The first had been from my Aunt Sadie. She'd left the letter under my bedroom door the night she disappeared, her words as confusing and ominous as her vanishing.
Finally... I did it, Beetle Blue... Prudence needs me... Must collect the blackbirds... Protect the legend... More madness... Seek out the Brigade... All my love...
This, plus loose instructions and a hand-drawn map of a place I'd only known from her stories, was all I had left of her.
I'd been living a nightmare – seeing my aunt in every shadow, blackbirds singing from every branch – ever since.
The second letter currently sits in my lap. Heavy. Much heavier than a single envelope should.
I'd torn it from the petite black box left on my driver's seat – a small gift, red ribbon and all.
The seal, a rust-colored circle embossed with a blackbird, stares back at me like a horrible little secret. Taunting, laced with so many unknowns. The fact the letter mysteriously landed in my locked car is a sign in and of itself.
My heart thumps in my ears.
Then it falls to my ankles.
I'm grasping at straws here.
This? The black box and perfect presentation? It's all for show.
Milton cracks a small bubble between his teeth. Big Red. Always. “I can’t believe they actually do this. Asshats.” He laughs under his breath. “My god, woman, open it already!”
I startle out of my thoughts then glare across the car at him.
Eyebrows raised, he puts his hands up in mock-surrender, then mouths, sorry.
As if today could get more emotional. He, of all people, should know to give a girl a minute to process.
I hadn’t expected this…
Hadn’t thought I’d receive one…
Straws, Ruby. Short, broken straws.
How the sweet hell did they get into my car?
With a deep breath in, my eyes glaze over to match the heavy fog licking the green foothills before me. Crimson wax seal a blur, the red bleeding onto the crisp white envelope, I hear Aunt Sadie’s last words to me, “Don’t let anything or anyone hold you back. Cling to your dreams. Passion! It makes life worth living, Beetle Blue.”
I’d blushed at the nickname, bestowed upon me in infancy and with total disregard for any feelings I might eventually develop over it. Aunt Sadie had smiled back, knowing me all too well. Because, as embarrassed as it made me, I loved her for it.
I'd had no idea it would be the last time I'd see that deep dimple in her right cheek.
I run my finger under the flap. Paper tears, cutting straight through the thick air between Mil and me. When I look down the seal is broken.
No going back now.
If anyone knew anything about what happened to Sadie, it's the Blackbird Brigade. They meet in the exact location it's believed my aunt went missing.
The Hanging Hill.
And the night of her disappearance? Yeah, that was their big shebang: the yearly anniversary of the Blackbird Witch's execution. Our small town's claim to fame.
Though Milton’s dark eyes are on me, I pretend I’m alone. I should be alone. But I’m his ride. Plus, it’s pouring buckets outside, and I’m not a jerk.
The only sound is rain pelting the windshield and my own staggered breath. Milton plays a great ghost.
I pull the card from the envelope.
It’s black with thin, red pinstripes. The ink is white. Our school’s colors, but much less peppy than the signs the cheerleaders paint for game days. On the front of the card, one sentence is etched across the middle in fine chicken scratch: For your eyes only.
I stare out the windshield – anyone could be watching.
Then I glance over at Milton.
He quickly veers his sight out the window, messy, dark curls hiding half his face.
My sight is pulled back down. I lift the card open. Holding my breath, I read the words. I need this to work.
Ms. Ruby Hayworth,
Congratulations. Your request was received and accepted. Your presence is required at the Hanging Hill, 10 pm, this evening.
Tell no one. Bring no one. Leave your phone at home. Don’t be late.
The Blackbird Brigade
“The Blackbird Brigade,” Milton says in his increasingly bad James Bond impression.
“Hey!” I smash the card to my chest.
“I didn’t read a word, just assumed that’s how they sign their secret letters.” He hugs 'secret letters' in air quotes.
I stay quiet. Because I'd kind of read it with a bit of British flare, myself.
He scoots closer.
I clutch the note tighter. If someone is watching, I'm not about to lose this opportunity because Milton's goofing around.
“I mean, seriously though,” he shakes his head, “who the hell names their secret society after a stupid, old horror story?”
“Respect the legend,” I sing-song.
He huffs, rolling his eyes. “Waste of time,” he sing-songs back.
I start the engine.
Mil puts his hand in front of the wheel. What he plans to do, I’m not sure. So I crank the car into reverse, ignoring his gesture.
Part of me knows it's a waste of time and I hate he's right. But what I hate even more is that I'm ignoring logic and acting on emotion.
I was supposed to be over this wild goose chase by now.
But… What if?
He grabs my hand atop the gear shift. His hand is warm and soft and I catch myself wanting to crawl between the creases of his palm and curl into a ball to hide from the world.
Milton's skin, the color of several autumn spices mixed together, has always had that affect on me. Like my grandmother's fresh-from-the oven gingerbread: comfort, warmth, home.
He claims it's his unusual mix of Tongan and Vietnamese that makes him literally run 'warmer' than most.
“It's the island sun – runs through my veins,” he'll say, tapping the left side of his chest.
I almost believe him.
“Are we not even going to talk about it?” he asks, an edge now sharpening his words. He gives my hand a slight squeeze for effect. The contact unnerves me in pleasant and terrifying ways.
“What?” I glance over, still distracted by his skin on mine.
Milton shakes his head, jerking his hand away.
“You made the request, didn’t you?” His voice has that itchy tone to it that only surfaces when he’s upset.
