Anat wrung her hands together. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
Ming nudged her shoulder. “I’ve always wanted to know what’s inside!”
Anat’s stomach twisted. No one had ever seen the new owners of the neighborhood creepy-house. It had been abandoned and plagued with webbed vines and weeds for decades. Then one day, a moving van had appeared in the driveway.
“Just a regular house,” she said, breath shaky.
Ming laughed and wiggled her fingers in Anat’s face. “Scaredy cat.”
Anat jerked her head away and cracked her knuckles and bit her lip. Her grip on the candy-stuffed pillowcase tightened. “I’m not scared! I… don’t want to die.”
Haunted stories of disappeared children and monsters under the floorboards had followed the house for years. Her friend looped their arms together and led them up the driveway decorated with makeshift tunnels and props of ghosts, witches, zombies, and skeletons. She tried not to look at the gruesome faces of the witches. Their plastic gaze reached into her core and gripped her lungs. She stared at the fake blood splattered on the cracked concrete.
The invasive nature that had cursed the old Victorian house was not entirely trimmed. Anat lived down the street. A couple of times, when she was up late studying, she would hear the roar of a lawnmower or weed-wacker.
Anat walked up the steps onto porch, following the tunnel inside. There were echoing creaks, clown laughs, and high-pitched screams scratching through hidden speakers. Inside, a gargantuan staircase rested before them and a dimly lit chandelier hung above.
“Holy shit,” Ming whispered in awe as Anat glanced around warily.
There were tunnels on the right and left. The left, the ghost tunnel. The right, the zombie tunnel. Anat took her friend’s hand and dragged her toward the ghost tunnel. It might not have been the best idea to enter a haunted house in a house whose owners you’d never seen before. There were no other trick-or-treaters in sight. Cobwebs dangled and hung around the foyer and Anat couldn’t tell if they were fake.
The moment the two stepped into the ghost tunnel, Anat’s vision was enveloped in black. She gasped and tried to grip onto Ming’s hand even tighter, but her friend suddenly ripped away with a scream.
Anat’s stomach tightened and she dropped the pillowcase of candy. “Ming!”
She tried to follow the sound, but only spun in circles because the screams echoed. The attempt to retrace her steps failed, for she now didn’t know which way was the exit.
“Ming!” Anat yelled, clenching her cold hands and fighting to hold back tears. “Ming, this isn’t funny!” A breeze dusted her cheeks. That must be from outside! She rushed toward the breeze with her hands outstretched.
She collided with wood—a wall? She banged on it. No, a door. Anat shoved hard enough for the door to swing open. She stumbled into a small, circular room. A rotunda. There were at least six doors exactly like the one she’d just come from.
Far above, there was a dome of mosaic glass, the midnight moon bright against the inky sky. In the center of the rotunda was a small, round table with candlesticks. And behind the table—
Anat ran and fell at Ming’s side. A knife protruded from her friend’s gut, blood staining her white dress and fake wings bent out of shape.
“Oh—oh my God. Oh my God. HELP! HELP!” Anat screeched as hot tears burned her eyes and began streaming down her face. Her throat clogged. She held her trembling hands before her, unaware of where to put them. She hesitantly pressed them to the wound. Blood gushed out more. Ming’s eyes were open. She wasn’t breathing nor moving.
“Ming,” she sobbed. “Ming, please wake up.”
“She can, you know.”
Anat’s chest tightened. She gasped at the strange voice and glanced over her shoulder. Tears blurred her vision, but a woman stood there with a grim smile, her face pale. She wore a… wedding dress? It was difficult to decipher, but Anat could tell it was torn to shreds.
“Can what? Help me! P-please.”
The woman tilted her head. “She can wake up. All you have to do is one simple thing.”
Anat gasped. “My phone. Wh—where’s—” Her candy bag—the one she’d dropped. The pillowcase held her phone, but she’d lost it. “Call 911!”
The woman laughed. “Oh, Anat, please. Stop. We have work to do.” She walked closer.
“How—how do you know my name?” Anat kept her hands on Ming’s wound, though it didn’t appear to make a difference. Blood continued to gush and flood the room as the shimmering moonlight flickered down.
“Oh, how rude of me,” said the woman as she sauntered closer. “My name is Nellie.”
Nellie had a long, straight nose and bobbed brown hair that seemed covered with dust. It was a wicked costume that Nellie had on. The makeup almost made her seem transparent, but that was crazy. Anat’s head was just spimming.
“I don’t care what your name is. Call 911. My friend is hurt!”
Nellie lowered to her knees across from Anat as Ming’s lifeless body rested between them. “And I’m trying to help her, but you won’t listen to me.”
Her throat tightened as she sniffled. “Fine. I’m listening.”
“It’s just one simple task: fulfill your destiny.”
Anger bubbled in Anat’s gut. “Shut up and call an ambulance!” she yelled, lifting a hand and shoving Nellie—
A shiver washed over Anat so suddenly that she reeled back and clutched her stomach. Her hand hadn’t touched skin. It had touched air.
“What—why can’t I—”
“You walked into the ghost tunnel, sweetheart,” Nellie said irritably. “What did you expect? Zombies?” Then she laughed. “Who are we kidding? Zombies don’t exist.”
