"Should we turn that off?" Lauren asked, pointing to a bendable lamp illuminating my bedroom less than candlelight.
"It won't make a difference. Day, night, lights on, lights off, music playing or dead silence. The only constant is I'm alone," I said, attempting to mask stormy emotions. On the brink of sobbing, I moved towards my balcony door, blocking my face from her view. "It’s never words, only bizarre sounds."
My hands pressed against the cool glass as I studied a luminous full moon against a blackened sky, gray clouds cuddling it like a blanket.
"Fiona, be patient, open your mind. You're the one who asked me to record EVP, so you must believe something strange is happening here."
With a toxic sigh, I retreated from the peaceful ambiance of the moonlight, dropping into my seat at the makeshift recording station in the center of my bedroom. Lauren grabbed her headphones from the table as her expression turned serious. Poised like a statue as she waited for me to settle in, she slid them over her ears, pushing her bushy locks behind them. With an upturned chin, her eyes snapped shut like a porcelain doll.
"Is there anyone here? If so, please tell us your name."
A long minute passed as we followed the energetic lights on the digital devices, anticipating the sounds from within my bedroom walls.
Nothing. Complete silence. Butterflies swarmed in my stomach at the thought of receiving confirmation I had imagined everything. I desperately wanted to avoid a stint in a crazy house.
"You know how I feel about paranormal. Ghosts simply do not exist—knock off the seance. I never referred to the sounds as electronic voice phenomena—I said peculiar noises. Just record and witness to see if it’s really happening."
Annoyed, Lauren rolled her eyes, sighing.
"Fiona, let me do my job. Sometimes, paranormal entities respond directly. It's not a seance; there's no Ouija board here—this is expensive equipment. I haven’t even started at Hartford and Professor Black let me borrow this stuff." She paused to inhale. "Anybody else witnessed it?"
"Nope. After moving into this house right after the last murder case, my mom thinks I'm nuts; she blames the stress of the investigation."
Sympathy twisted across Lauren’s face as she nodded her head.
"Well, the case was stressful, Fiona,” she said, searching my eyes. "However, that was in April, over a month ago." Her compassionate demeanor morphed into candor. "I'm sure the noise doesn't relate to being stressed over that nut. No offense to your mom but choking someone out doesn't lead to lost marbles. Wrestlers get strangled and they don't start imagining things," Lauren said, cocking her head to the side. "On another note, Godley Grove's been quiet ever since we solved that case, I'm kinda getting bored."
A soft whining vibrated from the wall, and our ears moved to high alert as we posed like mannequins in the dark, straining to hear anything unusual. I leaned over, gazing at the lights on the devices, but they remained within the green bars. The equipment wasn’t picking up anything beyond the white noise in the room. Lauren twisted a few knobs, and a flash of yellow appeared before the noises halted altogether. Over the next few minutes, the room grew still as stone until I broke the silence.
"I know what you mean about being bored. You can only practice techniques and study forensic books for so long. Detective Chase mentioned creating mock crime scenes for our lab to work on this summer if nothing happens for us to investigate. That might be pretty awesome."
"I agree; it's monotonous. Some things are going on with my department at Hartford this summer. I may be rather busy."
With a one-shoulder shrug, she flipped a switch on her device and changed settings on her laptop.
"Oh, yeah. I forgot—Haley claimed to witness the noises once, but she embellishes things for no reason sometimes.”
“Yes, she does,” Lauren said with a chuckle.
“I don't know why these sounds are only in my room. For days, it's quiet, and out of the blue, I get hammered for an entire night! Faulty wiring? A draft in the wall? Maybe it depends on the weather?"
Her eyes dropped to the ground in deep thought as she lifted her shoulders, holding them in an upright position. After a few seconds, she relaxed as she popped her head up and smiled.
"Oh, Fiona, one day, you'll see the light," she said as her smile hardened into a straight line. "Wait a minute; I think I can make something out here."
Her energetic fingers fine-tuned knobs of all sizes as she secured her headphones over her ears. As if to assist her hearing, I held my breath in angst. The lights moved from green to yellow. A fleeting moment passed, and she shrugged her shoulder, sighing. A powerful force drove my exhale; my head filling with helium.
"I'm not sure what I got there. I'm going to take this up to the lab at Hartford and let the boys amplify the recordings. They’ll clean up the room noise and slow it down to determine if this is one person or many people talking over each other. It's so vague."
A screeching record sounded in my head in place of her voice. With an outstretched palm, I shook my head.
"Please, now you're referring to these noises coming from people?"
