"There's a witch buried in the cellar."
I looked over at the doors in the ground that opened into the storm cellar, then back at Randall. I'd only known him for about three days, but already I had figured out he was often full of bull. "Nuh-uh."
"No, really," he said, his face earnest. "You can ask my dad if you don't believe me. He'll tell you."
I hadn't met Randall's dad yet; just his mom when she'd brought us a basket of cookies on the day we moved in. I had no idea whether Randall's dad was as prone to making stuff up as Randall, but this was the first time he'd suggested that I verify one of his stories with an adult, so he must've been serious.
We were parked at the end of my parents' driveway, straddling our bikes and munching on leftover welcome cookies. The cellar sat in the middle of the big, grassy yard, about fifty yards from the double-wide my parents and I now called home. It looked innocent enough, surrounded by puffy white dandelions, the metal doors gleaming in the late spring sunshine. My mom had been relieved when she'd seen it. This was tornado country, and she hadn't been thrilled about the prospect of living in a mobile home, even though it was only supposed to be temporary, until our real house was built. The cellar promised us safety.
"How'd she get there?" I egged him on, eager to hear what kind of wild story he’d come up with this time. A wiry, freckled kid, tall for his age, Randall was the first kid my own age I’d met there, and with summer vacation just starting I figured it'd be three more months before I had a chance to make more friends. I'd decided it was better to go along with his stories rather than risk being friendless all summer.
His face lit up at the question. He gobbled the rest of his cookie and wiped his fingers on his shorts, then scooted his bike closer to mine and leaned forward, resting his arms on the handlebars. "There used to be a house here," he said in hushed tones. "A two-story farmhouse, built there, over the cellar." He jerked his chin toward the cellar doors.
"What happened to it?"
He held up a finger. "I'm gettin' to that part. So anyway, this lady lived here, all by herself. This was a long time ago, before we were even born. Way back in, like, the 'Eighties. Her name was Juanita Crabtree. People would come to her for herbal remedies and stuff. They didn't have Whole Foods or places like that back then. My dad says she probably also sold pot."
"So she was a hippie drug dealer," I said, and shrugged. "That doesn't make her a witch."
"No," Randall agreed, leaning even closer, "but then one year animals started dying. Cats and dogs at first, showing up all mutilated, and then cows. People got real scared, thinking there was a satanic cult around here doing animal sacrifices. And then a little kid went missing, and people really freaked out."
A chill ran down my back, and I was suddenly glad we were in broad daylight, and not sitting by a campfire where this story would've been more appropriate. Randall might be full of it, but at least his stories were entertaining. "Did they find the kid?" I asked.
He shook his head. "He's still missing. But around the same time, a bunch of other kids got sick with some mystery illness they couldn't identify. A couple of babies died. And then someone found the missing kid's shirt down there by the creek." He nodded in the direction of the creek bed that edged our property. "It was all caked with blood.”
"That's when her customers started coming forward, talking about stuff they'd seen in her house--pentagrams, black candles, tarot cards, that kind of stuff. This one lady said Juanita had offered to pray with her for her bad back, but the prayer wasn't like any kind of prayer she'd ever heard. The lady got scared and left and never went back there again."
My baloney detector was still going off, but I was too into the story to care. "So what'd they do?"
"The sheriff's department got a warrant and brought dogs out to search her property. They found some weird stuff. Bird skeletons, cat skulls, jars full of cow's blood. And that's not even the scary part."
"What is?" I realized I'd leaned closer.
Randall looked around, as if to make sure we weren't being watched. Seemingly satisfied, he leaned back in. "They found a bunch of dolls, tied up all weird, with these little bags around their necks, filled with teeth, bones, hair . . . that kind of stuff."
I shivered, and glanced uneasily over at the cellar. "Did they arrest her?"
"Yeah, but they had to let her go ‘cause they didn't have enough evidence. So the people decided to do what the sheriff couldn't."
He stopped, then leaned back and stretched his arms. I got the feeling he was telling this story the same way he'd heard it told, pausing to let the drama sink in. When he didn't start talking again right away, I took the bait. "What did they do?"
