Excerpt from Small Town Witch, chapter 3: "The Ghost Town"

That evening was a perfect time for a flight on my broom. The sun was below the horizon, but the sky would stay light for another hour or so, and a crescent moon was already up. “I’ll give you a view of the valley that you won’t be able to see any other way,” I told Heather.

When I took my broomstick out of the shed, Heather looked at it nervously. “You can really fly on that little thing?”

“Of course!” I held the broom horizontally out in front of me and let go. The broom obediently hovered in place a few feet off of the ground. “This is one of the things that witches are known best for. Did you think it was just a story?”

“No, just—” Heather glanced at me. “Aren’t you a little new to the whole witch thing?”

“Oh!” I clapped my hand over my mouth in an expression of mock offense. “I’m insulted that you doubt my abilities! No, seriously though, I’ve been flying for three years and I’ve never had an accident. It’s safer than driving, and trust me, you’ll love it.”

“Well, if you say so.” Heather folded her arms and didn’t budge.

If words weren’t going to convince her, then maybe actions would. I stepped over to straddle the broom. With a thought and a touch, the broom sprang up into the sky, taking me above the tops of the trees in a matter of seconds. Holding on tight, I tucked into a loop-the-loop, then swooped down in a nose dive, pulling up from the ground at the last moment. I was having so much fun that I was tempted to do more tricks, but I was afraid of scaring Heather away. After a final barrel roll, I slowed down and landed delicately in front of her.

I looked at her, grinning from ear to ear. “Do you trust me now?”

Heather looked even paler than usual. “You’d better not pull that stuff with me on there!”

I shook my head and crossed my heart with my finger. “No, I promise that I’ll go easy on you.” I straddled the broom again and hovered it right in front of her. “Hand me the camera bag, then just hop on and hold on to me.”

She handed me the camera bag, which I slung diagonally along my chest so that it hung to one side, out of the way. Heather hesitated for a moment, but it’s hard for anyone to resist the thought of flying. She sat down on the broom behind me, and at my urging, she put both of her arms around my waist.

I lifted the broom up slower this time, but Heather still let out a squeak and held on to me tighter. I glanced back over my shoulder and saw that her eyes were squeezed shut. I stopped the broom in midair, just high enough to peek over the first row of trees in my backyard. “It’s okay, take a look around. Don’t look down if it makes you nervous, but look—out there.” I raised one hand and pointed out across the sea of tree tops.

I knew when she opened her eyes because I heard her gasp behind me. “Wow, that is beautiful.”

“I know, isn’t it?” I grinned. “Are you ready? We’re going to go a little higher to clear the trees, and then I’ll head that way—” I gestured southeast in the direction of Quiggs Mountain. “But I’ll go slow and gentle.”

Heather’s arms tightened around my waist. “Um, okay, sure.”

“Don’t look down, look out.” I pointed the broom toward the mountain and off we flew.

As promised, I flew slow and steady, and after a few minutes I could feel Heather start to relax her grip on me. I made a little detour to the west so we soared over the main street of downtown. I heard Heather gasp again when she saw the huge madrone tree in the center, our town’s namesake.

“It looks even bigger from up here,” she said near my right ear.

I turned my head back to her so that she could hear me over the wind. “It’s a pretty impressive old tree.”

I circled around the town once so that she got a good view of all of the old buildings, and then I hovered for a minute over the madrone tree again and opened the camera bag. “Do you want to try taking your first aerial shot?”

Heather kept her arms wrapped around me and didn’t take her borrowed camera when I held it out to her. “I don’t want to fall off.”

“It’s okay, I’ll stay very still.”

She peeled one arm away from my waist and took the camera from me, leaning into my back and gripping my shirt with her free hand. I heard the shutter go off a few times, rapidly, then stop.

“Take lots more, to be sure that something comes out.” I considered how much light was left in the sky. “Do you want to get another angle?”

Heather took one more picture and handed the camera back to me. “No thanks, I think that’s good. Can we get down now?”

I dropped her camera back into the open bag. “No, I wanted to take you somewhere with even better scenery than this. Have you ever been to a ghost town?”

She tensed up again. “Is that safe?”

“Oh, sure, we’ll just go to a small one.” I started flying southeast again. “This was a little mining camp that only lasted for a few years during the Gold Rush, so it doesn’t even have a cemetery or anything. There’s just a couple of old spirits who like to hang around for some peace and quiet. I’ll introduce you.”

The ghost town at Byrnes Camp, at the foot of Quiggs Mountain, was just a few run-down buildings and several stone foundations, now over-grown and reclaimed by the forest. Like many of the local ghost towns, it was an official historic landmark and taken care of by the California State Parks, but that only meant that a ranger came by once or twice a week to check on it. The camp was miles away from anything else, only accessible by a dirt fire road—and by air. The ghosts had the place to themselves.

