The Cairn in Slater Woods
Dylan has just moved to New Hampshire to live in a house his family has inherited from a great aunt he’s never met. There he meets his cousin, a bully who resents Dylan’s family, and a mysterious girl who claims she can lead him to buried treasure in the woods on the property. The key to helping the girl involves uncovering a dark family secret and righting the wrongs of the past.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Roaring Brook Press editor Kate Jacobs.
My recently deceased great-aunt Z’s house smells like cat crap, stale smoke, and retribution.
My mom hands me a bulging Seagram’s 7 box that’s covered with masking tape and black Sharpie. “Dylan, take this up to your room, please. And be careful on those stairs! I forgot how steep and narrow they are, and I swear your feet have grown three sizes this year!”
Once upon a time, I had a room with normal-sized walls covered by posters of Orlando Magic and the Miami Dolphins. I had cable TV and high-speed internet, a great view of the condo swimming pool, and central air conditioning. Then my mother’s aunt died and here I am stuck in New Hampshire with no cable, no air conditioning, dirty pink roses all over my bedroom wallpaper, and a slanted ceiling I’ve whacked my head on three times already.
“How ’bout these?” A moving guy nods to the three boxes stacked in his arms.
“Kitchen.” My mom points down the hall.
Stomping through the door behind Burly Moving Dude is James Beauregard Slater V, better known as JimBeau, better known as my cousin, better not known, as far as I’m concerned.
“Hey.” JimBeau talks like his tongue is too big for his mouth. “I’m meeting my friends tonight to hang out. My mom told me to invite you.”
I open my mouth to tell him where he can shove his half-ass invitation, but my mother swoops in. “That’s so nice, JimBeau! He’d love to!”
We both glare at my mother as she heads toward the kitchen, and for about a second, I feel sorry for JimBeau. Six generations of Slaters, including my mom, have grown up in this dilapidated Cape and the equally crappy Colonial across the road where JimBeau lives with his parents and little sister. My mom ditched New Hampshire for Florida years ago when she left for college, and we’ve rarely visited, so it was a surprise to everyone when Auntie Z left her house and the deed for Slater Woods to my mom instead of JimBeau’s dad. No wonder JimBeau hates us.
“Just . . . meet us out in the woods at nine thirty tonight. And—” he is actually growling at me now “—what happens in the woods, stays in the woods!”
Really? At least in Orlando, people tried to come up with original threats. But this box is getting heavy and I’m not in the mood to argue with an idiot. “Got it.”
The stairs aren’t just steep and narrow, they groan, like the well-worn wood is exhaling its last rotten breath. The stink is concentrated upstairs, with something special mixed in, like mouse turds and maybe a small forgotten critter decomposing under the eaves. And I’m expected to sleep up here? I park the box on my bureau and force a window open to let some fresh air in. One of Aunt Z’s cats, which we’ve also inherited, is underneath my unmade bed, and the sound of teeth scraping bone makes my skin squirm.
“Urgh! Stupid cat!”
I grab a soccer ball from a laundry basket and hurl it at the bedpost. Thunk! Stupid Cat streaks down the stairs like its tail is on fire, but leaves its headless breakfast behind.
“Dylan!” my mom calls. “I’ve got more boxes that need to go upstairs!”
“Yeah, and I’ve got half a chipmunk on my floor.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” Staccato footsteps pound the stairs, and in that hammering instant, a conversation we had on the ride from Florida replays in my head, about my upcoming senior year in high school, a fresh start in New Hampshire, and how it’s time for me to chop the apron strings and man up.
“I’ve got this, Mom.”
She hesitates. “You’re sure?”
“Yup.” I grab the first box I see, a shoebox full of Magic cards, and dump them onto my bare mattress. With the shoebox cover, I nudge the mangled corpse into its cardboard coffin, my stomach turning inside out as the body slides to the bottom of the box with a slick thud. I swallow hard so I don’t puke.
“Oh, Dylan!” my mom says when I come down the stairs holding the box at arm’s length.
“What? It’s gross!” I argue.
And it’s dead.
It’s dark at night in New Hampshire. In Orlando, there’s so much light pollution, it’s hard to see much in the night sky, but up here, I see the fire burning within each star.
“Hey.” My mom follows me outside with a flashlight. “Want this?”
I’d love her monster flashlight because it’s blindingly bright and those woods look like they want to swallow me whole, but walking into the woods waving Mommy’s Flashlight is just handing JimBeau and his friends the iron to brand me with. “No thanks. I have one on my phone if I need it.” My mom nods like she understands. “Okay, just . . . be careful. Pine forests are messy and there are a lot of branches all over the ground, so make sure you pick your feet up when you step.”
