|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 18 Years|
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Of the Trees
By E.M. Fitch
Month9BooksCopyright © 2017 E.M. Fitch
All rights reserved.
The deeper into the woods Cassie went, the more her best friend resembled a fairy-tale creature. Laney walked in front of her, the backpack she wore bulged out in the limited moonlight, and she looked, for the moment, like the grotesque silhouette of a skinny hunchback, her long hair swinging dark and loose past her shoulders. The friends shifted together through the trees, knowing the destination by heart.
The woods came alive at night. The lack of light drew things out, or perhaps it was only that the blackness accentuated the sounds. Claws scraped the dirt. Dry leaves flipped over. The mating calls of crickets and tree frogs echoed and pinged through the trees. Wings rustled through the air, followed by the inevitable swoop of a low flying creature. All barely noticeable in the day time, they screamed at night.
Nervous flutters took residence in Cassie's gut. It was probably the darkness — the shadows — that hid the sources of the sounds. It made the animals braver, less apt to be seen, less prone to being caught. Bolder. The noises surrounded her, and it was possible that the feeling of being enclosed was what set her nerves on edge. She had walked through these woods at night before though. Tonight something else was bothering her, something undefinable.
The moon hung above the tree line, only half full. The luminescence struggled to push its way through the leaves that still clung to the trees, stamping wavering patches of silver on the forest floor. The moonlight was just enough, dim as it was, to allow Cassie to see the rocks and bramble, avoid the prickers, and step over the low hanging branches.
The girls' intrusion into this place — the world of owls and bats and night creatures — was commonplace by now. The path they traveled had been stomped through so many times that the ferns stopped trying to grow back. A bare line through the trees, recognizable only to them, stretched from Cassie's backyard to their destination.
Still, Cassie hated coming at night.
But, it was Laney's birthday, September the fifth. She turned seventeen, and she had insisted.
"She only comes at night! I'm sure of it," Laney had whined, begging her friend to come with her.
"Because a ghost cares if it's day or night?" Cassie had shot back.
"You know why!" Laney said with a little stomp of her foot that got Cassie to sigh in resignation.
She did know why. Not that she believed any of it, of course. But she knew Laney's version, the one she had researched and convinced herself was real.
It was over two hundred years ago that Lizzy Palmer went looking for her husband in a snowstorm. Legend said that Harold had been in town getting supplies when his wife was overcome with an awful, persistent feeling that he may never return. Crazed, she went out into the storm to look for him. Lizzy never found Harold; instead, she got caught in the blizzard, sucked into one of the boggy marshes that surrounded her home and the nearby cemetery. She had been pulled under the freezing, murky water, her screams muffled by the storm.
Some versions of the story had Harold finding her in time. People said he just stood there, watching his wife sink below the swampy muck, watching as her mouth was filled with mud and cold water. Some say that's why she came back — to haunt him into insanity. Others say they have seen his ghostly lantern light, still out searching for the body of his lost wife.
Not that Cassie thought they would see anything. She and Laney hadn't last week, nor the week before that. The girls had spent most of their summer sitting in the cemetery. Even after school started, Laney still hadn't let it go. She was obsessed with the place — Gray Lady Cemetery. It had a real name, something registered in the town. Laney knew what it was, but everyone in school called it Gray Lady Cemetery because Lizzy Palmer, the Gray Lady, haunted it. She floated through, past her grave, in a blur of deathly gray. Supposedly.
Though on a night like tonight, the air hung with moisture, maybe Cassie and Laney did have a good shot at seeing something. Whatever misty occurrence happened to convince people that a ghost was hanging around, maybe the conditions were right for it tonight.
Their path ended abruptly at a small stone wall. The woods were riddled with them, old property markers from back before the entire area became protected. Most were crumbling and low to the ground, but this one was higher and in better condition. It formed a rough square, enclosing the graveyard. Three sides of it cut through the woods, but just to Cassie's left, the stone wall butt up to a dirt road. The dirt of the road gleamed a cool silver, a ribbon winding its way through the night. She could see nothing else from that direction except a concentration of darkness — a hole of blackness punched through restless leaves. Cassie watched as Laney climbed over the wall, one foothold at a time, her backpack swaying.
The light was better in the small, square cemetery. A patch of sky, dark velvet with no stars, hung like a blank canvas above the swaying of the black trees that reached into it. The dry leaves rustled together on long limb branches. They fell in bursts as the wind rushed through, covering the top of the rock wall.
The grass in the cemetery was long and loose. It tickled the backs of Cassie's knees. The town maintained the graveyard — at least occasionally. It wasn't mowed; there were no neat rows of headstones or miniature flags poking from flower vases. There was only one intact headstone in the plot, the rest were crumbling limestone stubs, poking up through the dirt. Cassie stepped carefully, edging around the corners of pale stone that came tilting up through the earth. She knew from experience how easily those bits could catch her toes.
