As Spook and I made our way back through town, we were both quiet for a time, each of us contemplating the shop owner’s story. While I was glad we finally had a large and important piece of the puzzle, I still couldn’t figure out how an alleged witch from the 18th century fit in with Professor Childress, Mary Bollinger, and whatever happened in the Appleton bell tower almost 200 years later.
Spook reached out to take my hand, drawing me out of my thoughts. I turned to face him and managed a smile. He responded with a tight smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Anyplace else you’d like to go, Kyr m’dear?” he asked.
I shook my head, no longer in the mood to stroll down Memory Lane. “Let’s just go back to the hotel,” I replied in a tight voice.
Spook nodded tersely, and we turned the next corner and headed down the side street that led back to our hotel. After we’d walked a couple blocks, he cleared his throat and said hesitantly, “I’m…sorry about what happened back there. Maybe I shouldn’t have started the…witch hunt.” He chuckled shortly at his own joke.
I gave him a half-hearted thump on the shoulder before replying, “I think it was my fault she flipped out on us. If I hadn’t mentioned Professor Childress and Mary…” I didn’t finish my thought.
Spook was quiet for a long moment before he nodded and agreed glumly, “Come to think of it, I think you’re right. It is your fault.”
I stopped walking, put a hand on my hip, and stared at him with my mouth agape. He stopped and turned to me, raising his eyes to mine. “You know, you didn’t have to agree with me wuite so quickly.” I tried to hide my hurt, unsure if he was serious or just joking around.
After holding my gaze steadily for a moment, a serious expression on his face, the corners of his mouth twitched and he burst out laughing. He pulled me close, and we continued walking. “I’m just giving you a hard time, Kyr,” he teased, gazing down at me with a sparkle in his eyes. “You’re so much fun to pick on; it’s so easy to get a rise out of you.”
When we got back to our hotel room, Spook flopped down on the bed and let out a long, weighty breath. Glancing up at me, he smiled and patted the bed next to him, so I sat down and relaxed into his embrace. I closed my eyes, inhaling deeply and taking in the scent of his cologne mixed with the warm aroma of his body. He leaned his head against mine and slowly stroked my back and my hair. As the tension left my body, I stifled several yawns before one finally escaped. Spook chuckled and said softly, “You’ve had quite a long day, Kyr m’dear. Why don’t we catch a few winks and then go down to the restaurant for some dinner?”
Gazing sleepily up at him, I smiled and murmured my agreement before snuggling up to him. Within minutes I fell asleep to the steady rhythm of his heartbeat and breathing.
Neither of us slept very long before our growling stomachs awakened us. After quickly washing up, we headed downstairs to the hotel’s restaurant. Surprisingly, only a couple other people were there. Everyone else, it seemed, had either eaten earlier or had opted to eat at the street fair. We chose a corner table in the back and looked at the menu. Although the restaurant was small, it offered a fairly diverse menu. Since I had splurged on the rich cheesecake earlier, I decided to eat light tonight, so I ordered a grilled chicken salad while Spook ordered a surf and turf platter.
As we ate, we chatted about everything except the one thing I knew was on both our minds. Just as I was going to ask if Spook what he wanted to do later that evening, Copa Cabana began sounding from my purse. Spook laid down his fork and raised an eyebrow in amusement as I dug my phone out and answered it.
It was Phil. “I’m not…interrupting anything, am I?” she asked, barely keeping a giggle out of her voice.
Honestly, she was as bad as JoEllyn. I felt a blush creeping up my neck and into my cheeks as I raised my eyes to Spook, who was regarding me with a smirk. “No, Phil, you’re not interrupting anything; wer’e just having dinner.”
Spook’s shoulders shook as he picked up his fork, speared a shrimp and stuck it in his mouth. Obviously he had figured out why I was blushing, because he said loud enough for Phil to hear, “If you’d been interrupting that, she wouldn’t have answered the phone.”
He and Phil both laughed as my face grew even redder. “WIll you stop?” I mouthed at Spook before attempting to ask Phil nonchalantly, “So, what’s up?”
