School Spirits, Chapter 31

Spook and I spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening strolling through downtown Willow Lake. Our first order of business was to grab a bite to eat since we hadn’t had anything solid since our sticky bun brunch. I kept my promise to Nance and convinced Spook that we should stop at Raymond’s Deli. I was determined to sample that decadent-looking cheesecake, so we split a ham and cheese cosmo, and he also ordered a bowl of hearty minestrone soup. Everything was as delicious as it was the day before, but my mind was on that cheesecake. When I finally had my dessert in front of me, I sat staring at it almost worshipfully before I picked up my fork and dug in. At the first bite, I let out a long, satisfied sigh as I slowly savored it. When I opened my eyes, I noticed Spook with his chin propped on his fist, watching me with amusement. “Are you eating that cheesecake, or making love to it?” he teased. He chuckled as my face grew warm. He picked up his spoon and held it out to my cheesecake. “May I?”

I jokingly snatched it away before wrinkling my nose at him playfully as I slid it back within his reach. He narrowed his eyes at me and gave me a crooked grin as he spooned up a bite. I watched as he took the cheesecake into his mouth. He finished the bite and laid his spoon down before propping his chin on his fist once more. I stared at him, unable to believe his indifference towards this heavenly dessert. Taking another bite, I asked, “Isn’t this to die for?”

Laughing out loud, he sat back, stretched, and replied, “Cheesecake really isn’t my thing, Kyr m’dear. When I eat dessert, I like a big slab of chocolate cake with a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream drowned in caramel sauce.” He leaned forward again, his eyes sparkling warmly, and said, “I’ll just enjoy watching you enjoy your cheesecake.”

I was tempted to eat it quickly because I was self-conscious with him watching me savor every bite, but it seemed wrong to wolf down that rich, creamy slice of heaven, so I ignored him and took my time enjoying it. When I had finished the last bite, I dabbed my mouth with my napkin and sat back, sighing with satisfaction. My eyes met Spook’s, and he grinned mischievously, holding out a pack of cigarettes. “Need a smoke after that?” When I curled my lip and tried to give him a dirty look, he quickly stuffed them in his pocket, giving me an apologetic look. “Sorry, Kyr. I know you don’t like that I smoke. Honest, I’m trying to quit.”

I returned his look sheepishly and replied, “I wasn’t going to say anything. I guess I didn’t have to. I didn’t mean to make you feel guilty.”

He chuckled and reached across to take my hand. “Well, you aren’t the only one,” he said, giving me a crooked smile again. “My parents have been on my case since I started. It was just another bad decision that came after the divorce.” I leaned forward to prop my chin on my fist, wondering if he’d ever give me the details of his failed marriage. He returned my look and read my thoughts. “I’ll tell you about it sometime, Kyr. Right now I want to enjoy our time together without dredging up bad memories from the past.”

After paying the check and leaving the deli, we strolled along the main street. Every so often I pointed out one of the buildings and shared my memories. I showed him where Doc’s Bar had been–“The one you didn’t know was haunted?” he reminded me playfully–and I pointed out Rita Rae’s salon and told him about my experiences living in the studio apartment upstairs. As we looked around, I felt a twinge of the wistfulness that had plagued me when I visited over the summer. I realized that only a few shops that I remembered from my college days were still here; many of the small mom-and-pop shops had either been replaced by big-name chain stores or the buildings just sat vacant, their empty windows emanating sadness and a longing for the past.

Spook sensed my change in mood and slipped his arm around my shoulders. “You suddenly seem less happy than you had been. Too much cheesecake, or is there something on your mind?”

I smiled at his joke, then looked down at the sidewalk for a moment. I didn’t answer right away, wondering once more if he’d think I was being a sentimental fool because of my attachment to this place. When I chanced a glance up at him, I saw sympathetic understanding in his eyes. Sighing, I replied, “You’ll probably think it’s silly, but I was just thinking about the way I remembered the downtown area. It always seemed so alive and had so much…I don’t know…character. Now a lot of those old places are gone, and so many of the buildings are either empty or being torn down…” I didn’t finish my thought. Spook had just commented that he didn’t want to dredge up the bad memories of the past, and now here I was lamenting what I was missing from the past.

