The Day My Grandfather Met the Devil (A Short Story)

My grandfather was a deeply religious man, but he never went to church. Grandma went every Sunday, in her best clothes and her favorite jewelry, but Grandpa always stayed home. I asked him about this once, when I was younger, before he passed away.

It was a summer afternoon, and we sat together, rocking back and forth slow and lazy on the front porch swing, looking out at the mountains.

I pointed to the little steeple in the distance, the one that belonged to my grandmother’s church, and asked, “Why don’t you ever go?”

Grandpa answered. “This is God’s own country. Why would I want to be stuck in there,” he said, and pointed to the steeple, “with all those other people, when I could be out here,” and he gestured around us, and towards the ridge, “where it’s just the Lord and the land and me?”

And then he told me a story.

I don’t know, to this day, whether this story is true, but he told me, and now I’m telling you. Maybe someday, you’ll tell someone, and they’ll tell someone. Stories have a way of keeping themselves alive, don’t they?

“You know where I grew up?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Well, that’s where this story happened,” my grandpa said.

My grandfather grew up not far from a crossroads called North Fork, on a lonely strip of Appalachian land the locals called Hell’s Half Acre. He knew that his future was tied to that land, whether he liked it or not. And he didn’t like it.

Walking home from school every day, he’d wonder if it would be the last time he’d make the trip. And then one day, it was. He left school in seventh grade and started work at the coal mine right outside of town. It was that, he told me, or be sold to another family. So he worked, hours and hours in the dark, damp underground, laying wood for mine shafts. And each day, walking home, covered in coal dust and exhausted from head to toe, he’d stare at that fork in the road, and wonder if he’d ever get to really choose any direction at all.

And then one evening, as the sun dipped below the mountains and the holler grew dark and alive with lightning bugs and cricket song, Grandpa met a stranger at the fork.

“Evening,” the man said.

Grandpa nodded and kept walking. In all the years he’d walked this road, he’d never met a stranger on it, and this stranger was certainly strange. Dressed to the nines in July weather, a nice suit, starched and pressed, and dark hair as slick and shiny as a crow’s feathers.

“The name’s Scratch,” the man said.

“Evening, sir,” my grandfather said, and kept walking.

“I’m looking for a young man named Jim,” the man told him.

My grandfather stopped. He was Jim. Jim was his name, and he most definitely didn’t know what this man might want with him. So he answered, “No Jim’s around here, Mr. Scratch.”

“Oh, well, ain’t that a shame,” the stranger said. “Had some good news for Mr. Jim. Sure would have made his day.”

Here was a choice, my grandfather thought, standing stock still, staring at this outsider in church clothes. Confess or keep quiet and start walking. Learn more, or go home and get some sleep.

“Had a deal to make with Jim, I did,” said the man. “Could change his life.”

“All right then, I’m Jim,” my grandfather said.

“I thought you might be,” said the stranger. “Figured there couldn’t be that many teenage boys called Jim in a place like this.”

My grandfather nodded.

“It’s nice to meet you, Jim” said the stranger, and stuck out his hand.

My grandfather shook it, and felt ashamed for the fine coating of black dust his own sweaty hand left behind.

“Like I said, my name’s Scratch, and I’ve got a deal for you, if you’re interested.”

“Don’t know much about deals,” Grandpa answered.

“Well,” the man said, “this one’s easy.”

Grandpa nodded again. Easy sounded good.

“I heard that you were looking to get out of here, maybe do some traveling, and I might be able to help. I’d just need you to do me a favor.”

“What favor?” It didn’t occur to Grandpa at the time that he’d never told a single soul about wanting to leave, and how he hoped to travel.

“Well, I’ve been looking for a woman named Ella, and I think you could help me find her.”

Grandpa raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. Ella was the preacher’s wife.

“Do you think you could do that? I need to find her, and if you can help me, I can give you some money and a ticket to New York. You’d just need to get yourself up to Roanoke to catch the train.”

“I know Ella,” Grandpa said.

“Oh, good,” said the stranger. “Can you tell her I’m looking for her? Do that, and meet me here tomorrow. I’ll have that ticket all ready for you.”

Grandpa nodded one more time.  

“And one more thing, Jim,” said the man.

“Yeah?”

“If you take the ticket and the money, there’s a chance I might need your help again. But I bet you’d be okay helping me again, right?” The man smiled then, and that smile, my grandfather said, just looked all kinds of wrong.

Grandpa didn’t nod this time. He just stared at the man and his too-white teeth and his not-right smile.

