SNATCH A STORY
THE HOUSE ON WHISPERING HILL
Abby darted between the trees, hunched low to avoid being seen. Across the street, two boys in zombie costumes shuffled along the sidewalk, trading candy under the dim glow of the streetlights. Abby waited for them to disappear around the bend and then sprinted through the grass toward her best friend’s house. A plastic skeleton rattled from the top of the doorframe as she slipped inside.
Mr. O’Reilly was seated at the kitchen table, elbow-deep in the candy bucket, and Abby rushed past him in a blur of pink sequins before he could remark on her costume. Upstairs, she tapped twice on Robby’s door and nudged it open, revealing the familiar trail of comic books and pizza boxes all the way back to the window, where Robby’s pet iguana Einstein lounged like a house cat on the windowsill. Robby sat at his desk, eyes trained on his computer screen.
“Promise you won’t laugh,” Abby said from the doorway.
Robby made a noncommittal noise as he brushed a few rusty brown curls from his forehead and adjusted the strap of his pointy purple hat, somehow looking less ridiculous as a freckle-faced wizard than Abby did in her Halloween costume.
“I ordered this monstrosity online,” Abby said, clutching her dress as she inched inside. “I swear I clicked the warrior-princess one, Robby. Warrior-princess.” She picked at the sequins along the hem, briefly considering plucking them all off before deciding it wouldn’t make the costume any better. She pushed aside a pile of Spider-Man comics and plopped onto Robby’s bed. “It wouldn’t surprise me if Mom changed my order on purpose. She thinks trick-or-treating is for little kids. I bet she was trying to humiliate me into staying home.”
“Just imagine if she knew what we’re actually going to do tonight.”
“The truth would only freak her out more.”
Robby tapped at his keyboard. “You used to like playing princess.”
“When I was six, maybe. Not thirteen.”
“You’re still twelve for another hour.”
Abby rolled her eyes. “I already ate my birthday cake. It counts.”
Einstein skittered onto the bed and nudged her like a puppy looking for attention. Abby scratched him under the chin, and he wagged his tail, gazing up at her with something like love in his eyes. Technically, he belonged to Robby’s stepmother Tina, but he’d made Robby’s bedroom his home long ago.
Satisfied, the iguana hopped onto Robby’s bedside table and retreated to his window perch, toppling a steaming test tube in the process. Abby lunged and caught it right before it hit the ground, waving away a noxious green cloud.
“It’s like a nerd exploded in here, Robby.”
“A geek, technically. A nerd is—” But whatever he’d planned to say died on his lips as he swiveled to look at her. “Whoa.”
“What? What is it?” Abby asked. “Omigod, is it worse than I thought?” She yanked her rhinestone tiara from her head and stared at it accusingly. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment, and she knew her fair skin must be nearly as red as her hair.
“No, no, it’s just—” Robby sat up straighter. “You look really girly tonight.”
Abby adjusted her glasses and studied her reflection in the mirror on the back of his bedroom door, frowning at what she saw there. “Don’t get used to it. I still don’t understand why we even need costumes. My mom’s right about that. We are too old to dress up. And it’s not like we’re actually going trick-or-treating.”
“We still need to get past my dad. Besides, once we’re out there, it’ll be worth it. Look at this.” He rolled his chair away to give her a better view of the screen, where he’d been studying a satellite view of their small Massachusetts town, Willow Cove. He zoomed in on the rocky bluff along the coast. “Everyone thinks these images are updated randomly, but there’s a pattern to it. I’ve been tracking it—I knew they’d refresh the street view today.” He clicked the mouse again, switching views. “Check out the sign in front of Whispering Hill.”
Abby leaned in closer. The sign read for sale, and under that, sold. She shook her head. “How is that good news?” For weeks, they’d been talking about exploring the abandoned mental hospital at the top of Whispering Hill. Now, after sitting empty for decades, someone had bought the place? “What if the new owner catches us?”
“I think we’ll be okay tonight. This might be our only chance to look around there, though.”
“I just wish I wasn’t dressed like a Disney princess.”
“Yeah, about that…” Robby kicked open his closet door to reveal a long black robe and pointy witch’s hat dangling from a hanger above his dirty laundry. An old broomstick leaned against the wall beside it. “Tina’s stuck running pet séances and paw readings at the veterinary clinic tonight, but she made you a costume to go with mine. She said to tell you happy birthday.”
Abby’s eyes went wide. “Best stepmother ever!”
Fog billowed from the mouth of a giant papier-mâché cauldron on the front porch, twisting around Mr. O’Reilly as he waved goodbye to them. Abby and Robby had spent all week in his lab at school helping him prepare the dry ice, and she had to admit the effect was impressive. “Don’t stay out too late,” he reminded them. “It’s still a school night.”
