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Most sixteen-year olds aren’t worried about the fate of their immortal souls. May Krieg should be.
Typically, honor student May’s biggest problems have revolved around her super-hot arch-rival, Jack. But when a school project takes them ghost-hunting in a local cemetery, she discovers that an ominous force roams in the darkness around her.
And it follows her home.
It claws its way into her life, burning messages into her wall and imprinting them onto her body. Even worse, she can’t tell if it’s trying to possess her… or protect her.
May’s thoughts soon become actions, causing the target of her anger severe physical pain and giving her a rush the likes of which she has never experienced. She quickly realizes that she needs to find a way to reign in this power before she kills someone. May hates the pleasure it gives her, hates herself for hurting others, but she can’t stop.
As her entire world shatters around her, she is forced to ask what her soul is worth– and who would she risk losing her soul to save?
This is New England. And in New England, a town without a good witch hanging or ghost story just, well, isn’t considered to be a real town. So when I walk past the iron gate of the cemetery and feel the urge to bolt riding up my legs like a herd of football players bum-rushing the food counter on taco day, I set my shoulders and do my best to cowboy up.
Set between imposing stone walls and punctured by large granite fists, Hillside Cemetery definitely looks like it deserves its sinister reputation, making my attempt at bravery rather brief. “This place sucks. Maybe we should just go.”
“Here, watch your step,” Cay says and holds out his hand to help me over the uneven cobbles just on the other side of the entry. Once we make it over the stones, he drops my hand and pulls the recording equipment out of the duffle.
We’ve been friends ever since kindergarten, when some boy taunted me for living in a “little troll house.” Cay, the kickball king, told him that it was actually a gingerbread house, and everybody knows that only fairy princesses live in gingerbread houses.
He was wrong, of course; it was witches who lived in the gingerbread houses, a fact I pointed out to him later, but I gave him props for the effort. We’ve been “Cay and May” ever since, but the whole dating thing still feels… awkward.
“Is this all from school or is Jack bringing some of his dad’s?” I swipe an errant curl of hair out of my face and cringe at my surroundings as I reach for the big videocamera. Why does it have to be so dark? Why can’t people ghost hunt in the daylight? You can still supposed get sound bites and whatever in the daytime, right? It’s not like ghosts go anywhere or sleep or, you know, whatever.
“Well, the big stuff is the professional gear with night vision from school. And then we have my stuff.” Cay stops in front of a wide tomb, laying his multiple cameras and his mini video recorder along the top like they are the most precious things in the world. “Weird that Mr. Dowd put both you and Jack on my team.”
“Yeah, weird.” And a nightmare. If it wasn’t for Jack, I’d be ranked first in our year, and, unlike Jack, if I don’t earn a ton of scholarship money for college, then I can’t go.
Cay fumbles with the equipment, his breath rising in great grey puffs of frost, lingering in his dark bob of curls. I shiver.
A BMW pulls up in front of the entry gate, looking sleek and new and out of place.
I run an unsteady hand through my untamable hair…right…Jack.
He gets out of the car and strides towards us, stepping out into the camera’s lights: short blond hair, high cheekbones, and a long neck leading to strong shoulders. Everyone at school, except for me, that is, adores him because he’s rich, intelligent and supposedly lost his virginity to a Victoria’s Secret model.
Watching the god-like way he strides across the cemetery, you can almost believe the hype. He lifts his eyes to meet mine as he nods a greeting. My heart flips.
Of course, it would be easier to dislike him if he wasn’t so damn… hot. I shake my head. I hate that about him, too.
“You’re late.” I grab the sound gear from Cay and hand it to him, eyeing the orange-clad harpy of a girl trailing after him.
“I had to pick up Alicia.” He indicates the thing as he straps on the professional sound gear. “And respond to your post on the AP History board about gun control.”
I huff. “You think we should arm everyone with a credit card?”
“What I think is irrelevant, Mason.” Jack’s the only one in the universe who calls me by my full name. “It’s what the Founding Fathers wanted that matters.” He holds out his hand to help me navigate my way over a broken tomb. I ignore it. He smirks, “Or do you not support the Bill Of Rights?”
