Bonus Short Story: This Changes Everything (Curse Keepers #2.5) | Author Denise Grover Swank Bonus Short Story: This Changes Everything (Curse Keepers #2.5) | Author Denise Grover Swank
Denise Grover Swank

Bonus Short Story: This Changes Everything (Curse Keepers #2.5)

This Changes Everything is a bonus short story that follows The Curse Breakers. Read it here or download it on BookFunnel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

“Higher, Claire! Higher!” Ellie squealed, her long auburn hair flying behind her. She’d had a bad day at school, and swinging always made her feel better. Daddy told her that her troubles in third grade were nothing compared to the real world, but that was easy for him to say. He wasn’t in Mrs. Hinkler’s class.

The swing arced, then swung down. Claire had to jump to push the swing again, her small fingers digging into Ellie’s back. “It’s my turn, Ellie!”

“Not yet. I want to reach the stars!” She stretched her feet so the tips of her loafers pointed higher. Obviously she’d never reach them, but when she was little she used to believe she really could. At eight, she was smart enough to know it wasn’t true, but it didn’t stop her from wishing it were. “If you keep pushing, I’ll tell you a secret.”

“You’re going too high and you’re gonna fall out. And I still haven’t had a turn.” Claire stepped back as the swing lowered. “Besides, you never tell me your big secret.”

Ellie twisted her face around the rope to look down at Claire. “This is a good one.”

Claire crossed her arms, her brow lowering into a glare. “What? That Drew ate dried glue before recess?” She shrugged with a scowl, flipping her pigtail over her shoulder. “Who cares? He’s gross.”

Ellie let the swing slow, sucking her top lip between her teeth. When had Claire heard about that? “Fine, you can have a turn.” She jumped out of the swing, landing on her feet and falling to her knees. The compacted patch of earth scraped her bare knee, but she turned her attention to her best friend.

“I don’t want to swing anymore.” Instead, Claire sat on the ground, her back to the giant oak tree, tilting her head to look up into the brown leaves.

Claire had been acting weird all day. Confused, Ellie sat in front of her, crossing her legs and tugging down her skirt hem so her underwear didn’t show. “Do you want to go inside and eat some chocolate chip cookies? Momma and I made some last night.”

Her friend shook her head, tears filling her eyes.

Claire never cried, so Ellie must have really hurt her feelings. Ellie twisted her hands in her lap. “I’m sorry I didn’t let you have a turn.”

Claire shot her an angry glare. “I don’t care about the stupid swing.”

“Then why are you mad at me?”

She released a loud sigh. “I’m not mad at you.”

“Then who are you mad at?”

Her dark brown eyes locked on Ellie’s. “My daddy said he wants a divorce.”

Ellie’s mouth dropped open in shock.

Claire wiped a tear from her cheek with a dirty fist. The wind picked up, blowing the loose hair from her messy pigtails in her face. She brushed them away absently, but several black strands stuck to her damp cheeks. “I heard Momma and Daddy yelling last night after I went to bed. Daddy said if Momma didn’t stop nagging him he was gonna go back to Greenville and get a divorce.”

Fear caught Ellie’s breath. Deep in her heart she felt badly that Claire was upset, but all she could think about was herself. Would Claire move back to Greenville with him? She was Ellie’s best friend ever, and she didn’t want to lose her. Several of her friends’ parents had gotten a divorce and then her friends had to split their time between their mommas and daddies, sometimes even moving away and not seeing their other parent for months. Ellie couldn’t imagine not living with both her parents. It was hard enough when her daddy left on his occasional business trips. But Ellie never questioned if her parents would get a divorce. They were happier than any other parents she knew. They were always kissing and hugging, and while Ellie’s friends thought it was gross, it only made Ellie more sure that when she got married, her husband would love her just as much as Daddy loved Momma.

Still, not everyone was so lucky. Claire’s family had only moved to Manteo this past summer because her daddy had lost his job in Greenville. Claire’s great-uncle offered him a job on his fishing boat, but Claire’s father hated it. Her mother had gotten a job at a hotel as a housekeeper, but the summer season was over and she’d been laid off. Now she worked over in Nags Head at a grocery store and she was always gone. When her parents were home, they spent most of their time fighting over money, but this was the first time Claire had ever mentioned divorce.

Ellie grabbed Claire’s hands in hers. “They won’t get divorced.”

Fat tears ran down her cheeks. “You don’t know that.”

Ellie wished she could assure her friend they wouldn’t, but she knew it might be a lie. Instead, she said the only thing she could think of that might make her friend happy. “I’ll tell you part of my secret.”

Claire narrowed her eyes and she jerked her hands from Ellie’s. “I told you I don’t want to hear about Drew Reeves eating glue.”

Ellie steeled her shoulders. “Not that secret. The secret.”

Claire still looked skeptical, but she stopped crying. “You told me you couldn’t tell me. That only family can know.”

Tilting her head to the side, Ellie gave her friend an exaggerated grimace. “I know, but you’re at my house all the time and we have lots of sleepovers. Besides, I told you I always wished I had a sister, and you and me are just like sisters.” She nodded her head firmly, proud of herself for coming to this conclusion. “So that means I can tell you.”

“Really?”

Ellie didn’t know if it was true or not. She hadn’t intended to tell Claire at all, but she’d do anything to make her happy. And it was true that Claire probably spent more time at Ellie’s house than her own. With her parents working strange hours and her older sister, Melanie, spending more time yelling at her than watching her, it wasn’t a surprise. Heck, Momma had started calling Claire her “other daughter,” so didn’t that mean that she was like a sister? In any case, she couldn’t back out now, even though Ellie’s chest felt heavy, like an elephant had sat on it. Claire was no longer crying, and Ellie didn’t want to upset her again. Besides, telling Claire would give them something special to share, just like real sisters.

“Really.”

Claire placed her elbows on her upper thighs and leaned forward, waiting.

Suddenly, Ellie didn’t know where to start. She’d known about the curse since she was a tiny girl. The curse had always been part of her life, her secret to keep. It would be nice to have someone to talk about it with, especially since Momma didn’t approve. Whenever Ellie asked her momma questions about the curse, her forehead wrinkled in irritation. She hated what she called all the “curse nonsense.” Ellie leaned forward and whispered, “My secret is about a curse.”

Claire’s eyes flew open, and she practically shouted, “You’re cursed?”

“Shhh!” But it was actually a good question, and Ellie’s brow lowered in thought. She’d never thought about if her role meant she was actually cursed. After a moment, though, she shook her head. “No, but Daddy says one day I’ll be a Curse Keeper.”

“What’s a Curse Keeper?”

“Daddy is the Curse Keeper now and there’s another one, only we don’t know who it is. When I turn eighteen, I’ll be the real Curse Keeper.” Ellie’s voice filled with pride, even though it seemed so far away—and she wasn’t actually sure what it meant, just that Daddy was always very serious about it. It was a very important job, which meant she would be very important too. Just like Daddy.

“But what are you supposed to do?” Claire asked, as if reading Ellie’s thoughts.

“Wait for the curse to break.”

Claire shook her head in confusion. “What’s the curse?”

Unsure how to answer, Ellie leaned closer again and whispered, “I know what happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke.”

“Mrs. Hinkler says no one knows what happened to the Lost Colony. She said it’s America’s great mystery.”

“Well, of course no one else knows,” Ellie said with a smug smirk. “Only the Curse Keepers know.”

“And me,” Claire whispered, wide-eyed.

And Claire…but not yet. Daddy had warned her that terrible things would happen if she told someone, and she was about to spill a huge secret. Her back tingled and her right palm itched and burned. She scratched at it, wondering if this was a good idea. The pressure on her chest was heavier and she sucked in a deep breath.

Claire’s cold hands grabbed Ellie’s, her fingernails digging into the padding inside her fingers. Her tears had dried up and excitement sparkled in her eyes.

How could Ellie not tell her now? “The colony disappeared because of the curse.”

Claire’s grip tightened.

“We live in Manteo, but do you know who it’s named after?”

Her friend shook her head.