Still giggling, she replied, “Ed and I were just wondering if you guys were going to the street fair fireworks tonigiht.”
I paused with my fork in the air. “They’re doing the fireworks tonight instead of Monday night?”
“Yeah,” Phil said. “They changed that about five years ago. Since most of the visitors leave before Monday night, they started doing the fireworks on Saturday. It also brings more people into the street fair.” She paused. “What do you think?”
I glanced up at Spook, knowing he wasn’t keen on going back into the crowds. “We weren’t really planning on going back down to the street fair,” I hedged. Spook raised his eyes to mine once more, suddenly attentive.
“No problem,” Phil said, and I could tell she was smiling. “Did you ever watch fireworks from the cemetery on campus?”
I laughed out loud. “From the cemetery? People still do that?” JoEllyn and I, along with a few other friends, had sat at the top of the cemetery hill to watch fireworks several times. To Spook, I asked, “Fireworks later?”
A slow grin spread across his face, and he wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. When I let out a huff and turned away, he laughed out loud before responding playfully, “Oh, you mean those fireworks. Well, all right.” He jumped and laughed as I kicked him under the table.
I told Phil we were in. The fireworks were supposed to start around 9:30, so we agreed to meet in the Student Center parking lot around 8:45 so we could claim a spot as close to the top of the cemetery as possible.
Shortly before we left the hotel, Spook addressed the question I knew we’d both been thinking about since accepting Phil’s invitation an hour earlier: Would we let her and Ed in on what we had found out, and if so, how much would we tell them? I somewhat guiltily suggested that we say nothing unless they came right out and asked. Spook chuckled and accused me of being sneaky, although I could tell he agreed with my suggestion.
When we pulled into the nearly-empty Student Center parking lot, Spook looked around in surprise. “Where is everyone?” he asked. “I would have thought this lot would be packed.”
“Willow Lake always was a suitcase college,” I replied. Seeing his confused expression, I explained, “A lot of students go home for the weekend, especially a long holiday weekend.”
Spook shook his head, trying to grasp the concept. “That makes no sense,” he commented. “They pay how much for room and board, and then go home on weekends? And this is only the first week back.” I shrugged noncommitally, and he turned to me and asked, “Did you go home a lot?”
I snorted, “Are you kidding? I counted down the days till classes started again. I was only too happy to get away from home and be where I could do what I wanted and not feel like I was under surveillance all the time.”
Spook gave me a sidelong glance and laughed, “And here I thought you were a good little bookworm. Don’t tell me you’re a secret party animal.”
I looked away, feeling a bit silly, then laughed at the joke on myself. “No, I definitely wasn’t a party animal. I guess for the most part I still did what I would have done at home.” I glanced at him and gave him a crooked smile. “It was the idea that if I wanted to go partying, I didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission.”
He rolled down his window and turned off the ignition before regarding me for a moment. Trying to hide a smile, he asked, “So did you?”
“Did I what?” I returned, looking at him curiously.
“Did you ever go out partying?” His expression was so smug, I almost wanted to smack him.
I crossed my arms and hesitated before answering, “I went to a couple parties, but it just wasn’t my thing.” I lowered my head and admitted, “I was the boring one who preferred things like poetry readings, theater performances, stuff like that.”
He chuckled, “Or walking alone along the river late at night.” He pulled me close and tucked a stray lock of hair behind my ear. “You’re not boring, Kyr; you’re just you.” He leaned down and kissed me deeply.
A voice right next to Spook’s open window startled us. “I hope you two aren’t going to do that the whole time.” I jumped away from Spook, blushing. We hadn’t noticed Ed and Phil pull up beside us.
Spook smirked at her and quipped, “I don’t think so. I don’t find cemeteries particularly romantic.”
We got out of the car and climbed the stairs between the residence halls. I tried not to smile as I recalled the night we walked back from A Drop in the Bucket in the rain. Spook caught my eye and grinned, and I knew he was thinking about the same thing. He winked at me and squeezed my hand.
As we crossed the street, Spook turned to Ed and asked, “So, how many people watch the fireworks from the cemetery?”
