In The Pines chapter eleven

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Bo sat on the forest floor, against a tree with his knees drawn up and a long knife in one hand. The banjo was nowhere in sight. Beth motioned toward the woods. I nodded. She slipped away to look for the Supertone while I approached Bo slowly, careful of startling him. Once I was close enough we’d be able to hear each other but just far enough away that he wouldn’t be able to grab me, I came to a halt. He glanced in my direction but didn’t meet my eyes.

“I’ve been calling you,” I said. “How come you don’t call back?”

“You shouldn’t be here.”

“Then who should? If there’s someone else who can help you, give me their number. I’ll go pick them up myself.” I took a tentative step closer. “But Justin’s in the hospital and you guys don’t have anybody else. There’s no one else who knows what’s going on. No one who would understand, or even believe it.” Another few slow steps. “It’s just us, Bo. So what are we going to do about this?” And where the hell was the banjo?

“Del needs my help. I’m the only one who can do it.”

I crouched in front of him. “What does he need you to help him with?”

Bo hummed softly. The tune jogged my memory, though it took me a long moment to place it. It was the song I heard during the vision I had when I first plucked the banjo’s strings. The vision that I now believed to be a snapshot of poor, doomed Maggie, running through the woods in an attempt to escape her lover and her fate.

“She was so scared of him.” At first I didn’t realize I’d spoken aloud. “I could feel her fear. Not just in my head, either. I could feel it in my body. My muscles tensed up. I couldn’t think straight. I was nauseous. I was so scared of him, I thought I was going to throw up.” My own words hit me and I shook my head. “She was scared. She was so scared, she almost threw up while she was running away from him.” But maybe it wasn’t fear that caused the nausea. Maggie was pregnant when Del killed her, though I didn’t know how far along she’d been. It twisted something inside me, knowing she’d been afraid for her baby as much as for her own life.

“He didn’t show you everything,” Bo said.

I swallowed the sudden lump that rose in my throat. “Did he show you everything?”

Bo ran his thumb over the edge of the knife. Blood welled on his skin, drops rolling down the surface of the blade. “He had to, so I could understand what he needs and why.”

“Tell me what he showed you. Tell me what he needs.”

“It doesn’t work that way.” Bo looked right at me. Something wrong glowed in his eyes, dark and full of need. “I can’t just tell you. I have to show you.”

I shot up so fast that I nearly fell over. “Del showed me enough, thanks.” I backed away from him, not fast, but not slow, either.

“It makes sense.” Bo climbed to his feet, the knife gripped in his bloody hand. “He slowed you down so I could get here first, but he still wanted you here. You have a role to play in this, Nikki. You came here to help us, Justin and me, and to do that you have to help Del, too.”

“The only help Del needs is a road map to Hell.”

A grin that didn’t fit on Bo’s face appeared. “Oh, he agrees with you on that one. But first, he needs something.”

“Whatever it is, I don’t have it.” I turned to run, my feet tangling on undergrowth. Bo grabbed my arm and swung me around, slamming me into the tree. It knocked the breath from me. The world went sidewise and when it righted again, moonlight shone through the tree limbs instead of late afternoon sunshine. My insides shifted and my body was not my own.

Del Mahaffey held a knife to my throat. “I told you not to push me, girl.”

“Don’t do this.” The words echoed in my head, in my own voice and one I didn’t recognize.

The air shimmered between us and Bo stood where I’d just seen Del. “Please help us.” He dropped his hand to his side, the knife slipping from his grasp.

“Fight him, Bo.” I stepped away from the tree, ready to run if I had to. “Whatever it is Del wants, it’s not worth hurting someone or losing yourself.”

“I told you,” Bo said, squeezing his eyes shut. “I told you.”

I took the stun gun out of my pocket and held it at the ready.

“I told you to leave me be.” Bo’s voice twisted and changed into someone else’s by the end of the sentence. He opened his eyes. I saw nothing good there. He raised his arm, pointing at me with the knife. “I told you when we started, I’d never leave my wife.”

“What am I supposed to do about this baby?” Maggie put her hands on her belly, the swell of her growing child barely hidden by a dress two sizes too big. I looked down to see my hand on my stomach, only it wasn’t quite my hand. “Oh, God, what’s happening?” A wave of vertigo hit me and I stumbled but didn’t fall.