“I thought so,” said the man. “I’ll be waiting for you here tomorrow. Have a good night, Mr. Jim.”

So dismissed, my grandfather walked away, replaying every bit of their conversation in his head.

“Grandpa,” I asked, “did you go back? Was he there?”

“Of course not,” my grandfather answered. “I went home and thought about it and it didn’t take me too long to figure out just who that man was.”

“What do you think he wanted with the preacher’s wife?”

“Nothing good,” my grandfather said. “There’s only one person in the world who uses the name Scratch, and he’s not a person at all.”

“Wasn’t he there waiting for you?”

“No, he wasn’t,” said Grandpa. “I’d made up my mind that night that I wasn’t gonna help him, and I reckon he knew. The devil has ways of getting into your head.”

“Did you ever see him again?”

“No, and good thing. But you keep your ears open and you’ll hear stories about Old Scratch. He’s always out there, trying to make deals and collect souls.”

“I don’t believe in that stuff,” I said.

“He doesn’t much care whether you believe or not,” Grandpa answered, with a tone of finality. And then he went quiet, and we went back to swinging in silence, looking out on the hill country.

“Is he the reason you don’t go to church?”

“Nah,” Grandpa said. “But every time I see a man in a suit, he’s who I think about.”

I wonder, sometimes, if my grandfather really thought he met the devil, or if it was just a story for a lazy Saturday afternoon. He’s been gone a long time, so I’ll never know. But I do sometimes hear stories about a man named Scratch, and I figure, if he’s real at all, he’s still out there. Grandpa was a good man, and he’s gone. But they say evil lives forever, don’t they?

************

Thank you for reading! This is the seventh of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first six, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

Silly Superstitions

In Search

Sally’s Mill

Tabula Rasa

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of August.

Tabula Rasa (A Short Story)

“What were you like before you were my mama?”

I cradle Daisy to my chest, and we rock back and forth to the gentle rhythm of my breathing.

“I was different.”

I smooth her hair, trace my fingers along the hollow, soft spot just below the crown of her head.

“Were you scary?”

“I might have been,” I say. “I might have been lots of things.”

“Like what?”

“I think we’ll never know for sure, little dove.”

“But why not?”

I’m quiet for a moment. I say, “Because we all get to make our own stories, and this is the one I’m making.”

Daisy’s room smells of peppermint and lavender, a combination of my tea and her soap, and something else. Something old, damp, and dusty, but familiar, like home.

“Mama, can you sing to me?”

I hum a soft lullaby, and as Daisy drifts off in my arms, I think of the decision we made, all of us. The decision to be careful with our words, to let our children tell their own stories. We felt like it was a mercy, in a cruel world, to let them make their own history and their own future.

One day, far away from now, maybe I will tell her: There’s power in words. That’s your first lesson. And there’s power in their absence. That’s your second.

Or maybe I won’t. Right now, she is free and new and utterly, completely herself. How long can this last? Time will tell.

I don’t think anyone ever really, truly knows whether the thing they’ve chosen is the right thing. When all of this started, I didn’t have Daisy. At least, not completely. She was a blip in the universe, just a tiny thing knitting herself into my body. I only had myself and a collection of painful memories, existing within a world that didn’t seem to want me. The thought of starting over, of starting anything, and of creating a better place, washed over me like a warm summer breeze, and I was certain, in that moment, that I’d made the best decision for myself.

But for Daisy?

I worry.

She’s sleeping now, curled around her favorite crocheted bunny. I hope she has good dreams, always. I hope she grows up carefree and happy. I hope she is strong.

But I worry.

What is strength without adversity? Courage without knowledge? Wisdom without history?

There are nineteen families here, all of us raising children, all parents carrying burdens we never want them to see. We all have our reasons. They are good reasons, I think, but they belong to us, not to our children.

I asked Daisy a few days ago to tell me about her bunny.

“What does Bunny do when you’re busy at school?”

“Bunny stays home,” she said.

“Yes, Bunny doesn’t go to school with you. But what does Bunny like to do when he’s not with you?”

“He sleeps in my bed and hops around my room,” she said.

“What else?”

“Sometimes, he likes to look out the window.”

“That’s fun!” And then I asked, “Is there anywhere he wants to go when he looks out the window?”

“No,” she told me. “He’s happy here.”

Daisy’s world is so small. She’s got me and our cottage, Bunny and her friends at school, the green grass and the blue sky. But there’s so much she’s missing.

“Doesn’t Bunny ever want to go places? Maybe to the beach?”

“What’s the beach, Mama?”