God, please keep me from throttling him tonight. Cay clears his throat.
“WTF, losers? A graveyard?” Alicia Impestio. Wearing her designer hoodie unzipped so that she reveals way more skin than she has to, her straight brown hair is bleached at the tips and held off of her over-tanned face by some rhinestone-studded catastrophe. I grit my teeth.
“Hey Alicia, glad you could make it.” Cay holds the minicam out towards her and helps her onto the cobbled path of the graveyard.
“Whatever.” Alicia grabs the mini and swats at Cay’s hand as she struggles to gain a foothold. A challenging endeavor, I’m sure, for someone wearing flip-flops in November.
She gives me the once-over, lips curling.
“You really wore that?” She asks, mouth open with disdain.
“Alicia…” Jack’s voice is low, menacing.
“I mean” –she gives me the once-over and sneers- “Aren’t the Kardashians some of you people? They at least know how to dress. But, then again, they also know who their daddy is.”
That’s Alicia: hitting where it hurts. I blink through the stinging at my eyes as my mind races to find something snarky to say…something to…
“Alicia,” Jack snaps. “Stop.”
“Fine, but tell Clay Aiken over there to hurry it. I’m cold.”
Jack makes a motion with his head to indicate that Cay should ignore her as he adjusts the weight of the portable boom on his back.
“Okay, I’m filming.” I say and catch the low-hanging harvest moon before panning down to Cay.
“In three, two, one…”
“This is Cayden Robison of Chase Hills High Broadcasting reporting on site at Hillside Cemetery. In 1734, three witches were reportedly hung just up the road, on the town green and buried, here, in this cemetery, in unmarked graves.”
“Then, in 1864, three men were arrested for grave digging, and ever since, people have reported strange things not only here, but especially out behind the burial grounds, in the woods.” Cay runs his hand along the top of a worn tombstone.
“Reports of paranormal activity really began to pick up in the past thirty years.” He pauses, and I pan the camera over to the creepy oak and the broken bench beneath it, hands a little unsteady. “Some people claim to hear voices, others see full-body apparitions, but most convincingly, in the 1980s, some kids back here partying say that they found satanists performing rituals in the woods. They watched as the group made a make-shift temple of one of the half-buried barite mines in the woods, and claim that the men actually raised a demon.”
He stops, looking intently into the lens of my camera. I flex my fingers, my breath rushed, like I’ve been running.
“Tonight, we’re going to dig for the truth and see if Hillside Cemetery is actually haunted.” Cays smiles.
Deep breath, May. It’s just a story. Fairytales. There’s no such thing as demons, or ghosts.
Cay motions with his hand to indicate that the “official” filming has ended and that now the “ghosthunting” part of the project begins. Why couldn’t we report on the old tavern, or maybe on one of the farms like everyone else? I blow onto my fingers to keep them warm before turning off the main light of the camera and switching to night vision.
A dog barks. I jump. Looking at the shadows clinging to the crooked, thin stones more cautiously, my heartbeat ticks up. Stupid dog.
Jack, eyeing me with something like concern, takes a step in my direction.
“So, what exactly are we looking for? Has anybody actually taped any evidence here?” I ask, trying to put some steel in my voice. Don’t look stupid in front of Jack, May. He’s not freaked out and you shouldn’t be either.
“Lots of people have caught pictures and stuff… a few good EVPs.” Cay stops and explains as he snaps a bunch of still shots. “Electronic Voice Phenomena. Voices of ghosts are usually at such a low frequency that human ears can’t pick them up, but you can catch them on tape.”
Cay walks, holding out both a still camera and a wand-like mini-recorder in front of him.
I follow, looking over my shoulder. “Sounds like a bad recording…or interference.”
Jack laughs soundlessly as we slowly follow Cay’s movements. Is it wrong to say that I’m happy Jack’s here? I mean, it would be better if it was someone else, of course….