Air flooded her nose as she inhaled, grimacing with closed eyes. As a counter to my controversial question, she blew out her breath like a tornadic wind gust.
"Fiona, I swear, I'll prove to you paranormal activity is in fact—real. There wouldn't be a Paranormal Studies Department at the University if the supernatural didn't exist."
This was the barricade that prevented Lauren and me from becoming closer friends. Debates about the issue took place between us on a daily basis.
"You and I both know Ms. Glenda Foster donated a ton of money to the University to open the department."
"Thanks for making my point, Fiona! The University accepted the cash, and now the program thrives —
"Well, Ms. Foster gave the endowment in exchange for expert testimony to prove her estate was haunted so she could make a fortune off the property. Rich people can do anything, but she wasn't successful, so she withdrew her money because she knew the haunting was all a hoax," I interrupted with a bitter voice.
With narrowed eyes forming slits, she snapped her arms into a barrier across her chest and smirked.
"The Booners kept the department alive because they knew it was a viable and necessary field of study."
Blood rubbernecked in my face as it flooded my capillaries. My irritation level entered DEFCON 5. I threw a hand on my hip, sitting up in my chair.
"Or because Ralph Booner, their only son, was in the program, and they didn't want him to change his major and waste time."
A brief pause followed as we both gathered our next points in the dispute.
"Fiona, I think you need to open your mind if you're going to make a career out of criminal investigation." Lauren scolded me with her dark eyes. "On a brighter and less controversial note, at least I'm here witnessing what's going on, and you're not going nuts. Supernatural or not—something peculiar is happening within your walls."
In my mind, an imaginary white flag waved in space as I sighed. I despised confrontation, but Lauren lived for a good argument.
"It's good to know I’m not crazy! What a relief!"
"Wait! I got something!"
The headphones flew back to her ears again and she flicked her fingers to silence me. The lights danced in the yellow range, and my body stiffened. Minutes passed as my walls softly rumbled, barely audible over the routine humming of electrical devices and air conditioning. Lauren rocked her head back and forth in defeat.
"It was something, but—
Lauren looked over my shoulder towards the balcony door, her eyes widening and her breath halting. She stifled a scream, throwing both hands over her mouth with bulging eyes.
“Fiona! Look!” she shrieked, pointing towards the balcony.
I twisted around to face a tall shadow on the other side of the glass. Lauren jumped out of her seat, her chest surging up and down like an iron lung. The shadow morphed into a silhouette as it advanced toward the door.
"It's Wolfe, calm down."
I unlocked the door, and he stepped into full view in the dim light.
"Wow, I get he's your neighbor and all, but he comes right on over whenever he wants, huh? Scales the house like Spider-Man?"
Lauren engaged a soft nervous laughter.
"I'm pleased to report your girlfriend's crossed over—she asked me to take EVP readings of her haunted room," she said, panting and wringing out the tension from her hands.
Upon hearing her refer to my room as haunted, he smiled, revealing his perfect, radiant teeth.
"Don't start, Wolfe. I never said my room was haunted."
Clutching his arm, I trailed my hand downward to his wrist and squeezed. He threw his arms around my waist, pulling me into the warmth of his body, my head sinking into his bulky chest, my hands exploring his lower back. His warm lips melted against the top of my head and my anxiety flowed from my body like a raging river.
"I couldn't sleep," he breathed into my ear.
Acrylic fingernails drummed in a melodic fashion against the table behind us as Lauren faked a cough and cleared her throat.
"Well, I'm an awkward third wheel."
"Well, don't trip out, we're just saying hello."
On my tiptoes, I pecked his neck, inhaling his woodsy citrus cologne. Traipsing back to the middle of my room, I lowered into the chair next to Lauren.
"Oh, and Wolfe, I'm not insane—she recorded the evidence a few moments ago."
With a sheepish grin, he patted me on the back. He reached over to grab my desk chair and rolled it towards the table beside me.
"I didn't doubt Fiona for a minute, but it was fun teasing her about it."
I grinned like a mischievous pixie as I glanced at him, bestowing a slow blink.
"Hey, how's the band?" Lauren asked, draping her headphones around her neck. "Fiona says you've played every night since graduation." Without giving Wolfe time to respond, she continued, "Did you guys ever think of a name for your band?"
He paused, ensuring Lauren's interrogation was over.
"We're doing good, playing locally. The crowds are small, but we expect it. It's fun, I guess." He shrugged a shoulder. "Our band's name is Godley Gray. We figured the world is not black-and-white, it's gray, and since we're all from Godley Grove," he said, lowering his head in shame as he winced. "I know, it's dumb, but whatever."