I didn’t tell her, not really. I only said it’s far away and warm.

We’re supposed to let our children make their own worlds, to use our words and our knowledge sparingly, to give them space to create. I don’t know if anyone else questions the goal, or the method we’re using to get there, but I do.

I do.

Because they need us, don’t they? They need our stories, they need our wisdom and our experience. Don’t they?

I hear Daisy on the steps.

“Mama,” she calls.

“Yes, baby?”

“I had a dream.”

“Tell me about your dream,” I say.

“It was a bad dream,” she tells me.

“Come and sit with me,” I say. And then, before I can stop myself, I add: “I’ll tell you a story.”

************

Thank you for reading! This is the sixth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first five, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

Silly Superstitions

In Search

Sally’s Mill

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of July.

Sally’s Mill (A Short Story)

May 1, 2019

Here’s how I imagine it happened, back in 2001:

The weather outside was almost unbearable. An early heatwave loomed over the fields, and the storms that rolled through that afternoon left behind a swampy, balmy soup of thick air and hovering mosquitos. Bad as that was, the atmosphere inside the mill was worse. Thirty some bodies crammed into a dark, dusty space, all breathing and dancing and spilling drinks, jumping around to music so loud it shook your brains, yelling and singing, and just hot, frenetic chaos.  

“I’m going outside,” Jo Whitney said to no one in particular, because no one could hear her, anyway. At least, that’s how I imagine it. I’ve been told I have a good imagination.

People wondered later where she’d gone, and no one told the police about the party when they came around asking questions. A bunch of kids drinking alcohol in an abandoned, condemned building on the night before graduation? Not one of them said a word, and they wouldn’t have had anything to say, either, because Jo slipped out of the mill and into the night, and that was the last any of them – or anyone at all – ever saw of her.

May 2, 2019

Joanna Whitney’s was the tenth disappearance associated with Sally’s Mill. It wouldn’t be the last, and I think we’re on number thirteen now. Or so the rumors say. And still people go there. Kids party, the curious search, police patrol, and every few years, some unlucky soul goes missing. It’s not our town’s oldest tradition – that would be the Winter Hunt – but it is the most talked about. Well, that would probably also be the Winter Hunt, but Sally’s Mill is a pretty close second. There’s even a rhyme we say, when we’re young and more amused than afraid: “Stay away from the hill, and from old Sally’s Mill.”

It’s not much, I know.

May 5, 2019

As it turns out, my dad got caught up in it once, all the Sally’s Mill craziness, when he was about seventeen. He told me this story today, and I’m recording it here, in my second journal of the year, because I feel like someone should write this down, and because he never reads my journals and so he won’t know I told on him.

Here’s what he said:

It was a stormy night, heavy and damp and dark. Thunder rumbled through the trees, and on the horizon, lightning flashed bright and white against the black sky. My dad was at a party, and went outside to get cigarettes from his car. As he stood outside the door of the mill, smoking (gross, Dad!), he heard hounds and the call of hunting horns, howls and yelps, and people shouting, and the braying and steady gallop of horses. He heard them over the music from the party, and the rush of the wind. He said it sounded like they were only down the hill, so close by, but he didn’t see anyone. And as the sound moved closer and closer to him, he said it was like the air froze, and all he could think was, “What in the hell?” And then he ran inside, and he never told anyone. Not because he was scared. He never told anyone because he dropped his cigarette when he ran, and it started a small fire in the brush, and everyone had to run away and the police investigated and declared it an arson. The good news is, no one got hurt, and the fire didn’t do too much damage. The bad news is, my dad’s guilty of arson, I guess.

They say nothing good ever happens at Sally’s Mill. I guess they’re right, huh?

May 11, 2019

It shouldn’t be ninety degrees in early May, but here we are. Today is Saturday, but you couldn’t pay me to go outside in this. Today will be a reading day for me.

I feel bad for writing down what my dad told me. I think it’s sort of a silly story, but I wouldn’t want him to get in trouble for something that happened so long ago, especially when it was an accident and it didn’t hurt anybody. I’m thinking about tearing out that page.

May 12, 2019

I did some reading yesterday on fox hunting. I’m surprised it’s not obsolete. But I did learn that it never happens at night, so I don’t know what my dad heard. He was probably drunk. It was dark, and the weather was awful. He was just a kid who made a mistake, and I wonder if he made up the whole story just to justify what he did. It’s a horrible thing to think, isn’t it?