Ellie wasn’t surprised. Claire hadn’t been born here. Everyone who lived here knew the Lost Colony story by the time they were in first grade, but Claire had moved here six months ago, right after the end of second grade. “Manteo was an Indian who helped the English people. So they named the town after him. But he didn’t just help them get food and protect them from the other tribes. He tried to get rid of the Native American gods of the enemy tribes.”

Claire was mesmerized. “Why would he do that?”

“Because he thought that was how they got their power to fight,” Ellie said, trying to say it the way her father had taught her. Sometimes it was still hard to understand, but Ellie would always nod her head and repeat whatever he said, eager to please him. “Manteo thought if their gods were locked up, they couldn’t attack and hurt Manteo’s tribe—the Croatan—and the colonists, so he and Ananias Dare performed a ceremony.”

“Ananias Dare! I know that name!” Claire said, her voice rising in excitement. “That’s the name of the street downtown!”

“Yeah, but he was a real person too. He was married to Elinor Dare, and her father was the governor, John White.”

“Wait.” Claire’s eyes bugged out. “Your name is Elinor Dare Lancaster.”

“Because she’s my great, great, great something grandmother.” Daddy had told her, but she always forgot how many “greats” there were.

Claire frowned her skepticism. “Nuh-uh.”

Ellie’s irritation ignited. She wasn’t even supposed to be telling Claire, and now she acted like Ellie was lying. She crossed her arms over her chest and asked in a snotty tone, “Do you want to hear what happened or not?”

Claire flinched with contrition and nodded. “I do.”

Ellie fumed for a little bit before going on. “So these two guys had some kind of ceremony. They each had something special to help them. Ananias had a pewter cup. It’s in Daddy’s office right now.”

Claire’s eyes were about to bug out of her head. “No. Way.”

“I’ll show you.”

Claire jumped to her feet. “Okay.”

They climbed the steps to the screened-in front porch. Ellie was careful not to let the door slam shut. Usually she didn’t care, but she was sure Daddy wouldn’t approve of her showing Claire the cup, let alone telling her about the curse. But at this point, she was upset that Claire wasn’t believing her, so she had to show it. Following Ellie’s lead, Claire tiptoed behind her into the office.

Ellie loved her daddy’s study. A big dark wooden desk was in the middle of the room, and Daddy always looked so important when he sat there, searching through his books and writing in his notebooks. The walls were lined with hundreds of books. She’d tried to count them several times and always lost track. The room smelled of cinnamon and leather, a scent that always seemed to hang onto her father. Sometimes when he was on a trip and she missed him, she’d come into the room and close her eyes and breathe in the smell of him.

But today, she was on another mission.

When they entered the room, she shut the French doors, even though the glass panes wouldn’t hide them from Momma, who was due home from work at any time. Right now, though, the only person she needed to worry about was Miss Marney, the older woman who watched Ellie after school. She’d known Daddy since he was a little boy and now she helped with Ellie’s parents’ bed-and-breakfast, sitting in the office and talking to guests while her parents worked their other jobs at the Fort Raleigh visitor center. But she was in the bed-and-breakfast—the converted house next to Ellie’s—and she most likely wouldn’t catch them. Even if she did, she was used to finding Ellie sitting in her daddy’s office chair.

Ellie moved to the back of the room and opened the blinds to give them more light. The next-door neighbor’s puppy romped outside in a pen made of baby gates. Maybe Claire would want to go play with Chip after she showed her the relic. The puppy would be much more fun than looking at an antique.

Eager to go back outside, she pointed up to the tallest shelf in the back corner. A small brown cup sat in front of a row of very old books, looking just as old, dirty, and unimportant as Ellie always thought it was. “There it is.”

Claire stood next to her, her head tilted back and her mouth dropping open. “That’s it?”

“Yep.”

“Why do you still have it?”

“Because we have to keep it for when the gate opens again and all the gods and spirits come out.”

Claire turned toward Ellie, her face pale. “What?”

Ellie was having trouble keeping the smug look off her face whenever she revealed another layer of the secret. “See, when Manteo and Ananias locked away the gods, they trapped them behind the gate to hell. And the colony disappeared with it. But when the gate breaks open, the colony will reappear with all the people who were there in the place where it used to be.”

“Where?”

She shrugged. “At Fort Raleigh, probably.”

Claire gave her head a little shake. “Will the colonists be dressed like they were when they disappeared?” Her eyes widened. “They’re sure gonna be surprised when they see cars and TVs.”

Ellie shook her head. “No, they won’t. Daddy told me that no living person could go to hell and come back alive.”

“So they’ll be a bunch of dead bodies? Will they be skeletons?”

Ellie shrugged again. “I guess.” She’d never given that part too much thought. She didn’t want to think about a bunch of skeletons, but she wasn’t surprised that Claire did. She was fascinated with ghost stories. Abnormally so. “But the curse is over four hundred years old and it’s never broken. It probably won’t break when I’m the Keeper.”

“That is so cool!” Claire squealed. “Maybe you’ll be lucky and it will break. Then what do you do?”

“Then the other Keeper and I will have to close the gate. And I’ll have to find a ladder to get the cup off the shelf.”

“That part’s easy!” Claire grabbed a shelf and began to climb. “I’ll get it for you.”

Ellie started to protest and tell Claire to leave the cup alone, but after talking about it she was surprised to discover that she actually wanted to see it and touch it. Daddy had taken it down once, but whenever she asked to see it since, he told her it was precious and not something to be “mauled.” She’d never understood that part. She knew bears mauled animals and people, but Ellie only wanted to look at it. And now she reasoned that if she were really the Keeper and needed the cup to close the gate someday, she should look at it so she’d be ready.

Claire loved to climb things—trees, ladders, the sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park—so climbing a ten-foot-tall bookcase was easy. She grabbed the cup and quickly descended, landing in front of Ellie. “This is it?”

“That’s what Daddy says.” Ellie understood her disappointment. For something that was supposed to be so important, it looked so boring. She took it from Claire’s outstretched hand and turned it upside down, looking for some sign of its specialness. There was nothing. Maybe Daddy had gotten it wrong.

“So what do you do with it?”

Ellie wondered how much she should tell. There was a ceremony with rules to be followed. The first had been led by Manteo. Ananias had gone along, not understanding that he’d been tricked. Daddy told her that Manteo had stolen Ananias’s family from him. He warned her that the Keepers had to perform the next ceremony as equals. He’d gone through the ceremony with her, making her repeat it all so she didn’t forget. They were to set up the site by etching symbols of the gods and spirits as well as the forces of nature, asking Ahone to grant his mercy on the children of the land and the sea. They were to cleanse their souls, and then they could ask the ancient magic, as old as time itself, to help them protect humanity by closing the gate. But her father had warned her that Manteo had used blood in the first ceremony, and she needed to use something stronger this time. Only she couldn’t remember what it was…

She paused, scratching at her burning palm. That was weird. Why couldn’t she remember? She knew what it was yesterday.

“Ellie!” Momma called from the back of house. “Are you in here?”

Startled, both girls jumped.

Ellie shoved the cup back at Claire. “Quick! Put it back!”

Claire scrambled back up the case, while Ellie stood guard at the door.

“Ellie? Claire? Where are you girls?”

Claire jumped down and ran next to Ellie as her mother opened the door, her eyes narrowing as she studied the girls.

“What are you two up to?”

“Nothing,” they said in unison. Ellie clasped her hands in front of her in an attempt to look innocent.

“Nothing, huh?” She looked around the room and Ellie held her breath.

“Miss Amanda, can I have a cookie?” Claire asked, smiling sweetly. “Ellie said you made some last night.”

Ellie’s mother’s gaze swept around the room one more time before shaking her head and muttering to herself under her breath, “All this Ricardo Estate secrecy has made me paranoid.” She smiled down at them, lifting an eyebrow with a mischievous grin. “How many cookies have you girls had already?”

“None,” they both said.

Momma laughed. “Some days I think you both share a brain the way you answer like that. I swear you two could be taken for sisters if you didn’t look like such opposites.” She ruffled their hair. “Come on my redheaded hellion and my raven-haired beauty. Let’s go get you a snack.”

