The Invited – Jennifer McMahon

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. By the time Jane ran down the path, the dogs were coming from the east, from the road that led into the center of town. Old hound dogs, trained to tree bears and coons, but now it was her scent they were after. Don’t be afraid, Hattie told herself now. She concentrated on pushing the fear to the back of her mind. She picked up her ax and stood tall. “Witch!” the men who ran after the dogs cried. “Get the witch!” “Murderer!” some cried.

“The devil’s bride,” others said. Ax clenched in her hands, Hattie started off across the bog, knowing the safest path. There were parts that dropped down, went deep; places where springs bubbled up, bringing icy-cold water from deep underground. Healing water. Water that knew things; water that could change you if you’d let it. The peat was spongy beneath her feet, but she moved quickly, surely, leaping like a yearling deer. “There she is!” a man shouted from up ahead of her. And this was not good. She hadn’t expected them to come from that direction. In fact, they were coming from all directions.

And there were so many more of them than she’d expected. She froze, panicked, as she looked at the circle forming around her, searching for an opening, a way out. She was surrounded by men from the sawmill, men who stood around the potbelly stove at the general store, men who worked for the railroad, men who farmed. And there were women, too. This she should have expected, should have seen coming, but somehow hadn’t. When a child’s life is lost, it’s the mother who bears the most grief, the most fury. The women, Hattie knew, might be more dangerous than the men. These were people she’d known all her life. Many of them had come to her in times of need, had asked for guidance, had asked her to look into the future; paid her to give a reading or to deliver a message from a loved one who had passed. She knew things about the people of this town; she knew their deepest secrets and fears; she knew the questions they were afraid to ask anyone else.

Her eye caught on Candace Bishkoff, who was walking into the bog with her husband’s rifle trained on Hattie. “Stay right there, Hattie!” Candace ordered. “Drop the ax!” Candace’s wild eyes bulged, the cords of her neck stood out. Hattie dropped the ax, felt it slip out of her fingers and land softly on the peat below. Candace and Hattie had played together as children. They were neighbors and friends. They’d made dolls from twigs, bark, and wildflowers: stick-figure bodies and bright daisies for heads. They’d played in this very bog, climbed the trees at the edge of it, had parties with bullfrogs and salamanders, sung songs about their own bright futures. And Jane had played with Candace’s daughter, Lucy, for a time. Then that had ended, as well it should have.

Some things are for the best. “In God’s name, you better tell me the truth, Hattie Breckenridge,” Candace called to her. “Where is Jane?” Hattie followed the barrel of the rifle to Candace’s eyes and looked right at her. “Gone,” Hattie said. “I sent her away last night. She’s miles and miles from town now.” Others were moving in on her, forming a tight circle around the edge of the bog and stepping closer, feet sinking and squishing, good dress shoes being ruined. “If she were here, I would kill her,” Candace said. The words twisted into Hattie’s chest, drove out the breath there. “I would kill her right in front of you,” Candace snarled.

“Take your daughter away from you as you took mine from me.” “I did no such thing,” Hattie said. “Lucy was in the schoolhouse!” Candace wailed, her body swaying, being pushed down by the weight of the words she spoke. “They just pulled her body out not an hour ago!” Her voice cracked. “Her and Ben and Lawrence. All dead!” She began to sob. A part of Hattie, the little-girl part who looked over and saw her once-upon-a-time best friend in such pain, longed to go to her, to put her arms around her, to sing a soothing song, weave flowers into her hair, bathe her in the healing waters of the bog. “Candace, I am truly sorry for this tragedy and for your pain, but it was not my doing. I told you—I told everyone in town—that I foresaw this disaster. That the schoolhouse would burn.

That lives would be lost. But no one would listen. I only see glimpses of what will happen. I can’t control it. Can’t stop it.” She never got used to it—the shock of something she’d seen in a vision actually happening; a tragedy unfolding that she had no way to stop. “I need you to stop speaking,” Candace said, gripping the gun so tightly her hands turned white. “Stop speaking and put your hands up above your head.” Gun trained on her, Hattie did as she was told. Men came from behind, bound her wrists with rope.