“They were there that night, Mil. I've been waiting a year for this. I have to find out if they saw anything. Even if it means selling my soul and joining their stupid club.” Little does he know, it's not the first time I've heard from the Brigade – they've been after me for membership since Freshman year. My name... Being a distant relative of the town ghost holds weight in certain odd circles.
But something was different about this letter. It'd never been so official. But, then, I'd never sought them out.
“We used to make fun of them... Of the poor saps who begged for their approval.”
“I know. We still can. I'll just be one of them.” I laugh.
He doesn't, something deep swirling behind his eyes, his brow furrowed.
“What's wrong?” I ask.
“Jesus, Ruby...” he whispers, running his fingers through his hair. “I can't watch you go through this again.”
“I have no –”
But I don't finish my thought because with a final squeeze to my hand, he smiles a sad smile, gets out, pulls his hood over his head, and then shuts the car door.
Milton had been through it all with me.
From the day my aunt went missing, to helping me hang fliers all over town, to listening intently as I cried, blubbering, …she’d never do it – she’d never do it... into his chest after overhearing my parents give up, convinced Aunt Sadie had run off with her crap ex-boyfriend.
And even after all of that – crazy late night internet search sessions and fruitless car expeditions included – he’d stayed true. My best friend.
I get it. I know he doesn't want to see me hurt. I don't want to hurt, but the thin scar covering the gaping hole in my heart is barely healed over.
What's another gash if it means I could get answers?
2. Prudence Pennyworth
Aunt Sadie was obsessed with Prudence Pennyworth, more commonly known as the Blackbird Witch.
She first told me of the legend on my tenth birthday, infecting me with her same zeal for the old story.
I’d felt so grown-up that night, but was quickly reminded I wasn’t even close when every shadow, every creak of the house, made me jump out of my skin. I slept in my parent’s bed for a week.
Mom was pissed at Sadie.
Still, I begged her to tell me the story again.
“Look,” she’d whisper, pointing out the window into the howling night. “Do you see that dark clearing in the woods?”
I’d nod, not quite sure I saw what she saw.
“Prudence’s caves. Shh! Listen…” She’d widen her eyes, then start the story how she always did…
“Many years ago, back when women wore dresses that reached their toes, the silversmith made your forks, and high transportation was a horse pulled cart, old man Pennyworth owned this town. He was all knowing. All giving. And mayor. He built the markets, erected the churches, housed the merchants and workers. There would be no town if it wasn’t for his deep wealth and deeper success.
“He was many great things, but first and foremost a brilliant man of science, offering up his innovative mind and inventions to this good town.
“In 1821, the witch hysteria hit the town of Pennyworth. Concerned for his own well-being, worried his science might cast undue suspicion over him, the mayor halted all projects, banishing his equipment to the caves next to his estate. A fine line existed between science and the devil and that wouldn’t do. Not for Mayor Pennyworth. Not for his town. He turned his back on his own passion.
“Nine women and three men were hanged in Pennyworth that autumn, accused of various acts of witchcraft.
“Mayor Pennyworth, being of moral standing, a god-fearing citizen to the highest, sat in on all of the trials and voted in favor of the executions. There was no room for evil or unrest here.
“Until his own daughter came down with the hysteria.”
This is when Sadie would gather her long, auburn hair, and twine it into a braid down the side of her neck.
“Ruby –” She’d look into my eyes, that deep dimple pressed into her cheek out of concern. “Are you sure you want me to keep going?”
“Yes,” I’d say with as much confidence as I could muster, because I never really was sure.
“All right. Where was I?”
“Ah, of course…
“A girl of sixteen, Prudence Pennyworth began having episodes: convulsions and fits, unprovoked acts of rage. She was even found one evening running through the woods in her nightdress carrying on and singing about blackbirds, how the spirits of those executed spoke to her through the animals.
“Mayor Pennyworth defended his daughter until, like clockwork, each evening at midnight a knock sounded at their front door. When he answered, all that greeted him was a dead blackbird on the doorstep.
“Old man Pennyworth didn't dare mention the nightly disturbances to his daughter, not even after he'd thrown a week’s worth of blackbird carcasses into the river. He'd hoped the nightmare was over. Still, come midnight, he was awoken by another knock. This time seven lifeless blackbirds stared beady-eyed back at him.
“The next morning at breakfast, gazing glassily over her cup, Prudence asked, 'Father, why do you never mention the blackbirds?'
“Pennyworth choked on his tea.
“'What's that, dear?' he asked, shocked, for how in bloody hell could she know?
“'The midnight blackbirds, Papa. They're gifts from me to you. You've never once said thank you.'
“'Thank you, dear Prudence,' he barely managed.
“Her once tame, braided hair a disheveled strawberry-blonde mess, she granted him a proud, deranged grin.
“After that, Mayor Pennyworth secluded Prudence, hiding her in the caves next to their estate for fear she’d be accused and hanged. It was in these caves, for countless days, he worked the most gruesome of experiments on his daughter in the name of ‘exercising the demons’. And, more, in the name of his reputation. How would it look if the mayor's own daughter was a witch?
“Day and night he worked to cure her.
“Pennyworth mixed medicines, performed séances. In his most desperate hour, he experimented on his daughter's body: drenching the girl in a cleansing solution, burning the soles of her feet, and operating on her brain.
“But it was all for naught.