Ellie felt relieved that her mother said the girls were just like sisters. See? Telling Claire about the curse wasn’t bad.

So why couldn’t she now remember the name of the god who was supposed to help her close the gate?

Chapter Two

 

The girls sat down at the kitchen counter as Ellie’s mother opened the lid to the plastic container. “What were you girls up to?” Momma used her “all-knowing” voice. Somehow she always knew when Ellie was doing something she wasn’t supposed to.

They turned to each other, trying to look innocent. “Nothing.”

Ellie’s mother gave them each a cookie. “Nothing, hmm?” She poured glasses of milk and set them in front of the girls. “I’d quiz you more, but I have to make an important phone call in Daddy’s office. You girls stay in here and eat your cookies.”

They nodded, their mouths too full to answer.

Ellie watched her mother walk out of the kitchen. “Momma never goes in Daddy’s office. She uses the phone in here.”

“Maybe she doesn’t want you to hear it. She said it was important.”

“Yeah.” Ellie took another nibble. Momma had been acting strange the last few days after she’d gone to Charlotte. Ellie sucked in her breath. Claire was acting strange. Fear flooded Ellie’s body.

Were Momma and Daddy getting a divorce too?

She wasn’t going to sit around waiting to find out. “I’m gonna go see what she’s saying.” She hopped off the stool and headed for the door.

Claire grabbed her arm. “Your mom went to the office so you wouldn’t hear it.”

“I know. But I have to know what she’s saying. Come on.” She tugged on Claire’s hand.

Claire shook her head, pulling out of Ellie’s grasp. “No way. I’m not getting in trouble.”

Ellie wanted to tell her she’d done something even worse minutes ago, but if her mother was talking to someone about getting a divorce, she didn’t want Claire to hear it anyway. “You stay here and watch for Miss Marney. I’ll be right back.”

“Okay,” Claire mumbled, her lips twisting with worry.

Slipping down the hall, Ellie hugged the wall, stopping outside the office door when she heard Momma’s muffled voice through the glass. She placed her back to the wall and slid down until her butt hit the wood, her knees tucked under her chin, as she strained to make the muffled sounds into intelligible words.

“I need to come to Chapel Hill and access the archives. Can you help me arrange it?” Her mother sounded upset. “Steven, please. You know I can’t tell him.”

Ellie tried to think of someone she knew named Steven but came up with nothing.

“No. You know how he’ll react if he finds out I did this without telling him. And then if he finds out what I saw…”

The cookie and milk in Ellie’s stomach tumbled in revolt. Was Momma talking about Daddy? What hadn’t she told him? That she was getting a divorce?

“Okay.” She sniffed and sounded relieved. “Okay, that’s a good idea.”

There was silence for several long seconds and Ellie thought she’d hung up until her mother’s tearful voice spoke again. “Maybe I should go to the police.” Her voice trailed off with a pause. “Okay, you’re right. I’ll tell him first.” Ellie heard another long pause. “Tonight. I’ll tell him tonight.”

There was a rustling in the room and Ellie hopped up and ran into the kitchen, sliding onto the stool.

Claire took one look at Ellie and her face paled. “What happened?”

Ellie didn’t answer. She wasn’t sure what happened. But she knew that her mother had kept a secret from her father and that she thought he would be upset about it. Her parents never got mad at each other except when Daddy talked about Curse Keeper stuff, so this had to be big.

Or was this about the curse?

Ellie’s mother stood in the kitchen doorway and cleared her throat. “How are you girls doing?” As she moved in front of the sink, Ellie saw her eyes were red and glassy.

Momma had been crying.

Claire noticed too and turned to her friend, worry pinching her mouth. Ellie had never seen Momma cry. Not once. The fact that two important people in her life had cried in such a short period of time rattled Ellie’s nerves. She pushed her half-eaten cookie to the center of the counter and slid off her stool. “I’m not hungry anymore.”

Her mother ignored her, staring out the window for several seconds before she turned at the waist toward her, looking distracted. “Okay.”

Claire glanced between her friend and Ellie’s mother, her eyebrows lowered in confusion. She drank the last of her milk and grabbed the rest of her cookie before hopping off her stool, following Ellie out the front door. The screen door hinges squeaked and Claire let it bang closed as Ellie sought out the puppy who still romped in the adjacent yard. She opened the gate and dropped to her knees. The puppy jumped onto her lap, licking her hand.

“What did you hear, Ellie?” Claire asked.

She wanted to tell Claire. She was tired of secrets, but she worried that telling her friend her mother had a bad secret would make it even more real. So she told her a simplified version.

“Momma was talking to someone about Daddy. But I wasn’t sure what it was about.” All true. Kind of.

“Your mom was crying.”

Ellie inhaled deeply and then exhaled before answering. “I know.”

Claire reached over and rubbed Chip’s head. “Since you told me your big secret, I want to tell you mine.”

Ellie froze momentarily before she lifted her face to Claire’s. She suspected Claire had been hiding something, but she thought that her parents’ possible divorce might be it. Apparently, she’d been wrong.

Claire’s gaze dropped to the dog on Ellie’s lap. “You know how I like ghost stories?”

Ellie nodded, then realized her friend couldn’t see her. “Yeah.”

“Sometimes…” She sighed and her voice broke. “Sometimes I hear things I shouldn’t.”

“You mean inappropriate things? Like rated R movies your parents watch when they think you’re asleep?” Ellie had done that a couple of times. But she’d gotten into big trouble when she’d said a word she’d heard, not knowing it was bad.

Claire bit her lower lip and shook her head. “No.”

Ellie waited for her to continue.

“Nobody here knows except Mommy and Daddy, because they made me promise not to tell anyone. And Melanie knows too, but Melanie hates me for it.”

“Is that why Melanie is so mean to you?”

She nodded. “Part of the reason we moved here was because of Daddy’s job, but part of it was because of me.” She looked up into Ellie’s face. “I hear voices no one else can hear.”

“What are they?” Ellie whispered.

“I don’t know,” Claire whispered in response. “I think they might be ghosts. They talk to me, but I can never see them. But I feel them.”

Ellie’s mouth dropped open. “What do they feel like?”

“Cold.” She shivered. “Very cold.” She looked at Ellie and, with a tremor in her voice, said, “Are you going to be mean to me too now?”

Ellie’s mouth gaped. “Why would I be mean to you?”

“The kids at my old school thought I was weird. Mommy and Daddy took me to a special doctor, and he wanted me to take medicine. But I hate pills so I spit them in the trash and pretended I didn’t hear the voices anymore. But the kids still made fun of me. So when Daddy lost his job, Mommy said we should move away for a fresh start. Now Melanie hates me for making us move.”

Ellie pulled her friend into a tight hug. “I’m your friend forever, Claire. No matter what.”

Claire leaned back and searched Ellie’s face. “I don’t hear them as much anymore. When they call me I ignore them. They got upset at first, and then they stopped trying so much.”

Ellie shivered at the thought of ghosts visiting her friend, but she meant what she said. She was her friend regardless. “You said they were upset. Are they mean to you?”

“Sometimes they help me. Sometimes I’m missing something and they’ll tell me where it is.” She shook her head with a scowl. “Sometimes I think they took it themselves and they’re just playing tricks on me. So I guess that’s kind of mean. But before they leave, they almost always say the same thing.”

“What?”

“‘You have to help her.’”

“Who are you supposed to help? Melanie?”

“I don’t know. I hope not.” Claire shrugged. “When we moved they used to be with me all the time, but I haven’t heard them in days.”

Just as Ellie was about to ask another question, Melanie’s head popped out the front door of a house across the street and several doors down. “Get home right now, Claire! Mom’s gonna be home in a half hour and you have to do your chores!”

Claire climbed to her feet and Ellie stood with her, unsure what to say. The afternoon had been full of too many secrets for her to process. “I guess I’ll see you at the bus stop tomorrow.”

Claire nodded but didn’t move.

“Your mom and dad will be okay,” Ellie added. She’d almost forgotten what started the whole snowball of revelations.

