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“The River” by Matthew Penwell

“This place is beautiful,” Roger said.

     “I spent a lot of time here when I was a kid. It was,” Anna shrugged, “a place for me to get away.” A hurtful grimace crossed her face. She walked to the riverbank and sat down. Even at the deepest point, the water didn’t reach half a foot. The water-polished rocked gleamed in the evening sun. Memories that hadn’t crossed her mind for years surged. She remembered the first time she had stumbled upon the small river. Back then she didn’t know the secrets. In a way, the river was haunted. More than that, cursed!

     “Roger,” Anna said over her shoulder. He turned away from a furry caterpillar. “Want to hear a ghost story?” She smiled slyly.

     He raised both eyebrows. She had his attention. He sat down next to her, drawing his legs to his chest. He slung one arm around Anna’s shoulder, pulled her against him. Her bleach blonde hair smelled like warm apples.

     “Haunted, hmm?”

     “Believe it or not.”

     “Guess every town has to have a haunted place. It’s an American tradition. Shouldn’t have built on the burial grounds of Native Americans, I say!” He mocked. Anna elbowed him gently in the ribs.

     “I’m being serious! I saw the ghost once.”

     “Now I know you’re pulling my leg.”

     “Roger Best! I am ashamed in you. Since when have you known me to lie?”

     “Never ever. Unless it’s on the nights I cook and you say it’s good.”

     Anna laughed. “So what. Maybe I’ve not liked it as much as I said.”

     “What was it, the veggie pizza? The pumpkin spice cake?”

     Anna wrinkled her nose. “The pizza was pretty bad.”

     “I always knew you didn’t like it!”

     “I still ate it, didn’t I?”

     “At the cost of hurting my feelings.”

     “The taste of cardboard covered in pizza sauce was worth it.”

     “Ouch.” Roger pulled her closer. No hard feelings. She nuzzled into his shoulder. “So tell me about this river. I’ve never seen an actual haunted place.”

     “It’s not really haunted.”

     “So you do lie!”

     “No. Shh. Let me tell the story. It’s not haunted,” she coughed, cleared her throat. The floor was hers. “It’s cursed. Never take anything from here. Not a stone. Not a flower. Not even a blade of grass.”

     “Okay?”

     “I’m trying to set up the story. Will you be quiet for five minutes?” Anna said hotly. A few seconds of silence passed. “Thank you. As the story goes, a long time ago, a witch lived along the river. The shack actually stood for another hundred years after her death, until lightning struck it on the eve of her two hundredth birthday.”

     “Man, you know a lot about this.” Roger looked at Anna dumbfoundedly.

     “It’s hard not to, growing up in town. This river is the only claim to fame we have. The story was always brought up around Halloween. I did a report on it in high school. Ms. Gordon-Waits gave me an A-plus on it. I still have it around, somewhere.”

     “You’ll let me read it?”

     “Maybe. Let me continue. June Shobin was her name. She was still in her mother’s stomach when she came to America. The reasons why her mother left England is unknown. Some say it’s because she knew what was growing inside her. She knew the baby was one with the devil. After all, there is no father anywhere in the picture.”

     “She could have left because she didn’t know who the father was. That was frowned down upon.”

     Anna sucked in a deep breath. “I swear to Jesus, one more peep out of you and you’re sleeping on the couch.”

     Roger opened his mouth.

     “Try me.”

     Roger closed his mouth and shook his head.

     “That’s what I thought. Not another peep. And as a reminder, dad’s stomach is all jacked up and he farts like there’s no tomorrow. He always sleeps with the door open. And you know where the couch is. You would hear the farts.” Roger shook his head and poutted out his bottom lip. “I have your attention now? Just remember, babe. Pfttttttt.

     “Okay. Where was I? La. La… Oh yeah. No father in the picture. So it was hard for the family to make a living. After the move there is no telling where they settled. They don’t show in Dasia until June is in her early teens. And then a virus swept through the town.

     “It started with a girl in town, Hannah Williams, who got deathly sick overnight. It’s still unknown what Hannah came down with, probably the Flu, but it came on so suddenly people thought it could only be the work of black magic. Lynn Jackson came forward, claiming she’d seen Hannah and June playing. Without much evidence, they stormed the house.

     “Not only was June put under arrest, but so was her mother. They were both accused of witchcraft. The trial lasted two days. As you probably know, they were innocent. By the time the trial ended, Hannah had recovered. And it’s claimed she even told her father she hadn’t been anywhere around June, as Lynn had claimed. The damage was already done.”

