"Let's start at the beginning," Death said. "Where did you live? Who actually hung you? And who was in the lynch mob?"
Annalise touched her fingers to her throat to feel the raw, red groove that bit into her skin. She shivered. "I've never touched it before. Didn't think about it once I went to the Light."
"Who did it to you?" Chris' fingers curled into fists. "They should pay."
"They all sort of did it together. Scorch sat on me while Donnie put the noose over my head. Zeb and Crumb tied my hands. Crumb tried to talk them out of it, but they lifted me onto a tree branch and Zeb kicked me off it."
Tammy swallowed hard. She tugged at a strand of her mousey brown hair.
Chris shook his head. "Just ain't right."
"The mob was all boys?" Death patiently searched for facts.
Annalise took a deep breath, exhaled it in a loud huff. "No, Cherri was with them."
"Was she part of the lynching?" Death asked.
"Nah, she just sort of hung back and egged them on. Didn't go get anybody, either. Always was a little coward, a sneak."
"How did the group form?"
"The guys were all in sports together. Were doing their evening run when they spotted me in my witch garden. Scorch had been talking trash about me for weeks, but I didn't pay it much mind. People were always yapping about me for one reason or another. This time, it turned ugly."
"Do you have any idea why?" Loralei glanced at her crystal ball. Sometimes, it could do more than simply bring back the dead.
Annalise frowned, trying to remember. "Crumb got it started. He wouldn't leave me alone."
"Who has a name like Crumb?" Tammy rolled her eyes. "Was his dad's name Toast?"
Chris snickered, but Annalise shrugged. "It was his nickname so long, people forgot to call him by his real name. Used to walk to school bus eating his breakfast and always had crumbs down the front of his shirt."
"And he hated you?" Loralei asked.
"Sure acted that way."
"And you don't know why?"
"No telling with Crumb. He was sort of quiet."
Loralei glanced toward Death. They'd hit a road block. She wasn't sure what to do next. She could call back the dead, but not the living. Did they need to find answers to help Annalise or simply try to warn Ashleigh away from Scorch? She kept her thoughts to herself for the moment. Death was concentrating, and she didn't want to disturb him.
Finally, he turned to her. "I saw you glance at your crystal ball. The last time you helped a ghost, he used it to show us something from his past. I don't think we can do that on our own, but the ghost did. It was his memories. He wanted to share them with us. Can we try that with Annalise?"
Annalise fidgeted with the hem of her sleeve. She glanced at the ball and quickly glanced away. "What do I have to do?"
"I'd like to see how Crumb treated you," Death said.
The girl's shoulders relaxed. "I can do that."
"If we need to, can you show us how they hanged you?"
Annalise looked away, out the French doors to the patio and back yard. The trees were mostly bare now, their dark limbs reaching for the sky. Her gaze settled on a sturdy tulip tree with a low, thick branch, perfect for hanging. "Do I have to watch?"
"No, but you'll probably have to remember."
Her shoulders hunched again, and her expression pinched with worry. "Do I have to?"
"We'll see." Death put a comforting hand on her shoulder. He gave it a gentle squeeze. "Let's start with Crumb."
All five of them settled themselves around the heavy, oak table. Loralei placed the crystal ball in front of her and Ebony jumped onto her lap. She touched the ball to bring it to life and said, "Show us what led to Annalise's death."
Annalise wrinkled her forehead, remembering things she'd rather forget, and mists rolled under the patio doors. They served almost like a movie screen, and Annalise's memories were projected onto them.
A long ago scene started to play out.
A high school hallway was crammed with jostling students, passing from one class to another. Annalise hurried to her locker to grab a book. She was dressed in worn jeans and a red T-shirt. The red should have clashed with her carrot-orange hair, tied into a high, crazy ponytail. It didn't.
"Hey, you're sort of cute," Tammy told her, "in an offbeat, strange kinda way."
"Thanks." Annalise looked surprised.
The scene went on. As Annalise dug through her locker, Crumb walked down the hall. His steps slowed when he saw her. Annalise turned and caught him staring. He was about to say something when Scorch hurried around a corner and joined him. Scorch looked from one of them to another. He glared at her. "What you looking at?" She blushed, embarrassed, and Crumb immediately looked away. He started talking to his friend.