“Claire!” Melanie shouted. “If you don’t have your chores done before Mom gets home, we’re both gonna get in trouble!”

Claire ignored her but took a few steps toward her own house, giving Ellie a half wave as she crossed the street.

Ellie stayed outside with the puppy for a little while longer, not ready to go back inside and face her distraught mother. However, her neighbor soon came out to take Chip inside and Ellie considered swinging again, but she didn’t feel good, like she was getting sick. She went inside and started on her homework, working on her math problems at the kitchen counter while her mother cooked dinner. It was a familiar routine, but tonight it felt all wrong. Her mother was distracted and the pasta boiled over onto the stove.

Daddy came home soon after, his laughter filling the house and Ellie’s hollow heart. She ran off the stool and into his arms, squeezing his neck as he bent down to give her a hug.

“Hey, Elliphant. What’s wrong?”

Ellie continued to hold on to him for dear life. Daddy picked her up and she wrapped her legs around his waist. He held her like he used to when she was little. She always felt safe when he held her like this.

“Ellie,” he said, sounding concerned. “What’s wrong?”

She couldn’t tell him about Momma, and she couldn’t tell him about sharing the curse secret with Claire. Instead, she said, “I had a bad day.”

He cupped the back of her head and held her close. “I’m sorry. Do you want to talk about it?”

She shook her head in the crook of his neck.

He moved past the kitchen and carried her into the living room, sitting on the sofa and shifting her legs so she sat sideways on his lap. Looking down into her face, he tucked her hair behind her ear. “Ellie, I’m going ask you some questions and I want you to be honest with me, okay?”

Did Daddy know she told Claire about the curse? The air squeezed out of her lungs, but she nodded.

“Has anyone scared you?”

Her eyes widened in surprise. “No, Daddy.”

“Has a man you don’t know tried to talk to you?”

She nodded yes and her father sucked in a breath, fear in his eyes.

“Tell me what happened.”

“I was with Momma at the inn yesterday morning eating breakfast and I talked to a man who is staying there.”

Daddy wrapped an arm around her back and hugged her side against his chest. “Not someone from the inn. A stranger.”

“You mean like stranger danger?”

“Yes, just like that.”

Ellie shook her head, biting her lip. “No, Daddy.”

His face lowered to hers. “For the next few days, I want you to stay inside, okay? I don’t want you to talk to anyone you don’t know.”

“Why?”

His fingertip rubbed her cheek, then he touched the tip of her nose. “Because Daddy’s overprotective. Just promise me, okay?”

“I promise.” She squeezed his neck again. When he held her, she believed that everything would be okay. That nothing bad could ever happen.

He hugged her tight for several seconds before the phone rang. He pulled back to look into her face again. “And you still can’t answer the phone.”

She scowled. “I’m not a baby. I know how to answer the phone, Daddy.”

He set her on her feet and stood. “I know you do, Elliphant, but it’s one of those overprotective daddy things. Why don’t you go wash your hands for dinner.” He left her to go into the kitchen, and Ellie hung back before following him and hiding in the hallway.

“Was it another hang-up call?” Daddy asked.

“Yes,” her mother mumbled.

“Why was Ellie upset? Did something happen at school?”

“I don’t know. She was playing with Claire when I got home and I gave them a cookie. She seemed fine to me.”

“Something upset her. She was nearly in tears when I walked in, and she hugged me and wouldn’t let go. I asked her if someone had approached her or tried to talk to her, but she said no.” His voice lowered. “I know the weather has been unusually nice for January, but I don’t want her playing outside.”

“John, we haven’t had any threatening calls for weeks.”

“Then what’s up with the hang-up calls the last two days?”

She didn’t answer.

“Exactly. I’d rather be safe, Amanda. He threatened to hurt her. We can’t take any chances.”

“You’re right, but he’s been missing for weeks. Since the calls stopped. The police think he’s gone.”

“I hope he is, but I couldn’t bear it if something happened to her. Especially if he did it because he was upset with me over some ridiculous zoning issue.”

Ellie peeked around the corner and saw her parents hugging and she breathed a sigh of relief. Momma and Daddy wouldn’t be hugging if they were getting a divorce. Momma had to be worried about something else.

They ate dinner, everyone quieter than usual. Ellie usually talked through most of the meal, telling them about her day, but tonight she picked at her food. Something didn’t feel right, and she couldn’t figure out what it was. A heavy weight pressed on her ribs, and her hand wouldn’t stop itching.

Her mother looked up from her plate, worry in her eyes. “Ellie, are you feeling okay?”

Ellie shook her head. “No. My chest hurts.”

Momma leaned over and pressed the back of her hand to Ellie’s forehead. “You don’t feel like you’re running a fever. Do you want to go upstairs and put on your pajamas? We can watch TV in my bed before you go to sleep.”

Ellie nodded and picked up her plate to take it into the kitchen.

“Don’t worry about that, Elliphant,” her father said. “You go get ready for bed and we’ll be up in just a little bit.”

Ellie headed for the staircase at the front of the house, her parents’ voices drifting after her.

“I’m telling you, Amanda. Something’s wrong.”

“I have to admit, she’s acting strangely.”

“Maybe you should try talking to her. She might tell you.”

Ellie stopped on the steps, eavesdropping again. She knew it was wrong, but was it wrong if they were talking about her?

“I will.” Momma paused and Ellie heard the clink of silverware on a plate. “But first I need to tell you something. It’s about my trip to Charlotte a few days ago.”

Her father was silent.

Momma’s voice softened and Ellie couldn’t make out her words. Her father’s voice joined in, also too quiet to hear. Disappointed, Ellie crept upstairs, making sure she missed the creaky spot on the wood floor in the hall. She didn’t want Momma and Daddy to figure out she’d been listening. After she put on her pajamas and brushed her teeth, she headed for her parents’ room but stopped in the hall when she heard raised voices coming from downstairs.

“You should have told me instead of going to Steven, Amanda!” her father said. He wasn’t yelling, but it was much louder and harsher than he usually spoke.

“I couldn’t, John. I signed an NDA. I can’t even tell you all the details, and I knew you’d insist that I did. Besides, I didn’t tell Steven. I only asked for access to papers in the library.”

Their voices faded and Ellie realized they probably moved into the kitchen. Her fear returned. They were fighting, and it wasn’t about the curse.

She climbed into her parents’ bed, snuggling under the covers and turning on the TV with the remote. Her mother came in several minutes later. She changed into her own pajamas, climbed into bed, and pulled Ellie into the crook of her arm. Ellie snuggled against her mother, soaking in her warmth.

“Ellie, I know something’s bothering you and I’m worried about you. Will you please tell me what’s wrong?”

She hesitated. She didn’t want to admit to eavesdropping. It was better to start with Claire. “Claire heard her dad say he wants a divorce and wants to move back to Greenville.”

Her mother’s hand smoothed over the top of Ellie’s head and her voice was soft and gentle, the tone she used when she comforted Ellie after one of her many nightmares. “That must make Claire very sad.”

“Yeah.” It felt good telling Momma about her worries. “And…and then I heard you and Daddy fighting and I got scared.”

“Oh, sweetie.” Her mother’s arm tightened around her. “First of all, we weren’t fighting. We had a disagreement—there’s a difference. Second”—she lifted Ellie’s chin so she was looking into her mother’s hazel eyes—“your father and I aren’t getting a divorce. We love each other—and you—very much. We couldn’t bear to live without each other. You have nothing to worry about.” Her mother kissed her forehead. “Do you believe me?”

Ellie nodded, reaching an arm across her mother’s stomach and squeezing her side.

“Is there anything else bothering you?”

She hesitated. “It’s about the curse.”

Momma’s eyes widened before she recovered. “Okay.”

“Daddy says I can’t tell anyone about it or bad things would happen.” She bit the right side of her lower lip. “What if I accidently told someone?” It hadn’t been accidental at all, but it was easier to admit that way.

Her mother pulled her closer. “Ellie, the curse is all fairy tales and make-believe. I let your father tell you his tales, but I want you to know that it’s not real. If you tell someone, nothing bad will happen. I promise.”