I landed us on the fire road just outside of the town and looked around. At first glance, the place looked deserted. Behind me, Heather peered through the darkness under the trees. “Is there even anything here?”

I pointed to the outlines of buildings. “That small one there was the post office. The main street ran through here, and across there was a general store.” I pointed to a dry creek bed, now full of bushes. “There was water here, once, but now it’s over a mile away.”

Heather took a step forward. “I mean, are there any—you know—”

I nodded. “Let me go first and introduce you. They’re nervous around strangers.”

I stepped forward on my own. As soon as my foot stepped over the border of the town, a ghost drifted through the wall of the post office and looked at me. He was an old ghost and not very powerful anymore, so he was mostly shapeless, but the features on his face were defined enough to show a wary expression, and on his chest there was a very clear tin star that read “Sheriff”. The rest of his body was a formless mist that shifted and swirled as he approached me.

I raised my open hands and stood very still. “Hello, Sheriff Baumann, I’m Rosamunde McAddams. We’ve met before. It’s a lovely evening, isn’t it?”

When I spoke his name, his form coalesced together, and for a moment I could see the man standing tall in blue jeans and a plaid shirt. He did not have the strength to hold the image, and it disappeared just as quickly. I could still see the lines on his face when he smiled. “Good evening, Rosamunde. I do remember you. It’s nice of you to visit us.” He looked past me to where Heather stood, waiting. “You brought a friend with you?”

“Yes.” I turned and motioned for Heather to come closer, but stopped her before she stepped over the boundary. “This is Heather Prasolov. She’s new to the area.”

The sheriff nodded. “I knew a Russian fur trapper with a name like Prasolov, once upon a time.” He drifted closer to her, then suddenly recoiled. He gave me a sidelong glance. “But this girl—she smells like blood and death.”

“Heather is human,” I said quickly. I stepped back and touched her arm. “She has—medical problems, so she spends a lot of time at the hospital. You probably just smell that.”

Heather glanced at me with wide eyes. “I—I did just have a b-blood transfusion, b-before I could start school this week.”

The sheriff stared at her for a long moment. I didn’t know if it was safe to tell him the truth about Heather’s parents. But in the end he tipped his hat—the hat only appeared for the gesture, and was gone when he forgot it again—and drifted to one side. “Welcome, Heather, to Byrnes Camp. Both of you ladies are welcome to come in for a little while, but I must ask that you conclude your visit before midnight tonight.”

I nodded. Even though we had the next day off from school because of the Fall Equinox, I knew that our parents would expect us home well before then. “Don’t worry, Sheriff, we won’t stay long. I just want to show her the sights—Heather’s never been to a Western ghost town before.”

The sheriff nodded and drifted away.

We stepped over the boundary together and walked slowly into the ghost town. As we got in farther, we could see more of the buildings’ outlines underneath the brush, but they were all pretty run down because they had been abandoned for over a century. Occasionally we saw a ghost drift through the ruins, but there were only a few resident haunts here, and they mostly preferred to keep to themselves.

Heather and I took our cameras out of my bag and started shooting the buildings around us. I explained to Heather that we could photograph the scenery as much as we liked, and if a ghost chose to be in a picture, that was okay, but not to focus on the ghosts.

Heather stood in the middle of the town and turned in a circle, taking pictures of the buildings. Then she tilted her camera up and took pictures of the moon and the trees.

I saw how stiff she was and laughed. “It’s okay, you can move around.”

She looked at me, then walked closer to the post office. She aimed her camera inside the front window. Before she could take the shot, I saw the ghost of a woman drift out the side wall of the building. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought she looked worried.

I went over by her and tried to look inside the building. “Is there something in there?”

Heather lowered her camera and walked up to the front. There hadn’t been glass in the front window for a long time, so she could just stick her head inside. “It looks like someone has been in here.”

I opened the front door with a gentle push and stood just inside. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the dim light, but then I noticed how clean the place looked. Someone had swept the floor clean of dirt and leaves. There was almost no dust on the counter across the room. Behind the counter, the wall was full of little boxes to hold sorted mail—and in one of the spaces there was something there.

I reached over the counter and pulled it out. It was a scrap of paper, too crisp and white to be as old as the town. On the outside, there was a tiny drawing of a thorny vine around a half-closed eye, and next to it was a rose in full bloom. When I unfolded it, the inside was covered in strange figures and scribblings that I couldn’t identify at all, like an ancient language that had been transcribed by a demented alcoholic.

“That’s weird,” I said aloud.