May 18, 2019

I just can’t help but wonder why people keep going to the mill. I guess people just can’t get enough of scary stories, but still: I wonder, I wonder, I wonder. My grandmother always told me she was proud of how curious I am. I’m starting to think it’s actually a curse. There are always more questions than answers, and every time you get an answer, it just leads to more questions. It’s enough to drive someone crazy. Not me, but someone.

May 20, 2019

Okay, so I’ve done some research. It’s interesting, actually. There’s nothing in the history of Sally’s Mill that makes it a haunted or a frightening or an unsafe place, other than the fact that it’s condemned, of course. It was built around 1810 by the Marsden family. They’re still around. Named for John Marsden’s wife, who lived long and happy, and tended by that same family or their relatives until it closed down for good in 1981. John and Sally had several children, kept a couple of houses in the state, and were involved in all sorts of local issues and events. The only thing I found that made me nervous is that there was a Civil War battle in the area, and some of the soldiers did hide in the mill at one point. They got caught, of course, and carted away as prisoners.

And then, I guess, there are the disappearances, but maybe that’s just coincidence? I should do some research on those, too, but I’ve got end of school exams and essays and such coming up, so I don’t know when I’ll have time.

May 25, 2019

There’s a party at Sally’s Mill tonight. Should I go? I’m not actually invited, but one of my friends is, and I’m sure I could tag along unnoticed.

May 25, 2019 (later)

I’m going. Even though it’s hotter than Hades right now and I’m not really invited, I’m going. But I’m going in smart. I’m bringing supplies: a flashlight, a whistle, a camera, a recorder, and just because I know it will be loud and miserably sweaty, some earplugs and my portable neck fan. I know I’ll look like a dork. I don’t care. People don’t really notice me, anyway.

I’m nervous, though, still. Maybe because I’m not a social creature, or maybe because of the disappearances, or my dad’s story. I’ll update tomorrow. If I come home, that is! (Oh, God, why did I even write that?)

May 26, 2019

What an absolute waste of time! A big, fat, annoying nothing. I stood inside, I stood outside. I waited. I saw nothing. There was nothing. Just the mill, and the hot weather, and a bunch of kids drinking warm beer. My head hurts. I dripped enough sweat last night to fill five buckets, and I came home with a bruise of my knee from falling down a set of rickety old stairs. And I ripped my favorite jeans.

Never again, Sally’s Mill. You and I – we’re not friends.

May 26, 2019 (later)

I spoke too soon. I feel awful. I can’t believe it.

Jackson Fletcher disappeared last night.

He never came home after the party. I did see him there, in a corner with his buddies, but I don’t remember if he left before me or not. I did see him go outside. Did I see him come back in? I’m not sure. I don’t know. I DON’T KNOW. Maybe he’s just at a friend’s house. Maybe he crashed his car and he’s in a ditch somewhere. That’s not better, is it?

WHY DOES ANYONE GO TO SALLY’S MILL?

And why him? Why him, of everyone there? Why not anyone else? Why not me?

May 30, 2019

I’ve considered ripping out all of these pages and burning them. I don’t know where I’d burn them, but I just don’t know if I ever want anyone to read them. I’m only a few pages into this journal, anyway, and I could scrap the whole thing.

Jackson Fletcher is still missing. I don’t think he’ll ever come home. I see it in my head. His mother saying goodbye to her son for the last time on Saturday evening, his face at the party, laughing and bobbing his head to the beat of the music, and not one of them knew. Not one of them knew it would be the last time, that he wouldn’t come home. It’s just horrible.

I looked back today on my entries about Jo Whitney, and I just…I can’t believe I wrote about it like that, like her life was a story. I can’t believe it happened again. I guess it just never seemed real.

I don’t know what I’ll do with this. I don’t know who I can tell – about this journal, my dad’s story, Jackson, the mill. Any of it. But if I don’t trash it, and you find it, and you read this one day, I’ll tell you, because now I know it’s true, what they say. I hope you stay away. I hope they tear the whole building down. I hope it burns. I hope it collapses. I hope it rots away and becomes just a distant, terrible memory. I hope you believe me.

Nothing good ever happens at Sally’s Mill.

************

Thank you for reading! This is the fifth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first four, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

Silly Superstitions

In Search

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of June.

In Search (A Short Story)

Two local men missing since April 15th. No leads. Parents plead for information.

*

I don’t like the term “monster hunt.” Humans can be monsters, but everyone goes on and on about Bigfoot. Spare me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We set out around noon on the first warm day of spring. There were two of us. There was me, and there was Ty, my best friend. Ty carried the map, the tent, the food, all the other “useful stuff” (his words), and the dog’s leash. So, I guess there were actually three of us – Ty, me, and Septimus.