“Bring her to the tree,” Candace said. What should I do? Hattie asked the voices, the trees, the bog itself. How will you help me out of this? And for once in her life, for the one time she could recall in her thirty-two years here on earth, the voices were silent. And Hattie was afraid. Deeply, truly afraid. She knew in that moment that it was over. Her time had come. But Jane, Jane would be all right. They would not find her. She was sure.

Hattie went willingly to the tree, the largest in the woods around the bog. When they were young, she and Candace had called it the “Great Grandmother Tree” and marveled at its thick limbs that stuck out like arms in every direction, some straight, some curved. Tree of life. Tree of death. Tree of my own ending, she thought as she saw the hangman’s noose. There was a stool directly under it. A simple, three-legged kitchen stool. She wondered whom it belonged to. If they would take it home later, put it back at the table. If someone would eat dinner sitting on it tonight.

The men shoved her over to the stool; one of them put the noose around her neck, the rough rope draped like a heavy necklace. The rope had been thrown over a branch about fifteen feet up, and beneath it, three men stood holding the other end. She recognized them as the fathers of the dead children: Candace’s husband, Huck Bishkoff; Walter Kline; and James Fulton. “You should cover her head,” Peter Boysko from the lumber mill suggested. “Blindfold her.” Peter had visited her for herbs and healing charms when his wife and children were so sick with the flu a few years back. They’d recovered well, and Peter had returned to Hattie with two of his wife’s chicken potpies to thank her. “No,” said Candace. “I want to see her face as she dies. I want to watch her and know there is justice for Lucy and Ben and Lawrence.

Justice for everyone she’s ever harmed.” “I’ve harmed no one,” Hattie told them. “And if all of you had listened to me, those children might still be alive.” If it weren’t for my daughter, they would still be alive, she thought. If only she’d been able to see that part. If only she’d known what was coming, she might have been able to stop it. But if there was one thing she’d learned, it was that you can’t change the future. You can catch a glimpse of it, but it’s not in your power to change it. “Shut her up!” Barbara Kline snarled. She was Lawrence’s mother.

Lawrence had been very ill with chicken pox last year, and his mother had brought him to see Hattie, who’d sent them home with a healing salve and an infusion to drink. Lawrence had recovered without so much as a single pox scar. “The witch lies,” Barbara hissed now. “Send her back to the devil where she belongs!” a man in the crowd bellowed. “Get her up there,” another voice called, and a group of men grabbed hold of her, and then somehow her feet were on the stool. She had no choice but to stand up straight. The three men holding the end of the rope pulled back the slack, kept it taut. The stool wobbled beneath her. Her arms were bound behind her back; the rope was already tight around her neck. She looked out across the bog, out at her cabin, saw that it was in flames.

She had built it herself when she was all alone, just after the family house burned. After her mother was killed. Jane was born in that cabin, had had twelve birthdays there with cake and candles. She thought of Jane, over where the old family house once stood, tucked quietly into the root cellar, like a forgotten jar of string beans. She’d be safe there. No one knew about the root cellar. No one knew there was anything left out there in the wreckage and ashes of the old family home. What people don’t understand, they destroy. “Wait,” someone called. It was Robert Crayson from the general store.

He came forward, looked up at her. For a split second, she wondered if he would stop this madness, bring them to their senses. “Before justice is done—any last words? Do you want to beg forgiveness of these people? Of God?” Hattie said nothing, just gazed out at the bog, her beautiful bog. Dragonflies soared over the surface, wings and bodies shimmering in the sunlight. “Maybe you’d like to tell us where the money is?” Crayson went on. “Financial restitution for your crimes? We could give it to the families of the children you killed. Never bring ’em back, but might go a little way.” “I killed no one,” she repeated. “Where’d you hide it, witch?” someone yelled. “What happened to all your father’s money?” “Richest family in town,” another man spat.

“And look where it led them.” “Please,” Crayson asked, his voice pleading now. “Put your family’s wealth to good use. Don’t let it die with you. Let your one last act be charitable. Tell us where you hid the money.” She smiled down at him, at all of them gathered below her, faces bright with hope. She smiled the smile of someone who has a secret she knows she’ll never tell. The rope tightened around her neck as the men behind her pulled. Up above, the branch it was looped over creaked.

