Authors: Lori Handeland
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Scotland, four hundred years ago
Three men with large, hard, dirty hands lifted three infant girls from their cradles.
“No!” Prudence Taggart cried, and a crockery bowl fell off the table, shattering against the floor.
Roland McHugh, the king’s chief witch hunter, flicked a finger in her direction, and two other dark-clad men dragged her out the door of the cottage. Several more yanked her husband, Henry, along behind. Those not occupied hauling the five Taggarts from their home built a pyre. From the speed at which they completed their task, they’d done so before.
“More than one soul in a womb is Satan’s work.” McHugh’s lip curled as he contemplated the sleeping children. “How many lives did you sacrifice so your devil’s spawn might be born?”
Both Henry and Prudence remained silent. There was nothing they could say that would save them, and they knew it.
Since King James had nearly been killed, along with his Danish queen, in a great storm he believed had been brought about by witchcraft, His Majesty had become slightly obsessed on the subject of witches.
However, as he didn’t want to seem backward and superstitious to his English subjects, who had very little regard for the Scots in the first place, he had been forced to commission a secret society, the
or Hunters of Evil, to do his bidding. In McHugh the king had found a leader who hated witches as much as he did.
Their captors lashed Henry and Prudence back-to-back against the stake then formed a circle around them. McHugh snapped his fingers, and two lackeys appeared with torches.
The witch hunter removed a ring from his finger and a pincher from his wool doublet then held the circlet within the flame until it glowed. He pressed the red hot metal to Henry’s neck. The scent of burning flesh rose, along with a nasty hiss, and the livid image of a snarling wolf emerged from Henry’s flesh.
“Are you mad?” Henry managed.
“Sometimes the brand brings forth a confession.”
“Shocking how pain and torture make people say anything.”
“It did not make you.” McHugh shoved his ring back into the flames, and his gaze slid to Prudence.
“I did it,” Henry blurted. “I sold to Satan the lives of your wife and child to bring forth our own.”
“Of course you did,” McHugh agreed.
He was convinced magic, sorcery, witchcraft had been involved in the deaths of his loved ones. Nothing would change his mind. Not even the truth.
Some people could not be healed. McHugh’s wife had been one of them. By the time he had fetched Prudence, the woman had lost far too much blood, and the child was already dead.
McHugh pressed his ring to Pru’s neck. She stiffened until the stake creaked. Lightning flashed, and somewhere deep in the woods a tree toppled over. Wolves began to howl in the distance—a lot of them—and the circle of hunters shifted uneasily.
“I confessed, you swine.”
“You thought that would save her?” McHugh tut-tutted, then he snatched the blazing torches and tossed them onto the pyre. The dry, ancient wood flared.
Henry reached for his wife’s hands. They were just close enough to touch palm to palm. “Imagine a safe place where no one believes in witches anymore.”
The forest shimmered. Clouds skittered over the moon. Flames shot so high they seemed to touch the sky. When they died with a whoosh, nothing remained but ashes and smoke.
And the men who had held the three infant girls held nothing but empty blankets.
I understand that my dream of being normal is merely that.
For one thing, I’m adopted and everyone knows it. In a town like New Bergin, Wisconsin, adoptions are rare. Strapping Scandinavian farm folk produce blond-haired, blue-eyed children quick as bunnies. Which means my blue-black hair and so-brown-they’ll-never-be-blue eyes make me stand out like the single ugly duckling in a lake full of swans. Even before factoring in that I’m an only child.
only child in New Bergin. Which doesn’t necessarily make me abnormal, but it doesn’t mean I fit in either.
No, what makes me abnormal are the ghosts. As the freaky little kid in the movie said:
At first my parents thought my speaking to empty corners and laughing for no reason was cute. As time went on, and people started talking … not so cute anymore.
“Should we take her to a psychiatrist?” my mother asked softly.
Ella Larsen always spoke softly. That night she whispered, yet still I heard. Or maybe one of the ghosts told me. I’d been four at the time. My recollection is muzzy.
“Take her to a psychiatrist?” my father repeated. “I was thinking of taking her back.”
Perhaps that was the beginning of my feelings of inadequacy in New Bergin, or at the least, the birth of my incessant need to please. If I wasn’t “right” I could be returned like a broken chair or a moldy loaf of bread.
I stopped mentioning the ghosts the next day. I never did see that psychiatrist, although sometimes I think that I should. I’m still living in New Bergin. My name’s still Raye Larsen.
Once I stopped chattering to nothing my father and I came to an unspoken understanding. He coached my softball team and took me fishing. I pretended to be Daddy’s girl. I had to. I didn’t want to go “back.”
According to my records, I’d been abandoned on Interstate 94, halfway between Madison and Eau Claire. Whoever had left me behind had not liked me very much. They’d dumped me in a ditch on the side of the road—naked without even a blanket.