Anat closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. She clenched and unclenched her bloody fists, savoring every fake scream, gasp, moan, and laugh in the distance. Calmness slowly washed over her.
“Where am I?” Anat asked.
She opened her eyes to see Nellie leaning closer with a hint of a smile. “The beginning of the future.”
Anat clenched her jaw. Part of her wanted to scream. Part of her wanted to escape. Run. Ignore this and go home because it was crazy to believe there was a ghost sitting—floating—in front of her. The bigger part of her was calm and collected and almost… happy.
“Help Ming,” she demanded.
Nellie smirked. “As you wish.” She stood. “First, you must help me summon my friends. That’s something only you can do.”
Anat wiped her bloody hands on her midnight dress and squared her shoulders, her black wings adjusting. “Why me?”
“Because you’re a witch, darling. And tonight, we will inaugurate your powers.”
She gulped and shook her head. “Will these so-called witch powers bring back Ming?”
Nellie chuckled. “No, I will. This was to ensure you’ll fulfill your destiny.”
“And why would you want me to do that?”
“Because, beautiful, we have a lot to do ahead of us.” Nellie pointed to the candles. “Place each candle at a door.”
There were only four candles but six doors. She tucked one of her waist-length, black curls behind her ear. With her friend’s corpse in the middle of the room and the wind angrily howling through random holes in the house, Anat followed instructions with eerily steady hands.
“Kneel before your friend. Do not move no matter what.”
Anat raised her brows. She almost declined, then looked to Ming’s corpse. Her friend deserved to live. She carefully dropped to her knees. A chill swept over her as she felt pressure on each side of her head. She gasped and clenched her fists, fighting to keep still.
“Repeat these words,” said Nellie. “In situ.”
Anat gulped. “In situ.”
In the same moment, a searing white pain enveloped Anat’s entire body beginning in the areas Nellie touched. She opened her mouth to scream without an idea of whether any sound came out. She struggled to breathe. All she could see was white. She could hear but two things: her fight for air in her lungs and Nellie’s voice.
“Memoriae Sacrum Eva, mutatus mutandis. Mortui vivos docent. Miseram pacem vel bello bene mutari.” A pause. Atop the stinging and burning pain on Anat’s skin, a breeze fanned her body. “Memoriae Sacrum Rosemary, mutatus mutandis. Mortui vivos docent. Miseram pacem vel bello bene mutari.” A pause. Another breeze. “Memoriae Sacrum Cora, mutatus mutandis. Mortui vivos docent. Miseram pacem vel bello bene mutari.” A pause. Another breeze. “Memoriae Sacrum Regina, mutatus mutandis. Mortui vivos docent. Miseram pacem vel bello bene mutari.” After this breeze, Anat could take no more of the pain that weakened her entire body. Her vision flicked to black. She could hear and see nothing.
“Anat. Anat! Wake up! Come on, please wake up!”
Anat wiggled her nose and toes. She ripped open her crusty eyes to see Ming hovering over her, black hair falling over shoulder.
“Oh, thank God. What the hell happened?” asked her friend.
Anat blinked repeatedly. The same mosaic glass dome was above, the lurking moonlight sneaking through. “Ming? Ming!”
She shot up and threw her arms around her friend. They were in the same rotunda, but there were no candles, no ghosts, and, most importantly, there was no blood. Her friend was alive.
“Me?” asked Ming. “I’m the one who found you unconscious!”
Anat pulled away. “Wait—what?” She looked down. Ming’s white dress had no rip in it, no bloodstains. No evidence of what she had seen before.
“I freaked out after we got separated and then I found you unconscious. What happened?”
She glanced around. “I-I… Honestly? I… have no idea.”
Ming stared at her hesitantly. “Well, come on. Let’s get out of here. You were right. This was a bad idea.”
The two friends bust through the door and rushed through the tunnel until they reached the entrance. There was no sign of Nellie nor any type of ghost. Anat had merely said she’d wanted to go home and after they’d hugged goodbye and Ming disappeared inside her house, Anat started down the middle of the vacant street. It was either midnight or later.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Anat startled and whirled around, expecting to see the same white figure as before. But no one was there.
“Yoo-hoo. Down here.”
Her gaze traveled down to the black feline sitting in front of her. Anat creased her brows. “Nellie?”
The cat wiped at its ear with a paw. “Yup, that’s me.”
“Why are you… a cat?”
“Because cats have nine lives.”
Anat folded her arms. “That’s a myth.”
The cat–or Nellie–walked closer. “So are ghosts.”
Anat smirked. “Fair enough.” She shuddered at the memory of the pain. “What happened back there?”
Nellie started walking in the direction Anat had been headed. “I did as promised. I brought back your friend.”
She glanced around, ensuring no one was watching her speak to a cat as though it was normal. “And… my witch powers?”
“Those have been activated, just as they should be. The night is still young, darling. Let’s go meet your teacher.”
Anat huffed. She’d expected to go home with a bag of candy and wake up with a new cavity. And now, she was a witch with a talking cat beside her. “So, what does this make me? Anat the Teenage Witch?”
Nellie laughed. “So it does.”