"No. Your band is named after your eyes, Wolfe. You're totally famous for those beautiful silver eyes,” Lauren said, tilting her head in a flirtatious manner.
Lauren was the boy-crazy member of our group of friends. Nonetheless, this time—I agreed with her.
"Yes, his eyes are quite remarkable."
Wolfe's humble grin met my eyes as I searched for his reaction.
"Where's Maddie? Where's Willow?" he asked, abruptly changing the subject. "It's weird to see the two inseparable duos split apart."
"Maddie's with club soccer—left right after graduation. Her team keeps winning and has a shot at a national championship. She won't return until the end of this month, which is unfortunate since she'll start practices with Hartford the first of July. She won't even have a summer break."
My head lowered as I remembered how much I missed my best friend.
"Willow hopped on a plane the night of graduation and went Ivy League on me. She won't come home to visit until the holidays," Lauren said, her brows pushing down on her sad eyes.
"Ah, gotcha. So, it’s just you two left back in Godley Grove to hang together. Interesting. Glad you haven't clawed out each other's eyes fighting about whether ghosts exist."
Clasping my hands over my mouth to stop laughing, Lauren followed suit before we woke everybody in the house. Wolfe believed he had spewed playful banter, but we found it hysterical he was dead-on—we had fought every day over the last week about ghosts while lounging by my swimming pool.
"Lauren, what are you doing here?" he pointed to her digital recording equipment. "You're sure you recorded the stuff from Fiona's dreams?"
I wanted to say my peace first, so I jumped in front of Lauren's response.
"The noises are not in my dreams, Wolfe! They happen all the time, even during the day! Lauren has the audio, so I'm not crazy! End of story!"
I shot him a playful smile.
"Yes, I've got the evidence. Fiona's not going insane. Matter of fact, she doesn't want to hear this, but they might be words, not just noises. I'll examine them in the morning with the boys at Hartford P.S.D."
"P.S.D?" he asked.
"Paranormal Studies Department," I answered for her, rolling my eyes.
"Oh, yeah, I forgot. That's going to be your major, right?"
"Yes, earning a college degree in something I love will be an awesome experience. Also, I promise to drag your girlfriend over to the dark side. I hope to influence her to at least switch her minor from chemistry to paranormal studies. It might take some convincing, but after I get these voices analyzed, she may change her tune."
"Not to be rude, but are we done, Lauren? Can we just chill now?" I pleaded.
"Think so. Oh, wait. I want to tell you about an opportunity I learned about this afternoon, Fiona. And even though you switched over to music, Wolfe, our group could use a good profiler if you’re still interested in that sort of thing. If not, what a waste—because you were the best at it."
I nodded, as I didn't agree with Wolfe's sudden decision to bail on forensic science and switch to music for a college major. His face contorted into a familiar apology.
Lauren continued, "It's a quick turnaround; we leave on Thursday—a short airplane flight, less than two hours from Godley Grove. If you sign up for the college credits, the department will pay for your travel and board, but you'll need money for food. It doesn’t matter that we don’t officially start school until September – they’ll let us enroll early. And don't roll those eyes until I'm finished talking about it.”
Lauren heaved a heavy sigh in my direction.
"Promise. You have my un-sarcastic, undivided attention."
Meeting her enthusiastic gaze, I placed my hands on my lap to show submission.
"Our department is offering what is called an independent study opportunity for incoming freshman. It is research hours that count for two whole credits toward your major. I realize you're not majoring in paranormal, but you can take anything for your electives—so it wouldn't be a waste of time for you, Fiona."
"Oh gosh, Lauren. What kind of research are you guys doing?" I asked.
A laughter tantrum battled my brain to come to fruition, but I won the fight and remained straight-faced. With stunning eyes pinned to Lauren's face, Wolfe sat up in his chair.
"There is a town called Shillingstone, in southern Louisiana. There is a local legend of a lady known as the Shillingstone Witch."
"Are you serious? You're going after college credit for investigating a witch myth? Wow, if you can investigate a ghost with a straight face, go for it, but I'm out."
"Fiona, you said you'd listen!"
"You did say you'd let her speak, my dear."
Wolfe stroked the back of my hand, drawing calming circles with his index finger. I sighed, showing Lauren my palms. With a thorough clearing of her throat, she hesitated.
"Like I was saying, the Shillingstone Witch is a legend. She died in the nineteenth century, but things are going on in this small town. There have been a few disappearances of kids—happening as her tale outlines. They disappear from their room in the middle of the night and a mysterious black powder appears in their place. It's as if she's able to make them vanish into thin air—their bodies never surface."