Cay storms around the tomb and wags his finger at me, dry leaves crunching beneath his feet. “It’s not interference, jeez May, didn’t you read those links I sent you?”
No. The whole ghost thing is ridiculous. The trees at the edge of the cemetery, though, are freakish. Black and dripping with shadows… I absolutely would have read a link about a barite mine lurking somewhere beneath those trees.
“This is creepy.” Alicia says, “Jack, we’re going to Eric’s party later, right?”
Jack glares at her.
“Whatever.” She purses her lips and tosses the minicam on the ground, “I’m going back to the car.”
Thank you, God.
Cay’s sweet, boyish features twist at Alicia’s defection. “We’ll do some EVP work, first, OK?” He messes with his digital voice recorder for a minute before holding the wand-like thing before him. He presses record. “Testing.”
We wait. The frost from our breath hovers around us, filling the darkness with fog, hiding us from the trees.
Cay looks to me. Then he pushes stop. He plays back the recording and we hear him say, “Testing.”
Jack shuffles his feet, trying to lower the boom over where Cay is standing in the least conspicuous manner possible. A strange, cool feeling falls over me. My teeth clench against it.
“Shhhh, May. Do you feel that?” Cay holds out his arm, listening.
My body tenses. “Feel what?” I ask, angry at myself for my quickening heartbeat.
“It just dropped like ten degrees. Ghosts need energy to manifest, and when they’re about to appear, you find a cold spot. Just like this.” He grins.
Swallowing my galloping heartbeat, I refrain from mentioning that it is always cold in November in Connecticut. But a wall of cold that hits suddenly, in a graveyard, while trying to talk to the dead…
“Is anybody here with us tonight?” Cay asks, holding the recorder out before him. “Is there anything you would like to say to us?”
We wait in the silence of the night, Cay with the tiny, handheld voice recorder and Jack with the pro gear and mic, both recording, both waiting…
The cold sits at the bottom of my stomach like a virus, lying, waiting to rear up and make me ill. I keep the camera on Cay with shaking hands, black hair falling in front of my eyes, but I don’t dare swat at them, in case I miss the shot.
Cay plays the tape back. He waits, holding his breath as we hear his voice asking the first question, and thankfully only a blank pause before we hear him ask the second and I relax, shoulders softening, but just then, just as he moves to turn off the playback, a sound, a groaning, emanates from the small machine he holds in his hand.
“What the hell was that?” I shriek, jumping in time with Cay and reaching out to grab at Jack’s shirt.
“It sounds like it’s saying ‘go’, hot damn!” Cay shouts triumphantly. “We like totally made contact!”
Jack looks at my hand on his shirt and smiles. I let go. Crap!
“Mason, this ghost hunting stuff is all bull, you know that, right?”
Heart slamming, I hold my feet steady beneath my pounding heart. Bull, yeah, bull, right, I do know that. I nod at him, breath heavy.
“Here, I’ll show you.” Jack lowers the long wand microphone to his feet. Arm muscles tensing as he pulls the battery pack off of his back, he plays back the feedback on the main sound recorder. He fast forwards then hits play. We hear Cay ask his questions and…I hold my breath…and…and…nothing. Jack’s right. Nothing groaned. Nothing said “go”.
“The EVP recorder’s more sensitive.” Cay says incredulously as he points the EVP recorder at Jack’s set lips. “It’s specially set up to pick up more sound waves than standard equipment.”
“More sensitive than professional sound gear?” Jack raises his eyebrow and looks me in the eye.
“He pre-recorded it, Mason. He’s faking.”
“I’m not lying, May, I swear!” He hops around a cracked tombstone and grabs my hand in his,
“Right.” Jack shrugs off the rest of the soundgear. “Using an assignment on local history as an excuse to play ghost hunter was a bad idea, Cay. Faking a ghost sighting or hearing or whatever to impress your girlfriend is just wrong.”
“We’ve just experienced something supernatural here!” Cay turns to face Jack, looking wiry standing against Jack’s athletic physique.
“No, we haven’t.” Jack’s eyes meet mine and my heart flounders… not sure as to what the hell it should be doing. “He’s lying to you, Mason.”
