All Hallow's Eve
(3rd Loralei/Death novella)
A Lunch Hour Read
Loralei laid down her paint brush and cocked her head. An odd humming filled the stone cottage. Where was it coming from? She left her easel and began a slow circle around the fireplace in the center of the large, open room—walking from the kitchen to the dining room and sitting area. Energy buzzed around her. Ebony pushed off the braided rug in front of the flames. He arched his back, then padded to Loralei's favorite chair. He jumped on its arm to stare at her crystal ball, on the side table.
Loralei bent to look too. Mists and sparks swirled inside the clear glass, fizzing with intensity. She stared at them, surprised. Usually, she had to work to summon a spirit. This time, it looked as though a spirit was trying to summon her. She glanced at Ebony. "What do you think?"
The cat narrowed his yellow eyes and hissed. Chris and Tammy wandered into the house and came to join them.
"The back yard feels weird, like it's haunted." The girl should know. She'd hung around Loralei's property for months after she'd died. "Is everything okay?" For a ten-year-old, Tammy was a take-charge type of kid. She followed Loralei's gaze to stare at the fits of energy inside the ball. "Is someone stuck in there?"
"A spirit wants out."
Tammy's gaze turned accusing. "I thought you said if we crossed over, we wouldn't want to come back, that we'd never return here after we saw the Light."
"This has never happened before. I usually have to tie a spirit to me and drag it back." Loralei wasn't sure what to do. Maybe throw a blanket over the ball? Toss it into the yard?
The ball quivered—actually vibrated—and Tammy took a step back. "Can the energy jump out of the glass if you don't put your hands on it?"
"I don't think so." When someone asked Loralei to find a dead loved one, Loralei had to place her palms on the crystal ball to call back the person who'd left this plane for the next.
Could a spirit return of its own accord? Loralei didn't know. Chris leaned forward to see better, and she held up her arms to keep him from pressing any closer.
"My Pa hung horseshoes over our barn door to keep evil spirits away. Want me to fetch one from the shed? I put one over Chestnut's stall." Chris would think of protecting his horse. When the boy was alive, he grew up on a farm, and Chestnut reminded him of his life in the late 1800s.
Loralei shook her head. "No, let's all stick together. I'm going to call Scythe." That was Death's official nickname when he entered this house, stepped foot on this property. She sent a quick, urgent thought his way. If he was busy, dealing with a tragedy somewhere on Earth, he might not be able to come, but she'd feel better dealing with this if he were by her side.
It only took moments before ravens swooped over the back yard and settled in the trees that rimmed their lawn. The front door of the cottage flew open, and the Grim Reaper stood on the front porch. As he stalked into the house, his black shroud turned to jeans and a white T-shirt. Flesh covered his gleaming bones, and her dark, handsome lover strode toward them.
"I heard you. I came."
A flush crept up Loralei's neck and stained her cheeks. She felt foolish now. Was she overreacting? "I shouldn't have called you. I should have waited to see what's inside the ball."
Death glanced at the chaotic energy swirling inside the glass. "No, I want you to call me. If you stub your toe, break a fingernail…."
She laughed at him, but gulped to a stop when the ball buzzed with sparks and swirls. It looked like it might explode. Could it? "Did you leave a lot of frightened dead so you could come to me?" After all, that's what he did, calmed spirits who died in catastrophes so that he could lead them to the Light.
"Two trains crashed into each other. We were almost finished. Shade can take care of the rest." Shade was Death's assistant, not a Reaper. A flurry spasmed inside the crystal. Death frowned at it. "This has never happened before, has it?"
"No. Can evil spirits come back to Earth?" She licked her lips. "It's almost Halloween."
"When the veil thins." Death took the crystal ball as seriously as Loralei did. She didn't feel quite as foolish. "Touch it," he told her. "Summon whoever's inside it."
She yanked her hands behind her back to clasp them together.
"Why would she do that?" Tammy squeaked. "Look at it. It's mad as a hornet."
"I'm here." Death motioned for the kids to get behind him. "I can deal with whatever comes out."
Chris nodded. "Scythe's right. Better now than when we's by ourselves."
"We're, not we's." Tammy automatically corrected him. Since the two, young ghosts had met, Tammy had taken it upon herself to bring Chris "up to snuff," as she called it, in the modern world.
Chris waved her correction away. "Do it, Loralei. Get that thing outta there while Scythe's here."
Loralei bit her bottom lip, but put both of her palms on the crystal ball. "Appear," she summoned.
She jumped, along with the kids, startled when air rushed into the room.
Energy crackled, and a young woman appeared before them. She stumbled and would have fallen except that Death caught her in time.
"Holy mackerel! I didn't think you were ever gonna let me out of there." The girl had wild, carrot-orange hair tied at the back of her head, so that it bushed out like a broom at her shoulders. Freckles spattered her nose and cheeks. An ugly, red groove circled her neck. "I gave it all I had and couldn't make your magic budge."
They all stared at her. Dressed in what looked like a black, gunny sack that hung past her knees, she wore wool, striped stockings and pointy-toed shoes.
"You a witch?" Chris blurted. "Or Pippi Longstocking?"
"Pippi? Who's that?" Tammy countered.
The girl answered. "A character in a book. Kids called me that all the time in school. Loved to raz me."
Loralei struggled to get her bearings. She'd had no idea what to expect when she released the spirit, but it sure wasn't the girl who stood before them. Why, in the world, had she returned? She looked about as threatening as most jack-o-lanterns. But this girl had suffered. Loralie concentrated on the spirit's neck. "The red groove—were you hanged?"
