She left the house at 3am, the dead hour. The hour it is rumoured Christ died, and the moment in which the veil is lifted to the world of spirits. It is also the time most haunting and apparitions are reported. It’s easy to see why, Jill thought, as she made her way across the frost- covered yard. The windows in the house were dark and there was no light to show those who slept had heard her go. Her father made her promise she’d wake him and mindful that she might not, he stayed downstairs in the sitting room, where tiredness overcame him. He was snoring when she crept down the hallway, and the embers from the dying fire lit the room. It fell upon his face, showing the lines of worry that deepened over the past week.
“Goodbye Dad,” Jill whispered, and bit down on her lip to stop the tears.
She’d not looked in on Toby, not just for fear of waking him, but afraid seeing his flushed, sleep-warm cheeks would weaken her resolve. Bess was forced to stay in her place by the bed, sensing her mistress was in trouble. She tried time and time again to follow Jill, until she locked her in the bedroom with a warning to be quiet.
Drawing the rusted bolt across on one of the outbuildings as quietly as she could, Jill went inside and pulled the bicycle from its hiding place. It was her grandmother’s only means of transport, but she only came across it a few days back and realised it would now play a part in her plan. It was painted black and ancient to look at, but it would serve its purpose. A tatty wicker basket hung from the handlebars, leather straps frayed, but still strong enough to hold Jill’s bundle. The book was wedged in sideways to fit. The triangle of Solomon, incense, spray paint and lighter, were tucked in on either side. Jill wore the cloak over her clothes. She would slip out of them when she reached the graveyard.
The light from the full moon lit the yard as she wheeled the squeaking bike over the stones. Despite oiling it the day before, it still groaned, protesting at being disturbed. To anyone watching from inside the house, she must have looked like a dark shadow reflected against the white of the winter’s night. But there was no one to watch her go, except for the things that belonged to the shadows and they soon returned to their nocturnal foraging. She couldn’t have taken the car. The noise of the engine would echo in the stillness.
The laneway leading to the road was all uphill, so she didn’t try to ride the bike, but pushed it until she was clear of the gate and the road lay smooth in front of her. It was years since she had ridden a bike and her movements were clumsy and jittery at first, but she soon got the hang of it. Peddling along, aware only of the wind in her hair, she had no idea how witchlike she looked. The cloak billowed around her and the speed with which she rode made it look as though she were flying. The gnarled trees and bare bushes on either side of her swept by in a blur. She was panting from the effort and stopped when the village came into view to rest. The feel of the ground beneath her feet felt strange and her legs were wobbly when she stood down from the pedals. Leaning against a low wall for support, she waited until the shaking went from her limbs and her breathing returned to normal.
As she predicted no one watched her pass. The place was deserted, the only movement from the flickering of the bulbs in the overhead streetlights. In the distance, she saw the spire of the church looming ever closer, and from across the fields came the barking of a lone dog. In her hurry and terror, she forgot about the envelope in her pocket, the one destined for her solicitor.
She rounded the side of the church and started the ascent towards the graveyard. The muscles in her thighs screamed in protest as she stood to give more weight to the pedals. Sweat coated her forehead and her breath came in rasps as she urged the bike up the hill. Soon the railing of the graveyard came into view, their spikes ghostly spears guarding the place of the dead. Her hands shook as she placed the bike against the wall beside the gates and pulled the assortment of goods from the basket. She wouldn’t think about what was going to happen, she didn’t dare imagine what the next few minutes held in store, contenting herself with the knowledge her child was safe in his bed and nothing else mattered.
The full moon made the graveyard bright as day and the white marble tombstones luminous under its rays. She knew exactly which way to go as the memory of her first visit there burned the path in her brain. As she moved past the old tombs, she tried not to think of rotten, undead things that might at any time come tottering out. A rat scampered across her path and she drew back. It stopped and looked at her, drawn by the sound of her gasp of disgust. It sniffed the air, whiskers bristling, eyes blazing, until it decided there was nothing to fear and no chance of attack. Jill watched it move away, its body swollen from feasting. “Don’t” her mind screamed, when she imagined its sharp teeth sinking into her cold flesh.
“Jesus Christ,” she muttered. “I should have told them I wanted to be cremated.”
Perhaps, her mother would do just that. She would not want the trouble of tending a grave.
