THE DEAD TRAVEL FAST.
The words were written on a sheet of paper that had been wrapped around a rock.
I looked up and down the street in the gathering gloom. Not only was the street completely deserted, but the neighborhood itself was quiet and still as if no one had stirred in a long time.
I'd been sitting in the living room, staring out the window, watching the sun sinking behind the houses across the street and waiting for William. I'd felt a strange softness in the air, and a sense of peace settled over me that I hadn't felt in a long time. I felt as if I had no need to be afraid.
Though the stars had not yet come out, I'd seemed to see them before my eyes—both above me and below me. I'd felt myself sinking pleasantly into darkness.
Then there had been a sudden, sharp crack at the window, and I'd hurried out to see what it was.
As I looked around now, a sensation stole over me that I had felt once before. I felt as if the silence around me was watchful—as if the very air were holding its breath, waiting to see what I would do.
I looked at the note again. Of course, it was likely just a prank. Tonight was a night that was known for pranks, so there was really no reason for me to read any great significance into the words. I probably hadn't even been targeted particularly. I imagined that someone had simply thrown the rock at the closest house and then run off.
There was no need for me to be worried. Things had been quiet.
But whoever had thrown the rock had disappeared quickly.
I was just turning to go back into the house, when a familiar car turned onto my street. I quickly folded up the note and pushed it into the pocket of my jeans.
The car slotted into place behind my grandmother's red sports car, and William got out. He was tall and lean and dark-haired, and any outside observer would have guessed him to be about eighteen or nineteen years old—but that guess would have been off by quite a bit.
As William walked up to me, he gave me the crooked half-smile that I loved so much.
"Were you waiting out here for me?"
I smiled and tried to push my uneasiness away. "Of course I was."
I glanced down the street. "You didn't happen to see anyone walking—or maybe running—through the neighborhood on your way over here, did you?"
William glanced at me sharply. "No. Is something wrong?"
"No," I said. "I just—no. Someone threw a rock at our window, and it startled me. That's all."
I didn't see any point in mentioning the note—I was sure it was nothing. I told myself that it had to be nothing.
William glanced toward the house. "Are you ready to go? Or should we stop in and say hello to your grandmother?"
"We'd better tell her we're going," I said. "Otherwise, she'll think you've kidnapped me."
"That's a joke, right?"
"Sort of," I said.
William looked at me closely. "Are you sure nothing's wrong? You look rattled."
"No—nothing's wrong. It's just that—I left the front door open. I really should have closed it."
I turned quickly and went into the house with William following me.
GM met us in the hall—a tall, slim figure with folded arms. Her long silver hair was tied back in a braid, and the silver cross she always wore stood out starkly against her black sweater.
"So, you're here now, are you?" she said shortly. GM somehow always seemed to grow more formidable whenever William was around.
"Yes, Mrs. Rost." William, who could look quite formidable himself at times, often seemed to grow less so when confronted by GM.
She sighed. "Well, I hope the two of you will have a good time at the carnival."
"Thank you, Mrs. Rost," William said.
"And don't be out too late. I'll be waiting for Katie's return."
"Yes, Mrs. Rost."
"Well, you may go now. And don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"Yes, Mrs. Rost. Of course not."
"GM, please," I said. "This is starting to feel like an interrogation."
She waved a hand. "I already said you may go."
"We'll see you later," I said, giving GM a kiss on the cheek. "And you don't need to worry. Nothing awful is going to happen. Really."
GM gave me a skeptical look and then walked with us to the door. As we went out, she closed it firmly behind us.
"Sorry about that," I said. "I always feel bad subjecting you to GM's—I don't even know what you'd call it. She just always seems to be in a bad mood whenever you're around."
"It's all right. She isn't entirely to blame for her attitude toward me."
"I know," I said. "I just wish things could be different."
William gave me a wry smile. "I learned long ago that there was no point in dwelling on wishes."
He turned toward his car.
"William, wait," I said. "Do you mind if we walk instead of driving?"
He looked surprised. "You want to walk? It'll be dark soon, and the way over there isn't exactly well lit."
"I know," I said. "I just don't feel as if I can sit still right now. And you can see in the dark, can't you?"
"Okay," William said. "If that's what you want, that's what we'll do."
As we walked down the street, William kept glancing over at me, but he said nothing.
Before long we had plunged into the neighboring woods on our way to Hywel's Plaza. In the winter months, the plaza was largely taken up by an outdoor skating rink. But in the warmer months, the plaza was used for public gatherings—concerts, farmers' markets, art fairs. Tonight, the plaza was hosting the Black Moon Carnival—which was actually a fundraiser for Elspeth's Grove High School. There would be food and games and music, and I'd heard a new statue was going to be dedicated. There would probably be quite a few people in costume, too. Black Moon Night—April 19—was also a local festival apart from the school fundraiser—it was like our own personal Halloween.