“Even after trying to singe it away, the sign of the devil remained on the bottom of her left foot. Like a brand, the shape of the blackbird refused to erase.
“Pennyworth immediately denounced his daughter a product of witchcraft. He attended her trial, finding her guilty, hoping that if he couldn't save Prudence, he could at least salvage his reputation. His town.
“She was sentenced to hang.
“But she wouldn’t hang.”
On cue, I'd pull my comforter up to my chin and make sure every edge was tucked around my body like a tight cocoon. Especially my toes, lest I wake to blackbirds pecking them during the night.
“Tied up and dumped into the back of a horse-drawn cart, Prudence was driven through town as if a sideshow attraction. They took her to the Hanging Hill, just down the way from Pennyworth’s estate and the very caves where she’d been tortured by her own father.
“Once they arrived and tied the rope around her delicate neck, hanging it over the thick limb of a tree, they quickly pulled the cart away. And, as it rolled, that large limb cracked and broke, crushing the cart and Prudence and several others along with it.
“But when Mayor Pennyworth came to assess the damage and pronounce his daughter – the witch – dead... Her body was GONE.
“The most popular account is that she crawled from the wreckage and plunged into the river. Some say her body sunk and disappeared into the earth. Others, that she was carried off by a thrush of blackbirds. Whatever happened to her, she was never... seen... again...
“Legend has it, Prudence’s screams and nonsensical mutterings can still be heard echoing in the caves on the anniversary of her death. That her wet footsteps stain the stone floor as she searches for her father, intent on gifting him blackbirds.
“And, if you arrive after dark, during a full moon, you'll find a solitary blackbird keeping watch at the entrance.”
Aunt Sadie would kiss me on the forehead and turn off my bedside lamp.
And as much as I wanted to run straight to my parents' room, I didn’t.
Because I had to hear that story again next time.
3. The Initiation
After my aunt disappeared, I stopped sleeping. Every time I shut my eyes, all I heard was her voice, whispering about blackbirds. Then, I swear, I'd hear blackbirds singing and gurgling in the tree outside my window.
That's when I got into the habit of calling Milton.
And he got into the habit of coming over, lying next to me, and smoothing my hair until I fell asleep. It was purely innocent. And, if it meant I was getting sleep, my already über-laid back parents were fine with it.
But something changed in the way Milton played with my hair. He lingered longer, breathed deeper.
And the way he gazed down at me? Breathing wisps of cinnamon gum so they grazed my forehead?
He used to stare with sympathy, those dark, chocolate eyes concerned over what I was going through. Now? The empathy remains, but there's something more.
And my reaction to all of it, to my best friend, has changed too. The comfort he invokes is mixed with a slew of butterflies and the warmth of nausea deep in my gut.
It scares the crap out of me.
So I stopped calling.
And I stopped sleeping.
My stomach is heavy because Mil should be here.
But he's not.
And neither is Aunt Sadie.
I pull a knit hat over my head, lace my boots, and zip up my jacket.
This is my thing. Milton's so against the stupid Brigade. How their secret society silently rules our school. And, yeah, I used to be right with him. Me doing this, despite my motives, is like stabbing him and our friendship, our solidarity of such things, in the back.
Not that he doesn't share in my hope that Sadie is still out there, but he's been more than vocal he doubts it has anything to do with the legend.
Still, I have to try.
No stone (or cave) left un-turned.
The night is dark, mid-October chill hovering in the air with the fog. If I could conjure the perfect, creepy night to hike out to the Hanging Hill, this is it. As much as Mil and I make fun, those Blackbird Brigade weirdos are good.
With a last swig of coffee, and a final moment of hesitation, I leave my cell phone in the console and lock up my car, parking it at the edge of the forest near the trail head. I bring only a flashlight, the Brigade's note, my aunt's final letter and map, plus my keys.
I feel inexplicably naked without my phone and consider going back for it. I could turn it off. Slip it in my boot.
No. The instructions were explicit.
I can't risk ruining this. These kids – whoever they are – are my last hope.
Stepping onto the dirt trail, dim flashlight shining the way, I enter the thickly treed forest. Somehow this brilliantly green place turns inky black at night like a split personality.
Taking the first curve that leads me closer to the Hanging Hill, my name is hissed in a whisper-shout behind me.
I'd know that deep, scratchy tone anywhere.
I skid to a stop.
I cannot effing believe it.
But also, I can.
Turning on the balls of my feet, I lift the light ahead of me to see his tall, curly-headed silhouette.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I seethe in a hush. Bring no one, the note had said. No. One. Especially not best-friend-maybe-more types.
“Why are you doing this?” he ignores my question by asking his own.
“Are you kidding me?” I can play too.
Milton rakes his fingers through his hair then puts his hands on his hips, staring straight into me.
“It's not worth it,” he growls.
“I've got nothing to lose!”
“You have everything to lose.”
I shake my head, glancing at my watch: 9:50 pm. I don't have time for this. I turn and keep walking.
“They could ruin you, you know that. If you don't pass their stupid tests – and don't get hurt in the process – you'll be their subject of ridicule for the rest of high school.”
I slow to a stop.
We'd both watched poor Dana Nash crumble from happy-go-lucky flute player to virtual hermit after she failed to gain acceptance into the club. The Brigade broke her.