The smell of freshly dug earth signalled she’d reached Marie’s grave. She had been so busy worrying about the rat she almost walked by it. The mound looked alien beside the flatter, grass-covered graves beside it and her stomach churned as she imagined the earth breathing.
It’s just my imagination, she warned, as she hid behind a tree and disrobed. Her clothes were stuck to her sweat-coated body and she peeled them away. The blast from the frosty night air made her catch her breath and she pulled the cloak around her shivering body. Gathering up the things she needed, she left her clothes and went back to the grave. The spell of freeing the Wraith was not as complicated as summoning her, and it would only take a few minutes to accomplish. Placing the triangle beside the grave, Jill set about drawing the circle to protect her. She knew, even as she moved the spray around the grass, it would be useless against the Wraith when she attacked. The book warned of this and told her if the spirit she summoned was not a benevolent one, then she might find herself in mortal danger. Still, she had not worried about that in her terror of finding Toby. Even if she realised what might happen, she would have done it anyway.
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
The voice was a snarl against her ear, and she screamed when she realised the Wraith was inside the circle with her.
“Did you really think this,” she scuffed the wet paint with the toe of her shoe. “Would protect you?”
“Not really,” Jill’s voice was hoarse with fear. “I only drew it to complete the spell.”
“Really?” The Wraith stepped out of the circle. “How very noble of you.”
A blast of freezing air swept past her and for the first time Jill smelled the stench. She looked with widening eyes at the Wraith, noticing dark blotches etched on the burgundy gown she wore and the blackness that coating her long, jagged nails. The memory of the men’s screams echoed in her brain and she grew weak with fear. Sensing her distress, the Wraith smiled.
“Now it’s your turn,” it reached out to her. “Now you will pay for disturbing me.”
Jill closed her eyes and waited for the pain.
“Stop that now.”
The familiar voice from behind made Jill turn. Her father stood there, holding the large wooden crucifix that usually hung in the kitchen of the farmhouse. Cobwebs coating its surface, it glittered under the light of the moon. She would have laughed if she was not so terrified. He somehow imagined the Wraith was a vampire that could be driven back by the symbol of the cross.
“Dad, please,” Jill warned him, aware the Wraith was turning her attention to the quivering man.
“Who have we here?” it swept past Jill.
Her father tried to steady himself leaning one hand on the nearest tombstone and holding out the cross with the other.
“Go on now,” he roared as the figure advanced towards him. “Be off with you.”
Before Jill could shout a warning, another voice shattered the night.
“Stand back,” Paul walked towards them arm outstretched.
In it, he held the firearm, the one he was given on his promotion to detective. He never had reason to use it and he had always been grateful. Still, he kept it clean and oiled, aware one day it might be needed.
“Come away,” he grabbed Jill’s father by the shoulder and pulled him out of harm’s way. “Don’t think I won’t use this,” he waved the gun in the Wraith’s face.
“Idiot,” it snarled and with lightning speed, raked its blood-crusted nails across Paul’s hand. He screamed and dropped the gun.
“Marie, stop!” Tom’s voice added to the turmoil around them.
As the Wraith turned towards the sound of his voice, Jill rushed to help Paul.
“I told you to stay away,” she muttered, as she wrapped the handkerchief her father held out to her around the wound.
“I couldn’t let you face this alone,” he looked to where the Wraith stood facing Tom.
“You could have left him out of it,” Jill hissed, as she saw the distress in Tom’s face.
“He might be able to help,” Paul winced as she tied the makeshift bandage in a knot.
From what the Wraith said that was not the case. She no longer apparently recognised her husband and was intent on revenge.
“I will kill you all,” it pointed to each of them in turn. “You should have let me be.”
“I know I should,” Jill stepped away from the others and walked towards it. “But these men had nothing to do with it. It’s my fault and I alone should pay the price.”
“Pity,” it sneered, its nails within an inch of Jill’s face when the shot rang out.
Paul managed to retrieve his gun and fired at the Wraith. The bullet passed clean through it, ricocheting off one of the marble headstones and causing them all to duck.
“I just knew it,” the voice came from along the path. “I said to myself you were all up to something.”
Jill turned, open-mouthed as her mother advanced on them.