“Mom, I know how to walk.”
“I know, honey.” She stands on tiptoes to kiss me on the forehead and I lean forward to meet her halfway. “I know I don’t have to worry about you drinking or smoking. Just make sure you stay away from the big pile of rocks on the edge of the woods.”
“Big pile of rocks?” This is something new in her arsenal of forbidden stuff. “Why? Are we talking avalanche potential here or what?”
“Oh, no, it’s not dangerous. It’s an old Native American cairn, but it’s protected by federal laws.”
Cairn? Isn’t that . . .
“When I was a teenager, the kids used to climb on it and throw the rocks around.” My mom sighs. “I don’t know what JimBeau and his friends do out there, but I know you’d never be that disrespectful.”
. . . a grave. “Thanks, Mom. So you wait until I’m about to walk into the woods alone, in the pitch dark, to tell me there’s a dead body buried in there.”
She laughs. “Dylan, that cairn’s been there so long, the body’s probably nothing but dust now.”
Decomposition is such a creepy thing. I hum the Twilight Zone tune.
“Oh, it’s fine! And if the kids start in on the ghost stories, don’t pay any attention to them. I played in those woods all the time when I was a kid and the scariest things in there are spiders.”
Says the arachnophobic woman who doesn’t believe in ghosts.
The woods explode with frenetic laughter. My mom perks up and pats my arm. “Have fun, honey.”
Yeah. Fun. I stumble toward the voices, tripping over all kinds of forest debris, both crunchy and squishy, and smack my nose on something hard dangling from a branch. Dammit! I give in and power up the flashlight app on my phone.
The light doesn’t make the woods seem any friendlier. I am dwarfed by giant pines, bare branches grabbing at my T-shirt with bony fingers. The thing I bumped into is a grubby brown beer bottle strung to a branch by a length of rusty wire. When I wave my flashlight around, I see dozens of bottles hanging from the trees, and they’re creepy-ass ominous, like a forest full of dangling corpses.
Someone races by, scaring the crap out of me, then there’s a shriek, which is fortunately not my own, then another runner and a third. It takes me a second to realize that JimBeau’s crew is playing capture the flag.
“You are my prisoner!” some girl announces as she grabs my arm. I start to yank away but even in the dark, I can see that she’s kind of cute, with a contagious smile and hair the color of moonlight. “Hey, you’re that new kid!” She giggles, and loops her arm through mine like we’re an old married couple. “I’m Jaycie. I live in the Slater Farms development behind JimBeau’s house. Isn’t your name Dylan? Aren’t you JimBeau’s cousin? Didn’t you move into Auntie Z’s house?”
“Yeah. Nice to meet you.” Jaycie weaves us in and out between branches and bottles with frightening precision, and I can only hope I don’t trip over something, face-plant, and embarrass the hell out of myself. Someone or something is rustling through the dead leaves nearby, but Jaycie is oblivious.
“Teagan!” she shouts. “Check out my prisoner! It’s that new kid, Dylan!” We come to a clearing, and I barely even notice this Teagan person because she is standing in front of a knee-high pile of rocks.
“Hey.” I point. “Is that the Native American grave?”
“Yup.” Jaycie doesn’t even bother to look. “And it’s also your prison since I captured you. Sit!” She plunks herself down beside the cairn and pats a spot beside her. “Prepare to be interrogated.”
I sit carefully, reverently, on a bed of pine needles and broken twigs. Who is buried under these rocks? How did he or she die? And what’s left of the body? Dusty dirt sticks to my sweaty hands and I brush them off on my pants, then wish I hadn’t done that. Can bone dust work its way to the surface?
“So tell me about yourself,” Jaycie prods. “JimBeau said you’re from Orlando. That must be so cool! Isn’t the Tower of Terror the most awesome ride ever?”
JimBeau’s rough voice comes out of the darkness. “Where the hell is your flag, Teagan? I’ve looked everywhere.”
Jaycie grins and winks at me while she reaches into her shirt and offers me a peek at the flag and her cleavage, then she holds one finger to her lips. O-kay, then. “I won’t tell a soul,” I assure her.
My cousin and his friends are like a troop of beer can–carrying baboons. I get no hello from JimBeau, just a dirty look that I translate into WTF! You weren’t supposed to actually show up, moron! He walks over to us, smirks at Jaycie, reaches right down her shirt, and takes his time groping around for the flag while she shimmies around, giggling and squealing.