Surprisingly, he didn’t laugh at me. “I guess I can understand that,” he said softly. “My hometown is the same way, with a lot of the places we used to hang out going out of business because of the big department stores moving in. I think Katie notices it more than I do.” He pursed his lips as though thinking. He glanced across the street at a vacant building that I recalled as being an ice cream parlor. “Since I’ve pretty much stayed there in my hometown, I see old places closing down and being replaced one at a time, so it doesn’t affect me as much. Then Katie comes home for a visit and comments about how much has changed. In a way it’s sad, but it would be strange if things never changed.”

“I guess so,” I conceded. I chuckled grimly and admitted, “I suppose it bothers me because my college years were some of the happiest of my life. I guess I’d like to think I can just come to Willow Lake and step back in time to those happy days.”

Sensing that my sentimentality was about to give way to sadness, Spook grinned wickedly and joked, “Well, you know, the old blowhard is still in charge at the college. That hasn’t changed.” When I laughed out loud, he pulled me close to kiss the top of my head and continued, “You know, I can think of one thing that has changed for the better, at least for me.”

I turned to look up at him, knowing what he was thinking. I slid my arms around his neck and stood on tiptoe to kiss him. “So can I,” I replied softly.

We crossed the street and headed up to the northern end of the downtown area where I had only gone once or twice. Besides the movie theater on the corner, there hadn’t been much of interest to me in this part of town, but I was feeling adventurous and wanted to explore. We were a block over from the street fair, and we heard the sounds of music and throngs of people and smelled the aromas of the various food vendors. I glanced up at Spook, knowing what he was thinking. Our eyes met briefly, and I smiled at him before we continued along the street.

In the middle of the block, we came upon an ancient-looking shop with faded blue siding and maroon paint peeling off the door and shutters. Beside the door hung a small hand-painted sign that simply read, “Old Books.” Cobwebs hung from the sign and around the door, and the window was devoid of any kind of a display, so I thought the shop must have gone out of business. Still, I noticed an “Open” sign propped in the corner of the window, so I looked up at Spook. He caught my eye and laughed shortly. “I take it they sell old books.” I giggled at his joke and went back to sizing up the building. He looked down at me with a smirk and commented, “Let me guess, this was one of your favorite hangouts?”

I looked at him strangely and replied, “Actually, I never even knew this shop existed.” Granted, I hadn’t come down this block more than a couple times, but I found it odd that a book shop, no matter how small, would have escaped my attention. The only explanations I could come up with were either that the shop hadn’t existed when I was in college or I simply hadn’t noticed it because it was so obscure.

Spook finally nudged me and teased, “Well, bookworm, I know you’re just dying to go inside.” He reached around me to tug the door open and motioned me to go ahead of him.

I slowly ascended the two steps and peeked inside. A musty, old-book smell greeted me, and if Spook hadn’t come in behind me, I might have turned around and left. I stepped inside the dimly-lit shop and was almost overwhelmed by the enormous wooden bookshelves lined up all the way throught the shop. There was hardly enough space between the shelvesfor one person to pass through, and I thanked the heavens I wasn’t claustrophobic. I quickly glanced back at Spook, recalling his dislike of crowds and wondering if he might be uneasy in the small, cramped bookshop. He gave me a tight-lipped smile and jerked his head to indicate that I should go inside and look around.

As I crossed over the threshhold, my eyes drifted to the side. In the front corner of the right wall, just beyond the window, was a small counter with an old-fashioned cash register. A sulky-looking teenage girl with light brown hair pulled up into a messy ponytail sat behind the counter with her pierced nose in a romance novel. Without moving a muscle, she raised her eyes to us as though hoping that if she remained motionless, we wouldn’t see her. I gave her a brief smile and murmured, “Hello,” to which she didn’t respond. I quickly looked away and ducked between the two closest bookshelves and began browsing book titles.

Spook also glanced over and caught the girl’s eye. I assumed she gave him the same don’t-bother-me look, but Spook wasn’t at all intimidated. He hooked his thumbs in his belt loops, leaned against the bookshelf and asked, “Do you have any local history books?”