My heart tightens, falls.
“I am not, you dick!” Cay shoves Jack in the chest.
Jack doesn’t push back, he just straightens out and looks to me again, “Maybe you should ask him what else he’s lying to you about, Mason?”
“May, you’ve known me like your whole life, you know I wouldn’t fake this.” I look into Cay’s eyes, searching for the truth. He wouldn’t. For one, he’s not that smart. And he wouldn’t fake something like this. Not on purpose. Not if it would mean tricking me. Maybe Alicia tampered with this stuff somehow… And what the hell is Jack implying?
“He wouldn’t lie, Jack.” I look across the field to the blackened woods. “Not to me. It must be the equipment.”
Jack’s face closes…he’s pissed. “For your sake, I hope that’s true.” He hands me the sound equipment. “I can wait by the car if you want me to, but I won’t be part of this.”
“Just go.” Cay demands, getting in Jack’s face.
Jack raises his eyes to mine. My heart amps up. I force my eyes to the ground. I don’t want him to go. Safety in numbers and all that.
Wait, Jack’s walking away….
I turn to Cay. “Why is he so sure you’re making this up?”
Cay looks at his feet. “Probably just pissed he’s not in charge of something for once.”
“Maybe.” I watch Jack’s form seem to disappear into the trees and tombs beneath the light of the moon.
“Come on.” He looks over at Jack’s retreating form and says at full volume, “I’m your boyfriend and I won’t let anything bad happen to you.”
Jack stops, back tight, and Cay sports a defiant grin as he ushers me closer to the tree line.
After a long moment, Cay clears his throat and talks into the wand-like EVP machine. “We’re here to talk to you.”
Leaves crunch beneath his feet as he picks his way through the tall blades of yellowed grass and creeps down towards the woods. I ask, “Wait, Cay, where are you going?”
He hits ‘record’, ignoring me.
“We want to talk to you.” Cay calls, talking to the dead as he motions for me to follow him, trampling twisted fronds of dead milkweed as he crosses the field of graves and approaches the trees.
My heartbeat ticks up even further by the sudden stillness of the trees. No owls, no wind, even the yippy dogs from the condos have stopped. My feet stay planted, rooted… I really don’t want to go near those trees. Much less walk around in them.
“Would you like to say something to us?” He waits for what seems like a year, then stops recording.
He meets my eyes over the top of the view screen. He pushes ‘play’.
We wait. I feel a trickle of sweat down my chest, sliding over my racing heart…I swallow the lump in my throat…waiting…
Merciful silence. I let out a breath of relief. Thank God. That first voice was probably just the wind, or Cay doing something beneath his….
“Go away.” The voice is loud enough to hear, coming from the woods, and my heart takes a great leap, stomach trembling. Cay’s eyes widen, and just before I drop the camera and run back to the car, he grabs my arm, and holds me steady, fear like a giant nail in my chest…. and we hear it again, the voice, low, dark, barely above a whisper. “Demons.”
Cay shivers with excitement. “Did you hear that? Were you recording? Did you catch what it was saying? This is like totally amazing!”
“It was crystal clear what it was saying, Cay! And it means we need to get the hell out of here right now!” My breath leaves short, angry clouds of frost in the air around me, and I struggle to keep a good shot on anything as I look into his delighted face.
No way. No way. This is bull. I’m being punked or something, right? He has to have paid someone to hide in the trees. He didn’t tell me because he wanted me to look scared on film. He’ll tell me later, we’ll laugh about it later…
“No way, it means we’re going into the woods! How many times do you get a chance to possibly catch an inhuman haunting on film! This is like wicked hot.” Cay hops a thin sapling and walks into the forest.
“Cay, please, let’s just go back to the car. We’ve got more than enough for our three minute assignment.” I say, voice thin. Please don’t make me go in there.
Breathe, May, breathe. It’s just trees, dammit. You like trees. I look up to try and find Cay.