As Ellie snuggled closer to her momma, she could almost believe everything would be okay. But she knew something wasn’t right. It was like when the mist rolled in from the sound, making everything all blurry and fuzzy. She knew she had to make everything right again.

If only she knew how.

Chapter Three

 

The rain beat against the windows as Ellie hunched over her spelling words in the kitchen after dinner. A cold wind blew in from the north, and her chest had felt heavy all day. It had been two days since she’d told Claire about the curse, and so far nothing terrible had happened. Still, Momma and Daddy had been acting strangely, whispering when Ellie was around and raising their voices in heated discussions when they thought she wasn’t. She couldn’t figure out what they were talking about except for bits and pieces.

Even now she could hear as her parents’ voices floated in from her father’s office, and her curiosity got the better of her. She slid off her chair and snuck into the hallway, hiding in the shadows, her back pressed against the wall.

“I know you signed a nondisclosure agreement, Amanda, but I’m begging you to tell me what you saw.” There was a pause, and finally he said, “At least tell me what you hope to find at the library at Chapel Hill.”

Her mother was silent for several seconds. “Fine, but I can’t tell you everything.” When her father didn’t answer, her mother continued. “I think it might be the missing artifacts from the Middleton collection.”

“The collection lost during the Civil War?”

“Yes.” She paused. “But I’m going to Chapel Hill to investigate a particular artifact. It was given to me in good faith. I have a week to discover its significance. I didn’t tell Steven I had it, only that I needed access to his papers.”

“They gave you an artifact?” His voice rose, making Ellie jump. “What is it?”

She didn’t answer.

“Amanda, I’m your husband for god’s sake! Who am I going to tell?”

Her voice quivered. “I can’t tell anyone, John. Anyone.” She took a breath. “Especially you.”

“Why especially me?”

She didn’t answer again.

“Is it related to the curse?”

Her mother’s temper exploded. “Goddamn that curse! You’ve devoted your entire life to a bunch of hocus-pocus and nonsense. You have Ellie terrified to death that something terrible will happen if she accidently tells someone.”

“Did she tell someone?” He sounded panicked.

Ellie’s heart lurched in her chest. Oh, no. She had done something bad.

“Will you listen to yourself?” her mother shouted. “Your daughter is living in fear because you’ve filled her head with frightening stories of demons and weapons she can use to destroy them, then you tell her not to tell anyone and your biggest concern is that she actually did. She’s eight years old, John. Eight. I want you to stop telling her these stories. It was fun at first, but now you’re asking too much of her.”

They were quiet for so long that Ellie peeked around the corner, hoping the darkness hid her face. Her father stood behind his desk and her mother rested against the front edge. She was turned at the waist, looking toward the bookshelves.

Her father rubbed his forehead. “What is the artifact, Amanda?” His voice sounded tired.

She didn’t look at him, her face expressionless. “A gold ring.”

He shook his head, his brow wrinkling. “Why would they have you research a piece of jewelry? Why is it significant?”

“Because of what’s on it.” She groaned and stood, turning to face him. “It has Native American symbols carved around the band.”

Surprise and excitement lit up his face.

“And this is exactly why I didn’t tell you.” She put her hands on her hips. “Not everything that blends English colonial artifacts and Native American symbols means it’s related to your damned curse!”

“Amanda, you have to let me see it.”

She looked down at her feet, shaking her head.

He moved in front of her and grabbed her arms. “Amanda. Please.”

After several long moments, she reached into her shirt and pulled out a chain.

“You’ve been wearing it all this time?” her father asked in disbelief.

“I’m terrified to let it out of my sight.” She slipped the chain over her head and handed it to him.

He took it with trembling fingers, lifting it to get a closer look, then gasped. “Do you have any idea what this is?”

“Due to the thickness of the band and the metals used, I think it dates back to the seventeenth century.”

Daddy looked up, wide-eyed. “Not when. What.”

She didn’t answer.

“It’s the ring Ananias’s great-grandson had created by a Croatan priest.”

“No, John. It’s an artifact from the early colonists, perhaps Jamestown or Williamsburg.”

He ignored her. “It’s been missing since the late seventeen hundreds. He had it made to create an extra protection against Okeus. The priest thought the person wearing the band could banish demons on his own.”

“Enough nonsense!” Momma reached for the ring, but he pulled it out of her reach.

“How can you pretend this isn’t real when you’ve been wearing proof?”

“It’s not proof! It’s a ring engraved with symbols. I want to access the papers at Chapel Hill and see if I can determine what tribe the symbols belong to.”

“It would be a wasted trip.” He tightened his fist around it. “It’s Croatan. It bears the symbols for earth and water, wind and Okeus.”

She shook her head. “You don’t know that.”

“I do. I can prove it to you. I have papers in my office at Fort Raleigh. I’ll go get them and bring them back to show you.”

She wiped at her face, and her voice broke. “This obsession has to stop, John.”

He pulled her into his arms. “Amanda, I can help you. I’ll get the papers and come right back, but I need to ask a favor of you.”

Her back stiffened and she tried to pull away, but his arms tightened around her.

“I want to keep the ring with me. It’s supposed to sing when it’s near Popogusso.”

“Sing?”

“It has power over the gate to hell.”

“John! Listen to yourself!”

“Give me a week. The gate is on the island, and I think it’s on the park site or close by. I’ll walk around with the ring and find it.”

She shook her head, turning away from him. Ellie saw tears on her cheeks.

“If I don’t find it, I’ll stop.”

Her mouth dropped open and her head jerked back to face him.

“I swear. If I don’t find the gate, I’ll stop telling Ellie the stories.” He paused, then said, “But you have to give me the full week.”

She hesitated.

“What do you have to lose? You don’t think it’s real, so you have to believe I won’t find it. Then you’ll get what you always wanted. No more ‘curse nonsense,’ as you put it.” He smiled at her, taking some of the harshness out of their conversation.

“Why get the papers tonight? It’s storming.”

“Because I need all the time I can get before I start searching. You have to give me the full week. Starting tomorrow. If I can translate the rest of the symbols tonight, I can start on locating the gate tomorrow.”

She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. “Okay.”

Her father stuffed the ring into his shirt pocket, then cupped her mother’s face. “You and Ellie mean more to me than anything else in this world, Amanda.” He placed a soft kiss on her lips and raised his head. “I’m sorry I’ve brought so much turmoil into your life.”

She wrapped her arms around his back. “I love you, John, and if it was just you and me, I could handle it. But I have to think about our little girl.”

His head lowered and he kissed her again as she grabbed handfuls of the back of his shirt. Whenever Ellie caught her parents kissing like this, she knew they had something none of her other friends’ parents had. She would never settle for anything less.

Her mother leaned back. “Don’t go tonight. I have a bad feeling.”

He stroked her cheek with his thumb, his eyes glittering as they looked into hers. “The weather has you on edge.”

“No, it’s something else. I think Ellie feels it too. She hasn’t been herself for days. Something’s not right.”

“If I don’t find the gate, you’ll be free of the curse forever.”

She sighed, guilt pinching her forehead.

He kissed her again, his hand sliding up under the back of her shirt.

Ellie turned away. She’d caught them without clothes on before and it felt wrong and gross to watch. Thankful they’d made up, she went back into the kitchen to finish her homework.

Daddy came in about ten minutes later with his arm around Momma’s back. Both their faces were slightly red, and they held on to each other as though they hadn’t seen each other in weeks.

“I have to go out, Elliphant. I want you to take care of your mother for me.”

Ellie nodded solemnly. “Okay.”

He bent over and kissed her forehead, his lips lingering longer than usual. “I love you, Ellie. I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you.”

Ellie blinked in confusion. “You haven’t hurt me, Daddy.”

He offered her a soft smile, but his eyes looked sad. “I’ll see you later.”

“Bye, Daddy.”

He headed for the back door and grabbed a coat and an umbrella. He started out the door and her mother rushed for him, hugging him tight.

“Be careful,” she said softly.

He bent down and kissed her. “Don’t worry. I’m not afraid of a little weather.”