I add pervert to the list of my cousin’s offensive qualities.
“JimBeau!” Jaycie shrieks. “You just scratched me, you cretin!”
“Oh, you love it.” He yanks the flag from her bra and waves it in my face. “We win.”
Teagan scowls and gives JimBeau a filthy look.
“Hey!” One of JimBeau’s friends parks himself between Jaycie and me. He’s wearing a faded Dragon Ball Z shirt and he’s got a manga sticking out of the pocket of his cargo pants, so I think maybe he’s not a complete jackass. “I’m Mike. So you’re JimBeau’s cousin?”
“Yeah, I’m Dylan.”
“JimBeau says you play soccer.”
“Oh, that’s too bad.” Mike guzzles the rest of his beer down, crushes the can in one hand, and burps in my direction. “Real men play football, son.”
JimBeau laughs. “Dylan’s scared he’ll get his ass handed to him.”
“Shut it, JimBeau!” This is the first time I’ve heard Teagan speak and her voice swipes through the air like cat’s claws. “It’s not his fault Auntie Z didn’t leave you jackshit in her will. Maybe if you and your football buddies didn’t raid her medicine cabinet every chance you got . . .”
“Screw you! Maybe if you had what it takes to be a cheerleader, you wouldn’t be such a tight-ass bitch.”
Teagan flips JimBeau the finger and turns to me. “Would you mind walking me home, Dylan? I live right on the other side of the woods. In a neighborhood that doesn’t have a name!”
“Oh. Sure.” I stand up, and out of the corner of my eye, I see a tall, gorgeous girl with long strawberry-blond hair and an anime-style schoolgirl uniform leaning against a pine trunk, giving us all disapproving looks. I can’t say I blame her. She reaches up to touch a bottle, sending it into a slow spin. I smile at her as I trot off after Teagan, but Anime Girl doesn’t return the smile. Out of your league, Dylan, I tell myself. Don’t even go there.
Teagan stomps off toward a distant light along an invisible path and I try to stay close to her. I still hear a stealthy something rustling through the woods nearby. “Sorry,” Teagan says over her shoulder, “I know JimBeau’s your cousin and all, but I can’t stand him. And I have zero interest in being a cheerleader. I’ve been playing soccer since I was in kindergarten.”
“That makes two of us, on all counts.”
“So you’re not interested in being a cheerleader either?”
We both laugh.
“I really loved your Auntie Z.” Teagan slows her pace to match mine. “She was such a character. Did you know she used to smoke cigars? She called them cheroots. God, they smelled foul! And she loved a shot of apricot brandy in her afternoon tea. But she was so sweet to us. She was always baking us snickerdoodles and she had the best stories.”
“Ghost stories?” I prompt her.
“Well, not a ghost, exactly. Auntie Z said there’s a banshee in the woods.”
“A banshee?” No wonder my mother never paid attention to the ghost stories—they sound ridiculous. “Aren’t banshees the screamers from Scotland?”
“Screamers, wailers, take your pick. She said she only saw it once when she was a kid, and it was all wispy in a long gray cloak and it sounded like this . . .”
Teagan makes a low inhuman sound, somewhere between a human scream and an owl’s hoot, and it raises goosebumps on the back of my neck. “That’s going to give me nightmares,” I tell her.
Teagan looks delighted to have spooked me. “And later that night, her grandfather died! Right in the house where JimBeau lives now!”
“Yes way! That’s how she figured out it was a banshee—they’re a harbinger of death. Although I’ve never seen anything even remotely creepy in our woods, except for those stupid bottles. That’s why they’re there, you know, to scare the banshee away, so who knows? Maybe they work. You’d think we’d have Native American spirits all over the place with that grave, but I haven’t seen a single one. Such a rip-off!” The woods seem far less scary with Teagan chattering away beside me. “I guess it makes sense, though, considering your family is mostly Irish.”
“Are we? My mom never told me much about my family.” I lower my voice as we cross from rough wooded ground to the trim soft lawn of someone’s backyard.
“Really? Your aunt loved to dish dirt about your relatives.”
“How dirty is this dirt?” I ask.
“Well, JimBeau the First was her grandfather, and she said he owned slaves.”
“Wait a minute. Isn’t he my great-great-grandfather?”
“But how is that even possible? There were no slaves this far north.”
“He sponsored girls from Ireland. He paid for their traveling expenses, gave them room and board, and in exchange, they worked three years for him on the farm. Unless they didn’t work out. Then he shipped them down to work in the mill, but that was before child labor laws, so the working conditions sucked.”
