This is an ongoing series written and illustrated by JJ Lee. New to Havenholm? Start at the beginning!
The story so far—Oscar and his ghostly friends Tough Tom and Willa, find themselves trapped on the creepy wood hill of Havenholm. A river, created by the wizard Maurais, prevents them from crossing into the afterlife. Many years before, Willa’s parents had been sent to find Maurais and break his spell. Before they could, the wizard set fire to Havenholm, killing Willa and her parents. Now, she and Oscar dig through the ruins of her burnt-out home in search of the secret to defeat their enemy. Oscar discovers a rusted cash box. Monsters attack.
Chapter 8, Part 6
They hurt her first.
The animated bird-like tangles of twine, twigs, and black feathers beat their wings and took to the air. Some climbed high above the treetops then tucked and dove at Willa. Others darted straight at her.
Willa, who could walk on air and pass through walls, felt each blow. They struck her head and face, her arms and stomach. They hit her and fell to the ground. Then, like marionettes pulled by invisible strings, they lurched back to life. They flung themselves again. Only at her.
She raised her left hand to protect her eyes but held on to Oscar with her right. He wanted to lash at them. He tried to wrench away and pulled, but Willa would not let go. The more the black missiles rained down, the tighter he felt her on hold him. The things with black feathers clawed at her hair. She pulled him through the woods toward the safety of the Great Tree. If only they could make it to the Tree. One of the black feathers crashed into her gut and she collapsed to the ground. They swarmed Willa like rabid vultures.
Oscar screamed, “No!”
Early on in their friendship, Simon (who was Oscar’s first and only real friend before he moved and met Willa) tried to roughhouse with Oscar. He punched Oscar in the shoulder. Oscar, as an only child and because of his heart condition, was warned by his parent never to engage in the ritual of cruel, companionable contact. He understood that this particular mix of pleasure and pain was one of the stages of developing boyhood bonding, but he couldn’t bring himself to punch back. His response was tentative, restrained. Oscar tapped on Simon’s shoulder as if he were a door he did not wish to open. Simon realized the futility, and never attempted to play rough with Oscar again.
Outside of the time he kicked Willa in the face, Oscar never really let go and hit something well and hard. He just did not know how to fight but, indeed, he was fighting now. He freed his hand and wielded the rusty cash box as a weapon with left and right. His fingers crumbled the hard dirt that encrusted it. He began to bat away the creatures away from his friend. He stomped and bellowed and kicked. He crushed as many as he could until they retreated to branches beyond his reach.
Oscar knelt down beside Willa. Her arms covered her face. He said, “Are you, okay?”
She did not answer. He watched her chest heave up and down, at first fast, but then it slowed and deepened. He expected her face to be covered with tears and snot. “Willa?”
She unfolded and rose. He only saw rage. Her eyes looked past him and into the woods. She snarled through gritted teeth, “Maurais.”
A tremor whipped through the flock of black feathers. She shouted out her tormentor’s name again. Fists balled, feet stamping, she yelled in all directions, at the birds, at the trees, the river, the world, “Maurais!”
The echo of her voice faded. Oscar saw deep in the woods, moving from behind a trunk, a man in a long black coat, his hair white, his face narrow, his grin cold and mean. He tapped on Willa’s shoulder and pointed. “Willa?”
The stranger looked left and right and then trudged towards them. Willa unleashed a wail no mortal could make, a piercing call that belonged to the dead and otherworldly lost. It was a sound that made children hide under their beds and parents bolt the front door. Her voice cut through the cold air and through Oscar’s dead heart, “Maurais.”
The ground shook. The man’s leer was now replaced by a frown. Again, the hill rumbled.
He turned to look behind. He staggered a few steps and then began to run toward the friends. He drew, from over his back, a long dark gleaming sword. Oscar said, ‘Willa, maybe we should go?”
“No,” she replied. “We drew Maurais out and Tough Tom is coming.”
Tough Tom, who looked like an eight-year-old, was the oldest ghost among them. Oscar believed Tough Tom was the most powerful being, living or dead, he had ever seen. Oscar thought of Tough Tom the way he had thought of the Hulk or Superman, except Tough Tom was real.
The hill trembled. The man lost his footing. He looked back one more time and got back up. The trees behind the man in the long black coat, quivered, cracked and fell. The black feathers, nearly forgotten, became agitated and began to knock against themselves and, as they did before, against trunks and branches. It was not Tough Tom. What came bashing through the woods was a giant mass of mud, ferns, rocks, vines, and roots, a shambling creature, lifeless like the black feathers but much larger, as big as a car or a small van. It took giant strides, thumping its way towards Willa and Oscar. It extended a coil of twisted roots and tried to ensnare both children. Willa dragged Oscar back. It lunged again. Oscar bashed it with the cash box.
Willa said, “No.”
She pushed Oscar in the direction of the Great Tree. “Bring it to Tough Tom.”
“What about you?”
“Where’s Tough Tom?”
“I don’t know. Just go.” She gave Oscar a hard shove that hurt him, though not physically. “Run, stupid.”
This time, it was Oscar who was determined not to lose his friend. He tried to clasp his hand over hers, but she slipped from him. As he was about to grab at her again, the heaving mass of mud splayed open to reveal an inside writhing with beetles, snails, millipedes, spiders, deer bones, and larvae. Oscar quailed, let go, and sprinted like a rabbit pursued by weasels. “Come on. Come on.”
Willa did not follow. The black feathers, however, did. He cradled the box, shut his eyes, lowered his head, and plunged through the woods, hoping he was going the right way. Everything, the branches, the bramble, the creatures ripped and clawed at him. Still he ran. He broke into the clearing. He could see the Great Tree, home and safety. The black creatures honed in on his legs and feet. He tripped and cartwheeled. The box flew loose.
Maurais’ flock swooped under him. The flying things swirled around and lugged Oscar high into the air, away from the ground, away from the Great Tree. They carried him to the north side of the hill, to Maurais’ house. The sick feelings of terror and shame gripped him. All he could think was he had abandoned Willa. He was a coward.