As William and I walked through the trees, I was reminded unpleasantly of the day back in November when we had met two unexpected—and unwelcome—visitors in these very woods. Those visitors had come with a warning for me.
Though I tried to suppress it, a shiver ran through me.
William reached out to take my hand, and I was comforted by the warmth and strength of his grasp. But even though William was by my side, I was still uneasy, and I was deeply relieved when we finally spotted the lights of the carnival up ahead.
We broke free of the trees.
As I looked out over the carnival, my mood was lightened by just how bright and cheerful everything was. Strings of lights crisscrossed the entire plaza, creating what looked like a canopy of stars. Under the canopy, a small maze of booths crowded up against a larger-than-life straw figure of a witch, a colorful carousel, and a stage. A large object sat by the stage under an enormous canvas tarp, and I figured that that was the new statue, ready for its unveiling. I could see a crowd of people milling around—some of them in masks and costumes—and music and laughter floated up to me.
I felt myself relax even further—this was just an ordinary Sunday night in a small town. I very genuinely had nothing to worry about.
"What's with all the witches?" William asked.
"Our town founder, Elspeth Quick, was unfairly accused of witchcraft up in New England," I said. "According to the story, she fled south, and guided by a thin, silver thread of moonlight on an otherwise dark night, she found her way to what is now the Old Grove. There she was able to wait out her pursuers in safety—the mysterious thread of moonlight being a sign of her goodness and purity. And even though Elspeth was innocent of witchcraft, Black Moon Night has come to be associated with witches in particular and the supernatural in general."
"It's a little like Walpurgis Night," William said.
"That's when the souls of the dead are released to wander the earth for one night. And it's also associated with witches—it's the night before May Day."
"It's a little early for that," I said. "Besides, don't the dead wander the earth on Halloween?"
"I always thought of Halloween more as a night to honor the departed," William replied. "Walpurgis Night is more like the night when the departed get to break free and revel a little themselves."
"I guess this does look a bit like that," I said.
As William and I walked into the maze of the carnival, I heard a splash, and I turned to look. One of the booths was actually a dunk tank, and the hapless man on the stool had just been dropped into the water by a good shot.
William gave my hand a gentle squeeze. "What do you want to do first?"
"Let's just walk around," I said. "Maybe something fun will jump out at us."
The aisles between the booths were narrow, and with the crowd of people the flow of traffic was slow. As we passed a booth that sold candy apples, William and I crossed paths with a brown-skinned girl with curly black hair, and a tall, pale boy with brown hair that was falling in his eyes—my best friend, Charisse, and her boyfriend, Branden. The two of them were headed the opposite way, and though Charisse saw me and smiled, and Branden nodded at me, neither of them made any effort to stop and talk—nor did they acknowledge William.
Charisse turned her face resolutely forward, and Branden took his cue from her. The crowd eased, and they both moved on without saying a word.
I looked up at William. "They don't mean anything by it."
William appeared unruffled. "I know. They aren't to be blamed for the way they react any more than your grandmother is. They can't really help it."
I was glad that William understood, but at the same time, I wished he didn't have to. I wished we could be like any of the normal couples that had come to the carnival tonight. I wished we actually were what we appeared to be—two ordinary high school students out having a good time.
We continued on through the carnival, and I spotted Irina Neverov, who was out with her new boyfriend, Terrance. Terrance was new in more ways than one—he had just transferred to our school, and he was already a standout on the track team—even though it was the tail end of the season. There were rumors that he was a shoo-in for a starting position on the football team in the fall, too. He'd just arrived, and he was already a star.
Irina and Terrance didn't stop to talk to us, but that wasn't so unusual. Irina and I had been friends once long ago. But the passing years and her love for Simon Krstic—who had also had a crush on me—had driven a wedge between us. There was nothing between Simon and me, and Irina herself had clearly moved on, but even so some constraint still remained between us.
Irina's friends Bryony and Annamaria tagged along behind them. Bryony gave me a long look and seemed to be on the verge of speaking to me, but ultimately, she, too, decided not to stop to talk.
William and I continued on our way, and we were just passing through an area that was full of game booths, when I heard someone call out my name.
"Katie! Katie Wickliff! Katie, over here!"
I turned to see the familiar blond figure of Simon Krstic—he was manning one of the games. He smiled when he realized that I'd noticed him, and he waved me toward his booth.
I glanced up at William. "Do you want to go over?"
"Why not? At least someone wants to talk to us."
Simon broke into a grin as we reached his booth.
He gave William a brief nod.
I looked around the booth. There were several rows of multicolored balloons affixed to the far wall, and there was a row of stuffed animals and other trinkets sitting on a shelf above the balloons. Simon appeared to be running one of those games in which the player threw a dart at a balloon to win a prize.
"So how about it, Katie?" Simon asked. "Would you like to give it a try? It's for a good cause."