"This is happening now? In this town? How small is the town?" I asked, the questions flowing from my lips like a waterfall.
After not investigating a case for over a month; my head cleared, things seemed unbiased, and it was clear somebody had taken these kids and mocked an urban fairy-tale for an alibi. A genius plan for a gullible township.
"Shillingstone has a population of about five thousand. It's tiny. However, Hartford P.S.D. has secured a manor in the town. It is called the Boudreaux Manor. It is a nineteenth-century estate and the Shillingstone Witch owned it while she was alive. History accounts for her being burned at the stake in the courtyard. We're all staying there; there are eleven bedrooms. For the two-week duration of the project, we'll take readings there. We'll also record data from the swampland, her grave site, and maybe even assist the local law enforcement with the case. The local officials may not allow us to help them, but it's being worked on now."
"Sounds intriguing, but I'll pass. Investigating a ghostly swamp witch who's believed to evaporate kids with magic is not what I want on my college transcript. You have fun and tell me how it all works out for you. My advice: watch out for the alligators—those are real creatures that bite hard.”
Preoccupied with my own sarcasm, I connected a playful gaze with Wolfe. Without warning, the racket from my walls resonated louder than before; adrenaline shot from my glands and a victorious smile formed on my face. The bars on Lauren's equipment danced, lights fired into the red zone, jumping back and forth to yellow. Headphones flew to her ears; she twisted a knob to force the signal into the yellow zone. Wolfe nodded with a hand squeeze, acknowledging the sounds—I had claimed a second credible witness. I inhaled at a turtle's pace to calm my pounding heart, afraid it would skew the recording. A tense minute had transpired before the commotion subsided.
"Wow. I think I captured some words," Lauren mumbled, her eyes cutting to the side of the room to avoid contact.
"Well, what was it? What did you hear?"
Attempting to lock eyes, she avoided me.
"Not sure, gotta go. I'll call you tomorrow."
“But, I thought you were spending the night? It’s so late to drive home! It’s 2:30 AM!”
“I just have to go, Fiona. I’ll be in touch.”
She snatched her equipment, unplugging wires, folding cables, placing her headphones into their case. Following her lead, I helped her take everything down as a hollow pit formed in my stomach.
"You got this table?" she said softly.
Lauren's behavior mimicked a retreating soldier. The noises had frightened her. I observed every methodical move she made. Focused, she packed her things and scurried out of my bedroom in record time.
"Yes, Wolfe can help me put the table up in the garage tomorrow, no worries. Thanks for doing this.”
She didn’t respond as she stormed across the catwalk to the staircase.
“Can't wait to talk tomorrow. I'm thrilled; I've got two witnesses to this chaos now. I'm going to sleep well tonight knowing I'm sane,” I rambled in a soft voice in hopes of breaking the awkward tension.
Tiptoeing out of the house, we opened the front door with the stealth of a cat burglar. We assisted her as she loaded the equipment into her car without speaking a word. After a minute, we watched her drive away into the darkness of Aragon Avenue.
"What was that all about? She freaked out—all of a sudden," Wolfe whispered, grabbing my hand and guiding me through the darkened house back to my room. "You think she heard something in the headphones we didn't?"
"No idea. It’s Lauren, so no telling what's going on with her. Remember, she believes in ghosts."
The sun crept over the roof, ruining the perfect shade of the early morning, signaling the time for sunscreen. Wolfe and I had claimed two loungers by the swimming pool in my backyard, which had fulfilled my childhood dream—no more waiting to go on vacation or to a friend's house to relax by calming water—a piece of paradise was at my fingertips.
"Lauren call this morning?" Wolfe asked, grabbing sunglasses perched on his aqua beach towel.
My eyes shot over, and I tried not to stare at his striking physique—tanned, faultless, yet with more than the average amount of scars from his years of skateboarding. Aviators bridged across his strong cheekbones, covering his luminous eyes, accentuating his full lips and charming dimples in his cheeks. Stupefied, I admired the delicate waves of his chestnut hair, grown out a bit over the last couple of months, the thick locks straining to touch his shoulder.
After collecting myself and realizing my mouth was gaping, I responded. "Nope, not a peep. Perhaps she's at the lab analyzing her recordings."
"No text? Well, why did she freak out?"
With a weighted sigh, he stretched his long, sculpted legs, hanging them off the end of the lounge chair.
"Lauren's a tad odd, but she'll reach out soon. We're both lost without our best friends. She's always depended upon Willow—and now they'll only spend time on holidays and school breaks. At least Maddie's coming home," I said, expressing a momentary sadness.