“What’s happening is you’re gonna leave town like I told you to.” He stalked closer, moonlight glinting on the edge of the knife. “I don’t care where you go, long as you don’t come back.”

The baby kicked. Jesus Christ, the baby kicked. Maggie glared at Del. “You don’t tell me what to do anymore. And you don’t scare me. This baby’s yours and you’re gonna do right by it, and by me.”

Del rushed at her, slashing the knife. A line of burning pain opened up on my arm and I dropped the stun gun, biting back a scream. “Oh, you’re gonna be afraid, little girl. By the time I’m done, you gonna beg.”

Maggie ran. I ran. I no longer knew the difference. One moment the woods were dappled with sunshine, the next it was dark except for pockets of moonlight. Bo dropped the knife. I saw that happen. But then Del had it in his hand and this cut on my arm hurt like hell and oozed blood that damn sure felt real. And feeling the baby kick? What the hell was that? I’d never been pregnant but I knew instinctively that the sensation I’d felt was a baby kicking.

None of this made any sense. When Maggie demanded to take over, I was too confused to fight. We ran through the forest.

 

<- Chapter Ten

Chapter Twelve ->

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In The Pines chapter ten

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“Look, we’ve called, like, a hundred times. Answer your God damn phone, Bo.” Right then, I really could have used the old-school satisfaction of slamming the phone down into the receiver, but cells don’t work like that and no way was I throwing around pricey electronics. So instead, I let loose with a streak of swear words. Not quite as good, but close.

Beth entered the kitchen. “Did you hear from him yet?”

“No.” I checked my email on the off chance he’d elected to contact me that way. Nothing but newsletters I needed to make the time to unsubscribe from. “How’s your grandpa?”

“Tired and worried. Other than that, I think he’s okay.” She busied herself with cleaning up dishes, but the tension wasn’t hard to spot.

“I am so sorry that this has put you guys through so much. I had no idea it would get out of control.”

She slowed a fraction. “It’s not your fault he won’t retire.” She met my gaze briefly and I saw no reproach there. “But I guess he’s right. This isn’t really the kind of thing you retire from.”

“What do you mean?”

“Once a witch, always a witch. It’s not a job. It’s who we are. I figure you might know something about that, being a writer.”

I knew exactly what she was talking about. “Yeah.” My phone buzzed, derailing the swirl of thoughts about magic and words and creating something from nothing that had begun to gather. I  glanced at the number, relieved it was finally Bo.

“Dude, what the hell? It’s been almost two hours, why haven’t you called?”

“For God’s sake, go easy,” Beth whispered.

I made a face, chagrined. “Are you okay, Bo?”

A skitter of laughter filled my ear and scratched at my nerves. “To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure if I’m Bo.”

A wave of dread overcame me. I had to sit down. “What do you mean by that?” I turned the phone on speaker so Beth could hear both sides of the conversation.

“I guess you figured out I could hear him when I played.”

“Yeah.” Getting confirmation still spooked me, though.

There was a long pause. “I don’t have to play to hear him anymore.”

“What’s he telling you, Bo?”

No answer. I turned up the volume on my phone. It sounded like road noise coming from his end. “Where are you, Bo? We’ll come get you.”

“I need to do this for him,” he said.

“You don’t need to do anything for him. Just because he’s your ancestor doesn’t mean you owe him shit.”

“He needs this, and I’m the only one who can help him.”

“You need to help yourself, and your brother. Del had his chance. He lived, and he murdered a woman who was pregnant with his baby, and he paid the price for it. He has no right to ask anybody for anything.”

“I have to try.” He ended the call.

I swore, so frustrated I wanted to throw things. “What the hell would the ghost of a man who got off on hurting women need from his descendant?”

“I think we both know the answer to that,” Beth said.

I swore some more. “We need to find him before he hurts someone.”

“Do you have anything of his? I can try a locator spell.”

The folder of family secrets he’d given me was in my bag. I retrieved it. Beth placed the folder with Del’s photo on top on one side of the kitchen table, with an open road atlas on the other. She added a thin length of green jute to the atlas. Some candlelight and a few chants later, the jute began to stretch out. It followed the interstate headed east. The tiny hairs on my arms raised and the elvish tattoo heated the skin on my wrist. It may not have looked like much compared to some of the things I’d seen recently, but this was still a powerful bit of magic.