“Not very many,” he replied. “Probably not more than a dozen. Most people either go downtown or watch from one of the dorms on the hill.”
“Besides,” I added, “Campus law enforcement usually comes by to chase people out.” I was hoping not to meet up with Officer Daly, even if he was one of the friendlier campus policemen. I giggled as I recalled, “We always had a lookout, and as soon as we’d see headlights coming around the bend in the road, we’d duck down behind gravestones till they passed.”
Spook turned to me in disbelief and laughed out loud. “So you didn’t go to parties, but you hid behind gravestones in the cemetery to avoid being caught by campus police?” I smiled sheepishly and shrugged. “What kind of woman am I dating?” he joked.
Phil laughed and informed me, “Law enforcement gave up on chasing people out. I guess they figured that students were going to be up here whether they patrolled or not, and heaven knows they’re not going to actually get out of their vehicles and walk through the cemetery.”
Ed added, “They still drive through to make sure no onei s drinking or vandalizing the graves, but they don’t bother anyone unless they’re acting suspicious.”
About three-quartes of the way up the path, we started seeing students sitting on blankets in between gravestones. We found an empty spot near the top and spread our sweatshirts on the grass. The sky wasn’t quite dark enough yet, so we knew we’d have to wait a while for the fireworks to start. Sounds of quiet conversations drifted to us from the others around us, and we could hear faint music from the bands at the street fair. I swatted at a few mosquitoes and wished I’d thought to bring bug repellent. Still, I felt relaxed and peaceful; as I’d told Jason once, I was completely at ease in cemeteries.
The peaceful atmosphere was suddenly disrupted as Spook’s cell phone went off loudly. He swore under his breath and scrambled to answer it. Laughter and joking cries of “Aw, man,” and “Really?” came from people around us. Spook glanced at the screen before he answered, “Hey, Grant. What’s up?” After a pause, he laughed. “Yeah, sorry I didn’t get back to you. We’ve been busy all day.”
Phil laughed and nudged me. “I’ll bet you were,” she teased.
I was glad for the darkness as I felt my cheeks growing warm. I glanced at Spook and saw him smirk before he responded somewhat uneasily to Grant’s question. “Uh, yeah, we found out a little more about it…actually a lot more, but we still don’t know how it all fits together.” Ed and Phil glanced at each other and watched Spook expectantly. He looked around, gauging the proximity of others around us, who didn’t seem to be paying attention anyway. He said, low, “We’re out in public, so I don’t want to go into any details. Let’s just say the mystery has its roots a lot further back than we expected.” Another pause, and he continued, “Yeah, this is becoming more of an involved mystery than a simple ghost hunt. I’m not really experienced with this kind of thing, and I’m sure you’re not either. We’re just not sure where to go from here.”
After Spook finished his conversation with Grant, he put his phone on vibrate and put it back on his belt. Ed, Phil, and I continued to watch him expectantly until he finally turned his attention to us. He gave me a tight-lipped smile, likely thinking, so much for saying nothing.
Before Spook could say anything, Ed grinned and joked, “We’ll, I guess we weren’t the only ones doing some research today.”
“But it sounds like you guys were more successful than we were,” Phil added, a slight edge to her voice. I got the feeling that Phil could be quite competitive.
Spook looked at Ed, at Phil, and then back to me before offering, “We did find some very significant details, but like I told Grant, we’re not sure yet how it all fits together or what to do with it.”
A sudden flash of color in the sky followed almost immediately by a loud boom signaled the beginning of the fireworks. Ed quickly leaned towards us and suggested, “Why don’t you come back to our place after the fireworks, and we can compare notes?”
We agreed to that plan and turned our attention to the fireworks. For the next twenty minutes, we enjoyed Willow Lake’s small but impressive fireworks display. After a loud and colorful finale, a brief burst of applause, cheering and whistling erupted around us, followed by people getting up and hastening out of the cemetery, likely headed to off-campus parties. “That’s it?” Spook commented.
I nodded and replied, “Willow Lake is too small for anything really impressive, but they do pretty well for a small town.”