I smiled at the adoration in his voice.
"And, I love you."
Wolfe's eyes landed on my necklace—a silver locket.
"You should take it off while you're in the sun."
"Nope, never, you gave me this. If I get a heart tan, I'll be happy."
In playful defiance, I tossed my hair off my shoulders and positioned the pendant in the center of my chest.
The door to the backyard creaked open, and Janice surfaced with a tray of baked goods and pink drinks in hurricane glasses adorned with strawberry garnishes.
"Good morning, kids! I assumed you skipped breakfast by choice, but you still need snacks. Here are some cookies, and I'm glad only to focus on one design today, Fiona—you and Wolfie agree on...well, everything, don't you. So cute, you are!"
Janice, my nanny since birth, bounded toward us, removing the treats from the serving tray, placing them on a small table in between our lounge chairs. Wearing a summer version of a Mrs. Santa Claus dress, she twisted the garnish to face us. She claimed to style herself this way because red paired well with her white bun, rosy cheeks, and bright blue eyes. The truth? She missed Christmas throughout the year.
"You are the best—I come over here for you, Janice. Fiona's cool and all, but you're the one making the cookies."
Wolfe smiled, causing her to blush.
"Wow, Canis face cookies! So adorable! Although, doesn't black frosting turn your mouth black?" I said, laughing and taking a bite of a cookie topped with a puppy face design. "Oh well!"
"Where's the lovable pup?" Janice asked in a singsong voice, searching the yard with her eyes. "Why isn't he here with his parents?"
"My mother took him to the vet and the groomers this morning, he'll be fired up for you this afternoon when he returns," he said.
Wolfe had given me Canis to cheer me up after my faithful companion, which was also a Scottish terrier, died from a salivary gland tumor. Ever since my family moved into the house next door, the dog roamed free between us as Wolfe built a custom archway in the fence between our backyards. Canis spent most of his time at my house with Janice, for she spoiled him rotten.
"You're both with towel and sunscreen—you're set. Oh, by the way, Haley's stirring, so company's coming!"
"Fantastic," I said in a sarcastic tone.
Rolling my head towards the table, I guessed the creative flavor of the beverage. After a brief visual and aromatic study, I took a big swig, tasting pink lemonade and strawberry. Delicious, but I had guessed cherry and lemon.
"Janice made cookies for Lauren and me all week. Guess how she decorated them."
With his chin tilted up, Wolfe's eyes searched the blue skies as if he could read the answer in the white, puffy clouds.
"Well, knowing you two—you got a CSI theme and Lauren got ghosts."
"Correct! She stressed about our daily debates of tangible versus intangible science, so she made peacemaker cookies."
We shared a laugh as a notification sounded. With a befuddled face, he grabbed his phone off the towel. Eyes glued to the display for a few seconds, his expression turned from curiosity to disgust. With a scowl, he chucked it back down.
"Don't be mad, Fiona."
Blood cells started a riot in my cheeks, my face flushed as I questioned his upcoming confession.
After a transient hesitation, he launched the story. "Last night, in the green room before our band went on—this girl, a random groupie, grabbed my phone off the table. Unbeknownst to me, she programmed her number. She just texted me."
As he offered the evidence to me for inspection, I waved him off, irritated.
"No issue with trust, but I hate your groupies. Those girls are relentless—hovering around bands like fleas, waiting for the opportune time to strike like starved, pathetic vipers."
He fumbled with his phone for a minute, and I assumed he deleted her from his contacts.
"You should put a lock on your phone."
He thumbed the screen, fingers tapping with sonic speed.
"Done. Password's 0825 if you ever need to get in."
With a tilt of his head, he stroked my arm with a sheepish smirk.
"Aw, my birthday!"
"Let's get in," Wolfe commanded, rising from the lounge chair.
Leisurely steps brought him to the shallow end of the pool. My feet followed his lead, and I took a seat on the first pebbled step. The glistening blue water chilled my skin as the sun warmed me, neutralizing the cold, keeping me on the edge of comfort. The clean scent of chlorinated water invaded my nasal passages; I savored the sound of the gentle mini waterfalls in the deep end.
"You consider tagging along to Shillingstone with Lauren?"
"No way am I going with a pack of ghost hunters disguised as academics to a crappy small town. Waste of time! Detective Chase mentioned making mock crime scenes for us to practice this summer, which sounds more inviting and worth my time."
Goosebumps surfaced across my arms as a tiny chill sparked my spine. I swished my weightless legs back and forth in the water that glided around them like a cold, slithery gown.