Cassie followed as Laney wove through the stones, knowing her route by heart. The grass that rose was beaten back by their sneakers. Laney dropped her bag and bent over it, pulling a dark blanket out. Silently handing two corners to Cassie, they stepped back from each other, spreading the blanket ten yards behind the Gray Lady's headstone.
"It's the perfect night for this," Laney said, her voice low as she sat down on one corner of the blanket. Excitement tinged her words, and Cassie thought she would have squeaked if she had allowed herself enough volume. But she wouldn't; she might scare the ghosts away. "The boys better get here soon."
It was the first time the boys had been allowed to join them in the cemetery. Ryan Buckner and Jon Sutkowski had teased the girls about their secret for so long, always bugging Cassie and Laney to let them join. Laney had been hesitant, this secret obsession of hers too sacred to share with others. She had invited them when the girls had gone to check out the remnants of an old, abandoned jailhouse that someone had told them about. They all had to trudge through the woods to get to that one, too. The boys always came with them at Halloween when they'd hit every haunted house and corn maze they could find. The four of them had been friends for years, but not nearly as long as Cassie and Laney had been.
Laney Blake was the first friend Cassie ever had. They were neighbors, playmates from the time their mothers had brought them to story hours together, back when they couldn't even spell their own names. They had countless rides on the bus, classes, sleepovers, and vacations together. Cassie and Laney were inseparable, and that was why Cassie was always asked to come along, begged to indulge the ghost chases and midnight hikes through the woods; Cassie couldn't say no.
There had been a time when Cassie was just as obsessed as Laney was; when the goblins and elves and ghosts were all real for her, too. But it had been a long time since she really believed any of it.
Part of her felt that these cemetery trips were a last ditch effort, one last strong pull by Laney to tug Cassie back into belief. Laney had researched and read and pestered the local librarians about the story surrounding Gray Lady Cemetery. She was firm in her conviction that this legend — finally, this — was the real thing. Laney was convinced that all she had to do was pick the right date and the right time, and so Cassie had been dragged out to the cemetery, time and time again, told forcefully to keep her voice down and all lights off, and made to wait.
"What time did you tell them?" Laney asked, a bit of anxiety leaking into her voice.
"Before midnight," Cassie answered. She pushed strands of her auburn hair from her face. Her fingers felt for the smooth case of her phone in her hoodie pocket. She hit the home button, lighting the screen, and was just able to glimpse the 11:42 on the screen before Laney slapped at her.
Cassie rolled her eyes, though in the darkness, Laney couldn't see. She shifted on the blanket, stretching her legs out in front of her and brushing away the stray grass strand that stuck to her calf.
"So, what'd it say?" Laney asked, her voice quiet again. Cassie laughed.
"I thought you didn't want any lights."
"Well, it was already on," Laney argued, grinning as she knocked shoulders with Cassie. "So, what was it? It's midnight already, isn't it? They're gonna mess this up."
"No, they have fifteen minutes," Cassie said. "I thought you were sure it would be at one thirty, though?"
"Oh," Laney said, shrugging, "well, midnight or one thirty. There were conflicting articles. Someone thought midnight because that's when Lizzy first left her house, another guy thought later because that's when she would have been caught in the storm. I figured, why not both?"
Cassie hummed in response. She stifled a yawn and laid back on the blanket she shared with Laney, watching the dark sky. The ground was lumpy and uneven. Her body tilted toward her friend. Laney leaned back, her elbows bent to hold her torso up, her gaze fixed on the empty patch of grass surrounding the tombstone.
The air was heavy, saturated with the scents of wet grass and the pulp of crushed ferns. Crickets echoed across the space, trills of noise bouncing off the trees. Cassie twisted on the blanket and looked behind her, scanning the pale line of the dirt road as it vanished into the tunnel of darkness.
Ryan and Jon would be driving. Jon had snuck out with his dad's car. The dirt road that stretched behind the graveyard was terrible, filled with potholes and rivets that had been formed by bad weather and low maintenance; the girls should be able to hear the car before they even saw the headlights. Cassie lay back again, shifting a bit to get off a rock that lodged itself under her spine.
It was strange, Cassie would note later, that the first change she registered was the stiffening of her friend's spine, the jolting of Laney's muscles as her shoulders locked, and the tightening of her neck. That is what first caught her attention, but it was the bobbing light in the tree line that drew her eye to the forest. Then her own muscles tightened as her lungs froze midbreath.