We stood and gathered our sweatshirts to head out ourselves. As we made our way down the now-dark path, Phil glanced over her shoulder and remarked, “I didn’t notice a law enforcement drive-through, did you?”
The rest of us shrugged and shook our heads. Ed joked, “Maybe they decided to drive through the donut shop instead.”
We agreed, laughing, and kept walking. As we were about to cross the street, my eyes were drawn to Appleton. I did a double-take as I caught what I thought was a brief flash of light in the bell tower. I stopped and stared intently at the clock face and the side window facing us to see if it appeared again. “Kyr?” Spook asked, stopping too. “What’s wrong?”
Not taking my eyes off the tower, I answered, low, “I just saw a light up there.”
Ed and Phil had turned and were now also staring intently at the bell tower with Spook and me. After a moment, the light hadn’t reappeared, so Spook suggested we walk down past Appleton and cross at the other corner. We headed up the street at a leisurely pace, trying to keep our eyes on the bell tower without being too conspicuous. There was more traffic on Belle Vista Avenue because of people heading home from the street fair, and we didn’t want to draw attention to ourselves by stopping in front of Appleton to gawk at the bell tower. I reluctantly admitted that I might have imagined the light, or that it may have been a reflection, but I had a gut feeling that that wasn’t so. I was certain the light I saw had come from within the tower, and it resembled a flashlight beam.
We made it back to our vehicles, and Spook and I followed Ed and Phil back to their downtown apartment. While Spook and I made ourselves comfortable in the living room, Phil went into the kitchen for snacks and drinks, and Ed went to retrieve the notebook containing the information they had found. When we were all settled, Spook nodded towards the notebook Ed had brought out. “So what did you find out?” he asked, taking a swallow of beer.
Ed glanced at Phil to ask, “Would you like to do the honors?”
“Sure,” she replied, popping a few pieces of Chex Mix into her mouth and wiping her hands on her shorts. She picked up the notebook and flipped a few pages before laying it on the table in front of us. “We just started with some general research on the area’s history and found a few interesting pieces of information. We’re not sure yet how it ties in to Appleton’s haunting, if it ties in at all.” I leaned forward to glance at the notebook as she spoke. At her first words, my eyes snapped up to meet hers. “Did you know there was a small settlement just north of town that predates Willow Lake?”
Spook and I exchanged a look, and he shrugged and nodded. “We came across that too,” I replied. “What did you find out about it?”
“Well, not much, and nothing really concrete, since the settlement existed before anyone really started keeping records here,” Phil replied somewhat dejectedly. “Most of what we found talked about the Native American tribes that lived here before the town was settled.” She pulled out some photocopied maps and mentioned that a lot of artifacts had been found between the river and where the present campus stood. “As far as paranormal activity goes,” she surmised, “if any burial grounds were displaced when they built the college, that might have angered spirits and stirred things up initially, although it really doesn’t play into Appleton and Mary Bollinger.”
Spook shook his head and added, “I don’t necessarily buy into all the cursed Native American burial ground stuff myself.” Phil looked at him curiously, and he continued, “If you think about how many Native Americans may have lived around here, or anywhere the white man has settled in the past 250 years, I’d guess that a lot of towns, colleges or whatever could have potentially been built over someone’s grave. I just think curses and resulting hauntings are few and far between.”
“You have a point there,” Ed admitted, adjusting his glasses and flipping a page in the notebook. “And there didn’t seem to be much happening here before the fire in 1954, which there would have been if there were spirits angered by way of their graves being disturbed.” He fixed his eyes on Spook and added, “One thing we did find that seemed a bit odd was that this settlement seemed to have vanished off the radar for almost 200 years; did you notice that?” I glanced up at Ed and then over at Spook. He returned my look, and a slight chill ran down my arms.
Phil jumped in again, “The only reason anyone knows about the settlement was because a construction crew building a Wal-Mart found a handful of old building foundations and artifacts that predated the town of Willow Lake.” She curled her leg beneath her and sat forward, obviously warming to her theory. “Isn’t it odd that none of the Willow Lake histories mention a settlement that was supposedly here before the town itself? What happened to the people who lived there, and why was there nothing left but the foundations?”
