There were twelve of them walking along the old railroad - their sneakers crunching against the fallen leaves that covered the old ties. The moon was just a sliver, a little hook of a fingernail that hung in the sky like it had been forgotten there. It offered them no light.
The ‘No Trespassing’ sign had hung prominently across the gate by the road but they’d all slipped beneath it to disappear into the the darkness beyond. Words were not going to stop them - nor had they stopped anyone any other year. It was something of a rite of passage for town kids deemed worthy and though the first-timers had a sense of what was going to happen they still approached the experience with some trepidation and pattering hearts.
The older boys led the way - Neal and Cam Darvey and their cousin Samuel. Grace stayed right at Sherwin’s side and held a flashlight in her gloved hand. “I’m not sure we should be doing this,” she whispered, her breath forming a grey cloud in front of her face before dissipating into the night.
“Come on, Gracie,” Sherwin said, bumping against her playfully with his shoulder, “it’ll be fun.”
Jackson ran up from behind and grabbed Grace at the waist. She screamed and jumped forward. The boys in front spun around and as a trio hissed, “Shhhhhhhh.”
Grace shoved Jackson hard on the chest. “Not funny!”
“But you’re so cute when you’re mad,” Jackson teased, hopping out of the way of her hand as she reached to shove him again.
“Take it easy, Jackson,” Sherwin warned. “It was hard enough getting her to come with us. Don’t make her change her mind now.”
“Whatever, lame-o!” Jackson said and he ran to catch up with Neal.
“Why tonight?” Grace asked. “Of all the nights? Why Halloween?”
Jackson turned and kept walking backwards, his flashlight up at his chin, “Because it’s spooooooky,” he said, laughing.
“It’s stupid,” Grace said, kicking at a leaf.
“Better than handing out candy with your mom, isn’t it?” Sherwin asked.
“She had a shift tonight. She thinks I’m at a party,” Grace said.
“You are!” he said. “Or you will be soon, anyway.”
Up ahead the boys had stopped and were pointing their flashlights into the trees. “It’s this way,” Cam said and he stepped off the path.
The woods were dense and the darkness was heavy. Flashlight beams cut through in a bouncing rhythm that was both comforting and eerie. Their footsteps were loud and punctuated every so often by the crack of a twig or the sound of a stumble and squeal. Grace had a tight grip on Sherwin’s jacket and she could see the other girl’s doing the same. Jenna Matthew’s was clinging to Samuel while Morgan Monahan was riding piggyback on Oliver’s shoulders.
Grace was relieved when they came out of the trees into a clearing. “What is this?” she asked, waving her flashlight over the circle of black stones in the center of the glade.
“This is where it happened,” Cam said, coming up beside her with an arm load of small branches. “There be blood on this soil.” He laughed and dropped the twigs in the middle of the stones. Some of the other boys did the same until they had a pile large enough to keep them warm.
Neal pulled a plastic bag from his coat and one by one lifted out twelve white taper candles. When they each held one, he took a lighter and lit his, passing his flame until all twelve wicks were fluttering against the night breeze. “Youngest lights the fire. Grace, you’re up.”
Grace looked to Sherwin. He winked and nodded his head in encouragement. She knelt by the pile of sticks and held her candle against a hardware store flyer someone had tucked beneath until it caught. “Why are there twelve stones?” she asked as she moved back into the circle.
Jenna pulled a card from her back pocket and placed it in Grace’s hand, “Because of The Hanged Man,” she said.
In the light of the fire Grace could see the image of a blond man, hung upside down by a foot that was lashed to a tree branch. The roman numeral for twelve was at the top of the card. “What is this?” Grace asked, handing it back to Jenna, feeling uncomfortable.
“It’s a Tarot card,” Jenna said, shrugging. “I got them at the discount store. I thought it was funny.”
“Hilarious,” Grace said.
“Who has the cups?” Cam asked.
Samuel pulled a sleeve of red solo cups from inside his coat. “Got ‘em!” He separated them and passed them out.
Neal produced a small bottle of schnapps. “It was all I could find at home,” he said sheepishly as he poured a swallow into each cup.
“Say the thing, say the thing,” said Morgan, practically giddy as she sniffed at what was in her cup.
Neal grinned, tossed aside the now empty bottle and raised his plastic cup. They all matched his motion and he gestured wide with his candle as he spoke. “Oh come to the church in the wildwood, to the trees where the wild flowers bloom, where the parting hymn will be chanted, we will weep by the side of the tomb.”
“Amen,” the kids called out in chorus.
“Amen,” said Neal, tipping back his cup and taking it in one swallow.
Grace took a little taste of her own and then dumped it on the ground beside her.
Neal held his candle so that it cast heavy shadows on his face. “Twelve stones for the twelve apostles of the truth,” he said in a low whisper. “Take your seat and hear the tale.” He threw his head back and laughed wickedly.
Morgan and Jenna giggled and ran to a stone while Grace grabbed hold of Sherwin and leaned in to his ear. “I don’t want to be here. I want to go home.”
“Gracie, it’s all just in fun. Come on,” he swung an arm around her shoulder and pulled her against him. “Loosen up a bit. You’re way too serious.” He kissed her temple and she smiled in spite of herself.
“Okay,” she said. “But only for a little bit.
“Deal,” Sherwin said, winking at her and pulling her back to a stone, taking the one right beside her.
“It was a dark and stormy night,” Neal began. There was some laughter and feigned spooky noises before everyone settled to listen to the story they’d all heard a thousand times before.
“Iris was the prettiest girl anywhere around Fallmoor. People say she could have whatever she wanted just by winking at a man. People say she could put a spell on anyone and you should never look her straight in the eye. People say she is a witch and this is her hallowed ground.” He paused for effect, moving his head from side to side to take in the whole clearing.
