The Invited Page 1

Author: Jennifer McMahon

Genres: Horror , Mystery

Hattie Breckenridge

MAY 19, 1924

It had started when Hattie was a little girl.

She’d had a cloth-bodied doll with a porcelain head called Miss Fentwig. Miss Fentwig told her things—things that Hattie had no way of knowing, things that Hattie didn’t really want to hear. She felt it deep down inside her in the way that she’d felt things all her life.

Her gift.

Her curse.

One day, Miss Fentwig told her that Hattie’s father would be killed, struck by lightning, and that there was nothing Hattie could do. Hattie tried to warn her daddy and her mother. She told them just what Miss Fentwig had said. “Nonsense, child,” they said, and sent her to bed without supper for saying such terrible things.

Two weeks later, her daddy was dead. Struck by lightning while he was putting his horse in the barn.

Everyone started looking at Hattie funny after that. They took Miss Fentwig away from her, but Hattie, she kept hearing voices. The trees talked to her. Rocks and rivers and little shiny green beetles spoke to her. They told her what was to come.

You have a gift, the voices told her.

But Hattie, she didn’t see it that way. Not at first. Not until she learned to control it.

Now, today, the voices cried out a warning.

First, it was the whisper of the reeds and cattails that grew down at the west end of the bog—a sound others would hear only as dry stalks rubbing together in the wind, but to her they formed a chorus of voices, pleading and desperate: They’re coming for you, run!

It wasn’t just the plants who spoke. The crows cawed out an urgent, hoarse warning. The frogs at the edge of the bog bellowed at her: Hurry, hurry, hurry.

    Off in the distance, dogs barked, howled: a pack of dogs, moving closer, coming for her.

And then there were footsteps, a single runner coming down the path. Hattie was in front of their house, an ax in her hands, splitting wood for the fire. Hattie loved splitting wood: to feel the force of the blows, hear the crack as the ax head hit the wood, splitting it right at the heart. Now she raised the ax defensively, waiting.

“Jane?” she called out when she saw her daughter come bursting out of the woods, hair and eyes wild. Her blue flowered dress was torn. Hattie had sewn the dress herself, as she’d made all their clothes, on her mother’s old treadle sewing machine with fabric ordered from the Sears, Roebuck catalog. Sometimes Hattie splurged and bought them dresses from the catalog, but they were never as comfortable or durable as the ones she sewed.

Hattie lowered the ax.

“Where have you been, girl?” she asked her daughter.

It was a school day, but Hattie had forbidden her daughter from going to school. And last she knew, Jane was gathering kindling in the woods.

Jane opened her mouth to speak, to say, but could not seem to make the words come.

Instead, she burst into tears.

Hattie set down her ax, went to her, wrapped her arms around Jane’s trembling body.

Then she smelled the smoke on Jane’s dress, in her tangled hair.

Even the smoke spoke to her, spun an evil tale.

“Jane? What’s happened?”

Jane reached into the pocket of her dress, pulled out a box of matches.

“I’ve done something wicked,” she said.

Hattie pushed her away, held tight to her arms, searched her face. Hattie had spent her life interpreting messages and signs, divining the future. But her own flesh and blood, her daughter—her mind was closed to Hattie. Always had been.

“Tell me,” Hattie said, not wanting to know.

“Mama,” Jane said, crying. “I’m sorry.”

Hattie closed her eyes. The dogs were coming closer. Dogs and men who were shouting, crashing through the woods. It had always been funny to Hattie how men who’d spent their whole lives moving through these woods, hunting in them, could move so clumsily, without grace, without any trace of respect for the living things they trod upon.

    “What will we do?” Jane looked pale and young, much younger than her twelve years. Fear does that to a person: shrinks them down, makes them small and weak. Hattie had learned, over the years, to put her own fears in a box at the back of her mind, to stand tall and brave, to be resilient to whatever enemy presented itself.

“You? You’ll go hide in the root cellar back where the old house used to be.”

“But there are spiders down there, Mama! Rats, too!”

“Spiders and rats are the least of our concerns. They’ll bring you no harm.”

Unlike the men who are coming now, Hattie thought. The men who are close. Getting closer still. If she listened, she could hear their voices, their shouts.

“Cut through the woods to the old place. Climb down into the cellar and bar the door. Open it for no one.”

“But, Mama—”

“Go now. Run! I’ll come for you. I’ll lead them away, then I’ll come back. I’ll be back for you, Jane Breckenridge, I swear. Don’t you open that cellar door for anyone but me. And, Jane?”

“Yes, Mama?”

“Don’t you be afraid.”

As if it could be that easy. As if you could banish fear just like that. As if words could have such power.