“Yeah. But one of his girls disappeared. Supposedly, she ran off to New York City, but when Auntie Z was a teenager, she was friends with a girl whose mother was one of those Irish girls, and she thought the girl was murdered.”
“Who knows?” Teagan hauls off and kicks a stray ball across the dark yard and I hear it smack against something hard. For a second, I think I see Anime Girl coming toward us, but then I realize the ball hit a swing set and it’s only the swing moving.
“Auntie Z said there were a lot of transient people who worked on the farm during the summers so maybe one of them did it. Although one day when Auntie Z had a few too many shots of apricot brandy, she said she wouldn’t put it past her grandfather, but we’ll never know, will we?” Teagan says mysteriously and then her voice mellows. “It must be hard for you to switch schools halfway through high school. What are you, a junior?”
“Yeah. We went down to sign me up for school this morning, so I’ll start tomorrow. What year are you?”
“I’m a junior, too. Your bus stop is right under the stop sign on Brewster Road, right beside the woods. You need to be there no later than six thirty. I get on one stop before so I’ll save you a seat.”
Things are looking up.
I barely slept all night because something was scratching around inside my bedroom walls. My mother diagnosed mice and promised to call an exterminator. Awesome. I get up before the alarm goes off, so here I am, alone at the bus stop at 6:15 with nothing to do but drool over JimBeau’s hot little red Miata sitting in his driveway across the street.
“Dylan, is it?”
I spin 180 degrees toward a sudden, sexy voice with an inscrutable accent. Anime Girl is leaning gracefully against a bare trunk of a pine tree, looking amused.
“I’m sorry. Did I frighten you?”
“No! You just surprised me.” To the point of nearly peeing myself. “Didn’t I see you in the woods last night?”
“Yes, and I saw you, as well.” Anime Girl pushes away from the tree and circles me, appraising. “You don’t appear to be very fond of your cousin.”
“I can’t stand the guy,” I admit.
Anime Girl laughs and the birds laugh with her. Anime Girl smiles and the sun shines brighter. She is way hot, sizzling, steamy, out-of-my-league hot. My mom raised me to be a gentleman, so when that bus pulls up, I’ll let her get on first, of course, and then what? Teagan said she’d save me a seat. I have to sit with Teagan, but oh, man! What if Anime Girl asks me to sit with her? What if . . .
“Hey, wait a minute. How do you know my name? And—” I can’t keep calling her Anime Girl “—what’s yours?”
“Vanessa.” She says her name like it’s a whisper, a kiss, a rose-scented breeze.
”Vanessa,” I repeat, but there’s no magic when I say it. “Do you live in the Slater Farms development, too?”
She arches her fair eyebrows delicately. “I would never live there. It broke Auntie Z’s heart when your uncle sold off the family farmland. Why do you think she left your uncle rubbish in her will?”
“I was wondering that myself.”
“I’m sure. Are you excited about starting school?”
“Meh. Do you consider dread a form of excitement?”
Vanessa laughs and the angels dance.
“What year are you?” I ask hopefully.
“Oh, I don’t go to your school.”
“Aren’t you waiting for the bus?”
“Not your bus.”
“Do you go to private school?”
Vanessa smiles. “Very private.”
“Well, that explains your . . . uniform.”
Her face clouds over. “What’s wrong with my uniform?”
“Well . . .” How do I explain this without sounding like some kind of pervert? “Your skirt is kind of, uh, short.”
“Really?” Vanessa’s blue eyes gape at me. “But it’s no shorter than the skirts in the book.”
She must be talking about the student conduct book. “At the school I went to in Florida, you couldn’t wear a skirt or shorts more than six inches above your knee.”
“Is this more than six inches above my knee?”
I look down and do a double take. I could swear her skirt was several inches shorter than it is. “It’s, uh, no. Sorry. Maybe you were leaning over and it just looked shorter.” I feel like a total idiot now, but at least Vanessa looks relieved.
“Your bus is coming.”
I look down the street, but I don’t see anything. “Where?”
I’m silent, listening, and I still can’t hear anything but birdsong.
“Close your eyes,” Vanessa suggests.
It’s only then that I hear the signature rumble of a distant school bus, and when I open my eyes, Vanessa is leaning against the pine tree’s trunk once again. “Did you know your cousin used to steal from Auntie Z?”
“I did hear that. He used to take her prescription drugs?”
“Yes, he used to sell those. He took her money, too. And jewelry.”
“What a jerk!” No wonder Aunt Z would rather leave her inheritance to my mom who she rarely saw rather than to JimBeau and his family, who obviously took advantage of her.