I asked Ty once why he named the dog Septimus.

“Because,” he said, “he looked like a Septimus. Just look at him”

In front of us now, walking up the trail into the woods, Septimus sniffed and explored, nose to the ground with his floppy, pendulum ears dangling into the leafy brush, drool trailing along behind him in a silvery, viscous path. He didn’t carry anything.

I held the camera.

“I don’t know what you think you’re going to find,” Ty said, craning his neck around to get a glimpse of me behind him. “And I don’t want to be in whatever video you make when this is over.”

“‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep…’” I replied.

“You didn’t come up with that.”

“No,” I said, “that was Robert Frost. But it makes my point.”

“Which is?”

Ty walked on ahead.

“Which is,” I said to his back, “that you’ll never find anything if you don’t go looking, and there’s no place like the deep, dark woods to get started.”

“I think they made a movie about that once,” Ty said. “But seriously, it’s a good thing I came with you. You’d get lost looking for fairies and we’d find you half-starved and crazy two days later.”

“I can read a map,” I said.

“No, you really can’t.”

“What are you even complaining about? You love this stuff.”

Ty loved the outdoors the way that some people love cake. He couldn’t get enough, even it meant too much outdoors and not enough paycheck.

“Monster hunting?” he asked.

“No, of course not,” I said. “Hiking and camping and stuff.”

And thank goodness he did love the outdoors, because I wouldn’t have wanted to do this kind of thing without him, it being my first monster hunt and all. Ty and I had done everything together since he taught me how to catch grasshoppers in kindergarten, a lesson my mother was never particularly fond of. I’d always been the reader, the researcher, and monsters – fairies, pixies, Bigfoots, Wampus Cats, selkies – they were my first love.

“This is my best friend, Drew,” Ty always said when he introduced me. “He’s a weirdo.”

Over the years, I’d come to embrace my weirdness, but I’d never felt quite bold enough to do anything about it. That changed last week, when a couple of day hikers spotted strange lights on the Dragon’s Den trail. They also reported odd noises, footsteps and rumbles from the woods, from all around them.  

“Come on, man,” I said. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“In the backpack,” Ty answered. “Along with your toothbrush and the three books you insisted on bringing for one night.”

“Knowledge is power,” I said. Because that was true.

*

Missing:

Tyson Collins, age 26

Hair: Brown

Eyes: Brown

Height: 5’11”

Weight: 180 pounds

Andrew Miller, age 26

Hair: Blonde

Eyes: Green

Height: 5’10”

Weight: 175 pounds

Last seen at the Dragon’s Den trailhead, Saturday, April 15, at 11:45 a.m. Traveling with one dog, a red bloodhound. Please contact….

*

We set up camp that night about a mile from the trail, which Ty said was already pushing it. Ty dealt with the tent, while I found a good spot for the camp stove and took out the dinner supplies.

“You’re not supposed to go off trail in these places,” he told me. “It damages the forest floor.”

“I think it’ll be fine,” I said. “It’s just the two of us.”

From his perch beside Ty, Septimus howled.

“And the dog,” I added.

“Still, they have designated spots for camping.”

“Those places are too crowded,” I said. “We’d never see anything.”

“We’re breaking the rules,” Ty answered, flat and short.

“And I’m catching it all on camera,” I joked, and snapped a picture from across the camp stove.

Ty set about making dinner, a box of Velveeta shells and cheese, while I rummaged around in the backpack for my book on mountain legends.

“I bet it was just a bear,” I said.

“So you brought us all the way out here to look for it?”

Ty stirred the cheese sauce into the noodles. Septimus drooled beside him. He spooned two heaping portions into our plastic bowls, and handed one to me.

“I mean, I don’t want it to be just a bear.”

“Make sure Septimus doesn’t eat my dinner,” Ty said.

I stared at Septimus as Ty wandered off into the woods.

“I hate peeing in the woods,” I told the dog. “Probably a luxury experience for you, huh? New and different?”

Septimus panted back at me.

From somewhere to my right, Ty yelled, “Stop it, man!”

“Stop what?” I called back.

“Stop messing with me!”

“I’m just sitting by the campfire, dude. I’m watching the dog like you asked.”

Ty came back a couple of minutes later.

“Not cool, Drew,” he said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Septimus didn’t touch your food.”

“Walking up behind me that way,” Ty said. “The footsteps. I know you’re trying to scare me.”