Next, students gushed from the school building, hurrying to their buses or cars. Rain beat down on the asphalt parking lot in a steady rhythm. Annalise pulled on a poncho and opened her umbrella, in no hurry. She always took her time walking home. She was crossing the street, heading to her shortcut, when a car pulled up beside her. Crumb rolled down his car window and called, "Need a lift?"
She shook her head. "Thanks anyway. I like the rain."
His lips turned down. "I don't know why I bother trying to be nice."
She smiled. "Because you are nice." Then she ducked between two buildings, unaware that he stared after her.
"He likes you!" Tammy cried.
"He helped hang me," Annalise shot back.
The mists swirled, swallowing Crumb and his car, and showed Zeb and Cherri locked in a clinch behind the school bleachers. Zeb's dirty blond hair was damp with sweat after football practice. Everyone else had gone. Zeb's hands crept up Cherri's tight shirt to fondle her breasts. Cherri lifted it to make it easier for him. He was unfastening her bra when Ashleigh strolled past the bleachers. Zeb pushed Cherri away, ran his hand through his hair, and hurried to catch up with her. "Hey, there, beautiful!" Ashleigh slowed, and he fell into step beside her. Cherri yanked down her shirt to watch him leave. She glared daggers at Ashleigh's retreating back.
"That girl hates your sister," Loralei said.
"Cherri? She hates every female. Only likes boys."
"She hates some girls more than others." Death watched the mists clear, then reform. Daffodils and tulips bloomed around the school's flagpole. The bell rang, and Ashleigh hurried out of the building, laughing up at a tall, dark-haired boy.
"Donnie Lehman," Annalise said. "A basketball player."
Donnie slid an arm around her waist to lead her to his car. Zeb called after her, "Hey, Ash, we're going for pizza after school, remember? We're supposed to meet Scorch and Cherri."
Ashleigh's smile was high-wattage. "I'll meet you there. Donnie offered to drive me."
Zeb locked gazes with Donnie. "Friends don't steal other friend's girls."
"You're not going steady, are you? It's just a ride. She's never been in a Camaro before."
Zeb's hands balled into fists as he watched them drive away.
Loralei blinked. "I was never popular in high school. Maybe I’m glad. I missed all the drama."
Annalise's cheerful, open face pleated into a scowl as the mists faded once again. "Ashleigh wasn't very nice to Zeb."
"Zeb wasn't very nice to Cherri. He deserved it," Tammy snapped.
Annalise still looked troubled when the mists billowed to encompass a larger area and show a larger scene.
Leaves unfurled on tree branches, and Donnie, Scorch, Crumb, and Zeb sat with a group of friends at a picnic table outside the root beer stand. Cherri teetered on new shoes with high, wedged heels as she came to join them. Her shorts barely covered her ass, and her tank top stopped below her boobs. The boys glanced up at her, then returned to their conversation. Ashleigh sat a few picnic tables away with a pale, serious-looking boy who wore a Polo shirt and Dockers. A corvette was parked close by.
"What a tease!" Donnie griped. "She's using us as stepping stones."
Zeb glowered at the new guy. "Pete won't last long. He's too boring. Corvette or not, she'll get tired of him." His gaze slid to Ashleigh, and he looked thoughtful.
"You thinking of giving her another try?" Scorch asked.
"Why not? She's pretty enough. And lots of fun."
Crumb shook his head. "She's got nothing on her sister. Annalise would never treat people that way."
Scorch laughed. "She can't, can she? It's not like there's a line forming to date her."
Cherri reached for Zeb's mug, but he pulled it away from her. Crumb offered her a sip from his, but she shook her head. Her gaze went back to Ashleigh, and when she spoke, her voice sounded brittle. "Annalise knows what she's doing. She's great at playing hard to get. Makes guys want her more."
Crumb frowned. "You think so?"
"Look at you. It's working, isn't it?"
His frown deepened. "She doesn't know I'm alive. That's different."
Donnie smacked the back of Crumb's head. "You're so strong and silent, no one knows what you're thinking. Not even us, most of the time."
"It's better anyway," Cherri said. "She's a witch, you know. Raises herbs and casts spells. Probably put a love hex on you. And she makes potions for her sister. Fills her with magic. It's her fault Ashleigh's so popular."
Donnie smirked. "Then why didn't you buy a potion from her? We all know you want Zeb. Can't even get him by putting out."