"“No one knows where she came from,” he continued. “Paisley Carver picked her up hitchhiking one evening on his way home from Harridan Point. Her hair had a little red in it and her eyes had a little green and he was never the same after meeting her. He brought her back to his land and he married her that summer. She was only seventeen. She was always barefoot when anybody saw her and she always wore these white dresses that you could see through to the shadow of her legs when the sun shone right. She wouldn’t talk to the ladies in town. She thought women were unclean or something. When Paisley got her knocked up he was proud as punch, flaunting his news around town to all his buddies who were jealous because his wife was prettier than all their wives put together. He was the gentlest soul and the kindest man and he did whatever she asked him to do. He waited on her like she was a queen. When the doctor heard two heartbeats inside his Iris he was thrilled to learn that his family was going to double and Iris set to work sewing two white baptismal gowns. But Iris slowly grew sullen and sick and though he continued to care for her she became cold and cruel. When it came time for the babies to be born, Iris sent Paisley away. He waited outside the doors and soon heard the sound of two babies crying. But then it suddenly turned to one. He burst through the doors to find a naked baby boy lying on a scale and a nurse rushing away with a small bundle. He gathered the baby boy against himself and turned to look at his wife who was as white and angry as a ghost. Blood covered the floor. “Your daughter is dead and she has cursed me,” she said. The doctors pushed him out of the way, wheeled Iris to surgery and he was left standing with a wailing baby, a dead daughter and a broken heart.”
“Was the daughter really dead?” Grace asked, caught up in the story.
“No one really knows,” Jenna said. “The nurse disappeared and the doctor wouldn't talk. Some people think she just threw the girl away, other people say Iris suffocated her the moment she realized it was a girl. There’s no birth record that there ever was a daughter. At least that anyone’s seen.”
“So how do they even know…?” Grace asked.
“Paisley knew. He knew there was supposed to be twins,” Jenna told her. “He bragged all over town.”
“Can I get back to the story, Ms. Interuptus?” Neal whined.
“Sorry,” Grace mumbled, settling back on her stone. The fire crackled in the centre.
“Poor Paisley was heartbroken,” Neal continued. “He began to see Iris for the witch she was. He couldn’t bear to hold his son and he became obsessed with finding out the truth about his daughter but it was as if she hadn’t existed and as days went on he felt weaker and weaker. He suspected his wife was doing something to him - whether it be poison or a curse - but he couldn’t prove it. Iris was as happy as she’d ever been, caring for her little boy and ignoring Paisley as he grew more and more frantic in his search for the truth. She soon grew tired of him and, saying she had a way to bring him peace, she led him here to this very spot. She had dug a hole in the ground and in it she had placed a porcelain doll dressed in the second baptismal gown she had sewn during her pregnancy. “You must bury your grief, Paisley,” she told him. “Your daughter is dead. You must move past it.” And she picked up a handful of dirt and dropped it on the doll.
““But she isn’t,” Paisley argued. “I feel it in my heart.”
““Your heart is misguided, darling,” Iris insisted and she set a shovel in front of him and backed up towards that tree,” Neal paused to point behind him at the imposing structure of an ancient oak. “And there, hanging from a branch, was a noose.”
““Bury your daughter, Paisley,” Iris said to him, backing away into the shadows. “Bury your daughter and come home to me, or bury your daughter and join her. Follow your heart, my darling.” Then she disappeared and Paisley was left weeping over a doll.
“The next morning Iris returned to this clearing to find his body hanging right there. The rope creeeaaaak creeeaaaak creeeaaaking and the branches groaning and the doll’s grave firmly filled.”
Grace shivered and stared into the fire. She knew the story but being at the site where it was supposed to have happened heightened it to a whole new level.
“They say the ghost of Paisley Carver haunts this land,” Cam said. “They say he’s never stopped looking for his daughter. They say that he lies in wait for a girl to come and then he grabs her and keeps her locked in a tower. They say he is a daughter collector.”
Grace was so distracted by what Cam was saying that she didn’t notice Neal had left his spot by the fire until she felt arms come around her and pull her back towards the dark shadow of the woods. She screamed so loudly that it hurt her throat and she thrashed her legs so hard that it kicked pine needles into the fire, sending up a fireworks display of sparks.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, calm down, Grace,” Neal said, laughing, dropping her and jumping out of the way of her flailing fists. “It was a joke.”
Everyone was laughing except Sherwin. He rushed to her side and helped her stand. Her body was trembling and she fought against angry tears that burned behind her eyes.
“Not cool, Neal,” Sherwin said, lowering himself so he could see straight into Grace’s eyes, brushing some pine needles from her hair.
“Whatever man,” said Neal, “We’re just having fun.”
A branch cracked and they all spun towards the hanging tree.
“What was that?” Jenna whispered.
“Nothing,” said Cam. “Just a racoon or something.”
“Guys…?” said Morgan.
A form appeared at the base of the tree. The dark shape of a man in a paddy cap, holding a shovel.
There was chaos as panic took over. The kids became a mad mess of screaming and swearing and trying to get away. Grace was frozen, watching as the form came closer. Sherwin was pulling on her arm and everyone else was almost back to the railway path but she couldn’t move.
“Come on, Grace!” Sherwin insisted. She waved him off. She could feel his panic but all of her own was gone somehow. She took a step towards the shape but Sherwin hung back in the shadows, begging her to come with him.
It was nearly at the fire now, standing just a little taller than she was and as the light of the flames touched his face she saw that it was just a boy, no older than her. He set down the shovel and opened his hands to show that he meant her no harm.
Sherwin suddenly ran forward and grabbed her. “Run, Grace, now!” She tripped after him towards the woods but turned to look back just before they were swallowed by the trees in time to see one shiny tear trace a wet path down the boy’s dusty cheek.