I slid a copy of Quentin Durward back onto the shelf as I heard the girl let out a huff and lay her book down. “Down on the lower floor, all the way in back. Stairs are over there.” I heard her pick up her book again before she leaned forward and called out, “Grandma! Customers coming down!”

She ignored our thank-you’s as we made our way to the stairs on the other side of the shop. As we passed the rows of bookshelves, my eyes were drawn to the hand-lettered signs indicating fiction, non-fiction, textbooks and children’s books. Several times I paused and leaned in to a row, just trying to glimpse a few book titles. For that reason, Spook reached the top of the stairs first and stood looking back at me, an impatient smirk on his face. “Making up for lost time?” he joked before turning and heading down the steps.

The rickety wooden stairs creaked loudly as we descended, and I thought to myself that it had been unnecessary for the girl to call down to her grandmother; the stairs seemed to announce our approach just fine. We reached the bottom of the stairs and found a room that resembled the upstairs shop. Like the upstairs, it was dimly-lit, with only a few bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling between the bookshelves. I was beginning to think the girl’s grandmother wasn’t down here at all when an older woman with short graying hair emerged from between two bookshelves, carrying an armload of books. She started slightly when she saw us and then squinted open-mouthed at us through thick, oversized glasses. “Oh, hello,” she chuckled. “I didn’t know anyone was here.”

“Your granddaughter called down to you when she sent us down,” I explained apologetically, feeling as though we were intruding.

The woman shook her head and chuckled, “I suppose her nose is still buried in that romance novel, so she couldn’t escort you down herself.” I wrinkled my nose and nodded hesitantly. The girl hadn’t been friendly, but she hadn’t been openly rude either, so I didn’t want to get her into trouble. The woman waved her hand and sighed. “I suppose I should be happy she’s reading, but I do wish she’d pick up one of the classics.” Finally remembering she had customers, she asked, “Is there anything I can help you with?”

I glanced over at Spook, and he stepped forward to ask, “Do you have any books on WIllow Lake’s early history? The earlier the better.”

She set her armload of books down next to one of the bookshelves and backtracked a couple rows, beckoning with her finger. “We don’t have many, as you might expect,” she said. “But what we have should be…” She paused with her hand on her lower lip. “…Right here on this shelf.”

Spook and I approached and looked up at the shelf where she was pointing. There were only about half a dozen books that looked promising. Spook smiled down at her as he reached up for the first book in the row. “Thank you for your help. We’ll have a look at what you’ve got.”

“Don’t mention it,” the woman answered, inching past us. “I’ll be a couple rows over if you need anything else.”

When we were alone, I looked up at Spook and asked, “So, what are we looking for…Spencer?”

I giggled as he bopped me on the head with the book. Flipping the book open to the table of contents, he drawled, “Well, Kyrie Skye, isn’t it obvious? I want to see if I can find any mention of Willow Lake’s resident witch.”

Although I doubted we’d find anything in any of these books, I pulled down the next one and began scanning the contents. It took only about fifteen minutes to determine that none of these books held the information we were looking for. As I slid the last book back into its place on the shelf, Spook looked down at me and shrugged. I slipped my arm around his waist and consoled, “It was worth a try.”

He nodded, and we began inching our way out from between the shelves. “It was,” he replied. “I guess I was hoping we’d come across a renegade original copy of Biddlesbacher’s book.”

I said nothing, but nodded as we made our way towards the stairs. As we passed the row where the shop owner was adding books to the shelves, I stuck my head in and said, “Thank you again for your help.”

She looked towards us, again squinting open-mouthed through her thick glasses. Noticing that neither of us had a book in our hands, she asked, disappointed, “You didn’t find what you were looking for?”

I shook my head apologetically. “No, I’m sorry.” I glanced at Spook before continuing. “We’re looking for what I suppose is some obscure information. I’m not sure it’s even recorded in any book.”

The woman gave us a curious look. “What kind of obscure information? I’ve lived here all my life, as did my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. If I don’t know the answer, I might be able to tell you where to find it.”

Spook and I looked at each other. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, thinking this would likely just be another dead end, but Spook jumped right in to ask, “Can you tell us anything about the Willow Lake witch?”