A flush rose to Cherri's hairline. "She probably wouldn't sell it. Only makes it for Ashleigh."
Crumb pushed to his feet and started to his car. "You're talking a bunch of stupid, and you know it."
Cherri narrowed her eyes at Zeb. "If Ashleigh didn't drink her potions anymore, she couldn't wrap every boy in town around her little finger. You might have a chance."
Zeb gave a shaky laugh. It wasn't convincing.
Tammy shook her head at the misty figure. "He's not buying her stupid idea, is he?"
Death turned a thoughtful gaze on Annalise. "Desperate people do desperate things."
The mists faded and took up again almost immediately.
Crepe paper streamers and disco balls decorated the school's gymnasium. Ashleigh wore a shimmery, cobalt-blue dress that clung to her figure as she walked into the room on Pete's arm. Pete led her to a table, and they sat with a group of his friends. Zeb came with Cherri in a low-cut gown that showed her ample bosom to advantage. He sat with Scorch and the others at a table across the room. Crumb joined them, without a date.
Music started. Girls, who'd come stag, wandered to the table to ask Crumb to dance. He didn't turn any away—not even Regina, who was still on crutches from her car accident. Cherri pulled Zeb onto the floor and made dance moves look like foreplay, but Zeb kept glancing at Ashleigh.
Ashleigh flirted, she teased, but she couldn't get Pete to dance. Finally, in a huff, she went to get herself a glass of punch. Zeb left Cherri gyrating by herself to go after her.
"Want to dance?"
Ashleigh tossed a challenging look to Pete, who shook his head. She smiled at Zeb. "Why not?"
They spent the next hour together. Crumb hurried to pull Cherri into a group dance with him and three other girls, then stayed by her side until Ashleigh tired of Zeb and returned to Pete's table. Pale eyes blazing, Pete looked across the floor at Zeb and deliberately put his arm around Ashleigh's shoulders. He pulled her closer—a clear statement. Ownership.
Zeb and Cherri sat in angry silence at their group's table. Crumb rubbed his forehead and planted himself in his chair, refusing to dance anymore. Donnie laughed at all of them, and Scorch threw hateful looks Ashleigh's way. "What a bitch." He punched Zeb's arm playfully. "Friend, it's time to move on. That girl's a piece of work."
"She needs someone to teach her a lesson." Cherri's hand trembled when she lifted her punch glass.
"No." Zeb's one word was final.
"Her sister then." Cherri leaned forward, her elbows on the table. "She pulls the strings from the sidelines. Probably laughs at us."
"Get real." Crumb scraped his chair back, ready to leave. "There's no such thing as witches. No one's making Zeb do anything. It's just lust."
They waited for him to leave, then heads together, they started to talk in low voices.
The mists faded, and Annalise pushed her chair away from the table. She took a deep breath. "I don't want to see anymore. I didn't know any of this was happening."
The mists evaporated, and the scenes flickered to an end. Sunlight flooded the room.
Tammy shivered, and Loralei went to wrap an arm around her shoulders.
"We shouldn't have let you watch this. You're only ten."
Tammy rolled her eyes. "I've seen worse. My ma took men to her room all the time and shut the door. You don't think I heard what they were doing? Mom was a screamer, yelled out when she was happy and cried out if she got hit. If I can live through that, I can deal with this."
Tammy shrugged out of her embrace, and Loralei reached for her cat, lying on the back of a chair. She stroked Ebony's fur without thinking. Habit. "I've seen enough for right now too. I need a glass of wine."
"You gonna be okay, Miz Loralei?" Chris asked.
She forced a smile. No one could have a more considerate ghost boy live with them. "I'm fine. This was just more intense than I expected it to be."
"Mob mentality." Death went to the kitchen to pour her a glass of Sangria—mild enough for the middle of the day.
"Reminds me of Lord of the Flies," Loralei agreed. "You kids should read that. A great book. Sort of disturbing."
"Like life," Chris said.
Loralei turned a thoughtful look on him. For all of his telling them what a great childhood he had, it meant he was willing to settle for a roof over his head and food in his belly. And he'd worked hard for that. From everything he'd told them, his Ma and Pa never abused him, but they never doted on him either, sometimes forgot he was there. Death handed her the wine, and she sighed. Life had a way of getting complicated.