But this wasn't like that. I needed something out of them and they needed something from me. That was the difference. I had leverage. I'd never known why they wanted my membership until I read Sadie's final letter. Her words, too few and scattered, but anchored like wrought iron, shed light on everything from the Brigade to her obsession with Prudence. We were descendants of the Pennyworths. As good as prime real-estate to the Brigade.
“And what if they don't have any information? Or refuse to tell you? You'll be so hurt. I know you don't see it now, but this isn't worth it.”
“I'm willing to take the risk,” I say, walking on.
“Please, Rubes ... don't,” he calls after me.
The fear in his voice clutches my heart.
Are those the words I'd have pleaded to Aunt Sadie had I been here when she’d walked into these same woods a year ago?
“I'm sorry. I have to.”
It would have been Sadie's same response.
The Hanging Hill.
I'd heard of kids coming out here on Friday nights after football games. Drinking. Making out. Trying to guess which cave was Prudence's then daring each other to go in and face the witch. Typical small town, teenage shenanigans.
One poor boy fell in the river and drowned a few years ago, only upping the creep-factor of the legend: Mess with Prudence, she'll toss you over the cliff.
But I'd never been here.
I'd started the trek down this path many a time the past year, map in hand, in search of my aunt.
But I could never go through with it.
Whether it was my aunt's disappearance or her grim warnings in story form, something had kept me away.
Haunted long enough, I need answers. Lord knows the police and adults aren't making any progress. They'd all given up.
This was left to me and me alone.
Despite having memorized it, I open the map and stare at it under the dimming bulb of my flashlight.
Armed with a map and a mission, Sadie's final words safely tucked on a single scrap of paper in my inside jacket pocket, hugging my heart, I climb the steep hill.
Inching my way to the top, once I reach the peak I have to stop. Bent forward, my hands resting on my knees, I try to catch my breath before carrying on, but instead, I freeze dead.
Below me is a clearing, the Hanging Hill just up and beyond, visible by its legendary three solitary, yet mammoth trees. Behind the knobby and crooked branches is darkness: the drop off to the river.
I glance to the right. Somewhere in that direction lies Prudence's caves.
My watch beeps.
No time to think of a plan or prepare a speech, I dart down the other side of the hill.
Jogging toward the trees, my watch beeps again, alerting me it's go-time.
As if on cue, several red, paper lanterns light up, surrounding me in a circle of scarlet light and dark-fabric, clad figures. Every few bodies, one is unnaturally taller than the others as if they stand on step-stools or stilts. These bodies each hold long, crooked sticks like exaggerated canes.
I half want to laugh over the ridiculousness of it all and half want to run my ass back to my car because damn if it isn't at least a five on the creepy scale.
Where had they come from? I hadn't heard a footstep or crunched leaf. Not a breath or whisper.
But I hadn't expected anything less dramatic. Supposedly their members are made up of our school's most academically elite and creative bunch. Theater kids. Student council members. Athletes. Mathletes. No one knows for sure, but after this, I'm banking on the drama club.
The lanterns sit in the dirt, illuminating the non-freakishly tall members' bare feet in red light and cascading a bloody shadow up their bodies like a bad effect from an old horror movie.
But the effect, the simplicity of it, makes it all the more freaky, upping their rating to a solid seven.
I turn in a circle, keeping my flashlight pointed downward. Like a human lighthouse, I count bodies in the sea of darkness.
Not great odds, though I believe they're a non-aggressive bunch.
I open my mouth to say something, the silence eating me up. But am I supposed to speak? Had the letter mentioned it?
Instead, the wind howls, stealing my voice, the chill leaving me with a fresh wave of goose bumps and a large lump in my throat.
My light flickers.
Damn it. Old batteries...
That's when the tallest one motions for me to follow. With the long stick in his hand, lantern now hung at the top, he lifts the light to his face to reveal it's painted like a skull.
My breath catches.
They've got the art club too.
He then points his cane toward the Hanging Hill.
I nod, sensing this is a silent affair. Obviously, or, surely I'd recognize a voice or two.
I follow the skeletal one as the others lift their lanterns, falling in line behind me, their faces also painted, but more simply. Less Day of the Dead and more skull and cross bones.
Now on the move, the stilt-raised figures have an odd sort of gait: walking tall, hunched over on their canes, they appear animal-like, but unlike any animal I've ever known. They're otherworldly creatures, a cross between vultures and giraffes.
Staring up at the one before me, I see black feathers hanging off his back like a pair of wings at rest. Blackbird wings. Nice touch, guys.
But my sarcasm wanes, as a tinge of fear slithers in.
Because, Jesus... What is this? Unease hits me hard in-between the ribs and I mentally take myself back to Mil, the comfort and warmth of his hands. Part of me wishes I'd stayed with him.
But that would have been the wrong choice.
I've waited a year for this.
And this is just a silly ritual. Kids in costume. I go to school with these people.
Snap out of it, Ruby.
As we walk, I'm keenly aware the member behind me is no-personal-space close and it spikes my paranoia.
Try as I might, I am not snapping out of it.
What am I doing here again?
I glance up at the sky, catching a glimpse of the full moon.
With a deep breath and a silent prayer to anyone listening, I carry on, trying to keep my mind off the foreign breath hitting the back of my neck, and repeating the mantra: kids in costumes.
Upon reaching the top of the hill, we turn to the right of the trees where a circle of boulders are ceremoniously arranged on the ground.
Each member takes a seat, placing his lantern before him, the stilt-raised, skeletal ones remaining standing. The main one, the winged member I followed up the hill, again motions to me with his cane. He wants me to take a seat on the large rock in the middle.