Abby caught a glimpse of her mother silhouetted in the light of their kitchen window across the way, but it was too dark for her to spot them as they slipped into the woods. They padded down the old carriage road that ran almost the entire length of Willow Cove. The trail bisected the Hollows, where they lived, from the hilly area of town called the Heights. Muddy footprints and crisscross bike tracks marked the way, while jack-o’-lanterns flickered along both sides of the path, filling the night with an eerie orange glow.
Abby skirted a group of kindergartners and their parents before noticing Zeus Madison up ahead. Zeus was the only middle schooler to ever make the varsity football team, and he was already big enough to pass for a senior. Tonight, though, he looked like a giant pink bunny.
Abby called his name. He turned, his fluffy ears swaying in the night, and then hurried after his seven-year-old triplet sisters as they hopped along ahead of him, pink ribbons tied around their bunny tails. Abby ran to catch up, rising onto her tiptoes to touch his shoulder.
This time he stopped and shrugged a hello.
“What’s wrong?” Abby asked.
“What isn’t?” he replied miserably.
She stared at him, briefly mesmerized by the way the fluffy pink fur framed his dark brown face. He nodded in the direction of the triplets, who were now hopping in circles around them. “Dad has half the police force out on patrol with him tonight, and Mom’s sick with the flu, so I got stuck taking the girls out”—Robby caught up to them just as Zeus spread his hands to show off the full extent of his misfortune—“in this.”
“Did you at least get anything good?” Robby asked.
Zeus opened his bag. Abby peered inside and wrinkled her nose. “Raisins?”
“Stay away from Mrs. Vickory’s. She’s got millions of them.”
“You went all the way out there?”
Zeus nodded at the triplets. “They’re making me take them to every house. Where are you guys headed?”
One of the triplets tugged on Zeus’s tail, whining that he was taking too long. The other two had stopped hopping and looked ready to revolt, too.
“Whispering Hill,” Abby said. She hadn’t meant for it to sound braggy, but Zeus’s eyes bulged anyway.
“You can’t go there!” Zeus said.
“Why not?” asked Robby.
“Because—because—” A machete-wielding toddler in a hockey mask slipped around the group, trailed by his frantic mother. “Because it’s haunted.”
Abby shook her head. “It’s not haunted.”
“Is too.” Zeus crossed his arms. “Why do you think they call it Whispering Hill? Ghosts from the mental hospital wandering around whispering to themselves—”
“Or it’s just the wind coming in off the ocean,” Abby countered.
Zeus narrowed his eyes. “Dad’s always catching teenagers sneaking around over there, you know. Making out and stuff.”
Abby wrinkled her nose. “Gross.”
All three of Zeus’s sisters began making loud kissing noises. “Oooo,” said one of them, grinning and hopping from foot to foot. “Zeus is jealous…”
Zeus swatted at the triplets. “Am not.”
Robby straightened his wizard’s cap. “Anyway, we’re just going up there to have a look around.”
Zeus’s sisters were tugging on his costume now. He scowled at them and sighed before turning back to Robby. “That’s all you’re going to do?”
“You’re not a scout!” Zeus yelled, but before he could say anything else the triplets dragged him back down the trail. Abby waved goodbye and sprinted ahead, already worried that they wouldn’t have enough time to explore the old buildings before they had to turn back.
It took another half hour before they emerged onto the narrow dirt road at the foot of Whispering Hill. Thick vines choked the tall brick wall that stretched out from a sturdy gate. The moon had been full and bright when they’d left Robby’s, but now it was just a narrow orange slit, like a cat’s eye peering through the clouds.
Robby shined the light from his phone at a fallen placard resting on the ground near the real estate sign: offered by elena rosenberg, c.r.b. “Maybe we should have asked Zeus to come with us,” he said, pocketing his phone and tugging at the rusty chain holding the gate shut. “I bet he could bring this whole thing down with one push.”
“Not necessary.” Abby hurled her broom and princess shoes over the wall and then scrambled after them, wishing Tina had thought to include a pair of black boots with the witch costume. Robby landed next to her as she was slipping the hideous pink shoes back on.
A ragged mist hung low over the ground on this side of the fence, smelling thickly of the sea. Waves crashed against the rocky coast somewhere just out of sight.
Robby sprinted up the twisting driveway, Abby just behind him. But when he reached the top of the hill, he stopped abruptly and she crashed into him as something in the distance made a loud, almost deafening, noise. BOOM!
“What was that?” he asked.
“It didn’t sound like thunder.” He listened, but the night had gone silent. “It sounded kind of like the front gate.”
Fog rolled away from the hilltop, revealing twisted trees and overgrown shrubs choking the gray stone walls around the old hospital. Dozens of winged statues were perched along the windows and stairs leading to the entrance, giving the impression of slumbering watchdogs.
“Those are some creepy gargoyles,” Abby said.
“Chimeras, technically. Gargoyles have waterspouts.”
Robby shrugged. “They’re also sometimes called grotesques.”