“She used to bury things so he couldn’t steal them,” Vanessa says as she watches my bus turn the corner toward us. “Meet me in the woods after school and I’ll show you where she buried her treasure.”
She winks at me as my bus chuffs to a stop. “Don’t forget a shovel.”
True to her word, Teagan has saved me a seat. The bus driver waits until I drop down beside her before he roars off, and the first thing I say to Teagan is not “hello” but “Do you know her?”
“That girl.” I point out the window, but Vanessa has already disappeared into the woods.
Teagan shrugs. “I don’t see anyone.”
I bounce Vanessa’s theory that my great-aunt Z has buried treasure in the woods, and Teagan’s face lights up.
“Auntie Z used to complain to JimBeau’s parents about the stuff he stole, but they didn’t do a damn thing about it,” she informs me. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Auntie Z did bury stuff, but I don’t know anyone around here named Vanessa.”
“Long, reddish hair? Tall? Thin? Blue eyes?” I swallow the word “beautiful.”
Teagan shakes her head. “Doesn’t sound familiar.”
“She said she goes to private school.”
“Oh, no wonder! The kids who go to St. Claire’s won’t be caught dead slumming with us. There’s a bunch of kids a few streets over in the Juniper Pines development that go to St. Claire’s and sometimes they hang out in our woods. She’s probably one of them.”
“And they catch the bus at the same place I do?”
“No, they have a bus stop at the end of their street.”
I sit back and contemplate this bizarre puzzle. Who is this girl who knows my name, who trolls the woods alone at night, who knew my great-aunt Z so well that she knows where her money stash was buried?
“I’m just really surprised, you know?” Teagan chews on the string of her hoodie. “Auntie Z used to tell me all kinds of stuff. I don’t know why she told this Vanessa chick where she buried her loot but not me.”
The words spurt out of my mouth before I can stop them. “Do you want to come digging for treasure with us?”
“Ohmigod, yes! I’d love to!” Teagan does a sneaker drumroll on the floor of the bus and grins at me. “I’ll bring my own shovel and help you dig! This is going to be so cool!”
Teagan sticks to me like honey all day, giving me the grand tour of the school, introducing me to her friends, scowling at JimBeau and his friends any time we pass them in the halls.
“So I know he’s a jerk,” I say after lunch, “but you seem to have a concentrated amount of hatred for James Beauregard the Fifth. How come?”
“Because he treats girls like dirt! Did you see what he did to Jaycie when he wanted the flag?”
“He tried that with me exactly once, and I kicked him so hard there may never be a JimBeau the sixth.”
Which would be no great loss to civilized society, but still. ”Sorry my cousin’s such a douche.”
“It’s not your fault.”
After the bus drops me off, I change into my grungiest jeans and head out to the shed, where I assume all good shovels live. The latch lifts easily enough, but the door won’t budge. I yank twice, three times, before I hear Vanessa’s voice. “That door hasn’t been opened for ages. I expect the wood’s swollen from the heat. Give it a kick and see if it helps.”
I kick it once and pull. Nothing happens.
Vanessa laughs. “Put some muscle into it, boy.”
I give her the who are you calling boy? look, haul back, and wham! Nothing.
“Imagine you’re giving your cousin a good swift kick in the pants!” Vanessa suggests.
I grin. “You want to help?”
“As much as I would love to . . .” She steps back, crosses her arms over her chest, and smiles. “I have faith in you, Dylan. You can do this.”
With one final kick and pull, the door wheezes open, releasing a fine cloud of dust into the sunlight, my mouth, and up my nose.
I cough it out, and when I inhale, I notice the shed smells a lot like my bedroom.
“Why does everything around here stink?” I complain.
Vanessa slips past me into the dark shed and points to a small pile of furred and feathered corpses in various degrees of decomposition in the corner.
“Ack!” My feet seem programmed to run away from death. I stop myself after two steps, but not before Vanessa notices.
“Are you all right?” she asks. “Auntie Z’s cats have been busy, I see.”
“Yeah, fine.” I laugh it off and hope she doesn’t think I’m a total wuss. “Stupid cats. Didn’t my aunt ever feed them?”
“Yes, but cats are soulless creatures—they kill for the sport of it.” She smiles sympathetically. “Breathe through your mouth. You’ll be fine.”