Like their human sacrifice, I oblige, taking my place, my nerves on edge.
The sound of the rushing river below fills the night and I can't help but think of Prudence. Had she once sat on this very boulder and feared the same sound? These were her stomping grounds, practically her back yard. God, she'd been my age when she died, if she died...
“You requested this meeting,” the leader says in an unnaturally robotic tone as if using a speaker or phone app to disguise his voice. “Unheard of. How did you find us?”
Like I'm going to share that information... I wasn't about to tell them Sadie had tipped me off. Like a cryptic clue, she'd once told me where she, herself, had left a request for the Brigade: The third mailbox from the left in the alley between the drug store and the coffee shop. She was convinced they knew more than they let on about the witch.
“Lucky guess,” I reply.
A member across the circle hisses like a snake.
The one in charge glares at him in response.
Things were getting weirder.
The sound, replaying over in my mind, put me more on edge. Because who the hell did that?
“I see,” the skull says, looking down on me and shaking his head. “In your request you stated you would join the Brigade in exchange for details of your Aunt's disappearance.”
“That you have something we want...”
“And what makes you sure we'd like to have you? That we're interested in what you have to offer?”
“Because I know your goal is to get as many Pennyworth descendants to join the Brigade as you can. My family goes way back in this town. I assume the reason I'm here is because you know the Hayworth's changed their name from Pennyworth long ago to escape the legends.”
The skull, lantern lighting his face, narrows his shadowed eyes at me.
“I know more about your little club here than most people.” It was mostly a bluff. Aunt Sadie had mentioned tidbits from time to time. “You need my name and I need your honest information. And if you don't give me all you know, no deal.”
The skull gripped his cane tightly, twisting the knobby end of it into his palm.
“That is not how this works –” He laughs: a dark cackle that shoots a shiver up my spine despite my attempts at trying to envision Timmy Wilcox's smiling face and freckles behind the paint and horrible voice. “True, your name holds weight, but it doesn't guarantee you free entry. First, you must pass the test. Then, we'll talk details and secrets,” he demands.
I raise an eyebrow. “Fine.”
I'm all in.
No turning back.
Blindfolded, I roll over the phrases, for Sadie... and kids in costumes... in my mind. Led into what I assume is a cave based on the sudden drop in temperature and dampness, that musty cave-like scent that falls somewhere between old basement and fresh saltwater, I try not to trip.
Directed by the robotic voice through multiple twists and turns, having to step up here and duck my head there, we finally reach our destination.
My pulse thumps in my ears, heart raps a nasty beat against my ribs, lungs lodge themselves in my throat. I’m no longer just grasping at straws, but for all I have to remain calm and not go into full blown panic attack mode.
For me, regardless of theatrics, small space + blindfold + darkness = anxiety.
My only senses are smell: the scent of the cave mixed with what I assume is a gas lantern. Touch: where I sit I grip the jagged stone beneath me: it's slick yet craggy. Taste: my mouth is completely dry, but a hint of metal lingers at the back of my throat. Sound: footsteps scatter away in several directions. Then, silence. Save for an occasional whistling of wind, all is still.
I've been instructed to count to '1821', the year Prudence was convicted of witchcraft, and then remove the blindfold. Once I do, I'm to find my way out.
I have a feeling it won't be so simple.
And really? 1821? Yeah right... But I don't want to cheat because what if I'm not alone?
At a slightly quicker pace than 'one-Mississippi', I count all of the way up to one-thousand, eight hundred and twenty-one, then tear the black sash off my face.
Squinting so my eyes can adjust to the sudden change in light, I glance from corner to corner, taking in my surroundings.
I've been deposited inside a cramped cavern. There are intentional, rustic shelves carved into the wall before me, a solitary lantern giving off a small fold of green-gold light.
I stand and turn around. The platform where I sit is longer than I imagined, like a flat, low-lying, bed of stone. It looks more natural than the makeshift shelves, but also like it has, or once had, a purpose.
Could this be where the mad scientist worked on Prudence?
If so, based on my aunt's accounts, I must be deep in the caves.
I glance to my left, then my right. Three separate caves open up into this room.
Holy hell. They could lead anywhere...
“A map OF the caves would have been nice, Aunt Sadie...” I mumble to no one (I hope). But I can't shake the feeling I'm being watched. Monitored. Stalked?
Every tap of moisture and shift of the wind causes me to glance over my shoulder and sends waves of horrid electricity down my back. Images of witches and dead blackbirds and mad scientist experiments overwhelm my already overactive imagination.
Suddenly, despite logic, despite that this is all for show, I'm falling deep into those nighttime stories.
Lifting the old, rusted lantern that's been charitably left half-full, I walk toward cave number one. Stopping at the opening, bending my body so I can enter, the golden light of my lantern catches something on the wall.
I hold it over the spot.
Several scratches, uneven, but all in a row, like hash-marks look back at me: a tally.
Aunt Sadie's words flood my mind: It was in these caves, for countless days, that he worked the most gruesome of experiments on his daughter...
I hold the lantern up closer and count the jagged hash-marks, noting the final one, how it zigzags down the wall as if in hopelessness. Or perhaps in deranged anger.
One day for every year of her life.
Sixteen days in this cold, hard, black place? Enduring constant torture at the hands of her own father?
Anyone would go mad.