Momma stood at the back door for several minutes, watching out the glass panes before she turned to face Ellie. “Did you finish your homework?”

Ellie nodded, worry knotting her stomach into a tight ball. The moment Daddy walked out the door, she found it difficult to breathe.

“Why don’t you put on your pajamas and pick a story to read. You can sleep with me tonight and we can read together.”

“Can I wear my nightgown?”

“I think that’s a great idea,” her momma said, smiling.

“Okay.” Usually Ellie would squeal with excitement, but she could barely catch her breath.

“I’m going to check on the guests in the inn and then I’ll be right up.”

“Okay.”

Ellie’s mother pulled her into a hug, clinging tight. “I love you more than anything.”

“More than the flowers and the bees?” Ellie asked the familiar line.

“More than the ocean and the trees.”

It was their special game. But instead of filling her with warmth, her stomach churned.

Her mother released her hold and smoothed back Ellie’s hair. “Now go upstairs and get ready.”

Ellie headed for the steps, her feet heavy.

“And don’t forget to brush your teeth,” she called after her.

“I won’t.”

The back door opened and closed as Ellie headed up the staircase. Daddy said if he didn’t find the gate to hell, he’d give up the curse. Could he really do that? What if he didn’t find it but it was still real? Who would close the gate then? Would the spirits and gods break loose and hurt people?

Ellie put on her lacy white nightgown, the one that made her feel like a princess. Daddy had bought it for her on his trip to Atlanta a month ago. Grabbing her stuffed rabbit, she put her dirty clothes into the hamper, then moved to the edge of the staircase, listening for signs that her mother was back. Her back prickled with fear but she didn’t know why. She only knew she needed her mother’s reassurance.

“Momma?” she called downstairs.

“I’ll be right up.”

Relieved, she went into the bathroom and set Bunny on the counter. She brushed her teeth, thinking about which book to read with Momma and deciding on her new favorite, The Secret Garden. After rinsing her toothbrush, she grabbed Bunny and headed into the hall.

Suddenly, her right palm burned like it was on fire, and Ellie cried out in pain and surprise. She ran to the stairs to tell her mother when she heard shattering glass.

Then her mother screamed.

Chapter Four

 

Ellie’s heart jumped into her throat and she started toward the stairs, then stopped, nearly falling forward when she heard a man’s angry voice.

“Where’s the ring?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” her mother answered, the words shaky.

The howling wind shook the house.

The man’s voice lowered to a growl. “I’m going to ask you nicely one more time: Where is the ring?”

Momma started to cry. “Do you want my wedding ring? Here. I’ll give it to you.”

The loud sound of a slap echoed up the stairs, and Ellie’s mother cried out.

He’s hurting Momma. Tears burned Ellie’s eyes, but she remained frozen with fear.

“Amanda. I thought you were smart. Isn’t that why Higgins asked you to come to Charlotte?”

“I don’t know”—she took a breath through her sobs—“what you’re talking about.”

“I’d hate to cut up that pretty face. All you have to do is cooperate.”

Momma didn’t answer, but the sounds of her crying made Ellie panic. I have to help Momma.

She bolted for the staircase, her foot landing on the top step, but the gentle voice of an older man spoke softly in her ear. “No, Ellie. Don’t go downstairs.” He sounded so nice and insistent that she stopped in her tracks and looked behind her, finding no one.

Was this what it was like for Claire when she heard voices?

Ellie wanted to go to Momma, but the man’s warning sent a new wave of terror through her blood. Sinking to sit on the top step, she clutched Bunny, shaking uncontrollably. She struggled to breathe through her tears, but a comforting warmth pressed against her side.

The mean man asked her mother, “Why were you in Charlotte a few days ago?”

“I was invited to see an antique collection.” Momma wasn’t crying as hard, but her voice was shaky. “But it wasn’t a man named Higgins. His name was Juan Ricardo.”

A flash of lightning lit up the downstairs, and a loud clap of thunder behind it made Ellie jump.

“See?” the man asked, trying to sound nice but Ellie wasn’t fooled. “That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now tell me about the ring.”

“I don’t know anything about a ring.”

Why was Momma lying? Why didn’t she just tell him that Daddy had the ring? Then he’d go away and stop hurting her.

Ellie heard the bad man hit Momma again. She clutched Bunny to her stomach, once again ready to spring down the stairs.

“No, Ellie,” the kind man cooed in her ear. His voice reminded her of her grandfather, warm but strong. “You can’t tell him about the ring or he’ll hurt you, and I can’t let him do that. You’re very special to me.”

Ellie’s chin trembled. “But I have to help Momma,” she whispered. Daddy told her to take care of her mother. She didn’t know what to do, but she had to do something.

“If you go downstairs, they will hurt her even more. And they’ll hurt you, too. Trust me, Ellie.”

She had no idea who this bodiless voice belonged to, but she clung to his words. They felt true. He said he wanted to protect her, and she didn’t know what else to do. “I have to call 911,” she whispered.

She started to stand, but the warmth around her increased, enveloping her in a blanket of security. “No, Ellie. Not yet.”

The man downstairs laughed, but it sounded mean and ugly. “Where’s your daughter? What’s her name? Ellie?”

Ellie’s chest froze, refusing to suck in air as terror coursed through her blood, making her light-headed.

“You know her name?” her mother wheezed out.

The man chuckled. “I know all kinds of things about you, Amanda.”

“Ellie’s not here.”

Rain pelted the windows so loudly it sounded like someone was throwing rocks.

“Then where is she?” the man asked.

“She’s spending the night at a friend’s house.” Her mother’s voice sounded stronger than before.

“On a school night? I don’t think so,” he growled. Then he shouted, “Ellie! Where are you? Come out and play.”

Ellie’s body trembled with fear, and she gritted her teeth to keep them from rattling.

“Don’t listen to him, Ellie,” the nice man said in her ear. “He wants to hurt you.”

A river of tears streaked down Ellie’s face, and she struggled to keep from sobbing. “I have to help Momma,” she forced out between hiccuped breaths.

“No,” the voice said. “Stay here with me.”

“Ellie!” the man downstairs shouted. “If you don’t come down, I’m going to hurt your mommy with this very sharp knife.”

Ellie covered her face with her bunny as she bit her lip to keep from crying out.

“Show her what happens to people who don’t cooperate,” the bad man said. “Go find her.”

Ellie thought he was talking to her mother until another man said, “Okay.”

There were two men.

“No, please.” Her mother’s voice was raspy and full of tears. “She’s not here.”

“Hide!” the voice next to Ellie’s ear insisted. “Now!”

Ellie stood, torn between her fear of getting hurt and her desire to help her mother. She’d promised Daddy she would. The bad man was going to hurt Mommy if she didn’t go downstairs.

“Ellie, I want to protect you,” the bodiless voice said, still nice but louder. “But you need to hide. Now!”

Her fear won out and she scrambled to turn around, running down the hall, making sure to miss the squeaking boards. She rushed into her room, threw open her closet door, and burrowed behind a pile of stuffed animals, her back to the wall. Sobs shook her shoulders, but she covered her mouth with her hand to keep from making any noise.

“Good,” the voice whispered, soothing her frayed nerves. “Good girl.”

Footsteps landed upstairs, going into the bedrooms at the front of the hall.

“Stop! Please,” her mother begged. “I’ll tell you!” She was upstairs now, in the hallway. Ellie only had to run out through the bedroom door to get to her.

“I thought Ellie wasn’t home, Amanda,” the mean man said in his fake-friendly voice. “Did you lie to me?”

Ellie’s mother said something, but her crying made it incoherent.

“Keep checking,” he growled.

The light from the hall spilled through the partially opened bedroom door, and her mother’s sobs echoed in the hall.

“Momma,” Ellie wailed softly, trying to get up.

The warm presence held her firmly against the closet wall. “No.”

“What is it that you want to tell me, Amanda?” the bad man laughed. “Because I’m most interested in the ring. Maybe Ellie can fill me in.”