The shed is full of antique tools, wooden handles polished smooth from years of use and metal crusty with rust. When was my last tetanus shot? Vanessa points to a corroded, dirt-caked shovel leaning against the wall. “Take that one and this sack—it doesn’t have nearly as much dry rot as the others.” I wish I had thought to bring some gloves, but even if I had a little more foresight, the only gloves I own are bike gloves, which have no fingers and cost me thirty bucks. I’ll deal.
“Do you want a shovel, too?” I ask.
“I’ve no need for a shovel,” Vanessa assures me. “I’m the treasure map.”
It occurs to me that maybe Vanessa is showing me where the money is buried because she wants a cut of what we find. She’s probably been watching Aunt Z hide her money for years, but I bet she’s too honest to steal any of it. “Does the treasure map work on commission?”
Her smile fades. “What do you mean?”
“Well, you’re showing me where all of my aunt’s money is buried. I was just wondering how much you charge for a finder’s fee.”
“I don’t want your money,” Vanessa says. “But since you’ve brought it up, I would ask a kindness of you.”
“A kindness? What kind of kindness?”
“A dirty kindness. A sweaty kindness. A kindness that may churn your gut and curl your toes, but since I’m about to show you where your college tuition lies, I’m sure you’ll be delighted to oblige me.”
She has a point. She is doing me a big favor, but the way she’s asking for this kindness makes me wonder. “Is this an illegal kindness?”
“Of course not. I would never ask something like that from you, Dylan. I’ll tell you what I’d like soon.” She levels those blue eyes at me and my spine dissolves. She’s out of your league, I remind myself again. Besides, I can’t be swooning over Vanessa when Teagan gets here.
“Hey, I invited someone to help dig,” I confess.
Vanessa laughs. “Let me guess . . . Teagan?”
“Yeah. I didn’t think you knew each other.”
“She doesn’t know me. And I don’t know her, really, just her name and the fact that she loathes your cousin nearly as much as I do. Is she bringing her own shovel?”
“She said she would.”
“Wonderful! Although you know what?” Vanessa peruses the selection of tools in the shed and points to a couple of shovels that are hanging from nails. “Take those, as well.”
“Perhaps your cousin and his friends will join us.”
“I don’t want him joining us! He’ll just take whatever we find.”
“Your mother is the rightful landowner of these woods now, Dylan. If he takes what belongs to her, he’s stealing.”
“Well, yeah! From what I hear, stealing is one of his favorite hobbies.” I hate that my voice sounds panicky, but what started out as a simple treasure hunt is now complicated by some sweaty kindness and my idiot cousin.
“I’ll take care of your cousin and you’ll take care of these unfortunate creatures here.” She points to the pile of animal carcasses left by the cats.
I look at them uncertainly. “Take care of them how? They’re dead.”
“Yes, and they need to be properly buried.”
“Of course. You’ll be digging many holes today. Would it be any trouble to bury these poor creatures?”
“No, it’s . . .” My gut’s already starting to churn at the thought of scooping up all thoselifeless little bodies.
“When things aren’t properly buried, they don’t rest. They scratch at the walls and howl in the wind and keep the living up all night.” I feel the color drain out of my face. I think of the mice scrabbling inside the walls of my house, but what if . . . no, the idea of little rodent ghosts is ridiculous.
I admit that I like the woods a lot better in the daylight. I’d like it even more if I wasn’t carrying a shovelful of dead stuff, which I’m trying to ignore. I focus instead on the bottles, which look pretty cool now that they’re sparkling in the sunshine. The birds sing, blissfully oblivious to our presence. Vanessa’s lips move as she silently counts out her footsteps, and I’m quiet, watching, listening. I hear the sound of car doors slam and Jaycie’s unmistakable laugh. “Maybe we should do this another day when JimBeau’s not around,” I suggest.
“Eighteen, nineteen, twenty.” Vanessa counts loudly and stops walking. “I rather hope he shows up. There’s quite a bit of digging to be done, Dylan, and you might appreciate his help.”
“He’ll just take whatever we dig up.”
“I don’t believe he will,” Vanessa replies. “Right here. Dig.”
Teagan appears with one of Auntie Z’s cats cradled in one arm and a shiny new shovel tucked under the other. The cat takes one look at me and Vanessa and freaks out.
“Argh! Sugarbaby! What’s got into you?” Teagan drops the shovel and struggles to hold on to the flailing clump of white fur.
“It’s probably still pissed off at me for interrupting its lunch yesterday,” I say.
The cat howls and scrambles to escape, its back claws leaving red welts on Teagan’s bare arm. “Ow! Stupid cat!”
“Exactly!” I agree.
Teagan examines her arm briefly, then extends it toward Vanessa. “Hi! We haven’t met, I’m Teagan.”
