Chapter One: Moving in
He got out and slammed the car door, stomping off without grabbing any of the bags or boxes stuffed in back. His mother honked the horn of the station wagon, but he ran, ignoring her with practiced ease. Daniel Mason headed for the tree line, intent on not helping move into the house that would be his prison.
“Daniel, get back here and help your sisters!” his mother yelled from the car, her voice echoing across the yard.
The boy cursed under his breath, one of the words he picked up from his father before he walked out on them last year, and plunged into the woods to hide. All of his friends were back in Boston, while he was stuck here in some backwater town in New Hampshire. He ducked branches and jumped over rocks as he ran deeper into the forest that bordered the house they were moving into. When he was satisfied he was far enough away from prying eyes, he sat down and cried; lamenting his luck at being dragged to this house against his will.
“You all right?”
Daniel cried out, scrambling backwards around the tree. He relaxed when he saw it was only his sister, Sheila. “What do you want?” he asked with that sneer he always used when talking to her. She was older by three years, and always held it over him.
“I just wanted to see if you were all right, pest.” She sat down next to him, her long brown hair falling past her shoulders. She looked at him with those deep brown eyes and smiled, something she hadn’t done towards him in quite some time. “Look, I know how much this sucks; all my friends are back in Mass as well, remember?”
“Yeah, but you make friends easily. I don’t.” He stood and kicked the tree, flaking bark off with his boots.
“That’s because you’re weird, Daniel. Those stories you read, and the drawings… they’re creepy. You spend all your time in your room looking at those things.” Sheila put her hand on his shoulder, the warm touch actually making him feel better.
“I know, but I really like that stuff. I can’t help it that most kids my age think I’m weird ‘cause I hate sports and stuff.” They hadn’t shared anything like this since the night their dad left, where she held him as he cried himself to sleep. After that, they just seemed to drift apart, dealing with the loss in different ways.
“So, how about you come back and help me move some stuff in? We’ll get your room done first, then you can help me with mine later.” She tousled his short, brown hair until he squirmed away, and they walked back to their new house laughing.
* * *
Weeks went by, dragging like heavy chains behind a prisoner on his way to the gallows. Daniel took frequent trips to the woods surrounding his new home, finding the hidden paths and cool places to hang out with his vivid imagination. He still argued with his sister, but it was more laid back now that they bonded over the move that first day; his other sister, however, was another story.
Marie was younger by three years and so, being the baby of the family, tended to get her way. When they fought, the little girl would always cry and blame it on Daniel, making his mother turn on him with the “man of the house” lecture. This particular day it boiled over when Marie wanted the control for the television, and Daniel refused.
“I’m telling mom,” Marie whined, pouting and quivering her lip. She ran off and Daniel smiled, changing the channel. I had it first. He found the movie he was watching before she changed it and put his feet up on the coffee table.
“Daniel! Give your sister the remote,” his mother yelled from the other room. “You have to be more responsible now that you’re the man of the house.”
He threw the remote with everything he had, smashing it against the far wall. “Why? Why do I have to be the man of the house?” He stomped into the other room where his mother was washing the dishes piled in the sink.
“Listen, Dan, with your father gone…”
“He’s only gone because you drove him away!” He screamed as he slapped a bowl of candy from the counter onto the floor. All the frustration he had kept inside bubbled to the surface in a classic act of defiance any therapist would be proud of. “If you had loved him more, he wouldn’t have left us! He still loved us, he just didn’t love you!”
The sound of the bowl hitting the floor could be heard all through the house. His mother turned slowly and looked at him with a broken expression on her tear-stained face. The only sound in the room was Daniel’s harsh breathing. His mother sank to her knees and wrapped her arms around herself, sobbing.
“I’m sorry, Mom, I—”
“Get out!” she screamed, lost in her grief and pain.
When he hesitated, she half raised her hand to hit him, but the sight goaded him to flee. Daniel ran out the back door towards the woods, his tears streaming down his face. He didn’t even stop to think; just fled the pain he had caused her. Her sudden almost-betrayal was too much for him to process right now. He had hurt her, yet she almost hit him. In his mind, that made them even, if not worse since she was his mother. He didn’t even realize how far he had run until he stumbled into the clearing, falling face first into the cool dirt.
