EVERETT ADJUSTED his messenger bag’s strap and hurried down the cobblestone path behind the library. The path was in need of intensive repair—or complete removal. He stumbled over loose stones, tripped over empty grooves, and never stopped to tie the loose bootlaces he should have tied beforehand. Once you entered the woods, you kept moving.
Returning his books at the ungodly hour of ten in the evening was a terrible idea in any town. In Ashville, traveling in the woods after sunset—even for a minute—was plain idiotic.
The cobblestones ended several feet beyond the reach of the library’s overhang lamps, dissolving into a dirt trail that lacked all light. The moon showed its weak face through the jagged fingers of branches clawing at the path.
Everett slipped his hand in the front pocket of his bag. His fingers brushed the wrinkled plastic of his salt packet. With his other hand, he withdrew his flashlight and flicked it on, focusing the weak beam straight ahead.
The trail was narrow enough for a single beam to illuminate both sides—and more. The light bled into the gaps between knobby tree trunks. He wanted to flick his eyes from side to side. What horrors would they see tonight? Instead, he kept his gaze on the path before him, paying more attention to where his flashlight beam slid along the ground, picking up twigs, rocks, and fallen branches.
A breeze stirred the trees, rustling the leaves in a gentle caress. Something tickled his cheek. A leaf?
He held his breath, felt the tickle again. A black line landed across his nose and wiggled. Just his hair. He abandoned the salt packet to tuck the unruly strand behind his ear. It was barely long enough to stay in place.
A whisper breathed a soft name past his ear, carried on the same small gust of wind.
His breath jittered in his throat.
The air calmed.
“Are you lost?” the wind whispered.
He grabbed his salt baggie and sprinted down the path.
“Lost?” The wind swirled around his head, his legs, tightening into small loops that almost tripped him.
Not a moment too soon, the woods opened into Stanley Hugh Park. Bordering the park was a road with a row of small houses on the other side.
The road was dead, the streetlights dim, and the house windows black. At the corner of the block was his grandfather’s house. The yellow light of the living room’s ancient lamp shone through the thin curtains. Everett sprinted until he came to a breathless stop on the front porch. He shifted through his lanyard of keys—car, shop, apartment, storage—and jammed his house key into the lock.
Kent Hallman sat at the small chess table next to the living room’s window. The floor lamp was on its dimmest setting, but it didn’t hide the furrows pinching the old man’s eyebrows.
“I dreamed you and I were lost in the woods. I knew the way out, but I couldn’t tell you anything. I woke, and I knew something had happened.” His rugged voice weighed heavily in the quiet.
The wall clock ticked like a never-ending timer. He blinked with every tick, staring at the living room curtain as if he were still waiting for Everett.
Everett stood his boots in the alcove between the entrance and the hallway table. He dropped his years-old messenger bag next to the couch and took the other chair. The dim lighting turned his grandfather into a washed-out ghost.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
“You don’t have to tell me where you go, only when you go. At this hour, activity is in its prime.”
“I know, Grandpa. I shouldn’t have gone out, but today is the final due date for the books. I didn’t want to risk an overdue fee.”
“There is always tomorrow morning.”
“They would have been overdue. The drop-off has an electronic time stamp.”
His grandfather peeled the curtain back from the window and looked into the still night. “The fines are small.”
“I don’t like being late.”
The curtain fell back against the window. “Everett Hallman.”
Everett straightened his back. “Yes, Grandpa?”
“What were you doing out there?”
“Returning my books.”
His grandfather hadn’t fallen for sloppy lies since his parents had left. “You’re lying.”
“I’m not lying. I really did return my books.” But half lies were blanketed truths to his grandfather. If he couldn’t tear the blanket off, he studied the concealed shapes.
“You returned your books, but you did more.”
Everett cast his eyes to his socks. Their heels were wearing down to threads. He’d have to patch them soon. “I wanted to see if I could hear something.”
His grandfather faced the curtains. “Did you hear anything?”
“It might have been my imagination, but I heard the whisper of a name. And someone asked if I was lost.”
The whisper had been boyish, young and cracking in puberty.
“I don’t remember. I was frightened.” Everett wiggled his big toe and could feel a small opening in the sock. That meant more patching. “I thought something touched my face too, but it was only my hair.”
He could feel his grandfather’s eyes turn from the curtains to study his shameful blush. He tilted his head forward until his bangs blocked the heavy gaze.
“Your parents wouldn’t want you wandering around at this time.”
A small flame of anger flickered in Everett’s chest. His parents wouldn’t have minded as long as he was careful. His grandfather was the one who disapproved of “wandering”; wandering in Las Vegas is what had gotten Everett’s parents killed. Supposedly. Their bodies had never been found.
Everett ground his teeth into his lip.
His grandfather exhaled softly. “You need a trim. Long hair is easy to pull.”
“I like long hair.”
“When it gets long enough, tie it back.”
Everett washed up for the night while his grandfather went back to bed. Kent was approaching his midseventies, and though he carried himself well, it wouldn’t be long until age weakened him. He was too old to spend the night fearing for his grandson’s safety.
Guilt weighed Everett’s body into his thin blankets until he fell asleep.
EVERETT WOKE before he could dream. His awareness was heightened, as if he had never been asleep. He yanked the chain of his lamp and waited for the bulb to completely brighten. Nothing was off about his room, but his intuition warned him against going back to sleep.