"A lynch mob came after her. They were gonna hang her--from that tree over there." He pointed to the tall oak towering over the double-wide, where my dad had told me we could build a tree house later that summer.
"Did they?" I asked, not taking my eyes off the tree, trying to guess which limb had been used for the deed.
"No," he said, and I let out the breath I'd been holding. "When they came, about forty people all together, she met them on the front porch and told them she could control the weather. She said if they didn't leave, she'd call down a tornado to carry them all to hell."
"What did they do?"
"They didn't leave. Instead they dragged her off the porch and over to the tree. She was kicking and screaming the whole way, calling out words in some weird language nobody could understand. But that wasn’t all. As they strung her up, she called out a curse on the property so that nobody else would build here. She said, ‘A child must die so the house may stand.’” He repeated this last part in an ominous, creaky old-lady voice.
“Then a storm hit,” he continued, “and baseball-size hail started to fall, hitting people and knocking them out. They tried to gag her and finish hanging her, but she got away and tried to run for the cellar. Then somebody shot her.
"That's when the tornado hit."
He paused again for effect, and I leaned back on my bike and regarded him with skepticism. "You're making this up," I said. Despite the risks to my social life, I couldn't let such a fantastic whopper go without comment.
"I'm not," he said, his eyes wide and sincere. He raised his right hand. "I swear. You can look it up online. It was in all the papers, how a freak storm hit without any warning and a tornado only destroyed one house." He pointed over at the cellar. "That house."
"Yeah, right," I said, but all the bravado had gone out of my voice.
"I told you, look it up! Anyway," he went on, dismissing my unbelief, "most of the people were killed, but a couple of survivors managed to make it into the cellar right before the tornado hit. One of them was a friend of my dad's uncle. They never found her body, and he told the sheriff that the storm must've carried her off, or maybe she'd survived and got out of town. But it was him that shot her, and then they buried her down there."
I sat back and gripped my handlebars, taking a deep breath and letting it all sink in. "That's a hell of a story, Randall."
"I know," he said, "but that's not even the freakiest part."
I steeled myself and asked, "Then what is?"
"People have tried to rebuild on this property three times since then, on top of the old foundation. Every time, as soon as the house was finished and the families moved in, a tornado would hit and tear it all down.
“The first time, it was a retired couple, and they were both killed. Then a young family built another house here, but not long after one of the kids died of some mystery illness. They moved soon after that, and another childless couple bought the place. Guess what happened after that?”
I didn’t answer; the question seemed rhetorical anyway, ‘cause Randall went on without pausing. “After that another family put a house here, this time with teenagers. Another tornado hit, and only the dad survived. He tore up the old foundation so that nobody would build on it again."
I looked over by the cellar, at the area where the foundation must've been laid. The whole reason my parents had bought this property was that they planned to build there eventually. “So you’re basically telling me I’m gonna die.”
His eyes went wide, as if that thought hadn’t even occurred to him. Then he waved his hand as if to dismiss everything. “Nah,” he said. “I’m sure it’s all a coincidence. I mean, I don’t really believe in witches or anything like that. Do you?”
“Of course not,” I told him, but that didn’t ease the queasiness I suddenly felt.
"Anyway, I’m thirsty,” he said, changing the subject. “Wanna ride down to the gas station and get some pop?"
"Yeah, okay," I said, grateful for something to take my mind off of the cellar. "Let me go ask my mom."
The weather forecast predicted severe weather later in the week, so my dad decided not to waste any more time getting the storm shelter ready. After supper, we drove twenty miles to the nearest Walmart to stock up on supplies.
I hadn’t given Randall’s story another thought the rest of that day, but as we drove back home, it was starting to get dark, and I knew my dad was going to make me help him put everything away in the cellar. My heart sped up as I remembered everything Randall had said, and suddenly I really didn’t want to go down there, especially at night.
I didn’t dare tell my dad that, though. He’d just stopped treating me like a little kid that year, and I didn’t want him to start again. Instead I reminded myself that in just three short days Randall already had a track record of making stuff up. I told myself that tornadoes are way scarier than some old dead lady anyway, witch or no witch, and the cellar would keep us safe.