Chapter Two: The Tree
The clearing was wide, spanning at least thirty feet, and surrounded by a ring of stones on which he had tripped. In the center of this clearing was a three-forked birch tree, its leaves fallen to the ground in the crisp autumn air. The white bark was flaking here and there, and the ground around the base was blackened as if by fire, yet the trunk of the tree seemed fine. It was tall, easily over sixty feet, and each trunk of the triple tree seemed thick and healthy.
He stood and felt his ire rising again. He needed to take his anger out on something, and the tree was the first thing he saw. Daniel grabbed a fallen branch and went at the tree with all his energy, slamming it over and over, breaking his stick and flaking more bark off the tree.
Harder, a voice said inside his mind.
Barely registering the voice, he put his back into it. He slammed the tree over and over, the hits echoing through the quiet woods. When the stick failed him, broken on the ground like kindling, he went at the tree like a desperate man fighting for his life. Kicking and punching with abandon, he bloodied his hands and soon dropped to his knees, exhausted. The magnificent tree stood there, mocking him, proud and regal in the dark forest. Daniel sat back and cried, his frustration giving way to his pain and fear.
Later—how much later he wasn’t sure—he stumbled home, barely able to keep his eyes open. His mother rushed out, and he saw a police officer standing on the porch. Her kisses and hugs felt strange, like he wasn’t really there. “It’s all right mom…I’m fine.”
“Well, you must be young Daniel,” the officer said, coming down the stairs holding his hat. “You gave your mother here quite the scare today.”
“Sorry, sir.” Daniel felt so sleepy that he almost faded away in his mother’s arms, yet he fought it and looked up at the imposing figure dressed in a dark blue uniform, making sure that he hid his hands in his pockets. It wouldn’t do his mother good to see his bloody knuckles; she’d only worry. “I got lost in the woods, sir. Couldn’t find my way back.”
“You’re here now, Danny, it’s all right,” his mother said, coddling him and kissing his head.
“Yes, well, I’m glad you made it back. You be careful in there though; the deep woods are no place for young ones,” the police officer said, then turned Daniel’s mother and inclined his head. “Ma’am, if you need anything, just call. All right?”
“Thank you, Officer Brant.”
Daniel walked into the house, yawning again, and went straight up to bed. His mother tried to get him to eat, but he just couldn’t keep his eyes open. As soon as his head hit the pillow, he was out, yet it wasn’t restful sleep that claimed him.
* * *
Daniel awoke the next morning feeling lousy. He tried to wake up as the day went on, but he just couldn’t find the energy. Thankfully it was summer, so he had no school, because he wanted to get in more exploring. He wandered outside and felt a bit of strength return, almost like he needed the fresh air. The closer to the woods he got, the more rejuvenated he felt, and soon he was skipping through the branches looking for a good stick. I guess I can go exploring, after all, he thought as he picked his way through the woods. He spent a while looking for a place to make a fort, then decided to wander deeper in the forest again.
As if drawn there, Daniel found himself at the circle of stones once more, the tall birch tree standing like a testament to the woods around them. He didn’t know why, but he needed to knock the tree down. He looked around and didn’t see anything he could use, but then he remembered his dad’s old garden tools. They had brought them hoping they’d be useful at the new home. Daniel ran back, grabbed an axe, then made his way back to the tree.
Use the axe! the voice said in his mind once more. It was subtle, more like a thought than a conversation.
Daniel had never used an axe before, but he tried his best. He hit the tree again and again, not really doing anything, and after a while one of his strikes skipped off the tree and hit his leg. It was only a graze, yet he was bleeding pretty heavily.
“You fool! What have you done to yourself?” his sister said as she ran into the clearing. Sheila wrapped her sweatshirt around his leg and helped him back towards the house.
“You were watching me?” Daniel asked.
“Yeah, you were doing pretty good too, until you slipped up. Not that you were actually taking that tree down, mind you.” They only went a couple feet before they heard a loud crack and branches clattering. They turned to see the three-trunked birch tree topple over, its branches breaking off into a jumbled mess as it thudded into the ground.
Daniel stared at the scene with disbelief, his wound forgotten. A cry went up as they both looked at the clearing; an ungodly scream of freedom and exhilaration. The dark earth by the foot of the tree spread as they watched, growing wider and wider. It crept towards the stone edge and slowed, rotting everything it touched.
“Daniel, let’s go. Come on!” Sheila said, tugging his arm and striding through the woods. All the way out it felt like they were being followed, yet looking back revealed nothing behind them except the dead silence of the forest. No sounds of birds or other animals pervaded the land as they left.