Her eyes widened momentarily, and I sensed that she knew something. For a second I was certain that she wouldn’t tell us anything; if her parents and grandparents had lived in Willow Lake, it was likely she knew something of Mary Bollinger and all the secrecy surrounding her death. She pursed her lips together, thinking, and then said simply, “Come with me.”

She shuffled towards the stairs and began to climb them, her arthritic knees popping every couple steps. We followed her up the stairs and past the counter where her granddaughter was still reading her romance novel. Her eyes moved to look at us, and then snapped to her grandmother as she said, “Carleigh, I’ll be back in the office with these customers if anyone comes in.”

The girl–Carleigh–nodded, and I heard her mutter, “Not like anyone ever comes in here anyway,” before she turned her attention back to her book.

We made our way to a small room in the back of the shop. The woman flipped on the light on her desk and moved a couple crates over for us to sit on. “I apologize for not having proper seats,” she chuckled, sitting down on a folding chair. We waved away her apology, not minding a bit. “So, you’re interested in the Willow Lake witch?” she asked.

Spook and I looked at each other, both thinking the same thing, that it wasn’t really the witch we were interested in, but her role in the bell tower haunting. Still, we both nodded hesitantly, and Spook asked, “I guess the real question is, was she actually a witch, or was it all just superstition?”

Her eyes sparkled as she looked at us through those enormous glasses, and she responded, “Well, I guess that depends on who you ask.” I groaned inwardly, thinking once more that this would be another dead end, but then she continued, “I for one think there may have been something to it.”

Unable to contain myself, I sat forward quickly and exclaimed, “Really? Why do you say that?” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Spook cross his arms and raise a skeptical eyebrow. I hoped he wouldn’t say anything to discourage the woman’s story.

“Like I said,” the woman began, eyeing Spook and noticing his skeptical attitude. “I grew up here, and my family has been here for generations, so I’ve heard many of the stories that have been passed down, stories you won’t find in those local history books.”

I shot Spook a glance warning him to keep his skeptical comments to himself and asked the woman, “What kind of stories?”

She pulled her chair closer and began, “You know about the settlement just north of town, correct?” When Spook and I nodded, she went on to tell us much the same story that we heard from Mrs. Rutter and her mother, beginning with the pre-Willow Lake settlement and ending with the settlers blaming their misfortunes on the newcomer.

Just as I feared this conversation was going nowhere, Spook leaned forward and argued, “Couldn’t these ‘misfortunes’ have had natural explanations? Crops fail because of weather or poor soil, animals catch sicknesses from other animals, people back then didn’t have adequate medical care. What evidence is there that this ‘witch’ was responsible for any of it?”

I turned quickly to him, raising my eyebrows and frowning to discourage his abrasiveness. He met my eyes steadily and unapologetically before the woman jumped in, “It’s all right, dear. That’s a fair question.” I deliberately turned my attention back to the woman as Spook shot me a superior smirk; she continued, “Of course, it’s possible that you’re right, but the old woman had a reputation as a healer. Having no doctors nearby, the settlers appreciated having a healer within the settlement.” She paused for a moment and shrugged. “Of course, when treatments didn’t work or when other misfortunes began to occur, superstition took over, and she was branded a witch and forced out of the settlement.”

I shook my head, somewhat understanding their suspicions, but also unable to believe they would send an elderly woman away into an unsettled territory by herself. “Where did she go? What did she do?” I finally asked.

Sitting up and motioning over her shoulder, she responded, “Legend has it that she settled where the Willow Lake College campus now stands.” My breath caught for a moment as an icy finger traced its way down my spine. I turned wide-eyed to Spook, who looked back at me with eyebrows raised and mouth agape.

Spook recovered his composure first and asked somewhat shakily, “Okay, so she was a healer who got a bad rap for the settlers’ bad luck. Is that enough to brand her as a witch?” I could see his argument, and I was interested to see how the woman would respond.

