The Witchwood at Nob’s End

I have been writing stories since I was about twelve years old. I have written other novels, short stories and poetry between–but this fantasy-gothic story is the first, and the one I keep returning to. It may be that the locale is near and dear to me (sort of). It might be that the main character reminds me of a certain rash and brassy young woman of my, er, “acquaintance.” But in the years post MA work, during those tortured eviscerations they call dissertation-writing, I picked it back up. The text is now complete and has been making the rounds with agencies while I work on the sequel.

The Witchwood of Nobs End

Brandy Schillace

 

Chapter 1: The House on the Hilltop

Defunct mining operations left scars. Lots of them.

A thirsty road, rutted out by rain and held together by patchy gravel, snaked through abandoned coal company lands. The water was orange, the trees black, and the forest swiss-cheesed with collapsed mines and sinkholes—but that wasn’t the worst of it. Every tangled, overgrown tree was tagged with a yellow PUBLIC HUNTING sign. Ezra Kenning and her brother Alex could see the neon zipping by from the backseat. It didn’t take encyclopedic genius to figure out what a bad idea that was—

“Like people want to fall down a mine shaft with a loaded firearm,” Ezra muttered—loud enough to be heard.

“Be nice, or be quiet,” her mother insisted as she swerved to miss another pot-hole. In the rearview, Ezra bounced sideways into her brother with a whip-lash of unruly black curls.

“Hey!” Alex squished himself against the window. “Watch your pony-tail, would you?”

“I can’t watch it. It’s on the back of my head,” Ezra flipped open her runner’s magazine and stared at it ferociously.

Alex just stared out the window. There was no point in arguing with Ezra, after all. Tall for sixteen, Ezra was brooding, bookish and bony—and almost never nice or quiet. Alex was younger, but fourteen years had taught him a thing or two. Like when it was best to just leave her alone. Which was pretty much always. Alex didn’t like their new home all that much, either. But Ezra—she hated it.

The blue sedan bumped its way up a steep incline. Dark, dismal trees gave way to dark, dismal weeds, and finally to a brush-hogged section of scabby ground. Ezra sighed as the sedan came to a shuddering halt just left of the house—or what passed for one. Most of it was underground, built into the very hillside. The rest, consisting of the front foyer and a teeny attic-like bedroom, peeked over the frost line like a shy marmot. The whole of the place was built from concrete block, shingled with grayish siding, roofed with asbestos tiles and, to all appearances, slouching to one side.

“Home sweet home.” Ezra shut the door with a satisfying slam. We’ll get used to it, their father had said, but she didn’t plan on it. In pretty much the same way she had not gotten over the bankruptcy—or watching everything they owned being auctioned off.

“Dad’s not home yet?” Alex asked, picking up two jugs of bleach (because the bathroom was a shrine to the mold gods).

“Interviews take time,” his mother replied, but her face looked like it had the cramp. Taking time could be a good thing or a bad thing, though it certainly took more time to get a job than to lose one.

“Watch where you put things,” Ezra said dully. She was standing next to the brown kitchen table (by the brown cabinets, brown paneling, and brown linoleum of a whole interior more or less brown). “The mice have left a trail.”

“Right. I’ll put the bread in the fridge,” Alex eyed the scattering of pellets on the counter doubtfully. It had been almost a week, but though the mice had been losing battles, they were winning the war.

Ezra dug around the sacks and stacked the table with enough dry spaghetti to last a month—along with plenty of cheap red sauce.  Dinner was not the highlight of the day for the Kenning family. Not anymore. And it mostly consisted of more things wrong with their backwards, downside up house.

“Property is overgrown on the western edge,” their father said over his dish of watery marinara.

“I noticed,” said their mother, “and the roof shingles are cracking.”

Their voices were strained and singing like the high-tension wires on the back forty. The broken things, the mice, the boxes, the unpacking—it was just a way of not talking about the job their father had not gotten. The only scrap of hope now was the postal service, which was looking for fill-in drivers. Ezra scraped her fork across the plate; better to leave the table before they ran out of topics.

“Come on,” she said, excusing herself and dragging Alex behind her. He followed willingly, but was making his own mental list.

“—and there’s no TV reception,” he said as they passed through the mud room and to the front porch.

“There’s a surprise,” Ezra muttered. It had taken two days to get the electric turned on, another to rewire the living room plug and ages to find the antenna among the boxes of useless crap. It didn’t surprise her at all to find there had been no real point.

“They practically gave this property away,” she sighed, thinking of their pleasant two-story in Philadelphia. “If we don’t get cancer from the high tension wires, we’re bound to get it from the water.”

“Oh you always think you’re gonna die of something,” Alex said, swatting a mosquito as the sun set behind them.

“That’s because eventually, I will. So will you.”

“Ugh,” Alex got up and frowned. “You know, sometimes you could be less—less—you. You don’t like anything!”