Moving to door number two, in the same spot as the hash-marks, I find a crude etching of a bird, lying flat on its back, wings splayed.
At cave opening number three, there is no drawing. Not in the same location as the last two. Instead, at this archway, a barely discernible etching is shakily drawn near the ground, as if whoever left it wasn't able to stand. This one, more hastily done, looks like the image of a tree with a skeleton hanging from a rope by its neck.
I stand, moving back, taking in my options.
It's then, when the backs of my thighs hit the ledge where I'd sat, where Prudence was likely tortured, that a single scream pierces through the silence of the cave.
And I swear the horrid, screeching sound comes from behind me.
I jump, dropping the lantern with a clank.
“Not cool, guys,” I say, unsure who’s listening.
Who is this Blackbird Brigade? Kids in costumes no longer placates me.
This is real.
I’m terrified this is –
The scream sounds again. Too shrill. Too close. Too real.
Picking up the lantern, no time to think, desperate to get the hell out of here, I bolt through the third tunnel, nothing but a smidgen of rationale backing my choice.
Because maybe the third cave had led Prudence to the Hanging Hill. Had that last drawing been her final attempt to leave her story behind?
I'll never know, but I'm already speeding down the tight corridor, convinced something or someone is right on my heels.
And as I move, weaving through the tunnel, bending low in some places, climbing over rocks in others, the unmistakable sound of wet, bare feet follows me. And holy Blackbird Witch if I don't nearly piss my pants.
I'm ten again, freaking out in my bedroom over every shadow. Every tickle at the back of my neck. Every almost, maybe noise.
I go faster.
The slapping of wet footsteps increases.
And my imagination gets the best of me.
I turn my head, glancing back...
The image of Prudence – soaked from head to toe, long black frock, single strawberry-blonde braid, skin pale as milk – flashes before me. The witch stares straight into my eyes. She sees me.
I stop dead, full-blown hyperventilation tightening its claws around my neck.
Or is that the witch’s sharp fingernails?
This is real.
4. The Blackbird Witch
Hunched over, hands resting on my knees, head down, I cough and sputter, working to regain my breath. After far too long, my heart slows to a quick, yet steady beat. I'm still gasping for breath, but I'm breathing more than I'm hyperventilating. I count it a win.
Hesitant, I force myself to look up.
Nothing but cave.
She's vanished as fast as she appeared.
Walking back the way I came, the lantern trembles as I hold it out before me.
Taking cautious steps, paralyzed by fear and pure freak-out, the toe of my boot slips forward along something slick. Thankfully, I catch a protruding rock by my fingertips, stopping myself mid-fall.
I recover, then bend down, holding the lantern to the floor.
A pair of wet footprints glares back at me.
“Holy. Hell. No.” I whisper but also shriek.
Standing, rushing away from the spot, I run full speed through the tunnel.
Praising the light of the full moon and mostly clear sky, I spot the cave opening ahead of me.
Moving more quickly, more desperately – my god – the splashing footsteps behind me have returned along with a wretched sort of whimpering.
And the whimpering...
That lone scream back in the cave had been terror, but this? This is pain and death and suffering. Hurt and anguish. The sound of torture. It scratches at the backs of my knees as I flee, ducking my head, and throwing myself out the mouth of the cave like I’m leaping for my life.
Maybe I am.
But mid-leap my foot catches on something, and I'm sent flying.
I hit the hard ground in a heap, the lantern slipping from my hand and slamming with a thud into a tree. Scuttling backward on hands and feet like a crab, I get as far away from the cave as I can before my legs and arms give out and my back slams with a similar thud into the dirt.
My entire body convulses with tremors of cold fear as I wait for her to come for me.
But nothing comes.
Reaching for the (remarkably) still-lit lantern, I hold it in front of me. A small ball of black fluff – the mystery item I tripped over – lies at the foot of the cave.
I crawl forward hoping it isn't what I know it is.
Staring down at the black thing, I grab a stick and nudge it, pushing it over to get a better look.
A dead blackbird.
I glance to my right.
To my left.
I scream, thrusting my face in my hands to block it out, block all of it out: Aunt Sadie's disappearance, the mad scientist, the witch, wet footprints and pained wails, dead blackbirds and giants with hooded skulls.
Suddenly I'm wrapped in familiar warmth like fresh-baked gingerbread.
Milton's spiced skin.
I've never welcomed it more.
“Shh… Shh…” he repeats, pulling me into his lap and away from the cave.
“What happened? Are you all right? What did they do to you?” he asks, studying my face, my neck, my limbs for any sign of damage. “I never should have let you come!” he says, his words muffled against the top of my head.
“I'm fine... It's fine...” I stop my gibberish and glance around. “Wait. I passed their test.”
Untangling myself from Mil's arms, I stand.
“I passed your test!” I yell.
“Rubes, don't. It's over,” Milton says.
And somehow I know he knows more than he's letting on.
“What's going on?” I demand through gritted teeth.
“Just, come on. Let's go home.” He grabs for my hands, standing, trying to pull me along with him.
I yank my arms back so hard my shoulder sockets burn.
As if from nowhere, sixteen red lanterns float toward me. They're attached to the same cloaked bodies who led me into the cave.
I step closer.
“I did my part. Now, you keep your end of the deal,” I demand, my entire body on fire.
The skeleton on stilts shakes his head no.
“What?!” I hiss the word so maybe they’ll get how serious I am. High school kid or psychotic freak, I'm ready to run straight for his knees and knock him over.