A squirrel chattered. A nuthatch flew by. “You can kill me, but you can’t be rid of me,” she told them. “I’ll always be here. Don’t you see—me and this place, we’re one.” Hattie took in a breath and waited. She had climbed this tree as a child. Climbed it with Candace. They had dropped their flower-head dolls down, watching them flutter softly to the ground. They’d called it the angel game.

Life is a circle, Hattie thought, tilting her head back to look up at the branches, where she could almost see the little girl that she was once climbing up, higher and higher, out of sight. Someone shoved the stool out from under her. Her body bucked, her feet kicked, searching frantically for something to rest on, to get the pressure off her neck. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t scream, couldn’t breathe. Could only swing and twist, and for just a second, before she lost consciousness, she was sure she could see one of her old flower-head dolls drift down, its daisy face bright as the summer sun. F O U N D A T I O N CH A P T E R 1 He l e n MAY 18, 2015 The cement mixing drum turned. Fresh concrete poured down the truck’s chute into the form made from wood and rigid foam insulation that rested on a thick bed of gravel. The truck belched diesel fumes into the clean, pine-scented early-morning air. We are meant to be here, Helen told herself, trying not to choke on the truck’s exhaust. It was eight o’clock in the morning.

Normally, she’d be on her way in to work, or perhaps stopping for a latte, pretending she wasn’t a few minutes late. Instead, she was here, surrounded by trees and northern birds whose songs she didn’t recognize, watching workers pour her foundation. The foundation was the one job she and Nate had hired out, and watching the men in their yellow boots, Helen was glad they’d left this one to the professionals. The men smoothed the concrete over rebar and mesh while Helen studied the scenery around her —the clearing they stood in, the thick woods encircling it, the hill to the west, the little path that led down to the bog to the south. Nate had argued that they could do the work, that a floating slab was easy, but Helen had insisted that a professionally laid out and poured foundation would give them the best start. “If we’re off even by a quarter of an inch, it’ll screw things up big-time,” Helen had said. “Trust me. This is what the entire house is going to rest on. It’s got to be done right.” Nate had reluctantly agreed.

He was the math and science man. If you hit him hard with numbers and facts, backed up your argument on paper in a scientific way, he’d acquiesce. And yes, in the many months leading up to this morning—in fact, even last night at the motel—Nate had studied countless books on building: Homebuilding for Everyone, Designing and Building a House Your Way, The Owner-Builder’s Guide to Creating the Home of Your Dreams. He’d taken an owner-builder weekend workshop and volunteered a few weekends for Habitat for Humanity, coming home those evenings buzzing with the new high that building gave him, talking nonstop about the walls he’d helped frame, the electrical work they’d roughed in. “It’s the most satisfying work I’ve ever done,” he’d told her. But Helen had grown up with a builder father. One of her earliest memories was the summer before first grade, when he brought her to a job site and had her straightening bent nails, teaching her the proper way to hold the hammer, his fingers wrapped around hers. She’d spent weekends and summer vacations pounding nails, hanging drywall, framing doors and windows. She’d helped her father repair the damage from shoddy construction: walls that weren’t plumb with cracked drywall inside, windows improperly installed that had leaked, roofs that were collapsing because of rafters that weren’t strong enough. She knew how hard all this was going to be.

For months, Nate had gotten a blissed-out, stupidly contented look whenever he talked about building their dream house. Helen loved his enthusiasm and how he waxed poetic about roof lines and southfacing windows, but still, she got knots in her stomach and gnawed on the inside of her cheeks until she tasted blood. She reached for Nate’s hand now as the cement poured, gave him a nervous squeeze. We are meant to be here, she told herself again. I am the one who put all this in motion. This is my dream. It was some shit her therapist back in Connecticut had taught her—how she could shape her own reality by giving herself these affirmations whenever she felt the ground shifting underneath her. Nate squeezed her hand back—once, twice, three quick bursts, like a code, a secret code that said We’re here; we did it! She could feel the excitement thrumming through him. Two of the workmen in yellow boots carefully pulled a board over the rough surface of the slab, making it level. She might have been the one to set things in motion, but they were here, really, because of Nate.