“She doesn’t know anything.” Her mother sounded panicked and her words came out in bursts. “I swear. Please. Just leave her out of this.”

A long shadow moved on the wall in the hallway, visible through the open door.

Ellie pressed harder against the closet wall, her upright knees banging together as she shook. They were coming for her.

The tall shadow faltered as another shorter one rushed toward it. Her mother cried out, “No! Don’t hurt her!” The two shadows blended into a shaky blob before she heard a man cry out in pain. The tall shadow separated from the shorter one and a loud piercing scream filled Ellie’s ears.

She scrunched her eyes shut as she released a helpless sob. “Momma.”

“Ellie!” Her mother’s voice sent a flood of terror down her back.

Momma needed her. Her heart pounding against her chest, a deep fury erupted and Ellie fought against the force that held her tight, crying in frustration. “Let me go! Let me go!”

The taller shadow jumped the shorter one, grunting and releasing a growl. It lifted its arm and swung toward the smaller shadow, over and over, as Ellie’s mother screamed.

“What are you doing?” the bad man shouted, sounding furious. “Stop!”

Ellie kicked and tried to scream, but it lodged in her throat as the smaller shadow fell to the floor with a loud thump.

Momma.

A fresh burst of anger rushed through her and she pushed against the bond holding her in place, but the warmth held her still and the voice murmured softly, “Not yet, Ellie.”

She clenched her fists so tightly her nails dug into her palms. Her breaths came in quick pants as she rested the back of her head against the wall, waiting for the voice to let her go.

“Keep looking.” The bad man didn’t sound happy. A new shadow on the wall squatted next to the smaller one. “Where’s the ring, Amanda?”

Ellie heard a wheezing-coughing sound.

The bad man swore a string of bad words, then the shadow rose. “Why can’t you keep your goddamned temper in check just one fucking time? She’s useless now! Damn it!” Ellie heard a banging noise and the wall shook. “I’m searching downstairs. You look up here and bring the brat down when you find her.” His feet clomped on the stairs as he left.

Momma.

The only shadow left was the one close to the floor, and it began to crawl in a slow, jerky movement toward Ellie’s room. Her anger dissolved into pure panic. A monster was coming to get her.

Her eyes were riveted on the floor, so the sudden movement in her doorway startled her. Her breath sucked in as her gaze rose to the dark figure filling the doorframe, his head covered with a hood. His right hand gripped a large knife, the metal gleaming in the flashing lightning outside her window. The wind gusted, knocking a tree branch into the glass with a loud, repetitive thump.

He jiggled the blade in his hand as he slowly entered her room. Ellie’s chest constricted, her lungs burning as he walked around her bed and squatted to look underneath.

Wide-eyed, she forced her body to remain still, afraid he might see or hear her. He stood and moved back toward the bedroom door. Abruptly, he stopped and pivoted on his feet until he faced the closet door, hunching down in a slow movement. His stubble-covered chin lowered and the hood on his forehead rose, exposing his dark, glaring eyes that focused on hers. His right hand rested on his knee, blood dripping from the knife into a pool on the wood floor.

A scream bubbled in Ellie’s throat as he reached for her with his free hand, but a bright white light filled the room, partially blinding her. The hooded man lifted his arm to shield his face.

“I claim her as my own, Curse Keeper. You will not harm her.” Although the voice coming from the light was the same one that had comforted her, now it sounded angry.

The man bolted upright, his hand shaking as he held out the knife. “What is this? Who are you?”

“You know who I am,” the voice boomed, shaking the floor beneath Ellie’s bottom. “I know the foolish quest you seek. But where you fail, another will succeed.”

“You have no idea what I want,” the man snarled, holding out the blade.

“Do not think me stupid, son of the land. You wish to break the curse. You are not the first, nor will you be the last.”

The hooded man turned to Ellie, lifting his blade over his shoulder as though ready to strike.

Ellie screamed.

“If you harm a hair on her head, I will kill you and your sons.”

The man froze, his knife poised to strike.

The white light pulsed. “Look at her, Curse Keeper. She is an innocent child, not much younger than your eldest son. I know it was your original plan, but can you really kill her?”

The knife still loomed over Ellie and she pressed her back into the wall, sobbing.

“You attacked her mother when she tried to stop you. You hurt her out of reflex. But to kill this girl will be in cold blood. Can you look into her eyes and do it?”

The man glanced toward the open door, his arm still raised.

The white light expanded and contracted. “You and the child are the only ones who can hear me. Your friend will not come to help you. No one will.”

The man crouched again, lowering his arm as he searched Ellie’s face. Blood dripped from his bloody hand, and Ellie realized the drops were from his own wound. The hood lowered over his brow and shadows covered most of his face. Hatred filled his eyes, and his mouth pressed into an angry line.

The light shined brighter. “You are mistaken if you think that I will let you hurt her. I need her for another purpose.” The orb moved closer to the man. “The curse will be broken, but not today. It will happen when I deem it so.”

The man’s grip on the knife tightened and he shifted his weight. “I’m sick and tired of being at the mercy of the curse. I want this to end. Tonight.”

“It began with my will and will end when I wish it.”

The man’s face contorted with rage.

“I do not condone you forcing my hand, Curse Keeper, and you will pay for this transgression, just like the others before you.” The light glowed bright white. “This girl changes everything. If only you had shown patience and restraint, you would have seen this. You will get what you want, but not during your tenure. At a time of my choosing, I will find your son and help him break the curse, only because it serves my purpose.” The voice lowered and the glow pulsed. “But because of your treachery, he will rue the day I sought him out, and he will curse you for the sacrifices he must make as penance for your betrayal.

The hooded man rose to his feet. “With the help of Okeus, my son will defeat you, Ahone.” Pride and anger drenched his words.

“He will try, and he will fail. The girl will be his downfall.”

“No!” A guttural sound rumbled from the man and he lifted the knife, lunging for Ellie.

She screamed and the orb exploded, filling the room with a light brighter than Ellie had ever seen. The blast of light sent the man flying out the door and into a crumpled heap in the hall. His head rose and his face twisted with fear.

“I have let you live out of my infinite mercy, Curse Keeper, but my patience has worn thin.” The light’s voice boomed, shaking the walls.

“Dailey! Where the fuck are you?” the bad man downstairs shouted. “Did you find her?”

The man’s hood had slipped from his head, puddling on his shoulders and leaving his dark, wavy hair a ruffled mess. A dazed look filled his eyes, and his gaze landed on Ellie.

“Dailey!”

The light pulsed. “Go!”

The man slowly got up off the floor. “No,” he answered, then paused before speaking louder. “The bitch was right. She’s not here. Let’s get out of here.” His footsteps hurried down the hall and to the bottom steps.

The ball of light folded in on itself until it became a soft, glowing orb about the size of a baseball floating in front of Ellie’s face. It blocked her path, moving with her as she tried to get around it. She cried out in frustration.

“Not yet,” the light said, his voice becoming gentle again.

The nice voice had turned mean, but he’d done it to save her, right? Didn’t that make him good? “What are you?” Ellie whispered between hiccuped breaths.

“Not what, but who. And you will find out soon enough.”

Ellie looked out the door, expecting the man to come back and kill her, but all she saw was the shadow close to the floor. It jerked, then stopped moving. She screamed, releasing a fresh round of sobs.

“Ellie?” her mother’s soft cry came from the hall. “Ellie, are you okay? Momma’s here.”

“Momma!” Ellie screamed until she was hoarse, fighting against the force still holding her in place. “Momma!” she wailed, becoming light-headed from her hysteria.

“Ellie.” Her mother’s voice was faint.

The light bounced in front of Ellie for several seconds before fading until it was barely visible, then moving to the side.

Ellie burst from the closet, pushing off the floor with the fingertips of one hand while she clutched Bunny with the other. Blinded by her tears, she tripped on her nightgown and fell to her knees in the puddle of blood in front of her closet, releasing another high-pitched scream.

“Ellie!” her mother’s faint voice called, terrified.

“Momma!” Ellie called out, finally getting to her feet and running out the door. But she stopped in the doorway at the sight of her mother.