“Wait,” I said, and choked down my last bite of pasta. “You heard footsteps?”

“Yeah,” Ty answered, “and I know it was you.”

“It wasn’t me, but we have to go check it out.”

I stood up and grabbed the camera. Ty didn’t move.

“No,” he said. “We don’t, and we shouldn’t.”

“Ty, that’s why we’re out here!”

“If it wasn’t you,” he said, “then it was probably a bear, and it probably smelled our food, and we should probably just leave it alone.”

“But…” I started.

“Unless you want to be mauled by a bear,” Ty finished.

“Fine,” I said. “Just, fine. But if it happens again, I’m going to go look, and you’re not going to stop me.”

Ty let out a puff of air, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “It’s late. We should just get some sleep.”

I wasn’t about to argue with Ty in a bad mood. I’d learned years ago that it wouldn’t work. And so we pulled out our sleeping bags and crawled into the tent.

“You gonna brush your teeth?” he asked me.

I glared back at him, unsure if he could see it in the dark.

“Okay, then,” he said.

We settled in, boots off and tucked into a corner, with Septimus nestled between us, already snoring.

*

Tracks found in search for two missing locals. No sign of belongings or human remains. Parents still hopeful. Reward offered for any information.

*

I awoke to the high-pitched sound of Septimus whining in the dark. Outside, something stirred near our campsite. I could hear the twigs snapping, the underbrush rustling, and if I strained my ears enough, I was pretty sure, something breathing.

“Ty,” I croaked.

My heart raced, and my hands shook. I wasn’t sure whether this was fear or excitement.

“Ty,” I said again, louder this time. “We have to go look.”

Ty rolled over and said, “Leave it alone, Drew.”

“No,” I yelled. “I won’t. I told you if we heard anything else, I’d go and look, and I’m going to.”

I squirmed out of my sleeping bag and pulled on my hiking boots.

“You’re being stupid,” Ty said.

“No, I’m investigating.”

I grabbed the camera, pulled its strap around my neck, unzipped the tent flap and flung it open. Before I could catch him, Septimus shot out like a rocket, barking and snarling, more aggressive than I’d ever seen him. And certainly faster.  

Ty was up in milliseconds, pulling on his own boots, huffing and glaring at me.

“We have to get Septimus,” he said.

And then we both ran, out into the woods, away from the tent and into the night.

“I thought you said I was being stupid,” I grunted out, between breaths.

“That’s my dog, man,” Ty answered.

We could still hear the bloodhound, somewhere ahead of us, howling wildly into the trees. And all around us, just like the hikers said, we heard other things, strange grunts and heavy breathing, the sharp crack of branches breaking.

“What is that?” I yelled.

Ty ran ahead of me, and I struggled to keep up. The camera banged into my chest with every step.

“Slow down, Ty!”

Ty broke into a clearing ahead of me. He stopped so abruptly, I ran into him. Septimus sat at his feet, entranced.

I saw lights. So many lights. Dancing in the tree line, lighting up the sky. Lights, and something else. Something big, twisted, looming, waiting. Something…

“Oh, my God,” I breathed.

I raised the camera to my eye.

*

Found, 1 mile from Dragon’s Den Trail, marker 10:

1 camera, Pentax K3, damaged, SD card intact

1 dog leash, blue

*

I don’t like the term “monster hunt.” You think you’re hunting them. You’re wrong.

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Thank you for reading! This is the fourth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here are the first three, if you’d like to read them:

The Winter Woman

The Lady in the Stars

Silly Superstitions

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of May.

The Lady in the Stars (A Short Story)

“She must be lonely,” I say, and inch closer to my mother, burrowing into her shoulder. “She must be bored, too.”

“She’s not lonely, sweetheart,” says my mother. She pulls the blanket tighter around us, and we huddle together, gazing up at the night sky.

This is our tradition, every February, to greet the end of winter, and to say goodbye to the lady in the stars. Tonight, we sit together on a blanket in the sand, listening to the rhythm of the waves and the cold wind blowing through the dune grass.

“I’d be lonely,” I say. “And I bet she’s tired of the quiet, too.”

“She’s very old,” my mother tells me, “and very wise. She sees all of us, and our joys bring her joy. She’s not lonely, with the whole world and the moon and stars to keep her company.”

My family has lived on this island for as long as anyone can remember. We’re as tough as the sea and as sturdy as the land, my mother says. Together here, we’ve made it through ferocious storms and sweltering summers. We’ve learned how to live on the outskirts, on the edge of the country, and all that time, we’ve passed down the story of the lady and her home in the winter sky. And tomorrow, I’ll leave her, and my family, and this island, forever.