The thread moved over the page, crossing into Louisiana. “This is the way we came,” I said.

“Do you think he’s going home?”

I tapped the map, careful not to touch the jute. “That’s exactly what I think. I gotta get on the road, he’s got too much of a head start.”

Beth said, “Give me five minutes to pack a bag and tell Pawpaw.” She turned toward the hall.

I grabbed her arm. “You don’t have to do this. It’s not your mess to clean up.”

Her cinnamon eyes looked right into me. “It’s not your mess, either, but you’re in it anyway. Because you want to help, and so do I.” She left the kitchen without another word, leaving no room for argument.

Our plan was to catch up with Bo before he crossed the Mississippi, and we figured with two drivers we had a decent shot despite his head start. A storm was the first thing to slow us down, rain so heavy that traffic on the interstate slowed to a crawl. The next thing was a flat tire. Good thing Beth had a spare in the trunk of her car and knew how to change it. By the time a logging truck spilled its contents across the highway just west of Vicksburg, we could both feel the dark magic stalking us.

We sat in traffic, Beth fuming silently as I went back and forth between the atlas and my phone. “The map’s not detailed enough to help us and my phone is acting crazy. The signal drops out every time I try to use it for directions.”

“At least my locator spells are still working.” Bo was definitely headed home. Thanks to her spells, we were sure of it. But whatever mojo Del Mahaffey had going was keeping us from catching up.

“We’ll take the next exit, find a gas station, and buy a state map. Figure out a new route. Three new routes. However many it takes.” We had no idea how far we were from the next exit, or how long it would take to get there in this mess.

Beth drummed the steering wheel. “You know what I’ve been wondering?”

“What do we do when we find Bo?”

“If Del’s ghost is powerful enough to influence all these accidents, why not just kill us?”

I’d thought about that, too, and hadn’t come up with an answer. “I don’t know. Maybe he wants Bo to kill us once we’re back on his home turf. That could be why he wanted Bo to go home. He prefers hunting on familiar ground, maybe?”

“Except that’s not Del. Right? He hit his wife and he killed a girlfriend. The women he abused were intimate partners, not just random women he met in bars or wherever.”

She was right. “He wasn’t a serial killer, so the idea of hunting grounds is wrong.” I looked through the folder for about the hundredth time. Paula Welch’s memoirs, handwritten in a careful, feminine script. Newspaper clippings. Copies of official documents like birth and death certificates, property deeds. Old sheet music and family photos. The picture of our ghost. I stared at his deep-set, dark eyes as if I could pull secrets right out of the old, heavy paper. “What do you want, Del Mahaffey?”

Beth said, “Why do you think they do it?”

I closed the folder. “What do you mean?”

“Men. Why do they hurt the women who love them? Or women they barely know, for that matter. The first time I cast a hex, I was thirteen. I had a thing with this boy in my class. Not like we were dating or anything. Just middle school flirting, you know? One day after school, we kissed. It was my first kiss. I thought after that, he was my boyfriend. Instead, I find out the next day that he’s told all his friends what an easy slut I am, and a bad kisser. You would think a slut would know what she was doing, right?” She shook her head. “Asshole. I was so mad and so hurt, I put a hex on him. He played so bad that he humiliated himself on the basketball court and got benched for the rest of the season.”

“I wish I’d known some witchcraft in middle school.”

Traffic inched forward. Beth took the car out of park and drove. “That’s my nicest asshole story. There was the linebacker who tried to roofie me at a homecoming party. I stayed away from jocks after that one. A guy who slapped me and left me in a parking lot when I wouldn’t put out after he took me to dinner. This one guy harassed me for months because I wouldn’t give him my number. I mean stalker stuff. A restraining order didn’t work so I had to hex him, too.”

“I waited tables with a woman who would come to work bruised and barely able to walk because of her husband,” I said. I hadn’t thought of her in years. The mental calculations of how many women I’d known who’d suffered abuse, harassment, and assault from men left me chilled to the bone. “I told a guy no once and he didn’t stop. I was too drunk to fight him off, so it happened. Part of me still thinks it was my fault, on the rare occasions I think about it.”