Momma lay on her side, her body sideways across the floor. The front of her shirt was soaked in blood. “Mommaaaaa!” The word gushed out in a wail of grief and fright as she took in the large puddle of blood covering the floor.

Her mother’s head shifted to the side and she rolled on her back as her eyes found her daughter’s. “Ellie, call 911.”

Ellie froze in panic, unable to move or even breathe.

“Ellie, it’s okay.” Her mother used her soft voice, the one that made Ellie believe everything would be all right. Her eyes sank closed and she released a gurgled breath before opening her eyes with a sad smile. “Come here and sit with me.” Her hand lifted off the floor and her fingers curled inward.

Ellie’s chest released and she sucked in a breath before falling to her knees and inching forward, terrified. Her gaze shifted from her mother’s pale face to the pool of blood that still spread out across the floorboards, filling the cracks and spreading outward. Her stomach revolted and she felt like she was going to throw up.

“Ellie.”

The briskness in her mother’s voice startled her and her gaze lifted, her chin quivering.

A soft smile lifted Momma’s mouth as tears rolled out of her eyes and down her face. “That’s my girl. Look at my face. Don’t look down, baby.”

Ellie moved closer until she was next to her mother, sitting on her bottom. The fold of her nightgown skimmed the edge of the thick red puddle. The cotton fabric absorbed the liquid, seeping up to her legs.

Momma reached out a hand toward Ellie’s, making three attempts to grab hold. “My dear, sweet, Ellie.” Her chin quivered and her voice broke.

“Momma.” Ellie started to sob again.

“I love you, Ellie.” Her mother stared into her face, her eyes soft and adoring. “I’ve loved you since the moment I knew you were in my tummy. I almost lost you then, you know.” She paused and took a breath, wincing in pain. “Elinor Dare Lancaster—you’re a fighter and don’t you ever forget it.” She coughed, and blood oozed from the corner of her lip.

The blood trailing down the side of her face filled Ellie with panic. She dropped Bunny and grabbed her mother’s other hand. “Momma, I’m scared.”

“I’m sorry, Ellie. I’m so sorry.” Her mother choked on a sob, her face wet with tears. “You have to be strong for your daddy. No matter what happens, know that he loves you.”

Ellie nodded, unsure what else to do.

“Someday you’ll fall in love. Find a man like your father, who loves you fiercely.” Her voice softened and Ellie strained to hear. “Don’t go for the flashy men, Ellie. They’ll only break your heart. My friends thought your daddy was boring, but he gave me a life full of so much love . . .” Her voice broke and fear filled her eyes. “There’s so much to tell you and not enough time.”

“Momma, please,” Ellie cried. “Pleasssse . . .”

“Oh, Ellie,” she whispered, sounding devastated. “I wanted to protect you from the ugliness of the world, and I brought it to your front door.” Her eyes fluttered and her grip on Ellie’s hand loosened.

Ellie watched her chest, waiting for Momma to take a breath and when it didn’t come, Ellie grabbed her shoulders and shook. “Momma! Please, Momma! Don’t leave me all alone. Mommaaaaa!” she screamed, shaking her mother and getting no response. She collapsed on her mother’s bloody chest, the smell of copper filling her nose as cries racked her body, ignoring the warm, sticky liquid covering her cheek and clothes.

Daddy had told her to protect Momma and she had let him down. What would he think of her now?

She sobbed on her mother so long that she felt the warmth of the body beneath her begin to seep away. Opening her eyes, she saw the shadowy figure of an older man with white hair and a white beard floating over the staircase. She should have been frightened, but somehow she knew he belonged to the voice that had helped her.

“Ellie, you are strong and brave. When it is your time, you will make an excellent Curse Keeper.”

She lifted her head in an exhaustion so deep she thought she would drown in it. “You said the man who killed Momma was a Keeper. I don’t want to be a Keeper anymore.”

“Elinor, you are destined to be a Keeper. It was foretold from the beginning of time. You are more special than any Keeper before you. I’ve been waiting centuries for you to arrive. The forces of nature have finally heard my plea and sent you so that I may finish the job I began with your ancestor, Ananias Dare. Tonight begins a chain of events that brings us to the end.”

“I want my momma,” Ellie wailed in anguish.

“Daughter of the sea and witness to creation, your first sacrifice has been made.” His light faded slightly, and he sounded sad.

“It will be the first of many.”

Ellie was too tired and in too much misery to care what he was saying. Luckily, the man seemed to have a similar idea in mind.

“Tonight the unraveling of the curse begins. But I will take all memories associated with the curse from you, so that the events of tonight will be locked deep in your mind. I need you to be willing to accept your role when the time comes.” The image moved closer and his voice softened. “But you will also lose all other memories of the curse. They’ve already begun to slip away. You will believe it is because you told Claire, and you will be filled with a heavy burden of guilt. I’m sorry, but it is the best way.”

Ellie looked up again, shaking her head as confusion overwhelmed her. “I don’t understand.”

“I know, but one day you will. When the time comes for you to know, you will remember everything.”

Then the light faded and he was gone, leaving Ellie with her mother. She looked down at her hands, realizing they were drenched in blood. Holding them out in horror, she glanced down and saw blood covering everything—her mother, her nightgown, Bunny, the floor. She started to scream.

A door downstairs banged and Ellie screamed louder. The bad men had come back, but she couldn’t make herself get up. She couldn’t leave Momma. Sobbing, she grabbed her mother’s arms and shook. “Momma, get up! Momma, please!”

“Ellie!” her father shouted in panic downstairs. “Ellie!”

She heard his footsteps on the stairs before his horror-stricken face appeared. His feet faltered, and he fell on his knees on the top step.

“Oh, God. Oh, God.” He crawled toward them, his eyes wide with fright. “Ellie? Where are you hurt?”

Ellie shook her head, trying to catch her breath. “Momma.”

He reached for her mother, carefully touching her shoulder with shaking fingers. “Amanda?” When she didn’t answer, he became more insistent. “Amanda?” He began to sob, grabbing her arms and pulling her up. Momma’s head leaned back, her long red hair hanging behind her. Daddy’s hand got tangled in it as he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her to his chest. “No! God, no!”

Ellie watched in horror as her father fell to pieces in front of her.

He rocked Momma back and forth, crying so hard he couldn’t catch his breath and uttering incoherent sentences.

“…my fault…I shouldn’t have gone…”

Ellie got to her feet and walked to her parents’ room, feeling like her body was moving and she was just watching it happen. She grabbed the phone off her mother’s bedside table, and her shaking fingers wouldn’t cooperate, making four attempts to press 911.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

The phone to her ear, Ellie moved to the bedroom door, not recognizing the man at the end of the hallway.

“Is there an emergency?” the operator asked.

“My momma,” she whispered. “She’s dead.”

“What happened?”

Ellie couldn’t answer. She could only stare at her parents. The events of the night had begun to fade, making her memories fuzzy.

“Little girl?” the operator became insistent.

Momma died because Ellie had told Claire about the curse. Momma died because of her.

This is all my fault.

Dropping to her knees, tears filled her eyes as the horror of her guilt washed through her.

She had killed her mother.

A dark, bitter anger swelled in her chest, replacing her overwhelming grief. No, Ellie had played a part, but the stupid curse had killed her. Her chest burned with fury and she swore the curse was dead to her forever. She didn’t want to be part of something so evil that it would kill her mother.

“Little girl?” the operator repeated. “I’ve located your address and I’m sending a police car and ambulance now.”

Ellie dropped the phone to the floor and slumped against the wall, staring at her parents as her grief broke loose again, making everything move in slow motion and feel like it was a million miles away.

Her father continued to cry, mumbling about the curse and her mother’s death being his fault. She wanted to tell Daddy that it was her fault, not his, but he’d hate her. How could he not? She’d already lost Momma; she couldn’t lose Daddy too.

Ellie tried to imagine a world without her mother and came up with nothing—only darkness and despair and emptiness. But there was one thing she knew, the devastating proof in front of her: her life would never be the same.

The voice whispered in her ear.

“Yes, witness to creation. This changes everything.”

 

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