     “So they killed them?” Roger asked.

     “You’re sleeping on the couch.” Anna snapped. “But yes. They hung them. You know most of the Salem witches were hung. There isn’t any evidence that a single person was ‘burned at the stake.’ It’s all hearsay. Hanging the innocent women didn’t do much for the town. Maybe restored a little bit of Heaven that they had. But it did more bad than good. The tree, or so it has been said, suddenly started claiming the lives of the townsfolk. Over twenty people took their lives in that tree before it was cut down.

     “This entire area is tainted in bad mojo. June. Her mother. The people who felt the need to repeat June’s hanging by their own hands. There’s an energy here. It’s woven its way into everything along the river. People who’ve taken things from it have found themselves with the worst of luck. It’s cursed.”

     Anna stopped talking. She watched the water cascade off the small cliff. The sound was enough to lull anyone to sleep. She sighed. Roger kissed her forehead.

     “You can talk now.”

     “I have permission? No farts? No couch?”

     “You’re already sleeping on the couch.” Anna smile.

     “First things first: you believe the story, don’t you?”

     Anna scoffed. “Well yeah. There’s bad luck all throughout the town. Failed breaks on brand new cars. The time Mr. Hanscomb nephew, I forgot his name, nailed his hand to the wall of a barn. He didn’t even remember what or how it’d happened. Umm. There are an unusual amount of suicide by hanging. Go back through the old news paper. There was at least three a week during the Depression. The town nearly died, literally, off. The boiler at the wood mill exploded in the ‘50’s. There was even a fuckin’ cult in this town, in the early 80’s. Nine members, believe it or not, hung themselves. Take a guess where? Along the river.” She didn’t give Roger a chance to speak. “This place has seen a lot of bad times.” Anna pulled herself away from Roger and pushed herself to her feet. She dusted off the seat of her pants. “We should head back.” Anna fished out her cell. “It’s almost seven.”

     “Seven? How? We haven’t been out here for three hours.”

     “Told you, bad mojo around here. What did Pascow say in Pet Sematary? ‘The ground is sour’. Or something like that. That’s this place. Sour ground.”

     “Why did you spend so much time here, if you’re so scared of it?”

     “I’m not scared of it, Roger.” She said hotly. “I spent time here because three hours passed like ten minutes. Time jumped here. It helped me get through my days.”

     Roger’s face flushed. “I didn’t mean to upset you, babe.” He pushed himself to his feet and wrapped his arms around Anna. She allowed it. He yawned. “Lead the way, Clarke.”

     “To the great Beyond, Lewis!” Anna shouted, pointing to the sky.

     “How was the river?” Mr. Woods asked Roger. He sipped at his can of Pepsi.

     “It was beautiful.”

     “Didn’t take anything, did you?” He laughed.

     “No.”

     “Good. Out of towners don’t believe the story. Hell. I wouldn’t either. But I have seen bad things happen to good people with my very eyes. Things that couldn’t possibly happen without some sort of interference. I took a flower from there once. The next day I tripped in a hole and not only broke my ankle but I fell at such the right angle that I broke both wrists. What’s the possibility of that?”

     “Did you take the flower back?”

     “My mother did. She freaked. She was an ole’timer. I thought she was going to kill me when I told her.” Mr. Woods laughed again and yanked off a hunk of buttery biscuit. “She returned it to the river. Nothing like that fall has happened to me in the last thirty years. It was because I took that flower. I’ll never change my mind on the subject..”

     The phone rang in the middle of the night like the howling of a wolf. Mr. Woods stumbled through the darkness of his room, out into the dimly lit living room, to the blinking phone. He brought the receiver to his ear.

     “Dad,” Anna blurted. “Dad.”

     “Anna, you ‘right?” He was suddenly more awake than he’d ever felt in his life. “What happened?”

     “We were in a car wreck. We’re both okay. For the most part. Roger is more banged up than I am. But the car is a total loss. I’m just.” Her voice hitched. “I was scared and didn’t know who else to call.”

     Mr. Woods exhaled his soul. “Calm down, love. You’re all right. Roger is all right. That’s all that matters. Where are you now?”

     “At the hospital. Roger’s leg is totally messed up. He’s in surgery.” Anna dropped her voice to a whisper.

     “Anna, what’s wrong?”

     “He swerved to miss a bear in the middle of the road. You know how uncommon that is?”