Vanessa offers a melancholy smile in return. “It’s lovely to meet you, Teagan. You’re just in time. Dylan was about to dig right here.”
Teagan drops her hand and studies her for a few seconds, then shrugs and starts to dig.
A few minutes later we unearth a plastic Cool Whip container. Teagan whistles. “So there is buried treasure! Who would have guessed? Maybe Auntie Z’s right about the banshee, too!”
“A banshee?” Vanessa burst out laughing. “Oh, good lord, I’m sorry to disappoint you, Teagan, but you’ll not find a banshee in these woods.”
I shake off the dirt, pop the top off, and pull out a wad of cash wrapped in a plastic sandwich bag. “Here—” I hand it to Teagan “—would you count that for me?”
That glorious sound of money rustling fills the air as I drop the animals into the hole and fill it with dirt. ”One thousand, five hundred dollars,” she announces.
“That is just the beginning.” Vanessa turns and counts her steps again while Teagan and I watch, and a few minutes later, we’ve unearthed five thousand dollars in cash, plus my aunt Z’s diamond engagement ring.
“Your uncle was desperate to find that ring before your mother arrived,” Vanessa tells us just before she counts her way to the next treasure spot, which yields ten thousand dollars and an emerald and diamond pendant.
“Ooh, pretty!” Teagan holds the pendant in a small sunbeam that filters through the pine boughs and watches it shimmer.
I’m now officially psyched, figuring at least two years of tuition are covered. “Holy crap, Vanessa, you weren’t kidding about buried treasure!”
I get a withering look in return. “Dylan, do you kiss your mother with that filthy mouth of yours?”
“What’d I say?” I look at Teagan and she shrugs.
“The word ‘holy’ should never be used to describe excrement,” Vanessa admonishes me. “I thought you were above that.”
“Sorry!” I totally forgot she went to private school and probably has all these religious rules.
Vanessa begins counting off steps, and before I realize it, we’re less than five feet from the cairn. “This is where she hid the bulk of her valuables.”
My burst of adrenaline fizzles out, but the audible hiss comes from Aunt Z’s other cat, who is crouched on top of the rock pile, glaring not at me, but at Vanessa.
“Wow! What is up with Auntie Z’s cats today? I’ve never seen them so crazy!”
I exchange a look with Vanessa.
“I wonder why Aunt Z put it so close to the grave?”
“Why not?” Vanessa counters.
“I don’t know, it’s just, she’s got this entire woods to bury stuff in and she decides to put it right here? You know, it’s a federal crime to disturb a Native American burial site.”
“I promise you won’t be disturbing a Native American burial site,” Vanessa says. “Dig. I will be back shortly.”
I watch her head toward JimBeau’s house, and for a moment, I want to ask her where she’s going, but I admit, I’m more curious to see just how much the bulk of Auntie Z’s valuables adds up to. This one is a little deeper, and there’s a blister on my palm by the time we’re finished. It’s worth it. I find a thirty-two-ounce plastic ricotta cheese container with two wads of hundred dollar bills wrapped in a Wonder Bread bag.
“Ohmigod!” Teagan squees, “there’s too much to even count!”
I feel very giddy at the moment, holding two fistfuls of hundred dollar bills. I peel two off and hand them to Teagan. “Thanks for helping me today.”
“Really?” Teagan jumps up and down and throws her arms around my neck.
I hadn’t even noticed that Vanessa had returned. I’m so stoked about this unexpected windfall that I peel two more hundreds off and offer them to Vanessa, who shakes her head. “I’ve told you, I don’t want your money. Besides, you are about to have company.”
“What?” I have just enough time to shove the money back into the container and stuff it in the sack before JimBeau and his posse come into view.
“Hey, cuz,” JimBeau drawls, “this pretty lady told us we should come help you dig, but it looks like you’ve already done all the work.”
“What?” I spin toward Vanessa. I know she was getting annoyed with me but why would she set me up like this? I’m about to demand an explanation, but she is focused on JimBeau, a dangerous look heating up her eyes.
Teagan is holding the sack full of cash, but she’s not quick enough to keep it from JimBeau.
“Hey!” she protests when he rips it from her hands. She launches herself at him, but he holds the bag up out of her reach, laughing like a lunatic.
“You bastard! Give it back!” Teagan lands a few punches against his belly that seem to amuse him before he shoves her to the ground, hard. There is a moment of stunned silence that’s shattered by an unholy howl and a sickening rip that echoes through the trees. I freeze as the close, dizzy rush of something huge falls toward me. Teagan screams when two thousand pounds of pine tree crash down several feet away from us, roots raining dirt.