"Lauren's point with college credits as electives made some sense, but supernatural stuff doesn’t link in any way to the music program, so I'm out. On the other hand, paranormal's close enough to forensics, even if you don't agree with the subject, so I thought you—
"Not even close to science, Wolfe! I'm in forensics, and she's going to study silly fiction. I'm annoyed enough when they refer to their department as paranormal science."
Vexed, I battled against my nasty tone and snappy thoughts.
"Now, with this conversation, I'm hanging out with Lauren again today."
"Sorry! Didn't mean to upset you."
Restrained, he took one step at a time into the water, the sparkling, tranquil waves ascending to his belly button.
I instantly regretted my snarky comment, but I had little tolerance for the topic.
Wolfe held his pleading hands toward me, and I couldn't remain angry at such an irresistible sight.
Bracing my senses, I gave up my position on the first step, inching into the water. With each descending stride, my skin electrified with millions of cold sensations. When my feet reached the floor of the pool, my lower body acclimated; however, the goose bumps on my upper body remained at full attention, recruiting other members to their squadron. I pushed my limbs against the heavy water toward Wolfe and lunged toward him. Grabbing me, he exposed my wet legs in the air, and I screamed with a smile plastered on my face.
"Somebody dyin’ out here?" a familiar feminine voice screeched. "Hey guys, wait up," Haley Frost shouted, throwing her towel down and hurling her lanky body into the deep end, causing a huge wall of water to soak us.
"And, here she is," I moaned as my troubled cousin headed toward us underwater like a torpedo.
Hailing from New Jersey, she had moved in to live with us the previous summer as a last resort before her parents shipped her off to an all-female boarding academy in New Zealand. She avoided a plane ticket to the school many times during the last year, however. My father, the district attorney of Godley Grove, pulled an assortment of strings to bail her out of trouble on a few occasions. With one eye peering over the ledge at her third strike, she decided to turn things around and straighten up her behavior. Against my better judgment, I inducted her as a full-fledged member of my forensic program as a result of pressurized encouragement from my parents and mentor, Detective Chase. Worry plagued me about affiliating myself with her professionally, but I couldn't do anything besides scrutinize her every move.
"So, what's up?"
A mouth full of water streamed back into the pool from Haley's lips; I cringed. Despising swimmers who backwashed water; my stomach churned at the thought of bathing in saliva.
"Not much. Chillin'," Wolfe said, scooting back towards the wall, pulling me by the hand to follow him.
"Your parents are goin' to Italy for two freakin' weeks! Did ya know?"
She submerged into the water like a sugar-hyped child, performing a terrible handstand.
"Why would she ask a question and dive underwater? She is so annoying!"
With crossed hands, I awaited her return to the surface, observing her skinny legs with flexed feet flailing about. After ten long seconds, she emerged, squirting more water into the pool like a fountain.
"Yes, I am well aware, Haley. My parents always tell me important things. They leave tomorrow."
"Why didn't you tell me, Fiona?" Wolfe said, raising an eyebrow.
"A failed surprise, I suppose. Janice will still be here. We won't be alone."
"Get real; Janice would sleep through a train wrecking the house."
Wolfe and I chuckled.
"Guess what!" Haley said, diving and swimming toward the deep end as if a shark chased her. Once again, we waited for her to rise above the water to finish her thought. "I'm invitin' Dougie over!"
She dove again, but this time, she went deep for a pair of goggles stuck in the main drain.
"She's such a spaz. No idea why she's excited; she won't do anything different."
"For sure," Wolfe replied, smiling, his brilliant teeth appearing pearl white against his tanned skin.
"I planned to ask you to come over on Friday for a movie marathon if your band's not playing."
"Well, I was keeping this as a surprise, but I'm off this weekend. Some popular old-timer bands will be in town, and we can't land a spot anywhere—we're still a low priority, but no worries."
"Deal—a plan's been made."
I grinned as Wolfe pulled me closer, oblivious to my excitement about spending time with him. Haley popped up for air, immediately diving back down to the drain again.
"So, Haley and Doug Christie, huh? He's been over quite a bit since you moved in—rides his bicycle over here."
"Yep, but they're only friends. They’re both sophomores and the only official members of my club now everybody else either quit or graduated."
"Well, who will run things when you start classes this fall?"
"No decisions made. I mean, I want a junior or senior, but my recruiting isn't going well. Still trying, looking through applications, but I can't decide. So many kids aren't serious about science yet want the attention and notoriety from being a member of the club. I'm not leaving Godley Grove; Hartford's not far from the high school, and I can still run things—my grant doesn't say I can't."