“James is a good man,” my mother says, “and he’ll take care of you. You’ll make lots of friends. You’ll have pretty babies, and you’ll be happy.”

She always could read my mind.

“You can come to visit,” she says. “A boat ride across the bay isn’t a trip across the ocean.”

“I know,” I say. And I do, but right now, the bay feels a lot like an endless, angry ocean, dangerous and impossible to cross.

“The lady was scared, once, too,” my mother reminds me. “She had to leave her home and family.”

“The stars needed a guardian,” I answer back, parroting the story I’ve known my whole life. “And she was chosen among all her people to be that guardian, and she accepted, because she was brave and smart, but also because she was kind.”

“Most importantly because she was kind,” my mother clarifies.

“I’m not kind,” I say. I sit up and fidget with my bootlaces. “And I’m not brave, either.”

“You’ve never been afraid of the waves,” says my mother.

“I can swim.”

“And you’ve always taken care of the gulls,” she says.

“I can’t stand to see them hungry.”

“Other people would call them a nuisance,” my mother tells me.

“I find other people to be a nuisance,” I say.

“You want to argue,” she says, “and I understand. The lady didn’t think she was brave or smart, or kind. She ran. You’re not planning on running?”

“No,” I say, and sigh. “No, I’m not going to run away. Where would I even go?”

“See!” my mother says with a laugh. “You’re very smart.”

I lie back and look up. The stars shine bright white, like diamonds on black satin.

I know what it’s like in the city, where the stars hide from the streetlights. I’ve read about it, and about the crowds and the noise.

“The lady tried to hide,” I say, continuing the story, “but the moon found her, and reminded her that imperfect things can still light the way in the dark.”

My life will look very different from my mother’s, and from what I envisioned when I was small. Back then, many families called our island home, and children ran on the beach, and lovers huddled together on the dunes, and old grandfathers sat at the pub to drink ale and tell stories. Most of them have gone now, and there certainly weren’t any men of marriageable age left for me to choose from when the time came. And so my father chose for me, a well-to-do man on the mainland, with a nice brick house and an old family. Like ours, but not like ours at all.

“The moon lit her way into the sky and walked with her to her new home,” my mother says. “And there, she cares for the stars and watches the world.”

“And they say,” I add, finishing the story, “that if the world should ever need her, strong and caring guardian that she is, she will leave the sky and walk the earth again.”

“There is always a path home,” my mother says. She reaches down and squeezes my hand. “But you might find you like your new one better, and that it gives you purpose and something to care for, just like the lady.”

“The lady isn’t real,” I whisper.

“She’s as real as you and me,” my mother says. “She’s as real as this island and the ocean, and as real as the moon and the stars.”

“She’s just a story.”

“And like I said before, you just want to argue.”

“I don’t,” I say. “I really don’t. I’m just pointing out the truth. The lady isn’t real. I’m leaving tomorrow. Everything’s going to change.”

I stand up, walk out to the water. I let it slide over my boots, and I can feel the cold through the leather. I’ve probably ruined this pair. I don’t care. I hear my mother behind me, her steady steps in the sand. She places a hand on my shoulder. I turn, and she sweeps a stray hair off my cheek. My cheek is damp, and I realize I’ve been crying. She does, too.

“My brave, smart, kind girl,” she tells me. “Your life will be just as beautiful and vibrant as you want it to be. That’s your choice to make.”

“And even the lady had a choice,” I say.

“Your father chose James,” my mother says, “because he is a good man. You can choose him, too.”

James has written me letters and sent me pictures. He’s told me all about the life we’ll lead together, and how excited he is to marry his island woman. We’ve exchanged books, and shared our favorite memories. I don’t love him yet, but I know I can.

“I do,” I tell her. “I have. But I wish I could have both, James and this island. His home and mine. Why do women always have to choose?”

“Because only women are strong enough to do it,” my mother says. “But don’t tell your father I said that.”

We smile together, and turn back towards the dunes. It’s time to go home, for the last time.

“Someday,” my mother says, “I hope you’ll tell your children about the lady. I hope you’ll tell them about this island and our life here.”

“I will,” I tell her, and I mean it with every fiber of my being, right down to my soul. “I will.”

************

Thank you for reading! This is the second of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

Here’s the first story, if you’d like to read it:

The Winter Woman

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.

The next story will be posted at the end of March.

The Winter Woman (A Short Story)

My grandmother always says stories don’t have to be real to be true.