He turned off the light and tiptoed to his small window. He peered around the thick curtain. He had an unobstructed view of the gated path that connected the driveway to the backyard. The garbage can, composter, and recycling bin were in the corner near the driveway gate. The portable grill was tucked in the corner near the backyard gate. The central air conditioner unit sat under Everett’s window, undisturbed for years. He didn’t think it worked anymore.
Nothing stood out to him as paranormal, but when his intuition churned his stomach this strongly, the paranormal was never far.
He yanked his curtains open.
He hurriedly tied his robe over his pajamas and woke his grandfather. “I think there’s something outside.”
Everett turned the bedside lamp on. His grandfather’s wrinkles were heavier when his sleepiness was combined with concern. “Did you see anything?”
“No, but my instinct is telling me there’s something out there.”
“Let’s scope the area.”
Everett grabbed his salt bag from his room and poured half the contents on the dining table. His grandfather stood off to the side, leaning a shoulder against the wall as he blinked the sleep from his bloodshot eyes.
Everett pinched several grains between his fingers and held his other hand flat, palm down, above the salt pile. He closed his eyes and imagined internal energy running from his pinched fingers to his chest and finally to his open hand. His palm magnified the energy onto the salt pile.
He mouthed the command of the spell. Show me the presence that plagues me.
“Nothing,” his grandfather said.
He opened his eyes. The pile stayed the same. “I’ve never felt an urge before. There has to be some—”
The salt spread outward as if Everett’s hand had unleashed a blast of wind. The grains settled to form a rough outline of the house lot. A thick cluster of salt stood several inches from the outline.
“The sidewalk,” Everett said.
They looked out the living room’s window. A translucent boy stood on the sidewalk, his hands stuffed in his sweater’s pockets.
“It’s a ghost,” his grandfather said.
“Let’s find out. Get your salt ready for a ward.”
Everett slipped his salt bag in his robe and went to the living room window to watch his grandfather.
The ghost boy looked harmless, but Everett’s compassion for kid spirits often tainted his perspective. His grandfather stood in front of the ghost, his hands deep in his pockets as the ghost boy spoke with wild hand gestures. If the ghost tried anything suspicious, his grandfather could stun it with a pinch of salt. There would be enough time for him to draw a small ward, summon the bridge between the living world and the afterlife, and force in the ghost.
His grandfather came back to the house and gestured over his shoulder for the ghost to come in.
“Hi,” the boy said. All the color from his body was drained to a dim blue.
Everett reached a finger into his salt bag. Show me the true colors.
The blue morphed into the colors the boy had worn before he died. He was fair-skinned with freckles and blushing cheeks. His eyes and hair were orange-red. His sweater was lush green, like the trees in the woods during the daytime. His jeans were a shade of blue muted by many washes, and his shoes a muddy brown. Everett released the spell and the boy returned to blue. Everything lost color in death. Was the afterlife as blue as the translucent skins of ghosts?
“I drowned,” the boy said, as if it didn’t bother him in the least.
“How long ago?” Everett asked.
“Don’t remember. My heart told me to come here, so I did.”
“Your heart did a good thing. We’ll help you out.”
Everett’s grandfather sat the boy at the head of the dining table, and Everett surrounded the boy’s chair with salt, creating the outline for the bridge.
“Are you taking me to heaven?”
“Somewhere better than here.” Everett smiled, the lie bitter on his tongue. There were many afterlives. It was impossible to know which one the boy belonged to.
“Mama said good boys go to heaven. I wanted to be a good boy, so I tried to push the gun away.”
“Oh?” Younger ghosts tended to have the most horrid stories, but Everett would never overcome the surprise of the horrors some youth went through. Youth seemed to get the shorter end of the stick in death.
“I got shot, and I fell in the pool. Then I drowned. I don’t know how to swim.” The boy swung his legs. His heels barely scraped the floor. “I was so scared, I didn’t feel anything.”
Everett leaned against the wall. His smile felt like a fish flopping on his face. The boy’s story was familiar; Everett had bridged several other children who had died to save their family. The boy had likely died weeks ago, but he’d had important places from his life to visit and revisit before crossing over.
“Do you want to send him off?” Everett asked his grandfather.
“I did it last time. It’s your turn.” Last time was months ago.
Everett grabbed a pinch of salt from the circle. He created a bridge between the ward and the boy’s designated afterlife. A flame of white circled the boy’s chair, tracing the salt ward Everett had created. The flame stretched toward the ceiling like a burner on full power, but it only reached the top of the boy’s seat. The flame dissolved into white sparkles that floated to the ceiling.
The boy marveled at the bridge as his body blurred and spiraled into a glowing orb. It levitated above the chair for a few seconds before shooting through the ceiling.
Everett released the bridge and sagged against the wall. The bridge winked out as if giant fingers had snuffed it. Everett slid to the floor and pressed his head to his knees until the light-headedness passed. His grandfather swept the salt into a dustpan and refilled Everett’s salt bag. He murmured something.
“Huh?” Everett looked up.
“What?” His grandfather dropped the bag in Everett’s lap.
“Did you say something?”
“I haven’t said a word since the ghost left.”
“I thought—never mind.” Everett stood and used the wall as a prop. “I’m going to bed. Don’t forget to send a report to the Order.”
The Order was the underground witch government, and it required witches to keep in touch. Especially with the bridging of spirits to their afterlives. Anything concerning the afterlife was of high importance. Considering the sacredness of the living touching the afterlife, even if only by creating a bridge that spirits could cross, Everett was amazed the Order allowed regular witches to summon bridges at all.