“I knew by the way you two,” she glared at her husband and daughter, “had your heads together you were up to something and I’m telling you this…” her voice trailed off as she saw the Wraith.
“Mam, where’s Toby?”
The sound of her daughter’s voice made her answer automatically.
“Asleep in the car,” trying hard to overcome her terror at the thing before her, she asked. “What is that?”
“It’s too difficult to explain, please,” Jill begged. “Go home.”
“I will not go home, not until I know what’s going on.”
“Perhaps I could explain,” the Wraith moved towards her.
Jill saw her mother’s look of disapproval at the state of the Wraith’s dress and thought despite her fear she still found time to be critical even of the dead.
“I was resting, shall we say,” the Wraith sneered, “and this woman woke me. She needed my help to search for her son, and now that I have served my purpose, she expects me to disappear. Well she’s wrong,” it snarled and turned back to Jill.
“This has something to do with your grandmother, I expect,” her mother said.
“Mam, please,” Jill was amazed at her mother’s calm.
“I knew it,” she addressed the Wraith. “What do you want?”
Before the Wraith could answer, Jill said.
“She wants me, Mam. I woke her and now she wants me to pay the price.”
“And what is that?”
“My death,” Jill said.
“Oh,” the information hit home and for a moment her mother was stunned. “Well, she’ll just have to settle for me. I can’t have you leaving my grandson without a mother. Now let’s be reasonable,” she said to the Wraith. “If you are determined to take a life then let it be mine. This young woman is all I have in the world. You should know what it feels like to lose a child,” she realised from the mound of fresh earth and the symbols that surrounded it, that this was the mother of one of the children that was murdered. “Leave my child alone and take me instead.”
“Mam, no,” Jill was sobbing, not only because of her fear for her mother, but because she understood for the first time how much she really loved her.
“Very well,” the Wraith seemed confused by the woman’s words. Somewhere deep in the darkest recesses of her mind, she recalled a loss so great that even in death she felt its pain. “I will do as you ask, I’ll settle for you.”
“No,” Jill screamed, as the Wraith reached for her mother. “Leave her alone.”
She rushed at the Wraith and was joined in her attack by her father and the other men. They encountered nothing but air and the assault only enraged the Wraith, so she forgot her promise and dived at Jill. Her nails cut deep into her skin, until Jill felt her heart would be literally torn from her chest. The Wraith reached out again and again, slashing, tearing, until Jill felt the world fading and the warmth of her own blood coursing down her chilled skin. All around her the screams of her mother and the men rang. They could do nothing but watch in helpless terror.
“Mam, stop that.”
Jill felt the Wraith’s hold loosen and she fell back against the mound. She tried to focus as her mother lifted her head and tried to stop the flow of blood with an assortment of tissues and handkerchiefs.
“That’s Toby’s mother,” Rachael stood with hands on hips, tapping her small foot in irritation. “Why are you hurting her?”
“I don’t know,” the Wraith was confused at the sight of her daughter.
“Come away,” Rachael took her mother’s bloody hand and drew her down onto the path. “Hi, Dad,” she smiled when she saw Tom.
“Hello, sweetheart,” he was sobbing at the image of his little girl.
She looked the same as she had the last time, he saw her alive. Jill lay groaning in agony with her head resting on her mother’s lap. Rachael let go of her mother’s hand, first warning her to stay where she was and walked over to Jill
“I’m sorry my mother hurt you,” she tapped Jill on the hand and the icy cold of her skin burned like fire. “She’s a bit broken in here,” she touched her head. “But they’ll fix her when we get there,” she looked the star-studded sky. “So, don’t worry anymore, I’ll take care of her now, okay?”
“Thank you,” Jill tried to smile through her tears.
She went back the where her mother stood and led her away.
“Bye, Dad,” Rachael looked over her shoulder at Tom.
“Bye, sweetheart,” Tom was so overcome with grief that Paul had to support him.
“Don’t be sad,” Rachael smiled. “We’ll be all right now. Promise.”
They watched her lead her mother over to the mound, watched as the figures before them started to fade.
“Where have you been?” the Wraith asked.
They heard the Wraith ask.
“I went to get ice cream, remember” Rachael said.
“It seems a long time ago,” the Wraith answered.
“I know, Mam, I know,” Rachael’s voice drifted away, and Jill could hear her sigh in resignation, “mothers.”