“Don’t tell mom.” Daniel knew that his mother would freak out if she heard he was using an axe, and the silent nod from his sister was all that he needed. Now, to clean this scrape up before his mother saw it.
Chapter Three: Set Free
The next few days went by quickly, and Daniel was starting to feel better. Must’ve been exhaustion, he thought as he cleaned up the shed and made sure the blood was wiped off the axe. As he was cleaning it, he noticed the blade had nicks in it; almost like he had been chopping metal instead of wood, and the handle was even cracked. He jumped as a scream came from the house. Marie!
He ran for the front door, tearing into the house only to find his mother had beat him to it. “What happened?”
“You! You pulled my hair, you brat,” Marie accused, pointing a finger at him as tears slid down her face. There was clumps of her long hair on the floor, and she was holding some of it in her hands as well. Her tears were real, and he could only imagine the pain of actually having your haired ripped out like that.
“It wasn’t me, Mare,” he said, using his nickname for her. “I was in the shed and just came running.”
“Well, let’s get you upstairs and brush this out. I’m sure you just got it caught on the railing,” his mother said, leading the little girl up the stairs.
“But I was against the wall…”
Sheila came in from the side, her eyes wide. “So, if it wasn’t you, and it wasn’t me?” She let the question hang in the air, looking up and around as if searching for something. They left the room— trying not to think about it—and went about their chores before getting ready for dinner.
* * *
A week went by and the hair pulling was forgotten. It was almost time for school, and they had shopping to do. Clothes, notebooks, pencils, all the stuff they would need had to be bought soon. So it was that Sheila and their mother went into town, leaving Daniel in charge of his little sister for an hour. He had felt increasingly wary as the days dragged on, like something was watching him all the time, yet no one was there.
“Are you going to play with me, Danny?” His sister was bouncing up and down with excitement, enjoying the time away from mother.
“Sure. Old faithful?” Their new game was Hide and Seek, and they had a blast with the old house they had moved into. Back home they did it outside, but now there were so many places to squeeze into.
Daniel closed his eyes and started counting as he heard the footfalls of the little girl recede in the distance. He opened them when he got to twenty and crept around the corner into the living room. Nothing. He looked throughout the bottom floor, checking all of her spots…still nothing. Wow, she found a good place, he thought as he started climbing the stairs. He searched the entire upstairs to no avail.
“All right, you win!” he called out as worry started to set in. Did she go outside? Daniel ran out of the house and looped around it twice, checking the bushes and even the shed, but he couldn’t find her anywhere. Panicking, he called his mom’s cell phone from the house and told her what happened. Within minutes the sirens could be heard coming up the driveway, followed closely by his mother’s car.
“Alright, son, tell me what happened.” Officer Brant looked perturbed, but listened calmly to Daniel’s story. “Did you check the basement?” he asked, giving Daniel’s mother a sideways glance.
“She can’t get into the basement, the door was locked when we got here and we don’t have the key,” Mom said.
“Well, let’s go check, alright? These kids can find ways into just about anything if they set their mind to it.” He walked into the house, heading right for the basement door, which was fastened shut with an old padlock “Well, if you’re sure you checked…” Whatever he was going to say was lost in the pounding from inside the basement a second later, the cries of Marie coming through the old, painted door.
“Help me Danny! The woman’s got my leg!” Her voice retreated down the stairs, loud thumping following her screams into the darkness.
“Stand back,” Officer Brant said, pulling out his billy club. He hit the lock, snapping it off, and shouldered the door open. He bounded down the stairs into the darkness, and then the screaming stopped. The sudden quiet was almost as bad as the sound of Marie crying.
“Marie? Officer?” Mom hesitantly stepped into the doorway, then jumped back as the officer came out carrying the little girl.
“Let’s go to my car. She’s bleeding, and I want to get her to the hospital just in case,” he said as he rushed to the front door.
Daniel watched as they went by, long red gashes in Marie’s legs dripping blood on the floor as they went. Her sobs were quiet now, like she spent all her energy getting to the door.
“Watch your brother, Sheila!” Daniel’s mother ran out of the house behind the officer and slammed the front door closed.
Daniel went over to the basement door and shut it slowly. “I never heard her…”
“I know. There is no way into that basement, Danny. I know; I checked right after we moved in.” Sheila’s voice quivered as she backed away from the basement. “Come on.” She headed upstairs quickly, taking the stairs two at a time.
“Wait for me,” Daniel called out, racing after her. He couldn’t shake the feeling that this was all his fault. He should’ve watched her more closely. “What are we doing?”
