Faceless and silent, the ghosts stood behind the grave markers, one spirit for every stone.
They reminded Madi of schoolchildren waiting patiently for their teacher’s instruction. Of course, Madi had never set foot in a real school. She’d been educated mainly by her Pa, who read to her from the Bible, and by Miss Cora, the teaching woman who used to visit her twice a week. Madi had liked Miss Cora, who always brought a bag full of books and old magazines and learning games. But Miss Cora had stopped visiting more than four years ago. Pa said she had met a fella, married him, and moved to West Virginia.
Now, with everything she thought she understood crashing down around her ears, Madi wondered if even that had been true. Maybe Miss Cora had run afoul of the congregation that had gathered under the branches of the twisted oak.
Or maybe Miss Cora had been among their number.
Madi had never seen a real classroom, although she could guess what one looked like. She had never had a real teacher, but she had learned just the same. She had never had a real father, and the man she thought was he Pa was chasing her through the woods, intent on killing her.
If the ghosts, lurking behind the weather- and time-worn headstones, sense Madi’s growing confusion—her mounting panic—they showed no sign. They simply stood there, watching. They made no sound, and their faces were as barren as the grave markers behind which they stood. Madi wondered if the ghosts had once worn faces… faces with eyes and noses and ears and mouths… faces that friends or family might recognize… faces that had faded away and been forgotten as the epitaphs on the gravestones had dulled with unkind years.
“You don’t want to hurt me, do you?”
Although little more than a whisper, Madi’s words seemed to thunder in the darkness.
The grave-wights offered no answer.
“Way I figure it,” Madi said, “if you wanted to do me harm, you would have gotten it over with already. There ain’t much I could do—now is there?—to protect myself from ghosts.”
In their silence, the spirits agreed.
“So maybe you just want to scare me.” Madi felt her face flush with quickening anger. “Is that it? Now that you’re dead, you ain’t got nothing better to do than spook people?”
A ripple seemed to pass through the spirits, like a gust of wind through the mist, like the long-dead souls sensed Madi’s anger.
And feared her.
And that might have chilled Madi’s blood more than anything she’d seen or heard tonight.
She started to speak, and as she did so, the spectral figures shifted again, a furrow of subtle movement passing through them, the way gooseflesh might spread across living skin.
“I’m going now.”
Madi took a step to move around the tiny cemetery. But as she inched to the side, several of the featureless grave-wights swept out from behind stones to block her path. They didn’t reach for her with icy, dead fingers. They didn’t whisper of ill-tidings, curses, or doom. They stopped short of touching her. Instead, they simply barred her path so if she took another step forward, she would walk through their misty forms.
She moved to the left, and the spirits moved to block her. She ducked to the right, and the spirits darted that way as well.
“What do you want?” Madi asked.
The grave-wights said nothing.
Madi knew that she had to keep moving. Pa was out there—somewhere not far behind—looking for her. She couldn’t go back the way she had come.
A growl formed in her throat.
“Move,” she said.
And—just like that—the grave-wights recoiled from her, the mist rolling back like waves turned away by breakers. The ghosts flowed back to their positions behind the grave markers and simply…
Madi looked back at the spirits as she took one slow, tentative step after another. As she cleared the cemetery, her pace quickened, and soon she was running again, not looking back.
Later, she would realize that the grave-wights were trying to protect her from what lay ahead.
But by that time, they wouldn’t be there to help her.