"Fiona, you need to move on. Your classes are going to take a big part of your time. You'll find somebody, I believe in you."
He intertwined his fingers with mine, ruling me with his eyes and amorous grin. His smoldering expression paralyzed me as he moved closer, turning us in the dense water, positioning my back against the wall. The world powered down into a muted blur, his warm breath caressing my cheek, hands exploring my neck and clutching my hair. Nothing compared to the moment when his lips met mine.
Haley broke the surface of the water, splashing us with a powerful force. The cold water forced an impulsive gasp for air; I swirled around to the stone deck, flattening my arms, soaking up the warmth. Wolfe retaliated for the both of us, launching a wall of water in Haley's direction.
"Time for payback, Miss Frost."
Wolfe lunged for Haley, snatching her scrawny body and throwing her into the deep end like a basketball.
"Haley, you receive what you put out into the universe!" I shouted as she surfaced.
"Again, Wolfe, again!" she begged, swimming toward Wolfe.
After witnessing Wolfe toss my cousin's body in the air for an hour, Wolfe dried off to run errands with his mother, and I journeyed to my room to check my emails and eat lunch. Launching my email program, I found a barren inbox. Not one note from a teacher, not one message about an upcoming forensic club meeting, and no report of an active criminal case. Upon graduation, I had followed a strict order from Detective Chase to be a teenager for a week. Gutted, I spotted a reminder on my calendar to meet with him later in the afternoon at the police station to discuss my summer plans. I hated when I forgot about appointments.
After judging the time to get ready for the meeting, I made a plan to burn a few minutes. Curious to learn what Lauren and her group were interested in, I performed an internet search for the legend of the Shillingstone Witch. A dozen or so pages popped up on the screen. I clicked on recent news articles from the local paper in Shillingstone, and they were poorly written as compared to larger media outlets, but corroborated what Lauren said. Each article gave the details about the four consecutive kidnappings and possible murders of children aged eight to twelve over the last fourteen days. A menace plagued this town, and I believed it was a living, breathing psychopath—not a silly ghost. According to the collection of online editorials, the sheriff hadn’t undergone much of an investigation. Most of the commentaries blamed the disappearances on the witch. Could a person get away with murder in a town of brainwashed people believing in a legendary hoax? Perplexed, I couldn't comprehend how something this maddening happened in modern times, in America.
Scrolling through the search results, I stumbled upon a web chat room called the Shillingstone Witch Forum. Unable to read anything being discussed in this room without creating an account, I filled out the form, creating a seemingly anonymous name for myself—Fionabug. I thought it was clever, as I owned a VW Beetle, and my name is Fiona. Once inside, I perused sporadic conversations about the witch dating back to 2002 when the forum began. A lot of the discussion involved an exchange of historical facts with teens making up the biggest portion of commentators discussing material for essays on the witch for school. The discussions had turned dark, increasing in number during the last two weeks—the parents of the missing kids sought answers about what had happened to their children.
A soft chime resonated through my computer speakers. Someone in the chat room started a discussion; Ghostboy13 tagged my alias.
How are you today, Fionabug?
My heart accelerated, questioning my motive to be in this room, but I was compelled to answer him.
I am fine, Ghostboy13, and you?
Foreign, it was my first time to experience an anonymous online community. A tinge of rebellion flowed through my brain.
I am good, Fionabug. What do you know about the Shillingstone Witch? Are you a local?
The question befuddled me: should I lie or be honest? I stuck with my instinct and told the truth.
I am not a local, are you? I am seeking more information about the recent case in Shillingstone. Do you believe she is real, Ghostboy13?
I blabbered, spewing the voluminous words in my head with my fingers. Excited, I didn't even think to edit my post before I clicked the send button. My lungs pumped faster in anticipation of his response. I imagined the identity of the secret chatter—a bored teen, probably thirteen-years-old, from New York who caught a rumor about the case. I almost screamed when the chime sounded again.
Not a local, Fionabug. I talk to locals, though. The witch is real. Be careful about what you ask; you may not want the truth. Times are desperate, and Shillingstone needs help.
My eyes scanned Ghostboy13's answer about five times before my ringer blasted and startled me out of my trance. Pleased for my eyes to catch Lauren's smiling profile picture on my phone; I answered the request for a video call.
"Hey, Lauren. What's up?"
Lauren’s face wore a mask of trepidation. She held her camera steady on her face, her huge hair blocking her surroundings.
"Fiona, please listen with an open mind to what I am about to say," her voice was stern, mature.
"Of course, what's going on?"