“You broke a rule,” the mechanical voice states in monotone. “Deal's off.”
I glare down at Milton who’s still sitting. “Him? I didn't bring him here, he followed me.”
“The details don't matter.”
And I swear, even behind the robotic tone, his voice falters, as if I've disappointed. Hunched over, leaning on his cane, the leader of the Blackbird Brigade turns to stilt away.
“Are you kidding me!”
“Ruby, don't –” Milton says, suddenly standing next to me, his hand wrapped around the top of my arm.
“No.” I step out of his grip. “Do you have any idea what I've been through tonight? This past year?” I shout, my voice breaking with emotion.
“Ruby, please...” Milton pleads, a look in his eye like he can't decide whether to throw me over his shoulder and run or let me be.
But I ignore him.
“I deserve to know what you know. If not for me, for my aunt. Please!” Tears stream down my eyes.
The larger-than-life blackbird stops.
“I saw you,” Mil shouts to the hooded figure’s back.
My eyes flash to his.
He goes on, “Before the ceremony, I was hiding behind the trees watching. I saw you MINUS the skull.” He glances at me, dark eyes glistening. “Either you tell her or I will,” he finishes, shaking his head.
Turning toward us, hobbling closer, the Brigade leader pulls his hood away from his face, off his head, so it hangs loose at the nape of his neck.
Squinting, trying to make out his features, to see if my original guess of Timmy Wilcox is even remotely close, I spot a long auburn ponytail.
Their leader isn't a he, but a she.
And not a high school kid.
This isn't the Brigade I thought it was.
She steps off her stilts.
Still taller than I am, the Brigade leader walks toward me and there's something familiar, something I recognize about the way she walks...
The skull frees her hair from the elastic-band.
She removes a black cloth from her robe pocket and wipes her face, revealing her skin, the soft features beneath the creepy image. Her mouth is set in a grim line, a deep dimple pressed into her left cheek.
And I cannot believe it.
I glance from Milton to Aunt Sadie to the cave.
“I don't understand,” I say, face in my hands, everything a haze of dizziness and nausea and confusion.
I sway on my feet and Milton grabs my shoulders, putting his arm around me to keep me standing.
I fall to my knees because my legs won't hold me any longer.
“All this time? You've been... here?”
“Ruby, please –” Sadie holds out her hand, but it's not the same hand I once knew. This one is tainted by ugly betrayal and lies.
But the hand is also real. Alive. Here.
“Impossible. We had the police search for you. The whole town. Mom and Dad think you ran off. God, I thought you were dead!”
“I'm right here...”
“No. You disappeared.” Try as I might, I can't swallow the hurt back any longer. Hot pain pricks behind my eyelids as tears break free. “We buried you... The memory of you, anyway.”
“If that's true, then why did you come?” she asks.
“Closure. I had to know if they saw anything. If they watched you fall over the cliff or get mauled by a bear or maybe they'd found a piece of your jewelry. Anything that might help me get past the loss of you.” I throw up my hands and glare daggers at the full moon as if all of this is its fault. “But here you are. A ghost, back from the dead. How could you not tell me?” I cannot believe this. I'm torn between showering her with kisses and pushing her into the river myself.
I turn to leave because I can’t see either of those options through.
“Ruby, please, hear me out,” Aunt Sadie calls to my back.
But I can't.
Maybe not ever.
But wait... What was that in the cave? Had I mistaken a true ghost for cheap, haunted house antics? And who were these hooded weirdos?
I had to know how far this deception went.
I stopped. Not daring a glance back, I asked, “What was all of that in the cave? What was the point of scaring me out of my mind?”
“That wasn't me, Ruby. It was HER. You had to see for yourself. You're the only one who ever truly understood.”
With a deep sigh, I stare back at the cave. How the opening yawns wide with blackness.
Aunt Sadie continues, her tone more urgent. “That silly club at your school? Copy cats. Kids games. This? This is the real deal. Last year I was elected head of the Brigade, a great honor and huge responsibility. Instead of living a double life, I decided to disappear. This is my life now. Prudence? She's real. And it's my job to protect her and her legacy.”
“This is insane,” I say, taking off into the woods.
“Ruby, wait!” Milton calls, running after me.
I have no idea where I am or where I'm headed.
I want to lose Milton who's close on my trail, but also I don't.
I half hope I run right off a cliff into the river, but I'm also so afraid of the possibility I skid to a stop around every bend and turn. Coming through a line of trees, without warning, I hit the riverbank, my boots splashing in the water giving me flashbacks of wet footsteps slapping stone floor.
Exhausted, worried I might become one of those people who ventures into the woods and is never found, I decide to stop here. Climbing up onto a large boulder, hands clasped behind my head, I lay back, staring up at the moon, the countless stars.
I cry silently, mourning the loss of Aunt Sadie all over again.
Leaves crunch under light footfall behind me and I have no doubt who it is. Milton climbs up onto the boulder, lying next to me, cautiously taking my hand.
Tangling my fingers with his, I hold on tight, resting my head on his shoulder. The heat from his body radiates into my side. Why have I fought this for so long? It makes sense, him and me being more than friends. Why wouldn't I want that?
For the first time I can't think of one good reason. None of my usual excuses hold up after everything that's happened tonight.
More confused than ever, I can finally see clearly.
As if reading my mind, Milton turns his head toward me, our noses nearly touching. I raise my eyebrows because I'm welcoming his closeness and it catches me off guard.