“Looking up that tree, and maybe the house. I have a bad feeling,” Sheila said from the top of the stairs.
Chapter Four: The Witch’s Name
They went into Sheila’s room and Daniel shut the door behind him as she opened her laptop. He walked over as she furiously hit the keys, bringing the screen to life with information. He sat down next to her on the bed and watched, amazed at how good she was with this stuff.
“There. I think I have the dates right for the town. Settled in 1741, Antrim, New Hampshire was land owned by Philip Riley…blah, blah…” She hit another tab and clicked away again, bringing up the white tree and ring of stones. “All right. This site says there was a Penacook tribe living here back before the land was colonized. They had some devastating illnesses that they blamed on the Englishmen that landed in the south…”
“Yes. Here is a banned site that I can’t get into. Something about the tree and sickness. Hold on, I’ll try something else.”
As his sister clicked away, Daniel felt that presence again. It was like a feeling of being watched, yet this time there was something more to it. It was like the feeling when he knew Mom was mad at him, but worse. “Sheila…I don’t think we should do this.”
“Got it. Okay, so there was this witch that came here from the south, probably running from the Salem witch trials. It says she got the tribe sick and they hanged her, then buried her body and planted a birch tree over the grave to keep her spirit locked within the earth.”
“Does the witch have a name?” Daniel asked, the hairs on his arms and neck were standing straight up now as the lights started to flicker. The computer went dark along with the rest of the house, and both of them screamed.
The lights came back on, and Daniel saw his sister struggling to breathe. The laptop cord was wrapped around her neck and lifting her up towards the ceiling. “Sheila!” he screamed as he looked around for something to cut the cord with. He found a pair of scissors, grabbed them, and jumped onto the bed. “I’ve got you,” he said as he leaned out towards the cord, but just as he was about to cut it he was pulled back. He tumbled off the bed and hit the floor with a scream. He forced himself over despite the pain and crawled on his knees towards his sister.
Sheila’s face was dark blue; her eyes bloodshot and bulging. Her feet kicked wildly as she fought for some sort of foothold or air, finding neither. Her fingers clawed at the cord around her bruising neck, desperately groping for space, anything to relieve the pressure and get oxygen. Daniel tried to stand and felt faint, looking down to find the scissors stuck in his side and blood staining his shirt. “Sis…” he mewed weakly as he pulled the sharp scissors out and stumbled towards her. He stood up on the bed again, his sister’s eyes pleading past all sanity. He reached up, stretching to get the cord, and cut it as he fell over and they both tumbled to the floor.
“Get..up…Daniel,” she said, her voice raw as she coughed through the pain in her throat. “Run.”
* * *
Carole shut the door to the car and carried Marie into the house. It was dark and silent, which was odd with the two kids left alone. “Guys? We’re back. Marie’s legs are fine, but we have to watch out for animals in the basement.”
“Mommy, I think the bad woman’s here again.” Marie said, groggy from the medication they gave her.
“I told you, honey, there wasn’t a woman. It must’ve been an animal or something. Those gashes are claw marks.” She put her daughter down on the couch and covered her with a blanket. Might as well keep her down here with me so she doesn’t have to climb the stairs, Carole thought, going into the kitchen to get a drink. Where are those two anyway?
“Momma!” Marie called from the living room, her voice laced with fear and panic.
“Marie?” Carole ran back and saw her daughter sleeping peacefully. What? She looked upstairs and listened for the faint music she always heard. Nothing. “Danny? Sheila?” Carole carefully walked up the stairs, wondering if the kids were waiting to scare her. The steps creaked under her weight. She reached the second floor and called out as she approached her older daughter’s door, “Listen, if you guys are hiding to scare me, I’m going to be so mad at you.” She opened the door, and saw her two older children stumbling towards her. Blood covered Daniel’s shirt, and Sheila’s neck was ringed with bruises.
“Run, mom,” Sheila croaked as they both ran past her.
Carole saw a figure standing on the other side of the bed: a ghostly woman with clawed hands covered in dirt. The woman’s face was sunken and scarred, her neck elongated unnaturally. She wore a dirty white gown that was ripped and torn. Carole turned and fled in terror, catching up with her kids in seconds. “Sheila, I’ve got Daniel, get your sister.”
Carole wrapped her arm around Daniel and helped him down the stairs as Sheila ran ahead of them. Wet, sticky blood from the wound on his torso soaked through her own shirt. He looked pale and faint, and she was worried he’d pass out before they could get to the car.