“That’s not true,” Ezra corrected, flicking her ponytail like an offended mare. “I like reading—”

“The encyclopedia, maybe.”

“—and I like running—”

“Which is weird.”

“—And I like Frank,” she said, meaning the family dog. “He’ll be here by tomorrow.”

And it was about time, too, in Ezra’s opinion. No one else understood her, really. How could they? She was so far from normal it was painful—and the name didn’t help. Why not something respectable like Elizabeth? She curled her lip. She’d been named after her aunt who, for some strange reason, was named after an Old Testament prophet. A name like that just marked you out for a life of general weirdness. It was one of several things she’d never quite forgiven her parents for.

But it didn’t matter what people thought—and it didn’t matter if they made fun, either. She was over that. And she was stronger, faster, smarter. That’s what mattered.

Or so she told herself pretty often.

But what mattered to Alex—at least, what mattered after he made it back to his room—was his sense of smell. Basements, it turned out, were home to things like mold, mold’s cousin mildew, and all of their creepy-crawly friends. Mice he was prepared to deal with. But water bugs, spiders and millipedes? There was just not enough bleach in the world, though the whole downstairs reeked of it. Too late, he asked to switch with Ezra, who had chosen the little closet on top of the house… above ground where there was air and light. The promise of a black light had done something to improve the situation, but finding out that the latest bad smell was a mouse, dead of chlorine fumes behind the toilet, pretty much killed the warm fuzzy.

“Mom! MOM! I can’t stay in here!” He held up the victim.

“Because of a dead mouse?”

“Because I might be next. I think I’m dying of bleach poisoning.”

“You’ve been listening to Ezra’s cancer theories again,” his mother warned, wagging a finger at him.

“But it’s gross down here!”

“Well, you can’t kick Ezra out of her room.”

“I don’t see why not—she hates everything anyway,” Alex huffed.

“Oh, Alex,” his mother leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “It’s just going to take a while. You’ll see—now throw it outside in the weeds. Something will eat it.”

Alex stared after her. Two horrible ideas at once.

“Gross, gross, gross—gross, gross,” he muttered, carrying the stiff little body up the steps. It had occurred to him briefly that it might be fun to toss it into Ezra’s bed, but that would just mean he’d have to pick it up again later.

“Well, sorry little guy,” he said, giving it a good toss into the thicket. There was a tiny “piff” sound as it disappeared and Alex wiped his hands vigorously against his trousers. Then, a second sound arrested his attention.

Rustle, rustle, thumpety-thump.

Alex felt the hair on his neck prickle up, but he couldn’t bring himself to turn around. Yet. He marched off to the house, in a way he hoped looked manly, and then turned to face the western wood when his hand was on the screen door.

“Er?” He paused and squinted. He’d hoped that the thumpety-thumping creature was eating the dead mouse out of sight. But something was there. At least, he thought so. An indistinct shape, a ripple of movement in the gathering darkness.

“Ah—” he pushed the screen door open and slipped inside. “Ezra?”

Alex could hear Ezra’s mattress squeak and a minute later she was standing in the mud room and looking over his shoulder.

“What?”

“Look right there—” he pointed, but the something was gone. “Crap. It was right there.”

“It’s too dark to see anyway,” Ezra said, retreating to her bedroom. “Next time, just annoy me the old fashioned way.”

“Be nice. I just had to dump a dead mouse, you know.”

Ezra leaned against the bed post.

“Trapping more furry friends?”

“Uh-uh. It died from bleach poisoning. Oh, that reminds me. Do you wanna change rooms by any chance?”

“No, I don’t want your room of mold and death.” Ezra picked up her encyclopedia. “Actually, mold can cause death—want to hear about S. chartarum? It’s very interesting.”

Alex looked uncomfortable.

“It’s not—cancer or anything, is it??”

There was enough real alarm in his voice to make Ezra ashamed of herself.

“You’re fine. But you ought to hear how this room shudders when you open and close doors.”

Alex cocked his head to one side.

“It does seem to lean a little,” he admitted.

“See? You’re safe in your hole,” Ezra said, trying to sound reassuring—but not doing a very good job. “Anyway”—she shrugged—“It’s where the mice hang out, and they probably know best.”

Alex tried to smile. His sister was much better at sarcasm and bitterness, but at least she was trying.

“Thanks,” he said, shutting her crooked door and heading back downstairs. Unfortunately, no one had left a light on for him, and he had to feel his way down, noticing with a grimace that the wallpaper was slightly gritty in places. Back in his room, the bedside lamp was shining brightly, and he didn’t see anything crawling around anywhere. He could tough it out. He was good at that. Besides, things were okay—mostly because they had to be…even if they weren’t. It was a pretty sound life philosophy, and so Alex settled into bed, pulled the sheets over his chin, and put all the weirdness out of his head.

Or so he thought. […]

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