Beth took my hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. “You know that’s not true, right? You said no.”

Yeah, but I’d been drinking and flirting and making out with him all night. Wearing a short skirt and fuck-me heels. No way would a cop have taken me seriously if I’d tried to file a report. It felt like my fault, at least in part, and no amount of rational objectivity could change that deep down. So I kept to a two-drink limit now, sure, but the main reason I didn’t talk about it was because frankly, it just wasn’t that traumatizing. He didn’t hurt me. I left his place disappointed in both of us and embarrassed as hell, but not traumatized.

I shared my thoughts with Beth. “Do you think it’s wrong that I don’t feel like a victim? I never thought of myself that way. I drink less around guys, especially guys I don’t know well, but I’m not scared of men and I certainly didn’t stop having sex. I know some women would call it rape but to me, it was just this dumb careless thing that happened in the past and doesn’t much matter now. I hadn’t even thought about it in years, until this conversation.”

“You’re the only one who can decide what it was to you,” she said. “I just don’t like the thought of any woman thinking something like that was her fault.”

“I hear you. I just think there’s a huge difference between what happened to me that one time, and what was happening every night to that woman I used to wait tables with. Her husband was so brutal with her, there were days when she couldn’t walk right.”

“Shit like that makes me wish every woman knew how to throw a good hex.”

That place where I kept all my secrets felt raw and betrayed by my inexplicable oversharing. I was used to prying confidences and mysteries out of other people, not offering up my own. I turned on the car stereo and moved the dial until I found a song that hit the right note. Traffic opened up enough to reveal an exit coming up and I breathed a sigh of relief. At least we’d get out of this mess soon.

It didn’t take long for darker thoughts to return. “As far as we know, Del Mahaffey didn’t target random women,” I said. “He hurt women he was close to.”

“Does Bo have a girlfriend?”

“No, but his brother does, and she’s already been on the receiving end of Del’s fury.” I reached for my phone. “I know her name from Justin’s profile. I’ll message her. Hopefully, she’ll take me seriously.”

“How much are you going to tell her?”

Ugh, that was a tough one. “I don’t know. Just to stay away from Bo, I guess.”

Jenna got back to me with a promise to avoid Bo. She had good news, too. Bo hadn’t contacted her and Justin had come out of whatever personality altering state he’d been in. His doctors wouldn’t give him access to his phone yet, but through Jenna he relayed a message to me: please help my brother. She didn’t say anything specific but I got the impression that Jenna knew about the haunted banjo.

Bo wasn’t home. The mailbox attached to his house was stuffed with flyers and envelopes. It looked like he hadn’t been back to his tidy little house at all, but I was sure he had returned to the area. For whatever reason, Del Mahaffey had wanted to come home.

Beth sat on the porch stoop. “What now?”

I grabbed my messenger bag and joined her. “Locator spell. Dangerous confrontation. Some food would be good.”

“He could have some other woman by now.” She rubbed her face then held out her hand. “Give me the photo of Del. I’ll see what I can get.”

I let her work and took out a notebook. Not the one I used for Turntable notes, the new one I used for my spooky blog notes. Writing in it helped me think, and I needed that help now.

So Bo was keeping his distance from Jenna. Did that mean he was fighting Del’s influence? Or did it mean Mahaffey had something else in mind? Someone else in mind? Maybe I needed to be looking at female descendants, but of which woman, Del’s wife or lover? Perhaps his wife, because he held a grudge even in death. After all, Pauline turned him over to the law for killing his side piece. That got him executed, which was surely a pretty good reason for an evil spirit to want revenge. But who would be the target of his delayed vengeance?

Beth caught my attention. “He’s out in the middle of nowhere.” She indicated the county map bought at a gas station. “As far as I can tell, he’s not moving around, either.”

I looked at the map, then flipped through the notes I’d made about Paula Welch’s memoirs. “This is not far from where Del buried his girlfriend Maggie.”

“Let’s go.”

I shoved my stuff back in my bag. “Just let me dig my stun gun out of my luggage before we get anywhere near Bo again.”

“A stun gun? If you’d rather have a real gun, you can borrow one of mine.” Beth rose and headed for her car.

One of her guns? Well, I may have moved away, but she was still a Texan.

 

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