She glanced over her shoulder and saw the ghostly figure emerge from Sheila’s room, its shambling gait bringing it to the top of the stairs with a preternatural speed. “Hurry,” Carole breathed as she quickened her pace, half dragging and half carrying Daniel down the last few steps.
Sheila met them in the living room, Marie cradled in her arms. “Momma?” the younger girl asked. Her tiny eyes glanced over her mother’s shoulder, then she let out an ear-piercing scream.
“Run!” Carole yelled. Sheila spun about and headed for the front door. Daniel was almost limp, and Carole hauled him through the living room as his feet beat feebly at the ground. She looked over her shoulder again and found those dirt-encrusted hands reaching towards her. Long, claw-like nails trembled in the air as if eager to dig into their flesh.
Her daughters were through the door, leaving the wooden slab swaying behind them, and Carole ran through the open portal with her son. She struggled towards the old station wagon. Just a few more feet, Carole thought. She was tempted to look back again, but fought the urge as she sped towards the car.
Sheila opened the back door and tumbled inside with Marie still in her arms. Carole opened the front passenger side, sat Daniel into the car, and slammed both doors shut. She looked back and saw the white-gowned figure emerge from the house. Her long neck was cocked to one side, her head lolling limply, and her mouth open in some sort of soundless roar of rage or anguish. Those clawed hands still reached out towards Carole and her family, and on the figure shambled as the mother stood there; paralyzed by fear.
“Mom!” Sheila cried out, snapping Carole from the trance.
She ran around to the other side of the car and jumped behind the wheel. She grabbed the keys from where she’d left them in the cupholder and shoved them blindly at the ignition as she stared as the shambling figure. She fumbled and dropped them. “Dammit!” she cried out as she bent down and scrambled to grab them from the floorboards.
“Mom…” Daniel murmured weakly.
“Mom! Hurry, she’s almost here!” Sheila cried out, her voice cracked and strained.
“I got it, I got it,” Carole murmured, not sure if she was trying to console her children or embolden herself. She slid the key into the ignition and turned it. The engine roared to life and she slammed the gear selector into reverse. Tires skidded on the gravel driveway as she slammed on the gas. The car swerved wildly out into the road. Carole got one last glance of the hideous figure shambling down the driveway as she put the car in drive, turned the wheel, and raced down the street.
They drove on in silence for several minutes until Daniel broke the silence. “I’m sorry mom,” he said weakly.
“It’s all right, Danny. We’re together, and that’s all that matters.”
“No, Mom. We have to go back and fix it, but it’s alright ‘cause I know how. After all, I’m the man of the house, remember?”
Epilogue: The White Tree
Another shovel of dirt went into the small hole. Daniel’s sweat rolled down his face as his sister held the bag of incense. He had made a ring of salt inside the ring of stones to protect them while they did this; and so far, it was working.
“Are you sure this will work, Daniel?” Sheila asked, holding the small tree in her hands as he got the hole ready.
“It should. I read up on the practice again, and it seems that the ring of stones keeps other spirits away from here so that they can’t help. As long as we plant this tree on her grave, she’ll be stuck again.” He took the sapling from her and laid in into the hole, pouring some water in before covering it up with the dirt. As he patted it down a sound like an old-fashioned bell tolled in the distance. Daniel and Sheila both froze and looked at each other with wide eyes.
Sheila was the first to speak, “Was that…”
“I don’t know, but I feel like it just got lighter in here.” Daniel stood and looked up at the sun as it emerged from behind the clouds. It’s rays shone down on the little sapling in the clearing. “Don’t you feel it?”
“Yeah, I do,” Sheila said. “Come on, let’s go home and help mom with supper.” They walked home through the woods, neither one of them seeing the little white sapling slowly grow taller as the sunlight hit it.
Born in the usual way, Michael D. Nadeau found fantasy at the age of 8 with Dungeons and Dragons. He loved being different people and casting magic. By the late 90’s he discovered his love for reading. His favorite teacher gave him her personal books to bring home, and he couldn’t get enough. He had even more ways to explore the great worlds out there, and it was harder and harder to come back. When he was much older, and had created and destroyed more worlds than he could count, he decided to delve into the literary world. He created Lythinall, a place where he could tell epic stories and invite his readers on the journey with his characters. The Darkness Returns is the start of the journey, but certainly not the end.