Spook held up his hand, again making himself the voice of reason and skepticism. “Slow down, Phil,” he said calmly. “Don’t try to write a mystery where there might be none. Maybe the people from the settlement assimilated themselves into the town when other settlers moved in. You just said this place was inhabited by Native Americans; they may have decided to move closer to the town for safety reasons. There’s nothing mysterious about that.”
Phil threw her hands up in exasperation; obviously her mind was made up. “The settlers themselves may well have moved into the town, but what about their settlement? They didn’t take their houses, their barns. How is it that, what, ten or so homesteads were out there without anyone knowing of their existence until about a decade ago?”
Ed usually tempered Phil’s enthusiasm, but even he seemed to be following Phil’s logic on this point. “I think Phil has a point here. The area where these homesteads were found isn’t densely wooded or even that hard to get to, so it defies logic that any evidence of a settlement hadn’t been discovered by someone.” He leaned forward and took his glasses off for a moment. “My question is, why did it take a construction crew digging up the site to discover evidence of a settlement? Why weren’t there any above-ground structures? We’re talking about actual homes here, not just temporary campsites.”
Spook looked back and forth between Ed and Phil, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly. I could tell he either wasn’t sold on their theory or else wasn’t convinced that the settlement’s disappearance was important, but he seemed to sense that any reasonable argument he gave would be wasted breath. He cast a helpless look at me and siad, “Kyr? You’ve been relatively quiet; what do you think?”
My eyes widened, and I returned his helpless look. I hadn’t given much thought to the settlement’s demise or disappearance, and I wasn’t sure myself that it was important to the mystery we were trying to unravel. They were all looking at me, waiting for me to offer my input. I searched my mind wildly for a moment and blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “Did you find out about the witch bottles?”
Ed and Phil looked at me as though I had grown another head. “Witch bottles?” Phil asked. “What’s a witch bottle?”
“Wait,” Ed exclaimed, nudging Phil’s shoulder. “That one article said there were glass bottles found buried near the foundations of the houses.” He looked at me. “Is that what you mean?”
I glanced briefly at Spook, figuring we might as well put everything we had on the table. “Yes, those were the witch bottles,” I replied. I went on to tell them what we had heard from Mrs. Rutter and her mother about the archaeological dig and about the chapter in Biddlesbacher’s book about the Willow Lake witch, or as Mrs. Rutter put it, the supposed witch. “Mrs. Rutter thinks the idea of a witch is just superstitious nonsense, but it seems that witches were as plausible to the early setllers as Mary’s spirit is to us.”
Ed seemed to have regained his level-headed skepticism as he asked, “Do we have anything besides a bad corn crop and a few sick cows to base that claim on?”
“Great minds think alike, Ed,” Spook joked, setting his beer down on the table with a thump. When I gave him a dirty look, he smirked at me for a moment before becoming serious again. “Sorry, Kyr. As neatly as the book lady’s story fits into what we’re investigating, the fact remains that without any hard evidence, it’s just that: a story that has been passed down.”
Phil was looking back and forth between us, realizing that she and Ed were missing a big part of the picture. “Okay, I’ll bite. Who’s the book lady, and what story did she tell you that you two seem to disagree on?”
I let out my breath in a huff and scooted forward in my seat. “After we left Mrs. Rutter’s house this afternoon, we walked around town for awhile. We went up to the northern end of the downtown area, up past the movie theater, you know where I mean?” Ed and Phil both nodded, so I continued, ” We came across this ancient-looking book shop and decided to check it out.” I told them about our unsuccessful search of the local history section, followed by our conversation with the shop owner. Ed and Phil listened with interest as I related the woman’s tale about the witch settling near where the campus now stood after the settlers drove her out. “It seems that some of the settlers passed her cabin on the way back from hunting and witnessed her…” I looked at Spook, who wore his typical skeptical expression. “…conversing with the devil himself.”
“What?” Ed exclaimed, exchanging a look with Spook and shaking his head in disbelief.
Even Phil had a hard time swallowing that tidbit. “They certainly had no lack of imagination, did they? What made them think it was the devil and not just someone passing through?”