He leapt back as headlights cut through the mist. Abby grabbed his arm and yanked him into the bushes as a black limousine came around the curve, pulling to a stop a few yards away. A tall shadowy man climbed from the driver’s side and opened one of the rear doors. As he moved aside, a dark-haired woman in a red cloak emerged into the moonlight and appraised the building. She had pale, smooth skin, and looked young except for a streak of gray-white in her hair that caught the moonlight as she turned. She was probably in her late twenties, Abby thought. Definitely not any older than thirty.
“It’s been a long time,” the woman said in a vaguely British accent.
“Eight years,” the driver replied.
“Nothing good has ever come from this place. We should tear it all down.”
“As you say, Joanna.”
Robby tensed. Abby glanced at him, and then moved to get a better look at the new arrivals.
“I suppose it will do for now, though,” the woman continued. “You’ve made the necessary arrangements? I shouldn’t think I’ll need to—”
A twig snapped as Abby shifted her weight. Her breath caught in her throat. The woman’s gaze darted to the bushes.
“What have we here?”
Abby swallowed. The woman crooked her head at them. “I’m in no mood for trespassers this evening.” A long, narrow stick appeared in her left hand. She thrust it toward the house.
Leaves rustled in the trees edging the driveway, followed by a musky smell, and then the stairway was suddenly illuminated in a blurry red glow.
Abby squinted. “It’s… It’s the—”
Two dozen red eyes turned toward her.
“It’s the chimeras,” Robby finished. “But that’s impossible. They can’t—”
“They are, Robby!”
The winged monsters roared as one, the sound echoing everywhere, even inside Abby’s head. When she covered her ears, the cry only grew louder. Sulfur burned her nostrils, and with a sound like shattering rocks, the chimeras broke free of their stone pedestals, swooping forward on unsteady wings.
Abby yanked on Robby’s arm as she raced away. Don’t freak out!
Her left foot caught a root and she went tumbling. Robby pulled her up, urging her on. Her ankle screamed as she kicked both shoes free and limped ahead.
Suddenly, the ground dropped away, waves shattering against the rocks below. Abby spun back around to find the chimeras bobbing before them like buoys on a choppy sea. The monstrous creatures were bigger than lions, and most of them had curved horns that glistened in the glow from their stone eyes. The nearest one bared a row of teeth the size of Abby’s hands.
She swatted uselessly at them with her broom. “How is this happening?” she yelled over the crashing of the ocean. The two of them were surrounded now on three sides with only the sheer cliff behind them.
Robby’s face had gone ashen.
“We’ll have to jump,” Abby shouted.
“We’re too high!”
She reached for his hand. “We’ll be okay as long as we miss the rocks.”
The chimeras parted as the woman marched toward them, her narrow stick casting an unsettling red glow.
“Abby,” Robby whispered, “she has a lightsaber.”
“No, I think it’s—” The woman thrust the stick in their direction. “It’s a wand.”
Robby squeezed Abby’s hand. “Definitely time to go.”
Abby gripped the handle of the broom with one hand and wrapped her fingers around Robby’s with the other. “Jump!” she yelled. She squeezed her eyes shut and screamed as salt air filled her lungs. The force of the wind spun her around, thrusting the broom between her legs as she tumbled. Somehow, Robby was behind her now—above her—grabbing at her broom, her elbow, her costume. Anything he could get his hands on.
Please let us hit the water, she thought. Not the rocks!
But they didn’t hit the water.
Or the rocks.
Robby clutched at her back, behind her on the broom.
“Robby, are we…?”
“Flying!?” they said together.
THE WICKED READ
The Witches of Willow Cove
by By Josh Roberts
Published by Owl Hollow Press ISBN 978-1945654-497
It’s not easy being a teenage witch. Seventh grader Abby Shepherd is just getting the hang of it when weird stuff starts happening all around her hometown of Willow Cove. Green slime bubbling to life in science class. Giant snakes slithering around the middle school gym. Her best friend suddenly keeping secrets and telling lies. Things only begin to make sense when a stranger named Miss Winters reveals that Abby isn’t the only young witch in town—and that Willow Cove is home to a secret past that connects them all. Miss Winters, herself a witch, even offers to teach Abby and the others everything she knows about witchcraft. But as Abby learns more about Miss Winters’ past, she begins to suspect her new mentor is keeping secrets of her own. Can Abby trust her, or does Miss Winters have something wicked planned for the young witches of Willow Cove?
Look For It If You Dare...
THE CREEPY CREATOR
Josh Roberts is the author of THE WITCHES OF WILLOW COVE (Owl Hollow Press, Summer 2020), which has earned starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal and was named a Kirkus Book of the Month for September 2020. Josh writes for an upper-middle grade audience, exploring themes of friendship, family, loss, and loyalty against a backdrop of spooky supernatural mystery and adventure. He is currently at work on the second book in the Willow Cove series, THE CURSE OF WILLOW COVE.