The Haunting of Romney Wood, Part Seven
Laurie was slow moving, leaning on Lon and trying to keep her head up, but all three had to stop several times as she doubled over in pain. It was just dry heaves now, but they stopped her dead in her tracks.
They’d cleared the ruins of Black Hill and were descending through the thick undergrowth to the train station, the remnants of a gravel road peeking through the loam of the forest floor beneath their feet.
“What’s wrong with her?” Lon whispered to Walt as they both watched Laurie press her head to the ground, gagging.
“The Witch.” Walt muttered.
“Are you going to tell me what the fuck is going on here?”
“I’ve been researching the Witch for many years. I must admit, I didn’t expect to find anything.”
“You knew this shit would happen?”
Walt shook his head, “No, no. Of course not. I was never much of a believer in any of this stuff.”
“But you knew the stories…if there was even a chance – “
“You knew the stories, too, Lon. We just hiked our asses into a wilderness hunting for a murder house that had scores of corpses stacked in it. This wasn’t ever an innocent picnic.”
“How do we stop her?”
“We cross the river. Or we find her bones. Or we find Amanda Atherton’s bones.”
“And how do you know all that?”
“A combination of guesswork and research into how this stuff works.”
“See, that’s what I mean. You’re prepared for this shit. You came in here looking to…whatever. Exorcize or something.”
“If I were prepared, we’d be a bit better off right now. And I’m not trained to exorcise demons. I’m afraid a PhD in oral history doesn’t prep you for such things.” Walt nodded to Laurie, “Drag or carry her. We’ve got to move. No more stops.”
The sun was vanishing behind the mountains when they hit the train tracks, and dusk gathered around them as they continued down the mountain to their boat. The burbling of Blackhill Creek seemed to mock them until they burst out of a line of trees and stumbled across the small rock beach to their boat.
Walt was first, racing for the boat as an unnatural night settled quickly around them. He turned, and found himself alone. The forest sighed, the treetops bowing in an unfelt wind. Walt closed his eyes and cursed to himself. When he opened them again, the Witch was standing at the treeline. An old woman in period outfit, her hair pulled back severely into a bun, both hands leaning on a cane. She tucked her chin down towards her breast and gazed up at him with a thin smile playing across her pale skin.
“Maureen Kane.” Walt said slowly.
The Witch’s left eye twitched, and she raised her head defiantly.
“You were young when they killed you, no?”
The Witch closed her eyes and raised her arms, letting the cane drop. For a few heartbeats, she was surrounded by a faint shimmering that seemed almost like a reflection. Walt was reminded of headlights on a dark motel room ceiling. Then, where the old woman had been, a tiny, fragile brunette now stood. Her eyes glittered above a wide smile, her dark hair fell past her shoulders.
“This…what I was.”
Walt nodded, backing away. “You have my friends?”
The Witch nodded.
“Give them back?”
The Witch shook her head.
“Don’t you want freedom?” The back of Walt’s legs touched the bow of the canoe and he stopped.
The Witch tilted her head to the right, watching him.
“I can free you. It’s your bones, right? Where are they?”
“No…freedom.” The Witch struggled with the words.
Walt grinned. “Oh?”
Walt pushed backwards against the canoe, shoving it awkwardly into the water. “Uh-uh.”
The Witch moved towards him, hovering just above the rocks, and he turned to dive into the canoe. She caught him in an instant, her hands slamming into his back and sending him rolling into the boat as it lurched into the current. He gazed up at the spiraling sky, his eyes fluttering, as the Witch screamed in frustration. Stopped by the water. Excellent. He let the darkness take him, pain burning through his back and neck.
When next he woke, it was sometime in the early AM. The moon had begun her descent, and the calm night had a fresh crispness in the air. Walt was huddled in the bow of the canoe and he heaved himself up to look around. The little boat was hung up on a rocky sandbar in the middle of the narrow river. He wasn’t sure how far he had drifted, and couldn’t make a guess against the thick forest on both banks.
A sound made him turn and he nearly leapt out of the boat when he saw a woman sitting on one of the bench seats.
She waved, smiling apologetically.
She was young, though nothing like the weird, cold beauty of the Witch. This woman had sandy chestnut hair, and wore an outfit that made her look like a reject from a silent film version of King Solomon’s Mines.
Walt rubbed the back of his head, watching her, and finally gave up on the silent treatment after a couple of minutes. “Amanda Atherton, I presume?”
She lit up, as if an impossible problem had just become clear to her. “Yes! Yes, that’s it. My name. Amanda.”
“What are you doing here?”
Amanda shrugged. “We’re all here. All of us who can see her.”
“No. She doesn’t hurt us if we can see her.”
“She just did a number on me.”
“You made her mad. She could have killed you.”
Amanda nodded sadly.
“That means more will come.”
“She wants more to come.”
“I’m going to get out of here.”
Amanda shook her head. “Once you see her, you stay. Forever.”
“Shelby Marks escaped.”
“The tunnel. The train.”
“And I have neither.”
“And you have neither.”
“I have a boat.”
“Both sides lead to the same place. I tried.”
“I can free her.”
“An Atherton survives.”
“She died. Cancer. In the 90’s.”
“Yes. Born in 1965. Alexander.”
She said the name, rolling it around in her mouth as if it was a foreign phrase. “Healthy?”
“Yes, fine. He remade the Atherton fortune.”
“He sent you?”
“In a way. He knows I’m here. He’d like to find your remains.”
She looked at the woods with hooded eyes, “I am everywhere now. My remains are long scattered.”
“Where is Maureen Kane?”
Amanda turned a hard stare onto Walt, then leaned forward and whispered, “Home.”
“Ah. The house. Of course. That’s why she brought all the bodies there. That’s why she led you all there, yes? You, Shelby marks… How many others?”
“Where in the house?”
“She won’t let you find her remains.”
“She wants to be free. It’s what all this is about.”
Amanda shook her head. “She can’t. She’s trapped. Especially if an Atherton is out there. She doesn’t know the power of her curse. She is forever these woods, this mountain. She is the ruins, the darkness of the mine, and the silent train tracks weaving through the forest. She is this river, the rocks, the wind. She is everything dark, everything evil. The very spirit of vengeance. She is trapped here by powers beyond her understanding, certainly beyond ours. A sinkhole for all the wrong that Mankind does. It comes to this mountain and it never leaves. It can’t.”
“I won’t be trapped.”
“Even in death,” Amanda mimed hanging herself, “there is no freedom. But…she does lose interest. She does tend to ignore us now.”
Walt watched Amanda fade away, then he rolled to the shore and moved carefully through the pre-dawn gloom. When he hit the train tracks, he turned around and returned to the boat, rowing to the opposite shore. Amanda’s warning was correct. Identical.