But he’s gone, walking into the misshapen wood, trees bending, scooping at the ground instead of the sky. I peer into the shadowed forest, and then back to the graveyard. Dampening my pounding heart, I square my shoulders and try and think strong, think tough. I can’t let Cay go in there alone. He’ll trip on a rock or something and get himself killed. I take a deep breath, hope to God this isn’t a mistake, and take a step into the trees.
The woods are definitely worse than the graveyard. The graveyard has some sense of form, some light. The woods here are a mess of fallen vines, thorn bushes and half-broken, half-dead trees and their sickly, barren limbs above. Holding onto the peeling bark of an old birch tree, I allow my eyes to adjust to the new degree of darkness.
Having better vision through the lens of the camera than I do with my own eyes, I raise the camera and slowly make my way through the chaos. I follow Cay’s movements with the camera, watching his lanky form appear and reappear onscreen ahead of me, asking more questions of the voice.
There are things here. I feel them, watching, waiting, my skin tingles at the sensation, as if it has sprouted thousands of tiny, needle-like thorns. The only sounds in here come from us, which is…well… wrong.
“Ugh! That totally sucks! May, go around, I got caught in this nasty puddle here. Oh, wow that’s cold.” Cay says, shaking his foot and hopping around some saplings.
“We should go.” I say. “It’s hard to shoot in here.” My path around the freezing mud leads me either through a patch of thorny undergrowth or over a massive downed tree.
Right, over the tree it is then. I lower the camera and let it dangle around my neck and use both hands to grab the log and climb up and over. Landing on the other side, I pull a leaf out of my hair. Wait…why does it feel like the ground here isn’t frozen? My feet sink…what’s going on? Did I step into a pile of decaying leaves?
The ground gives beneath my feet and the forest floor rushes up to my eyes.
A moment of dark free fall and confusion ends with the clarity of impact. Pain bursts my body. Burning up through my legs, through my lungs, through thoughts of anything. Anything but the pain…erasing everything.
I can’t breathe. Like a fish on a dock, I fumble as my lungs torturously pull in raw, slicing clouds of oxygen. Short, excruciating breaths, but I have to….
“Cay” I call for my friend, somewhere above me, but the sound that leaves my throat is too low, too guttural to carry.
I’m wallowing, covered in something. Oh crap. Am I in a grave? I can’t tell; I can’t see anything. My heart is on overdrive. The smell is noxious. I wipe some of the sludge off my face, only to smear more of it near my eyes. It clings to my sweater, wet, cold, beneath my filthy coat. The stench, oh God I can’t see. What is this?
The only light filters in from a small hole somewhere maybe eight feet over my head.
Are there bones? What is that smell? Decaying leaves? No, too deep, and the smell is rancid, like something is dying, or has died, leaving me lying in a pool of decomposing flesh. Oh please God, tell me I am not in a puddle of rotting bodily fluids. The noxious fluid clings to me, burning my nostrils as I try and stop the heaving of my chest and I gag.
“May! May can you hear me? Are you OK? Oh crap, I like can’t like believe this, if you can hear me, I am like calling 911, ok? Are you bleeding?”
“Cay.” I try again, a low moan as my body’s initial numbness turns to tiny pricks, like millions of biting ants running up and down the length of my body as my nerves surge back up. I lay on my side, curled up in the mire.
Fighting pain, fighting panic, I look around me. And see nothing. The dark is absolute. I move my head to look at my quivering, bleeding hands. They don’t seem to be broken. Okay, this is good. Well, maybe not good, but I’m not dead, and that’s at least something. Just calm down and think your way out of this. Check your legs.
My right leg is sore, throbbing, but okay. I move my left foot and waves of agony reverberate up my leg. I exhale forcefully, trying to exorcise some of the throbbing so I can focus.
“Cay!” My voice is a low, whiny croak…not enough…not enough…
My eyes adjust, slowly, so slowly. I lean on my aching left hip. My phone. Open the phone. I pull my cell out of my pocket. Hands trembling, I flip the phone open. The ambient light I’m counting on fades to black, as if snuffed. Damn! I just charged the stupid thing this afternoon. It’s so cold, so dark…
Breathe, just breathe.