"What are the rules exactly?"
"You get three darts for a dollar. If you break a balloon, you get a prize."
"That doesn't sound too hard," I said. "Set me up."
But three dollars later, I still hadn't been able to successfully make contact with any of the balloons.
William seemed amused. "Would you like me to try?"
"Katie doesn't need your help," Simon said, his tone unexpectedly sharp. "She's doing just fine on her own."
"I know Katie doesn't need my help," William replied mildly. "I didn't mean anything by it."
"Of course you didn't," I said. "And I'm not offended. Thanks, Simon, for letting me play. I think this game just isn't for me." I glanced up at William. "Maybe we should move on to the next game."
I began to walk away.
"You know, I think I'd like to give it a try."
I turned back. William was staring fixedly at something on the prize shelf.
"Katie said she's not interested in the game anymore, pal," Simon said. "So why don't you just move along?"
"If you want the truth," William said, "it's not for Katie. It's for me."
Simon smirked. "I get it. You're into stuffed animals. I bet you have a whole collection of them at home."
"Something like that. Can I get my darts now?"
"Anything you want, pal."
Simon placed three darts on the counter, and William threw each one in quick succession, breaking three balloons.
"Oh, very impressive," Simon said, clapping slowly. "So what do you want? It's the pink bunny holding the big red heart, isn't it? I bet you had your eye on that the whole time."
"Actually," William said, "I'd like that green stone on that long chain."
Simon raised his eyebrows. "So you're into jewelry? I should have guessed."
He reached over the shelf and pulled a necklace off of a nail.
"I'd like to say you have good taste," Simon said, holding the chain up, "but this has to be one of the ugliest things I've ever seen. I suppose you've got just the outfit to wear it with."
"Thanks," William said shortly as he accepted the necklace.
"Would you like to try again?" Simon asked. "We've got a lovely pair of blue plastic earrings here. I'm sure they'd bring out the color in your eyes."
"Simon, stop," I said. "That's enough."
He shrugged. "I'm just trying to give the man what he wants."
"Let's go, William," I said.
William was turning the necklace over in his fingers abstractedly, and he didn't even look up when I pulled him away from Simon's booth.
A few stalls away, there was a gap just big enough for the two of us to fit into, and I guided William out of the walkway into it.
"So what's going on?" I asked. "Why did you want that necklace so much?"
William handed his prize to me. "Do you know what this is? By that I mean, do you know what this is made out of?"
I looked the necklace over. The stone was thick and green and slightly cloudy in color. It was suspended from a black metal chain, and it was set into an intricately worked piece of the same black metal.
"I don't know what this is," I replied. "But I'm afraid I have to agree with Simon—this necklace isn't especially attractive. The stone looks like it's seen better days."
"That unattractive stone is actually an emerald," William said.
"An emerald?" I said. "I thought they were—shinier—than this."
"They are if they're taken care of properly. And one this size would be worth quite a lot. The chain and the setting are both silver—they're just tarnished. This is an antique piece of jewelry that's been moldering somewhere for quite a long time."
"But you aren't interested in this as an antique, are you?" I handed the necklace back to William. "There's another reason this necklace attracted your attention."
"Yes, there's another reason," William said, turning the stone over in his fingers again. "I can't understand what this is doing here."
"So what's so special about it?"
William looked up at me. "Are you sure nothing was troubling you earlier? Did anything strange happen to you today? Anything at all?"
I thought about the note, but I still hesitated to mention it.
"Why are you worried?" I asked. "Is the necklace something dangerous?"
William looked back down at the necklace and didn't reply.
Just then, I heard a brass band strike up, and William turned to look.
"Sounds like they're getting ready to dedicate the statue," he said. "Do you want to go over and watch?"
"William," I said, "what about the necklace?"
He shook his head. "To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what this is, but I think I've seen something like it before. There's no cause for alarm yet."
"Yet?" I said.
William gave me a reassuring smile. "I misspoke. There's no cause for alarm at all. This necklace is just a—curiosity."
"Katie, please. I really don't know anything yet." He put the necklace in the pocket of his shirt and held out his hand. "Let's go see that statue."
I wasn't really satisfied with William's answer, but I could tell that he wasn't going to say any more about it at the moment. I decided to let it drop for the time being. With a sense of resignation, I took his hand, and we began to walk.
As I did so, something made me look around, and I caught sight of a familiar face in the crowd—someone I'd never expected to see in this part of the world. It was a silver-haired man—and he was moving quickly through the crowd. He seemed to be headed right toward me.
I blinked and looked again. The man was gone.
William turned and followed my gaze.
"What is it? What's wrong?"
Suddenly, someone careened into me, and I was knocked to the ground.
I looked up to see a skinny young man with long black hair struggling with William.
"I'm so sorry," the man said. There was a noticeable sneer in his voice. "It's entirely my fault."