The girl dodged an answer, took the hem of her dress in both hands instead and dipped in a low curtsy. "I'm Annalise. Word's spreading about you at Home. Thought you might be able to help me."
Loralei felt a moment of dread. That's all she needed—to have spirits knock on her crystal ball to demand help.
Annalise missed her grimace, and went on. "This here rope mark…" she pointed…"was a gift from Scorch and his gang. Thought they had to hang a witch or she didn't stay dead."
Chris openly gawked, fascinated.
Tammy straightened her shoulders and stood taller, looking the girl carefully up and down. "How old are you?"
Tammy gave a satisfied smirk. "Too old for Chris. He's only thirteen."
Aha! Loralei knew it! She'd always suspected that Tammy wouldn't leave here because she had a crush on Chris. She shot a knowing smile at Death. There was her proof.
"You're only ten!" Chris glared at her, then asked their new ghost, "What time period you from?"
"Me?" The dead girl glanced at Chris' britches and checkered shirt. "My folks are still around. I died three years ago. This is just a costume I wore for conjuring."
"Was you a good witch?" Chris jammed his hands in his pants pockets, as though he could pull a horseshoe from them to protect himself.
"Only did earth magic, white spells. Truth is, I wasn't much good at it. Could never even blow a candle to flame. Grew a great witch's garden, though, and kept pet toads."
Tammy frowned. "So why did someone hang you? You don't sound too dangerous."
"Those kids were mean as spit. Just wanted to hurt someone. I was an easy target. Never fit in at school. Stayed mostly to myself."
Loralei knew that feeling. When you were the only kid who talked to dead people, other kids tended to stay away too.
Death raised a dark eyebrow. He looked like he was doing the same thing she was, trying to piece Annalise's story together. Finally, he gave up with a shake of his head. "So why are you here? What do you want? You don't look unhappy or vengeful. Why leave Home?"
"Not quite sure. Someone's been calling to me…over and over again. Might be my sister. Scorch came back. His parents sent him away after I died."
"Because he was a suspect?" Death asked.
"Not really, rumor around town was I turned to Black Magic and got suicidal. Hanged myself. Everyone knew it was stupid, but those kids watched me kick myself to death, and they all stuck together, swore they hadn't seen anything and knew even less. Parents wanted the whole thing to go away."
"Your parents never pressed charges?" Loralei would have dug for answers, moved heaven and earth, to find out who hurt her daughter.
"Fell apart, they did. Just a mess. Got protective of Ashleigh. My little sister's a wild one. They didn't want to find out what she might get herself into. Me being a witch was enough for them. Even keeping a close eye on Ash, she got up to plenty. Dug up my grave and dragged my pine box behind Daddy's pickup truck to the church cemetery, so I'd be buried in hallowed ground."
Tammy's hands went to her hips. Her decibel level rose. "They stuck your body in a pine box? And wouldn't bury you right?"
Annalise laughed. "What difference does it make? Once you go to the Light, that stuff's forgotten." She narrowed her eyes, studying Chris and Tammy. "Why haven't you two gone?"
Chris reached for Tammy's hand. "We're happy here."
"Shows what you know. Down here's like living in poverty when you could live in Eden."
Loralei's breath caught, and she swallowed hard. She'd told Tammy to go to the Light over and over again, tried to send her on her way, with no luck. If the girl decided to go now, it would hurt. Loralei would miss her.
Tammy shrugged. "I know a lot of happy kids who don't have much. Guess it doesn't bother me. Besides, we've got Eden here, and we have them." She motioned toward Loralei and Death.
Annalise pursed her lips, taking that into consideration. She looked around the stone cottage and out the back patio doors to the gardens and lawn. "I can see that. This place has its own magic. Guess it wouldn't be too bad sticking around with these two."
Loralei returned to the matter at hand. "You said someone's been calling you. What does it matter if Scorch moved back home? Surely people won't trust him. A lot of people must know what he did."
Annalise took a deep breath. Her eyes flew wide in surprise. When was the last time she'd breathed? It always took spirits a minute to get used to the sensations of a mortal body. Just as it did Death, this house fleshed ghosts into their mortal forms.
"What about Scorch?" Death reminded her.
"Oh, yeah, he's interested in my sister. Most guys are. And Ashleigh has a thing for bad boys—don't lots of girls? But she doesn’t know how bad Scorch is."
Chris looked her up and down, and puckered his brows in a frown. "Don't mean no insult, but I can't see many men chasing after your skirts."
"Ashleigh doesn't look like me, silly. She takes after my dad. The girl could knock your socks off."
"I'd pay her to get rid of yours." Tammy was on the defensive again. She attacked when she felt threatened. Obviously, no mention of attractive girls was allowed in Chris' presence.
Loralei sent her a look that could scorch. "That was rude."
Annalise shrugged. "Hey, not too many people love horizontal stripes, but I figured if people were gonna call me names, I might as well enjoy it."
Chris struggled to be more tactful. "Do you take after your mom?"
"Sure do, and my dad always said she's the most beautiful thing he ever saw—carrot hair and all."
Tammy crossed her arms, still prickly. "Why's that?"
"Always had a smile on her lips and a song in her heart, dad said."
Death grinned at that. "You do strike me that way."
Annalise's good mood vanished. "My whole family was happy till those kids got me killed. Mom sang while she cooked. Dad hummed while he ate breakfast. It all changed. I was the lucky one. I got to go Home. They suffered."
"How can we help you?" If Annalise wanted Loralei to tie Scorch and his friends up like mummies and drag them to justice, she'd try.
"I want you to save Ashleigh."
Loralei and Death nodded at the same time. Even Chris and Tammy looked determined to join in.