     Mr. Woods got the hint. “You know how uncommon it is for a kid to nail his hand to a bar, or for a kid to break three bones in such a fashion as I did? Very.”

     “I didn’t get a scratch on me. All of the damage to the car is on Roger’s side.”

     Mr. Woods chuckled his famous hearty, belly jiggling laugh. “You tried to tell him.”

     “I shouldn’t have showed…”

     “Hey. Not your fault. You tried to warn him. He should have listened.”

     “I guess you were right.” She spat. “It has me thinking, though.” She hesitated. “If he’ll lie to you about taking something from the river, what would he lie to me about?”

This author has not provided a photo.

Matthew lives in a small Tennessee town. He has one previous publication, and another on the way, in April.

Original Creations

Some Bewitching Line Drawing by Jennifer Weigel

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This month we are going to explore more fun marker art from Jennifer Weigel, starting with black and white line drawing. Jennifer is getting ready for her big Life Is Brilliant solo show in March and has snuck in a few spookier themes, so she wanted to share them with you here.

Witch Way line drawing
Witch Way

The magic is strong in this Witch Way line drawing with its fun witchy head-topper, complete with striped hat band and star dangle. No self-respecting wizard’s ensemble would be complete without it.

Kitty Witch line drawing
Kitty Witch

And now the adorable Kitty Witch will don the Witch Way hat and cast a spell of cuteness on you. You gotta wonder just how the hat stays on but best not to question these things. We all know it’s magic…

Not Today Satan line drawing
Not Today Satan

The devil is in the details in this Not Today Satan line drawing, and boy is he pissed!

She Devil line drawing
She Devil

This She Devil is just plain goofy. Maybe she’s coyly playing innocent; it’s not a look most devils can pull off, seeing as how innocence really isn’t their schtick…

Hang in There Spider line drawing
Hang in There Spider

This little spider came down to your tuffet to remind you to Hang in There. She is very well-intentioned and is only looking out for you. I guess maybe she’s not so little though, she is an Argiope after all

Feel free to check out more of Jennifer Weigel’s work here on Haunted MTL. Or on her writing, fine art, and conceptual projects websites.

Portrait of myself with dark makeup and crow skull headdress, backlit by the sun.
Portrait of myself with dark makeup and crow skull headdress, backlit by the sun.

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Lighter than Dark

LTD Tripped Out Motivational Posters

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Tripped out… in case you just couldn’t get enough of Everything Everywhere All at Once and the return of the infinite bagel with EVERYTHING on it…

Tripped Out motivational poster
Tripped Out motivational poster

Artwork description: kaleidoscopic image of pink hairy horror (This is actually a fink fuzzy frond plant not unlike a Cockscomb but with longer thinner flowering feelers rather than the fuller protuberances you see on a full-bodied Cockscomb plant. I have no idea what it was, but it was very odd so I had to snap a photo.)

Image text reads: Mixing Magic Mushrooms & Peyote Just remember: once you open that Pandora’s box, you’re never going to get the pink hairy tarantulas back in it…

Tripped Out seeing eye god sunflower
Tripped Out seeing eye god sunflower

Artwork description: kaleidoscopic sunflower backlit by the sun with text and rainbow eye overlay

Image text reads: Eye See You Eye See All (in circle text so you can start and end reading wherever). In an ideal context this would be printed in the bottom of your tea mug or on a record that can slowly spin.

For more crazy tripped out fun, check out Weird Al’s post on Craig’s List

Portrait of myself with dark makeup and crow skull headdress, backlit by the sun.

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Original Creations

The Elves Reunion, a short story by Jennifer Weigel

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An Elven portal in the woods, emerging from stone and forest floor.
An Elven portal in the woods, emerging from stone and forest floor.

I had heard tale that The Elves dwell in these woods.  Many underestimate The Elves; they have a fondness of heart for Tolkienesque Middle Earth fantasy stories and tales where Elves are the most highly civilized, virtuous and intelligent.  They forget that those are just myths, save for The Elves being cunning.  Remember that the Pied Piper was an Elf, and the children he took were not destined for such a glorious fate.

My sister lost her firstborn to The Elves.  She hadn’t noticed the Changeling until it was too late.  Her baby had already long since been stolen away.  She was so distraught she refused to eat or speak.  She locked herself in her room.  Or my family locked her into it as she succumbed to the madness.  Such are the ways of the family, for all of our protection.  We never question but follow as expected, as a means of self-preservation.  It has kept us all alive.