The man wrenched himself out of William's grasp, and he came away holding the emerald necklace in his hand.
The man glanced at the necklace and then looked up at William in surprise.
Just then, a police officer, burly and paternal, pushed through the crowd and grabbed the young man by the collar.
"All right, son," the police officer said. "I've had my eye on you since you got here."
The officer's eyes shifted to the necklace in the young man's hand.
"Is that yours, son?"
The man simply giggled.
William helped me to my feet.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine," I said. "I'm just a little startled."
The police officer wrested the necklace from the young man's grasp and held it out to William.
"Is this yours?"
William took the necklace. "Yes, thanks."
"How about it, son?" the officer said to the young man. "How did that necklace end up in your hand? You were running through the crowd at a pretty good clip. Was it an accident?"
The man leered. "Come now, officer. I think we both know the answer to that."
The police officer grew stern. "Do you want to come with me to the station?"
The man smirked. "You know, I really think I would like to do that."
If the officer was surprised by the young man's answer, he didn't show it. "In that case, I would appreciate it if you would follow me to my car."
"Of course, officer." The man turned and waved to William and me with a malicious smile. "Goodbye, kids."
The officer escorted the young man away, and the two were soon swallowed up by the crowd.
"What do you think that was all about?" I asked.
"No idea." William glanced at me. "Do you want to stay? Or would you like to go home?"
I thought fleetingly of the man I thought I'd seen in the crowd—there was no sign of him now. Perhaps I'd been wrong about what I'd seen—maybe my nerves were just playing tricks on me.
"It's okay," I said. "I don't want to go home yet. It's still early—the festivities have barely started. We should at least get to see the dedication of the new statue."
William smiled. "Let's go, then."
We continued on toward the stage and joined the crowd that was gathering to watch the unveiling of the statue.
Just as we reached the back of the crowd, the band stopped playing and a spotlight switched on. The mayor of Elspeth's Grove, Patrick Robbins, a bearded, robust man with a perpetual smile, stepped up on stage and walked up to a microphone on a stand. The big mass of the canvas-covered statue loomed behind the mayor, broad and imposing in the artificial light.
The mayor acknowledged the crowd's polite applause and then launched into a lengthy speech detailing the trials and tribulations of Elspeth Quick on her journey to our town. He wrapped up the speech by explaining that the statue represented our town's own journey from Elspeth's original flight to the safe, happy place it now was—a place where children could grow and thrive without fear.
The mayor beamed out over the crowd. "The statue has been named Bridging the Years. May it remind us always of what is best and brightest in the human heart and spirit! Maestro, if you please!"
The mayor lifted his hand, and the brass band seated behind him struck up a lively tune. He then moved toward the statue, taking the microphone with him, and the spotlight lit up the large canvas mass.
The mayor smiled at the audience and then pulled on a rope. The canvas that covered the statue fell away, revealing the large stone figure of a woman. She was standing on a square pedestal with a beatific expression on her gray face. The woman was clearly intended to be Elspeth Quick, and her arms were spread out as if in a gesture of welcome. There was a large stone pool surrounding the figure of Elspeth, and standing in the pool on either side of her was a boy and a girl. The two of them were caught in mid-stride, their hands outstretched as if they were about to take Elspeth's.
The mayor shouted cheerfully over the music of the brass band.
"Let's have the fountain now!"
He raised his hand, and jets of water arched gracefully into the air from the rim of the pool.
A murmur ran through the audience, and there seemed to be some sort of disturbance at the front of the crowd.
"Shut the water off!" a woman shouted. "There's someone in the pool!"
The murmurs in the crowd grew louder, and there were more demands for the water to be shut off.
Two people rushed forward. Then there were others.
"There's a man in the fountain!" shouted a gruff voice.
"No, it's a boy!"
"He's dead!" someone screamed hysterically. "He's dead!"
The brass band stopped abruptly, and the mayor's amplified voice rose above the crowd.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm! There's no cause for alarm. I'm sure this is just a harmless Black Moon Night prank."
From where I stood, I could see a limp figure being pulled from the fountain. As it was lifted out, there were screams.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please! As I said, it's just a prank!"
"It's no prank!" cried a voice. "It's true! He's dead!"
The entire crowd surged forward then, and William and I were suddenly pushed along with everyone else. Soon I could see the dark shape of a body lying in front of the fountain. There was a thick silver rod protruding from the chest of a teenaged boy—the body was most definitely real, and it was most definitely dead.
The face was turned toward me, and it was a horrifying sight—the eyes were wide and staring, and there was a dark smear of blood in the corner of its mouth. Adding to the horror was a strange, mottled-gray pattern like a spider web that ran all over the body's face and neck and hands.
But the most horrifying thing of all was that I recognized the face.
His name was David Hutchins. And he had gone to school with me.