I had control of what my camera showed in my room, but I subconsciously fumbled to grab my computer mouse, closing down the chat room window on my computer.
"Listen to my words and put your disbelief in the supernatural aside for a moment. I consulted with the chair of the department—a certified expert in EVP. He agreed to tell you himself if you still don't believe what I tell you."
A lump formed in my throat, I fought hard to swallow against the constriction. Frustrated, I begged her to say the words without delay.
"Okay, what's going on?"
"We analyzed the voices; the wall sounds, from last night."
"The first batch sounded like a bunch of different whispers, impossible to discern. But the audio I recorded right before I left, well—
"What? Say it!"
I moved my camera closer to my eyes, narrowing them to show Lauren my irritation.
"The recording became clear after we cleaned the tracks up and enhanced them. One person spoke, a male. The following words came from the walls in your bedroom—the Shillingstone Witch awaits you, Fiona."
My knotted muscles relaxed as I exhaled, shaking my head. Lauren’s face was without emotion; she stared directly into her camera, waiting for me to respond.
"Is this a joke? Are you serious? Give me a break!"
Exasperated, I almost ended the call without warning.
"You're concocting this story to entice me to believe your hokey profession and to trick me into going to Shillingstone with you, so you are not the only female. The answer is still no. I'm headed to the station to speak with Detective Chase, gotta go!"
"Fiona, I'm not joking. I'll let you calm down, and we can pick this up later. I'll ask Professor Black to call you."
The phone clicked, and my home screen returned as my doorbell rang. Ignoring the chimes because Janice always answered the door, I gathered my things for my meeting. Another two rings and my interest peaked; I jogged out to the catwalk, peering out the window of our two-story foyer. A UPS truck rested in front of our house. I assumed the driver needed a signature, and something kept her from answering the door, so I rushed downstairs, swinging open the door.
"Hello, ma'am. This is for Miss Fiona Frost. Needs a signature," a graying man with a round belly said, extending a thick, digital notepad and a stylus towards me.
I surveyed the box in his hand—a perfect square. Questions buzzed in my brain as I gawked at the cardboard mystery in his hands. Maybe a pair of shoes? A board game? A new sable brush and dusting kit for fingerprints? Who sent this?
"Oh, okay, I sign here?" I mumbled, snapping back into reality.
I accepted the stylus, and he moved the pad under my hand.
"Right above the line."
I signed and took the package. He shouted good day as he trotted back to his truck. I stepped back into the foyer and caught Haley leaning over the catwalk, spying on me.
"No idea, but the label's addressed to me."
I sprinted to the kitchen, taking scissors from the drawer to break into the box.
Haley hurled herself down the stairs, trailing my route, rushing up behind me.
"Where's Janice?" I asked, gripping the scissors.
"She said somethin’ ‘bout an aromatic salt bath. Canis is keepin' her comp'ny."
With eager eyes, she stared at me.
I inspected every inch of the package and found nothing about the sender. I slid the scissor tip along the packing tape, slicing with the precision of a surgeon. Grasping the opposing flaps, I opened the box as purple crinkle paper doused with red glitter burst free. Annoyed, I attempted to wrangle the packaging as sparkly chaos went viral on the countertop.
"Your mom's gonna be so mad at you!"
Haley pointed a lanky finger toward the mess as if such a massive problem had evaded my awareness.
"Shut up! I can't stop the stuff from spreading. I'll clean the counters, gosh—since when do you care about anything?"
I grabbed handfuls of the purple paper, trying my best to contain the growing pile. With futile efforts to prevent the bountiful spread, the crinkles poured everywhere, red glitter peppered my hands. My heart pounded at the thought the package came from Wolfe.
As my fingers landed on the bottom of the box, I fanned my hand, poking something cold, smooth like metal. Edging my hand underneath, grasping a cool, heavy object, I hoisted it into the air as the remaining glittery crinkles spilled out of the top like lava from a volcano. The piece hit the light, sparkling like a diamond in the sun. With careful movements, I placed the shiny enigma on the granite countertop next to the chaotic packing material, dusting off the glitter. I moved backward, allowing the sight to sink in for a moment.
"What is that?" Haley asked as her hands cupped her mouth.
Stunning, beautiful but mysterious—a hook the size of my hand hypnotized us. Mesmerized, my eyes made a perpetual connection with the silvery metal—maybe silver or platinum—tipped with a ruby gemstone. I studied the hand-carved snake fashioned from dark pewter that weaved itself around the hook—intricate, yet bold. Serious reservations loomed about my receiving such a peculiar thing, yet the bigger unknown bothered me far more—who sent this to me?