rifle in their direction. Maybe fighting them wouldn’t do any good, but it was eerie to watch Wynter quietly surrender as Joshua tied her wrists together and fastened them above her head to a tree limb. Wynter should be clawing their eyes out by now. Wren looked at her for an answer as the redheaded man tied her own arms up next to Wynter’s.
“Cole, please,” Wren begged, having to stand on her toes to keep her nightie from rising too high. “You’ve never cared about superstitions. This is about us. Let’s just go somewhere and talk. You don’t have to do all of this.”
“You had your chance to talk,” he replied, looking towards the house. “But you left. You can’t just come back when it suits you.” He turned and said to the other men, “Go see what we can take before we burn it.”
The redheaded man began walking to the house with the torch, but Joshua protested nervously: “Do you think we should be robbing a dead witch? What if her spirit’s still there?”
“It won’t be able to follow us back across the creek,” the redheaded man answered, not turning around or slowing his pace.
Joshua looked at Cole and said in a shaky voice, “Look, you didn’t say nothin’ about going in the house. You just said I had to watch the girls.”
Cole took the cigarette from his mouth and flicked it carelessly to the ground. He walked up the path, raised the rifle, and slammed it lengthwise against Joshua’s chest. “You just lost your cut.”
Joshua was shaking as he took the gun and watched Cole walk away towards the house. He turned to face the girls. “Now—now you girls just take it easy. No one’s gonna hurt you. You just stay put, an’—an’ we’ll be gone soon,” he said, trying not to shiver or stammer.
“Thank you for staying with us,” Wynter said, but it wasn’t her voice. She sounded breathy and childlike. “I wouldn’t have felt safe with the others.”
Wren felt her sister moving slightly back and forth next to her.
Joshua looked at the ground. “Now just stay put,” he said. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“You’re a real gentleman,” Wynter continued. “I know you’ll protect us—Oh!” Her robe had loosened with her movements, and she had timed it so that the “Oh!” came just as it shook open to reveal her naked body gleaming in the moonlight. “Oh, please help me!”
Joshua dropped the rifle and ran up to her. “I’m so sorry!” he spouted, trying to refasten the ends of Wynter’s robe. Wren couldn’t believe the depth of his idiocy, and felt renewed pride in her sister as she waited for the next move, but then she saw someone slam the butt of the rifle against the back of Joshua’s head.
It was Cole. He tossed Joshua aside and began kicking him furiously. “You damn fool!” he shouted. “I knew I couldn’t trust you! How long until she got you to hand her the gun as well?”
Wren cried out for Cole to stop then shuddered at the glimpse of a grin she saw on her sister’s face. But Cole kept it up until the voice of the redheaded man came booming up the path, “We have a problem!”
“What?” Cole demanded.
“The witch has a Bible on her chest. If we burn her with it, the devil doesn’t get her soul.”
“So move it!”
“Then the devil comes to take her. And I don’t want to be in the room for that.”
Cole let out an infuriating roar that made Wren shiver with bad memories. “I’ll do it myself, you coward!” he yelled as he stormed toward the house.
The redheaded man stepped over Joshua’s unmoving form and walked up to Wynter with the torch that further illuminated her body. Wren was terrified by his presence. He seemed to have dropped a façade, and his eyes blazed in the firelight with something more primal than what she had seen in Cole’s.
“That was quite a stunt you pulled,” he said, leaning into Wynter’s face.
Wren could not see her sister’s expression but felt her standing oddly still.
“You know there’s going to be a price?” the man continued.
“I know,” Wynter answered, in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Then let’s finish what you started,” the man said, reaching up and untying her hands.
Wren began to sob again. “Please, don’t do this.”
But the man turned and walked down the path to where he had called out to Cole a moment earlier. Wynter followed, not bothering to cover herself, even when the man turned around to face her.
“You know, your grandmother did something similar when her aunt passed,” the man said as he knelt down to pick up the black book Wynter had been clutching in their grandmother’s bedroom. “I’ll be more vigilant when your time comes.” He grinned at her, and with a movement so quick it shook even Wynter’s strange composure, he clutched her wrist and held it up to the fire light. He squeezed it with throbs that Wren saw reverberate through her sister’s body until blood trickled from the fingertip once more. The man licked his lips in a way that sent invisible spiders crawling all over Wren’s skin. He released her sister’s hand and held the book open. Wynter staggered on weak knees before reaching out her hand and moving her finger around, gently and deliberately in the book.
When she was done, the man slammed it shut, and she collapsed to her knees at his feet.
“A soul for a soul,” he said.
Wren felt as though she was about to scream and never stop until an icy breeze blew through the garden. It cut through her nightie with a sobering pain, and must have done the same thing to Wynter, for Wren saw her steadily rise to her feet and turn from the redheaded man to look at the house. She muttered something Wren couldn’t make out in the wind, and in the next instant they heard a scream from inside. It was Cole, and it was followed by a sudden blaze of fire from an upstairs window. The screaming continued as the fire took on a human form, running through the house and leaving a trail until tongues of flame were flicking out of every window. Wren hadn’t seen the redheaded man leave, but he was suddenly no longer there. Wynter now held the torch, still standing stoically and looking towards the house with her robe moving slightly in the breeze. Wren tugged against the rope, wanting to call out for help, but she was now afraid of what she might see in her own sister’s eyes.