But I couldn’t get the sinking feeling out of my stomach; the grief became too overwhelming. That is why I came here.  I know I will not be able to rescue the child, nor my sister.  But I seek to avenge their meaningless deaths.  To ensure that it doesn’t happen again.  My family will never act.  I am tired of the Village Elders just shrugging these things off in hushed whispers and badly shrouded secrets.  It happens time and again.  We are all expendable.  They never do anything.

So here I am, in the Elven wood.  Alone.  As soon as my family figures out that I’m here, they will disown me.  They probably already have.  Again, it is for our own protection.  I’ll be just another casualty of The Elves.  Everything is so structured, so regimented.  Anyone who dares act in opposition to the rules vanishes.  We are all so afraid.

I lay in wait.  It’s just a matter of time before the portal appears.  The Elves use the portals to travel across time and space.  They appear where and when they wish.  But this time, I will go through first.  I know not what is on the other side, just that the portals allow only one to traverse in each direction.  We will trade places, if only for a moment until another portal forms.  Hopefully that will be enough time.

The trees shift and morph.  Falling leaves drift slower and slower towards the ground.  There is a stillness that I cannot fully express.  My breath hangs heavy in the silent air.  There is no sound, no smell, no taste.  It is time.  The hairs on the back of my neck and arms rise. I can sense the opening forming.  There is an uncanny familiarity in this moment, as if I have been here before.

As soon as the portal opens, I dash through.  But something isn’t right.  No one came through from the other side.  Or did they?  I cannot tell.  I am alone, in limbo between states of existence.  The world spins around me.  I can feel the drift.  Is this what death feels like?  Cold unbroken silence?  I feel distant eyes upon me everywhere, all around me, in the trees, the clouds, pinpoints of light that shimmer through.

I can feel The Elves eyes upon me everywhere.  In the leaves, in the trees themselves.
I can feel The Elves eyes upon me everywhere. In the leaves, in the trees themselves.

I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Maybe this is all according to plan.  But who was orchestrating the exchange?  My idea was only half formed in those passing pensive moments I am able to think for myself, few and far between.  My family, the Village Elders… no one allows time for freeform thought.  I hadn’t considered what would happen after the portal exchange.  I never really got past step one.

A voice greets me from the trees.  It is hauntingly familiar but seems only a distant memory.

“I’ve been expecting you.”

The world slowly comes into focus.  Clarity restored, the leaves circle me in an embrace.  My sister emerges, her dark eyes smiling.  She cradles the baby in her arms.

“You made it.  You escaped,” she sings.

“I didn’t see anyone,” I retort, skeptical.  I hadn’t recalled having seen any Elves, dark nightmarish fiends that they are, wild, unkempt, uncouth.  Savage beasts like Pan or Krampus.  Is this an illusion?  My sister seems so lifelike, so much herself.  She is the joyful young mother I had known her to be.  Filled with love and laughter.  Light dances about her, and she shimmers.

“Not in passing,” my sister clarifies.  “You have been living among them your whole life.  I had done so as well until the baby was stolen.  My heart broke; I had to follow after.  That was when I learned the Truth.”

“Why do you think we are so sheltered?  Why are we forbidden to do anything?  They do so to protect us from the Truth about who and what we are,” she continued.  “We’ve spent our lives evading that which we truly know ourselves to be.  We were the stolen ones, not the other way around…”

I notice that the portal I came through is still open, reinforcing my idea that no one had passed through the other way.  It is as if the portal was opened specifically to call me through. My sister extends her hand, beckoning me to join her.  There is a gleam in her eye I cannot pinpoint.  She seems happy, but something still isn’t quite right.  I’m still uncertain why I am here, in this time and place, as if destined to be present in this moment, in this decision.

The Village has fallen away to the woods.  There are no breadcrumb trails to follow home.  The idea of home itself seems distant like yet another illusion.  Nothing makes sense anymore.  I am unsure whether I am coming or going.  Two paths lay open before me.  Which shall I take?

The Elves portal remains but the path is unclear.
The Elves portal remains but the path is unclear.

The trees are full of Elven magicks… Feel free to check out more of Jennifer Weigel’s work here on Haunted MTL or on her writing, fine art, and conceptual projects websites.

Portrait of myself with dark makeup and crow skull headdress, backlit by the sun.
Portrait of myself with dark makeup and crow skull headdress, backlit by the sun.

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