Laney jumped to her feet as Cassie skittered back, dragging the blanket beneath her until her fingers were digging into damp grass and dirt.
"What are you doing?" Cassie hissed as Laney took off toward the light. It was moving deeper into the woods.
"Get up! I'm not missing this!"
Cassie got to her feet. Laney was already halfway across the cemetery as Cassie rushed to reach her. The light was clearly moving, darting through the trees and bouncing up and down, as though someone was holding it. It wasn't a flashlight, not a cell phone either. It was a soft, orange glow. Even from here, Cassie could see that it was encased; the source of the light protected by metal and glass.
"It's not a ghost, Laney," Cassie whispered, completely sure, "It's not him, not Harold."
"A lantern, Cass?" Laney whispered back, hiking an insistent line after the light. They were closing in now, less than a football field away. "Out here? At midnight? We have to check it out."
"It could be a psycho, a mass murderer!" Cassie insisted, reaching out and tugging on Laney's arm. "It probably is. We should wait for the boys, at least."
Laney snorted, jerking her arm out of Cassie's grasp. She darted ahead, Cassie at her heels. They clambered over the stone wall together. A row of ferns spread from the moss covered rocks into the tree line. Laney jogged through, leaving a trampled path in her wake. The fronds were heavy with moisture, caressing Cassie's bare legs and leaving her shivering even in the unseasonable warmth.
"Laney, wait," Cassie begged in a whisper, but her friend darted ahead, the trees swallowing her. She lunged a bit, hissing when a low branch caught and scratched up her shin. She swiped her hand over the scratch, and her fingers came away warm and wet, the tips shiny black in the diffuse moonlight, coated lightly with her blood.
She cursed softly, jogging through the trees and trying to follow the sound of her friend ahead. Laney wasn't exactly stealthy, so it wasn't difficult, but it was hard to see her. That, combined with the night sounds of the woods — the crickets and owls, the bats that flew low through the branches, the rustling in the dead leaves all around her — made her feel more alone than she cared to be at the edge of a cemetery, at night, following a likely madman further into the woods.
The lantern was close now, the glow soft and yet reaching, illuminating the trunks of the trees and the darkened hand that held it aloft. It should be enough, seeing the outline of the fingers that grasped the handle. Laney should know from that that it wasn't a ghost. But she wasn't running back to the cemetery.
"Please, Laney," Cassie hissed, searching now past the trunks to see how far ahead her friend had gotten. She could still see the cemetery behind her, and she wasn't eager to lose sight of it for once. The cemetery was a point of reference, a way to get back home. She knew her path, and she knew the road; navigating the rest of the woods at night was not something in which she could claim confidence. She paused, listening now for Laney's crashing footsteps to indicate which direction she had gone, but it wasn't her footsteps she heard.
It was moaning. And, it wasn't Laney's voice.
The sound was low pitched and horrible. The crickets swelled around it. It didn't say anything, not at first, just squealed a deep note that reverberated through the trees before ending on a single word.
No. Cassie froze in shock and horror. No, it couldn't be.
The forest to her right seemed to tremble all at once, the ground stirring and the trees parting as a dark shadow flew toward her. Cassie screamed and stumbled back, her hands shooting up in front of her face. Dark arms clutched at her and dragged her into a solid chest as a voice whispered in her ear.
She froze, not in fear this time.
"You ass!" she hissed, struggling away from the laughing boy in front of her. He let her go easily enough, though she shoved him anyway. He stumbled back into a tree but didn't fall completely. A ripple of vindictive anger swirled through her at that.
"Cassie!" Laney's voice shouted from far away. "What's wrong? Are you okay?" There was some panic in her tone, which should have soothed Cassie a bit but it only angered her further.
"Fine!" Cassie gritted out, her voice carrying in the dark. "It was —"
Laney's scream cut her off. It was quickly followed by a bout of cursing and a loud thump.
"Serves you right, Jon!" Cassie yelled, having no doubt that it was Ryan's friend that was stalking about with the stupid lantern in the woods. Especially because it was Ryan still leaning into the tree and pinning her with a look that said he was only barely keeping himself from hysterical laughter at her expense, and only abstaining because he knew he'd get pushed again if he tried.
"You better not," she said, pointing at him menacingly. He raised his hands in mock compliance, a snigger escaping anyway. Cassie stepped forward and thumped his chest, annoyed when he didn't even flinch.
"Wow, poor sports!" Jon said, jogging up to them and ducking at the last minute under a branch. He was grinning like an idiot. "Just wanted to spice up the birthday girl's night a bit and wham! She hits me with a tree branch!"
Excerpted from Of the Trees by E.M. Fitch. Copyright © 2017 E.M. Fitch. Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
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