Luckily for me it was a balmy July day, and I was found before I had succumbed to even a tinge of sunburn. I’m just glad it wasn’t November.
My mother died when I was twenty. Cancer. Haven’t seen her since. The one ghost I wouldn’t have minded turning up a few times and not a word. I don’t understand it.
As I hurried down the sidewalk to work my best friend, Jenn Anderson, appeared at my side. “You wanna slow down?”
“Not really,” I said, though I did just a little.
We weren’t late for a change, probably because I hadn’t waited for Jenn. We worked for the New Bergin School District, Jenn as the attendance secretary, me as a kindergarten teacher, and walked to school together each morning.
In choosing my occupation, I’d tried to get as far away from the dead as possible, figuring I’d be safe from ghosts in a kindergarten classroom.
Boy, had I been wrong. As previously mentioned: Ghosts are everywhere.
While I might have come to teaching for a reason that wasn’t, I’d discovered quickly why I should stay. Good teachers could be made, but the best ones were born, and I was one of them.
Who knew I’d be great with kids? Not me. That they were honest and happy and full of energy, and being around them made me feel better than anything else was an unexpected bonus.
I’d even started to consider that I might want a few of my own. Perhaps if I created a family from scratch, rather than joining one already in progress, I’d feel like I belonged somewhere, to someone, and that constant emptiness inside might go away.
Of course finding a man in New Bergin wasn’t easy. They were the same ones that had been here all along, and I wasn’t impressed.
They hadn’t been either. Though I tried to be like everyone else, the fact remained that I wasn’t. In truth, the only people who had ever accepted me as I was, and loved me for me no matter what, were my mother and Jenn. Which was no doubt why I loved them the same way.
Jenn and I had met on the first day of preschool and become BFFs. No idea why. We were so different it was scary and yet … we worked.
Even without the long, perfect mane of golden hair and equally gorgeous face, complete with a pert little nose—although
Jenn’s nose was actually her nose, plastic surgery being a no-no in New Bergin—the name Jennifer Anderson was too close to Jennifer Aniston for high school kids to resist. When she’d begun dating the only Brad in town, she’d just been asking for it. As a result, one did not mention
or Brad for that matter, ever. Do not get her started on Ross.
Jenn, who was several inches shorter than me, had to take three steps to my one. The flurry of her tiny feet, combined with the spiky ponytail atop her head, made her resemble a coked-up Pomeranian.
“Where’s the fire?” she asked.
A breeze kicked up, making her silly hairstyle waggle. For an instant, I could have sworn I smelled smoke; I even heard the crackle of flames.
But if there were a fire, the local volunteer fire department would have been wailing down First Street by now. Which meant …
I turned my head, and I saw him. Nothing new. I’d been seeing this one for as long as I could remember.
Clad in black, he reminded me of the pictures in the Thanksgiving stories I read to my kids. Puritan. Pilgrim. One or the other. Although why the Ghost of Thanksgiving Past had turned up in Wisconsin I had no idea. According to the stories all those persecuted Puritans had lived, and died, on the East Coast.
Maybe he was Amish.
Neither case explained the sleek black wolf that was often at his side. The creature’s bright green eyes were as unnatural as the creature itself.
Every time I approached, they melted into the woods, an alley, the ether. Unlike all of the other specters that just had to talk to me, neither my Puritan, nor his wolf, ever did.
Jenn snatched my elbow. Considering our daily walk, you’d think she’d be in better shape.
I slowed, and as soon as I did the man in black—no wolf today—went poof. Now you see him—or at least I did—now you don’t.
He’d be back. Most of the ghosts went on, eventually—wherever it was that they went—but not that guy. Someday I’d have to find out why.
“Sheesh,” Jenn muttered. I’d started speed-walking again. She stopped, leaning over and setting her palms on her knees as she tried to catch her breath.
I kept going; the sense of urgency that had plagued me as soon as my Keds touched First Street that morning had returned.
“You—” Deep breath. “Suck!” Jenn shouted.
I quashed the temptation to comment on her shoes, which were too high for walking and too open toed for a northern Wisconsin October. But then, as Jenn always pointed out, she didn’t have to chase children. Ever.
The days of a school nurse had gone the way of the dodo. If children became sick, they were sent to the office—Jenn’s office—then sent home.
Certainly they puked, or sneezed, but usually not on her. Her fashionable clothes discouraged it—today’s body-hugging red sweater dress appeared fresh from the dry cleaners—and her attitude ensured it. The instant a student walked into her office, she jabbed a pointy, painted nail at the bank of chairs against the far wall. If they puked or sneezed, they did it over there.
Jenn always told me my comfortable jeans, complemented by soft tees and sweatshirts, often of the Packer, Brewer, Badger variety, invited disaster. Maybe so. But at least I matched everyone else in New Bergin.
Except Jenn. Funny how
was the one who fit in.