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by Lindsey Hobson
Missouri, United States
genre: Horror

A cool breeze whips through the trees, scattering dead leaves like confetti. I pull the hood of my sweatshirt over my head, tugging the strings to tighten it around my ears. The sun is starting to set. I’ll need to start looking for shelter for the night. Although I haven’t seen anyone for weeks, it’s never safe to sleep outdoors. Not anymore. With no people around, the wildlife is becoming more feral every day.

When the road forks, I shrug the big canvas bag off my shoulders and pull out the paper map I swiped from a gas station last week. Before, I would have had no trouble finding the way from my apartment in the city to my childhood home on the coast, but now even the most familiar terrain looks alien, and I can’t afford to waste any precious time or energy on a wrong turn.

After confirming my location, I carefully tuck the map back into the bag and slide my arms through the straps. It's considerably lighter than it was when I started out, reminding me I need to stock up on supplies. My heavy leather boots make a satisfying thump against the pavement, a definite change from the sassy click my heels used to make.

I grin to myself remembering how excited I had been to find these ugly-but-practical boots in my size at that army surplus store. If my friends could only see me now, Amber the Army Ranger! I think, then tears blur my vision. They can’t see me now, because they're gone, just like everyone else – either killed during the onslaught of natural disasters, or in the chaos that followed. There will be no more nights out, only days of struggling to survive. 

The thought of a lifetime of loneliness and hardship weighs me down, turning the almost-empty bag into an unbearably heavy load. I pick my way over the rubble, careful not to fall. The only thing worse than walking hundreds of miles to get here, would be trying to finish the trip with an injured ankle. I scan the area, looking for a building that can offer me shelter for the night, but the homes in this part of town were older and situated close together. When the great quakes started, they must’ve fallen like dominoes, one right after the other. 

Confusion creates a knot inside my chest. Although I haven't been here since my parents passed away years ago, some unknown force has been pulling me back. Over the last few weeks, the need to return here had become stronger every day until it was all I could think about. Finally, I gathered the few supplies I had left and hit the road, scavenging what I needed along the way. Now that I'm here, I thought the answer would be clear, but so far I'm still clueless. Did I come all this way for nothing?  

The wind is becoming stronger as night creeps in. Its frigid fingers find their way under my hood and cause the mostly bare branches of the trees to clack together like the boney arms of a skeleton, pointing me toward the heart of Salem. Suddenly, my spirits lift. Is this the sign I've been waiting for? With renewed optimism, I stride toward the downtown area but with each step, I feel despair creeping in again. 

Tomorrow is Halloween, Salem's biggest celebration of the year, and although nature has done its best to decorate with reds and yellows, the neighborhoods are bare. No Jack-O-Lanterns, no tacky cardboard tombstones, no sheer white ghosts. I know this is such a silly thought, but with all the destruction I have seen, a little part of me must’ve been hoping for something familiar. 

Finally, I reach the intersection where Essex Street crosses Summer Street. For once, I know exactly where I am without having to consult my map. There is no mistaking the dark wood exterior of the infamous Witch House. The historical house looks even more foreboding than usual as it towers, untouched, over the ruined buildings that surround it. 

A creepy-crawly feeling starts at the base of my neck and extends along the length of my spine. I'm being watched. Quickly turning away from the house, I walk down the block toward the First Church in Salem. Made of stone, it's the sturdiest building I can think of. The unsettling feeling I had while standing in front of the Witch House seems to lessen the further I go. To my relief, I find that most of the massive church has survived and I hurry up the steps, anxious to be inside.

Only one of the heavy red doors is still attached, giving the front of the church a gap-toothed appearance. I ease my way through the opening and give my eyes a few seconds to adjust. Dim light filters through the broken windows above, and I can see overturned pews blocking the central aisle. Looking around, I find a small hallway leading off to one side and follow it to a heavy wooden door. The knob turns easily, opening into a tiny room that is virtually untouched. 

I close the door softly behind me and engage the lock. As it clicks, I can feel the tension leaving my body. At least I will be safe here for the night. Exhaustion suddenly envelops me and I barely have time to spread out my blanket before I drift off to sleep.

At first, the voices seem to be a part of my dream, but as they become louder and more frantic, I sit up warily. Red and orange flames reflect in the smudged glass of my temporary bedroom and my heart constricts with panic until I realize the fire is somewhere outside the church. I use the sleeve of my sweatshirt to scrub a clean place on the glass and peer out into the darkness. To my amazement, I see a huge bonfire blazing in the yard of the Witch House. I strain to hear what the voices are saying but I’m much too far away. Glancing at my watch, I see that it is 12:01 AM ‐‐ officially All Hallows Eve. 

As if I'm a moth being drawn to a flame, I leave my sanctuary and make my way toward the bonfire. As I get closer, I can see dark silhouettes dancing wildly around the flames. I count eighteen… no nineteen people of all different sizes. It's the most people I've seen anywhere in a long time. Their voices grow louder with each step I take, until finally I can understand the words they are chanting over and over:

We nineteen hung on Gallows Hill

Awakened by our Master's will

To seek revenge on those who strayed

And bring the darkness to the day

A gasp escapes me and I quickly cover my mouth with my hand, but I'm too late. The shadow-shaped person nearest me has stopped dancing, her skirt falling still against her legs. I watch, transfixed, as one by one, the dancers stop and the circle becomes silent. Every survival instinct I have developed over the last few months is screaming at me to run, but I can't. I have the strangest feeling that I am supposed to be here.

As a native of Salem, I know the story of the nineteen innocent women who were accused of witchcraft and hung on Gallows Hill. But these nineteen women couldn't be the same ones that were executed in 1692… could they? Are they somehow responsible for all of this?

After a few moments of silence, a woman steps toward me and extends her hand. "Hello, Amber. I am Sarah Good. Welcome home, my dear niece." 

My mouth opens and closes like a fish out of water. All those years living in Salem, why didn't my family tell me I was related to one of the accused? Then reality hits – I had been adopted as an infant. They didn't know. Suddenly, the reason for my survival and the pull to return here makes sense. As I take her hand, warmness fills my whole body, and I know she's telling the truth. "Hello, Aunt Sarah."

Sarah smiles. "I have waited 330 years to meet you, blood of my blood. Oh, the power in you is strong. Come, meet the other members of your coven. We have much work to do, and we've only just begun."

She turns, and without hesitation I follow her back to where she has left the other women waiting patiently in the shadows surrounding the fire. The circle widens, welcoming me to take my place beside my ancestor. All my worries drift away like smoke and I know I will never be lonely again.


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