I pull Teagan close to me. “Are you okay?”
“Yes!” She’s trembling all over. I look around. JimBeau and his friends look shaken but fine.
I can’t see her. Her bright hair normally stands out among the green and brown of the woods, but she’s nowhere in sight. “Vanessa?” I shout. I let go of Teagan and run off to check under the tree, sack of money forgotten.“Vanessa!”
The hair-raising moan surrounds us again, and Teagan bolts to my side. “What the hell is that?” I ask.
“I’m out of here!” one of JimBeau’s friends mutters, but the ripping of tree roots glues us where we stand and within seconds, the forest floor reverberates with the crash of another fallen tree.
JimBeau whimpers. I would like to enjoy the fact that my cousin sounds like a frightened puppy, but when I see why he’s whimpering, I have this life-altering moment. On one side of this moment, I am a relatively sane person rooted in reality. On the other side, I’m either insane or mythical creatures exist, because there is a gray shrouded mist hovering in front of JimBeau. I blink, but it’s still there.
“Banshee!” Teagan whispers and grabs my hand.
I hear Vanessa laugh, but I still can’t see her. “I’ve told you, Teagan, there are no banshees in these woods.” The gray mist solidifies and shakes its hood off to reveal Vanessa’s long red hair. “And there is no Native American buried here either, is there, James Beauregard Slater the Fifth?”
My cousin steps back, trips over an exposed pine root, and lands on his butt.
“Is there?”Vanessa advances on him as he crabwalks backward.
“I don’t know! I just heard my grandfather tell my father there was a girl.”
“What did he say about this girl?”
“He said it was an accident!” JimBeau babbles. “One of the Irish girls had an accident and someone buried her out here, but nobody was supposed to know!”
“It was no accident! Your great-great-grandfather grabbed me the way you grab that poor Jaycie, and I fought him . . . I kicked and scratched and bit him so hard, he bled. So he smothered me and buried me here on this unhallowed land. Was it your father or your grandfather who spun the tale about a Native American burial site? They had the whole town believing so nobody ever asked questions about the grave in the woods.”
JimBeau shrinks back against a tree stump and hugs his knees to his chest.
“What happens, Dylan, when the dead aren’t buried properly?” Vanessa asks.
I wrack my brain for the right answer, because I have a bad feeling the wrong answer will send more trees smashing down around us. Or on top of us. She told me this in the shed. I just have to get it right. “They scratch at the walls,” I whisper. “They howl in the wind and keep the living up all night.”
“That’s right.” Vanessa leans down until her face is inches from JimBeau’s. “I have been bound to these woods ever since your filthy namesake buried me here, and I shan’t be released until my mortal remains are buried on consecrated ground.” She wheels toward JimBeau’s friends. “Get him up, dust him off, and start moving the rocks. And when you’ve finished that, choose a shovel. Because you will all do me the kindness of digging my moldy bones up out of the muck or I swear, I’ll drop every last tree in these woods.”
I am the first one to move, to grab a rock and heave it off to the side. My belly is in knots wondering what’s left of Vanessa, lying underneath all these rocks, all this dirt. It makes me even sicker to think that it was my relative who put her here. JimBeau looks too terrified not to join me, and his friends seem resigned to follow him. Teagan starts to help, but Vanessa shakes her head and sends her off on an errand. Ten minutes later, Teagan returns with a pair of leather work gloves for me. JimBeau and his friends’ hands are filthy and bleeding by the time the rocks are cleared, but one stern look from Vanessa sends them scurrying for the shovels. I hold my breath every time we ram our shovels into the dirt, waiting for the sound of metal scraping bone. I will not puke. I will not puke.
We haven’t dug long before Vanessa calls me over. I wipe the sweat and grunge off my forehead and look up to find I can see right through her.
Her voice is softer now, fading. “Will you see to it that I’m buried at the Holy Faith Cemetery after a proper Requiem Mass?”
I nod. I have a feeling it’s only a matter of time before Vanessa is released from the woods and she disappears forever. Teagan brought bottles of water to us a while ago, but my throat still feels tight.
“I know I don’t know you well, but . . . ” I’m talking to a dead girl, and as much as that freaks me out, there’s only one thing I can think of to say. “I’ll miss you.”
“Thank you, Dylan.” She leans in to kiss my cheek, and her touch feels like the feather of an angel.
“The Cairn in Slater Woods” © copyright 2012 Gina Rosati
Art © copyright 2012 Eric Fortune