“Cayden Robinson. I’m at Hillside. No. My friend, she fell into like a hole…I don’t know, yes, a hole…no…look, you like have to get her out like now….” His voice fades.
Breathe in…His voice echoes down to where I lay in a pool of grayish light. Breathe out….I look around at the walls, and see nothing. Nothing but darkness. Focus, May! Breathe in….Cay is up there, not too far above you, and you will be able to call to him in a minute, once your breathing steadies.
Breath out… “Cay!” I call, voice finally unlocking.
“Oh my God!” He fumbles, kicking debris down into the hole, “May!”
“Just stay calm, OK?” He calls, “The EMTs told me to tell you not to move because you might have a neck injury or something.”
Not move? Stay calm? Seriously? I feel my cheeks moisten and I stifle a yowl. Breathe in….
I wish I could see into the dark around me. Then at least I would be able to know where I am. Sitting in the only light makes me feel like I’m onstage.
Remembering the light on the camera, I fumble around my surrounding area, only to finding more mud. Hot dammit!
“I’m going to look around and see if I can find something to help you out with, OK? Like a stick or something.” Cay calls.
I sit, cold, trying to stay calm. But I feel…something….
I feel it. I am not alone. The tips of my fingers go numb. Something is here…around…watching….
Cay returns to the edge of the hole and he leans his head over. “I don’t want you to like, freak out or anything, but I think you’re in the shaft.”
The temperature plummets and my stomach lurches, “What shaft?” I ask, voice hoarse.
“Like, the shaft, May. I think I just found the entrance over there, it look like it’s sealed and all.”
My heart flutters. “Cay, are you talking about the mine shaft? The one the …..”
“Yeah.” Cay murmers. “But don’t panic. Help is totally on its way.”
Asshole! Don’t panic? Is he for real? I’m in the satanist’s shaft and he tells me not to panic!?!?
Something shuffles in the dark not three feet from where I’m laying. My heart shifts, “Something just moved, Cay.”
Cay’s head is back in the light. “It’s probably just a mouse, May, relax.” His voice is tight.
Right, a mouse. But it sounds bigger…
I hear a low-level snarling. Bile dribbles down my throat, burning as it goes. “Cay, there is something down here.”
The color slowly drains from my cheeks and all feeling rushes to my core. Growling. Something is here. Growling. Oh God help me. Growling.
My mind frantically searches, wishing I could see anything in the darkness. My throat tightens and I am barely able to whisper. “Help me.”
“May, here.” Cay drops a glowstick down the opening, and I watch with horror as it illuminates a large, growing mass of shadow against the rock of the wall. No. The shadow is vaguely human in form, and can’t be cast by me. No. I’m on the wrong side of the light. My blood ices. Please somebody help me.
Move! May, move! I tug at my legs desperately and back away from the sounds, but it feels like I am surrounded. I have nowhere to go. I have no escape. The light of the glowstick fades before it hits the floor, swallowed by the darkness, as if absorbed by this thing, and I hear the sound of the video camera’s plastic casing being ripped, shredded.
“Cay!” Shrieking, I clamor at the wall behind me, looking for some sort of grip to try and pull myself out of the mineshaft, hands only finding slick stone. Then I feel it, hot breath on the back of my neck. “Get me the hell out of here now! There is something down here and it’s huge!”
“May! Hold on! Help! I’m gonna, I just, like…”
The black is absolute, but I feel it, breath tickling at my skin, everywhere, nowhere, my fingers scraping at the rock wall, trying to find a hold, a way out. “Get me out of here! Please! I feel it, it’s everywhere!”
“May! What’s going on? Are you OK? Help! Somebody!” Cay’s screams are desperate above me as I fall to my knees, the air taking on life a life of its own as my fingers bleed, clawing against the rock. Can’t think. I hear another sharp, angry voice somewhere above me. Can’t breathe. I lunge right to try and avoid touching the mass of darkness to my left, but my head bangs hard against the rock wall and I can’t keep my eyes open.
It all goes black.
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