“Hi,” he says, wiping several tears from my cheek. He’s been chewing gum because he’s all spicy-sweet cinnamon.
“Hi,” I say back, pushing a rogue curl from his eyes.
So close, his dark eyes on mine, impossibly long lashes grazing my cheek, Milton inches closer.
And for once I don't push him away.
His warm breath against my lips, my own breath shudders, as I accept my friend as more, finally crossing that line we've blurred for so long.
The endless stars and full moon our only witnesses, we share our first kiss.
And, as expected, because, yes, I'd imagined it many a time, it's just like fresh-baked gingerbread: comfort and warmth and home.
Side by side on the boulder, holding hands, our fingers still tangled, Milton smoothes my hair away from my eyes, and kisses my forehead. “You have to go back and talk to her, you know.”
“I know,” I exhale. “I'm just so confused.”
“I get it.”
“We've always shared this special bond.”
“I get that too.”
“I'm angry and relieved and freaking out all at the same time. She's alive, you know? It's amazing! But also, why didn't she tell me?”
“Maybe this is her way of doing that.”
I glance over at Milton. The silvery light of the moon glistens off his features so the spice of his skin turns golden. He's beautiful.
Leaning in, I kiss his cheek, then his lips.
He smiles the most satisfied smile I've ever seen.
God, I hate when he's right.
How is it things can be super messed up in one breath, then inexplicably crystal-clear the next?
Approaching the Hanging Hill I spot Aunt Sadie sitting on the boulder in the middle of the circle.
She looks up after I snap a twig under my boot.
“Hey,” I say, because what do you say to someone you thought was dead?
She laughs, that deep dimple in her cheek such a welcome sight. “Hey, kiddo.”
Without needing to think, I rush over and tackle her in a hug.
We talk long into the night and Sadie explains everything...
She'd been a member of the real Blackbird Brigade for years. They're mission is to protect and preserve this historical/paranormal site. But more recently, those who seek to find Prudence are taunting and terrorizing her, vandalizing and disturbing her resting place, trying to catch her on camera.
“She doesn't want them here. Their foreign equipment and negative energy reminds her too much of what she went through with her father. Dead blackbirds started showing up more and more. To keep her safe, when elected leader, I decided to go all in. And to protect her secret, keep her life and death a legend, I had to abandon my own. She deserves peace.
“As for tonight... I knew you'd want answers and didn't doubt you'd mistaken my Brigade for the one at your school. Please know none of this was meant to scare you. I only needed you to see for yourself. You're too much like me – you need to see to believe.”
I nod. She knows me too well. “So, what do you do? Hang out in these caves all day and night?” I ask.
Again she laughs, tucking her hair behind her ear. “The Brigade is backed by wealthy, intelligent people. I'm happier and more content than ever, Beetle Blue.”
Itching for more, I decide not to prod. I never quite saw it before, but Aunt Sadie, while so creative and loving, was a sort of sad person.
I don't crave more answers. All the proof I need is in the joy radiating off her.
Seeing is believing.
It's been six months and I haven't heard a word or seen my aunt since that night. And I dare not speak of it to anyone.
Of course Milton's good for it. He's the best secret keeper a friend (and more) could ask for.
Walking hand in hand toward the Hanging Hill, Milton pulls me along more than anything. I haven't been back. On some level I fear it was all a dream.
But Milton finally convinced me to return. He felt I needed closure.
And, after much argument, I finally agreed.
God, I hate when he's right.
Armed with a bouquet of lilies (my aunt's favorite flower) and fresh sage (Prudence's favorite herb), Mil and I find our way to the cave where my world flipped upside-down.
And funny thing, it doesn't look at all remarkable or scary during the day. Just a cave in a forest.
There are hundreds of them up here.
But strange things happened in this one: I know it first hand. And with the thought, that feeling of watching eyes hits me, sending chills down the back of my neck.
With a deep breath, I release Milton's hand, leaving my offering at the entrance to the cave, whispering, “I love you, Aunt Sadie,” and lower, to her and anyone else listening, “Take care of each other.”
Of course I would find final closure and tangible proof I wasn't dreaming in the form of a letter.
Like magic, this one is left on top of my bed. I find it in yet another 'how the hell?' moment after Milton drops me off at home.
This one is in a teal box. My favorite color.
Opening up the package – half afraid I'll find a dead blackbird within it – I breathe a sigh of relief when I see it's only a letter.
I pull out the crisp, white envelope, the words My Ruby scrawled across the front in what is without doubt my aunt's handwriting.
My heart both falls and flies at the sight.
Clutched by fear and hope, I force myself to open the envelope, and pull out the single piece of paper.
My Dearest Ruby,
Thank you for the lovely herbs and flowers. The gesture and gifts filled our hearts with joy.
Please always remember this is what I had to do. For myself. For you. For Prudence.
My hope is one day you'll join me in this cause – you have an open-ended invitation to join the Brigade should you choose.
I love you Beetle Blue, and while, if I could go back, I may do things differently, I don't regret sharing the truth with you.
I'm here. Always.
All my love,
I fold the letter back up, slip it in its envelope, then go to set it back in the box. But when I lift the lid, something rattles at the bottom.
Turning the package upside-down, a soft object drops in my hand: a single black feather.
I smile, shaking my head, not attempting to ignore the raised hairs on my arms.
The Blackbird Witch.