We’re sitting at her table by the fire, eating midnight cookies and drinking hot chocolate.

She takes a sip and tells me, “Real and true, they’re not the same thing.”

“What do you mean, grandma?” I ask.

The fire crackles, and outside, I hear the wind. It moans like it feels sad. Snow started falling while we ate dinner, and it hasn’t stopped. It’s the perfect night for a story, and my grandmother tells the best.

“Do you know about the Winter Woman?” she asks.

I know all about the Winter Woman, and I say so.

“When I was little,” my grandmother says, “they would tell us, over and over, that the woods aren’t safe. Not safe for children, not safe at night, and especially not safe in winter, when the other wild things sleep.”

I know this part, so I add, “She never sleeps.”

“Exactly,” my grandmother says. “Don’t go into the woods. Be afraid of the woods, and most of all, be afraid of the Winter Woman.”

My grandmother lives in the oldest house in town, right on the edge of the woods.

“Have you ever seen her?”

“No,” she says. “But that doesn’t matter.”

I ask why.

“Stories have power,” my grandmother answers, “because we believe in them. They have the power we give them.”

“Where did the Winter Woman come from?”

“Somewhere far away, and old,” says my grandmother.

I ask what she’s even doing here, then.

“She followed us,” my grandmother says.  

I ask who, exactly, she followed, and why, and where from.

“She’s been with us for a very long time,” my grandmother says, “and she’ll stay with us even after you and I are gone.”

“What does she want?”

My grandmother smiles, and picks up my empty plate. “I think it’s time you go to bed,” she tells me.

She does this every time, every story. She tells just enough, just enough that I want more.

“Tell me, please,” I say, drawing out the “please” for as long as I can. “You always stop at this part.”

“What would you want?” she asks me.

I have to think about it. “Maybe something warm to wear,” I say, “if I’m out in the cold all the time.”

“Is that all?”

“Well, if she’s from far away, and everything else in the woods is sleeping, and people don’t want to see her, then I bet she’s lonely,” I say.

My grandmother smiles again, and ushers me out of the room.

“You’re a sweet girl to think of that,” she tells me, as we make our way up the stairs.

“So, I’m right? She wants friends?”

“We all want friends,” my grandmother says.  

She tucks me in and sits by the bed in an old rocking chair. It creaks as she rocks back and forth.

“Will you stay until I fall asleep?”

“Of course,” she says.

“Grandma,” I say, “is the Winter Woman bad?”

“Did I scare you?” she asks.

“No,” I say. “I’m not scared. No one actually believes in the Winter Woman anymore.”

“Is that so?”

I yawn. “Yeah,” I say, and yawn again.

“Then she probably is lonely,” my grandmother says. “Now, go to sleep.”

And lulled by the rhythm of the chair, and the howl of the winter wind, I do.

************

Thank you for reading! This is the first of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore

I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here. 😊

The next story will be posted at the end of February.

Announcing: The 2022 Short Story Challenge!

Last year, I challenged myself to write twelve short stories – one story each month – around a central theme. A few other wonderful writers joined me, and it became a really fun and interesting creative project. So, of course, I’m doing it again.

The rules are the same: Write and post one story each month of 2022. Posted whenever you/I want to (for me, that’s usually the end of the month), and written around one theme. And the theme this year is:

Folklore.

I thought about several options, but this one wouldn’t let me go. How does a story become folklore? What are the necessary elements of a folk tale? What drives us to share folklore? How long does it last? Why does it last, and why, sometimes, does it fade away? Folk tales and folk traditions tie us to our ancestors. They connect us to our cultures, and to each other. Folklore is powerful, and I want to dig into it and see what I can learn along the way.

And if you want to join me, that would be wonderful! If you do, when you post your stories, you can use the tag “2022 Short Story Challenge” and mention this post. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here for this journey.  😊

I think 2022 is going to be a wonderful year for stories!

************

If you haven’t read them, or if you want to revisit any of them, here are all of my stories from 2021. Some of them I really liked, some of them I didn’t, and some were certainly easier to write than others. But they were all worth writing, and they each taught me something (or, sometimes, a lot of somethings) about myself, the art of writing, and how to tell stories. I’ve put asterisks by my two favorites, though, because why not?

*The Roads

This Place

Talk Out the Fire

Quiet Neighbors

The Return

Old Friends

*Jesse’s in the Back Room

Just Like Magic

Stage Fright

Cloud Dwellers

Old Enough

The Making of Annie’s Auld Lang Syne

Enjoy, and thank you so much for reading!