But when my dad parked the truck in the driveway and told me to grab a case of water and follow him to the cellar, I froze. I was still sitting there, trying to slow my heart and untie the knots in my stomach, when he startled me by pounding on my window. “Let’s go, sport!” he called, Walmart bags gripped in one fist and a cot in the other.
I took a deep breath, then opened the door and got out. I took my time getting the water from the back of the truck and crossing the yard to the cellar doors. By the time I got there, light flooded out of the open doors, and I could hear my dad humming an old Metallica song. Shaking my head at my own stupidity, I descended the steps and set the water on the dirt floor. As I stood back up, I couldn’t help wondering if that was the spot where she was buried.
“Sport!” Dad called. When I looked up I got the feeling he’d had to call out to me more than once. His face was covered with concern. “You okay, son?”
I shrugged. “I’m fine.”
He studied me a minute, then said, “You sure about that?”
I opened my mouth to say yes, but something made me hesitate. If Randall’s story was true, wouldn’t my parents have known about it before they bought the place and moved us here? I decided I needed to ask, but I had to do it in a way that wouldn’t make me sound like a ‘fraidy baby. So I just said, “Randall says there’s a witch buried down here.”
He laughed. “Randall. Isn’t that the kid who told you his dog is thirty years old? In human years?”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “I know he’s full of sh--crap,” I corrected myself as my Dad raised an eyebrow at me. “But he swore that we could look this stuff up. He said she cursed a bunch of kids and made them sick before a lynch mob finally killed her.”
Dad paused from arranging candles and batteries on a shelf and looked at me. “When was this supposed to be?”
“Back in the 1980s.”
“Ah.” He nodded knowingly as he took out his pocket knife to cut the zip ties that held the cots closed. “When you’re a little older, remind me to tell you about a little something called the Satanic Panic.”
He pointed the knife at me, along with a stern look. “When you’re older.”
Great. He was already talking to me like a little kid again. Still, I pressed on. Keeping my voice light, like I thought it was all a big stupid joke, I relayed the rest of Randall’s story.
“So did you look it up?” He asked as he arranged the cots along one wall.
“Nah,” I said, trying to sound like I didn’t believe it was worth the bother. I left out the part about my mom being on the computer doing her homework all day, even though that would’ve been an excellent opportunity to drop a hint about getting my own laptop for my birthday.
With everything apparently arranged to his satisfaction, my dad sliced open the shrink wrap on a case of water, took out a couple of bottles and handed one to me. He sat on the end of the middle cot and scanned the dirt floor. “So where do you think she’s buried?” He looked down at his own feet and stomped a boot on the floor. “Here?”
I stared at his boot and swallowed, hard. Then I did my best to laugh it off. “Nah,” I said again. “Like I said, Randall’s full of crap.”
Dad nodded, a look of approval on his face. Then he pointed at me with the hand that held the cap. “You remember that before you come and wake me up asking me to check your closet tonight,” he said, then took a drink.
“Dad, I’m not a baby.”
He grinned, and stood up. “I know. I don’t always like it, but I know.” He ruffled my hair, then jerked his head toward the stairs. “Come on. We’ve got time for a round of Sorry before bed.” Before I knew it, he was headed up the stairs in front of me. “Get the light,” he called over his shoulder.
I should’ve been right behind him, but my feet froze to the ground the second I realized he was leaving me down there on my own. I looked around, and suddenly the same cellar that had seemed innocuous and even kind of cozy while my dad was there looked sinister and unwelcoming, with stark shadows cast at creepy angles by the naked light bulb overhead. The area underneath each of the cots was dark, and I imagined (didn’t I?) something moving under there, deep in the shadowy space.
My heart sped up and suddenly my feet were all too eager to move. I reached up and yanked the light chain even as the rest of me was already moving toward the stairs. I thought I could feel something on my heels as I shot up out of the ground, but it was only my paranoia. When I turned to close the doors, nothing was there. Just a gaping, dark, empty hole.
I closed the doors, strung the chain through the door handles, and forced myself to walk at a calm pace as I headed back to the house.
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