Almost a year and a half ago now, Helen’s father dropped dead from a heart attack, and Helen—normally so confident about every aspect of her life—felt herself floundering. Helen began feeling stuck and unhappy, believing that there had to be more to life than waking up each morning and going to work, even though it was a job she loved: teaching American history to bright-eyed middle schoolers. Her job gave her a sense of purpose, made her feel genuinely useful and like she was making a difference— but it still wasn’t enough. Her father’s death had been a wake-up call—a warning that she, too, would die one day, perhaps sooner than expected, perhaps without warning, and it was entirely possible that she wasn’t living the life she’d been meant to live. The thought filled her with dread, with a sinking leaden feeling that encroached on everything. “What is it you want?” Nate had asked one evening. He saw Helen’s new angst as a puzzle to unravel, a problem to solve. They were sitting in the living room in their condo back in Connecticut. Nate had opened a bottle of wine and they were cuddled together on the couch in front of the gas fireplace, which Helen had never really liked because it seemed a poor substitute for the real thing—a crackling fire and the smell of woodsmoke. Nate bought her spruce and piñon incense to burn while the predictable gas flames were going, which was a sweet gesture but didn’t do the trick.

“What would make you happy?” he asked as he refilled her glass. She looked at him—her handsome, earnest, problem-solving husband—the absurdity of his question hitting her like a punch in the stomach. “Happy?” she echoed dumbly. Happiness had always seemed to come so easily to Nate. He found true joy in weekend trips with his birding group (which consisted mostly of senior citizens) to wildlife sanctuaries and state parks to watch and photograph thrushes, Baltimore orioles, and goldfinches; in catching up with his favorite science blogs and podcasts. He found comfort and delight in studying the natural world around him, categorizing things by kingdom, phylum, order, class, and species. During grad school, Nate had a running guest appearance on his best friend Pete’s blog. Pete wrote about environmental issues, but he roped Nate into doing a series of short videos called Ask Mr. Science. Readers would send in questions like “What’s the deal with frog mutations?” or “What’s happening to the honeybee population?” and Nate would come on, wearing a lab coat to look the part, and explain mutations, biodiversity, and evolution in a down-to-earth, totally adorable yet kind of geeky way.

The world made sense to Nate and his Mr. Science mind; there was an intrinsic order that comforted him and that he seemed to enjoy sharing with others, and he never seemed to feel the need to ask himself the big questions, like “What’s missing?” or “What is our greater purpose in this thing called life?” Now he blinked at her, nodded, and continued to watch her, waiting for an answer, clearly not going to give up until she gave him one. She thought of how she spent her days, of her daily drives through the suburban landscape of strip malls, drugstores, restaurants, car washes, dry cleaners—so much light and noise; so many people out on little missions to do their errands, to buy curtains and antacids and pick up their freshly cleaned work clothes before hurrying off to work. It all seemed so meaningless. What makes me happy? she thought. The times she was happiest lately were when she did her occasional weekend stints volunteering at the Greensboro Museum, a tiny living history museum that re-created life in the mid-1800s for visitors. In her heavy ankle-length dress and bonnet, she’d dip candles and churn butter while visitors watched. She delighted in answering their questions about what life was like back then, about how the men and women spent their days. She was a historian and early America was her field of expertise, and like Nate playing Mr. Science, she loved to share her knowledge.

But what she loved best were the quiet times at the museum, between tour groups, when she actually let herself pretend she’d gone back in time, that life was quiet and purposeful. There were cows to milk, gardens to tend, butter to churn, a fire to build to get dinner started. As Nate continued to watch her, waiting, she took a long sip of wine, closed her eyes, and delved way back in her mind to the oldest dream she had, born from a childhood of reading the Little House on the Prairie books, reinforced by her college and grad school studies on life in colonial New England and the American pioneers. She couldn’t very well tell Nate that going back in time would make her happy, so she said the next best thing. “A house in the country,” she finally answered. Nate turned to her, surprised. “The country? Really?”

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