She nodded and chuckled as though she had expected that question, and then shook her head. “That was only the tip of the iceberg,” she said, looking squarely at Spook, who had his hand on his chin as though deep in thought. “My grandmother shared stories she had heard from her own mother and grandmother. There was one story where a couple hunters from the settlement were returning from hunting one moonlit night when they passed the witch’s cabin; this was after she had been forced to leave. They claimed to hear her chanting in some strange language, and then they heard another voice coming from the cabin, talking to her. Not knowing of another soul within miles besides her and those in their settlement, they crept over to peer in her window.” She paused, whether for effect or because what followed made her uneasy, I wasn’t sure. Her eyes met Spook’s and then drifted over to mine, and she finished, “What they saw, I don’t know, but they said she was speaking to the devil himself. She saw them peering in the window and pointed at them, yelling. They took off running, and something pursued them. One of them stumbled and was attacked by…something invisible. He got away, but he was seriously injured and died several days later. The other man told his family what they had seen, and soon afterward, they took measures to protect themselves against the witch.”

“The witch bottles,” I said, glancing at Spook. He returned my look grimly and nodded. I could tell that despite his stubborn skepticism, the story had unnerved him somewhat.

She told us a few other stories she had heard, mostly along the lines of passersby hearing her chanting in her cabin or encountering her in the woods. The strangest story she told us dated from a time when other settlers were coming into what would soon be Willow Lake. These new settlers came upon the witch’s cabin as twilight was descending. The door was ajar, and on the table was a lit lantern, small empty bottles, and a few dried herbs. A cast iron pot bubbled on the stove, and on the floor lay a thin book bound with thread. The travelers waited for the cabin’s owner to return and conducted a search, to no avail. “They set up camp close by the cabin, hoping to acquaint themselves with the owners on their return, but come morning, the cabin remained deserted. The witch was never seen again.”

Spook and I were silent for a long moment before Spook asked, “What became of the cabin?”

“Legend has it,” the woman said again. “That as other new settlers came in, some would often attempt to use it for shelter. Apparently, no one was ever able to stay the night.” Spook and I both sat up and gazed at her curiously. “It was said that the witch’s spirit remained, guarding her cabin and waiting.”

Uneasiness crept from my chest and into my throat. In a choked voice, I asked, “Waiting for what?”

She shrugged. “Granny never said what the witch might have been waiting for. Revenge, maybe. Some say she waited for someone to pass her powers to. In any event, one night some of the original settlers set fire to the cabin and burned it to the ground. Things seemed to settle somewhat afterwards, so they thought the witch’s curse was gone.”

I hardly heard the woman’s last words; my mind had grasped something she’d just said. “Someone to pass her powers to…”

Spook laid his hand on my shoulder and asked softly, “Kyr?” When I looked up at him with wild eyes, he wore the same concerned expression I’d seen at Mrs. Rutter’s house when I saw the picture of Professor Childress. “What’s wrong? What are you thinking?”

There was concern on the woman’s face as well, as I replied faintly, “Is that what Professor Childress was trying to do? Trying to access the witch’s power?” Spook’s eyes met the woman’s, and I continued, “It all makes sense–his interest in Willow Lake’s early history, his special projects, Mary in the bell tower with candles and a book…”

The woman gasped. “Mary? Mary Bollinger? Were you with the folks who were investigating Appleton bell tower?” When we nodded sheepishly, she shook her head and continued, “If I’d known that’s why you were asking…” Her eyes lost their squintiness as she looked sharply at both of us. “You folks don’t know what you’re getting into. PRofessor Childress…Mary Bollinger…what happened in the bell tower…there’s a reason those things aren’t written down in the history books. We don’t talk about those things; they need to be allowed to rest…”

Spook sat forward, his eyes blazing. “What people here don’t realize is that those things can’t rest if you keep burying them in secrecy. Mary’s spirit still haunts that bell tower, whether people are talking about it or not. Maybe if people in this town would let the story be told, she could be put to rest.”

Shaking her head almost wildly, the woman replied, “No. There’s too much…it’s too dangerous. The curse…no.” She stood, letting us know the conversation was over.

As the woman ushered us to the door, I noticed that Carleigh had laid down her book and was leaning over the counter, watching her flustered grandmother show us out. As soon as we were out the door, I heard the lock click, and saw the “Open” sign disappear from the window. Spook looked down at me, still obviously aggravated by yet another secret keeper. “Well,” he said through clenched teeth. “At least we got a decent chunk of the story before she caught on to us.”

“I suppose,” I replied as we began walking back towards the heart of town. “But why do I get the feeling that things just got a whole lot more dangerous?”

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