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Elizabeth Webster and the Portal of Doom
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A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT
When the doctor shut the latch on his black bag, a bolt of lightning split the night sky.
Am I making up the bolt of lightning? Maybe, possibly—I’ve been known to embellish—and this all took place a hundred years ago, so who’s to say? But it really was a dark and stormy night, and a child did lie lifeless on the bed in the damp basement room, and if the lightning wasn’t slashing it should have been. What happened that night happened, trust me on that if you trust me on anything, and this is how I imagine it.
The doctor mumbles something about the death certificate as he lifts the white sheet and covers the boy’s lifeless face. A kneeling young mother hugs her dead child, soaking the cloth that covers him with her tears. The mother’s two older sisters, the boy’s aunties, bustle around the room, showing the doctor out, stopping the clock, covering the mirror.
They’d had much practice, the aunties, in the rituals of death. The influenza outbreak was sweeping through the city like a scythe. Already, three of those who lived in the servants’ cottage had died and many others were deathly sick, including the boy’s mother. As the aunties went about their silent work, only the moans of the mother broke the quiet.
Her parents were buried in the home country of Ireland, gone. Her husband was overseas, gone to war. Her life had become her twelve-year-old son, her darling Keir, and now he was gone with the rest. Her hands caressed the sheet that covered his face as she whispered his name into unhearing ears. Until something stopped her sobs.
The sheet that covered her son’s face rose with the slightest bit of breath.
She pulled back as if from a ghost. “He’s alive,” she said.
“Oh, Caitlin,” said one of the aunties. “I’m sorry, but the doctor said—”
“The doctor was wrong, Erin,” said the mother. “My boy still breathes.” She pulled the sheet from his face. “Look.”
The other auntie took hold of a candle and brought the tiny flame to the boy’s open mouth. They stared at the candle, the three of them, watching for the flame to twitch, but saw nothing. Nothing. And then…
“I’ll run and get the doctor,” said Erin.
“Not him,” said the mother as she placed her hand on the boy’s cold cheeks, turned blue by the sickness. “I’ll not trust my boy to him again.”
“Then who will you trust?”
The young mother started wrapping her boy, covering him not just with the sheet but with the thin gray blanket, too. “Can you ready the carriage, Rowan?”
The second auntie nodded. “I’ll have Grady do it. He’ll drive you, too, if he knows what’s good for him.”
“Where will he be driving you to, Caitlin?” said Erin, the oldest of the three sisters.
“Go, Rowan, run. There’s not much time.”
“Where are you taking him?” said Auntie Erin as Rowan rushed up the stairs.
“Where I should have taken him at the first.”
“If you care for that boy’s soul you won’t let her near him.”
“For now, sister,” said the young mother, “I’ll let the Lord care for his soul. I mean to care for his still-young life. Help me carry him.”
“I can’t. I won’t. It’s blasphemy.”
“Then step aside.” The young mother leaned over the bed, took hold of her son, and stood. She staggered under the load.
Her older sister, strong as a mule, snatched the boy from her as easily as if he’d been a loaf of bread.
The two sisters stared into each other’s eyes.
“I can’t have you dropping him into a puddle,” said Erin, “your fever as high as it is. Now let’s be going. Time’s a-wasting.”
The black carriage rushed forward through the rain-soaked night, rocking wildly as the horse strained under Grady’s whip. The three sisters inside the carriage held tightly to the barely breathing boy. The lightning flashed. The whip cracked. The horse snorted as it galloped ever forward.
This is my favorite part of the story, the wild carriage ride through the stormy night. I like to imagine myself sitting next to Grady on the driver’s bench as the carriage barrels through the corkscrew turns and past the brick church with the pointy steeple. I can feel the rain on my face, hear the thunder in my bones. I hold tight as the carriage leans wildly this way and that, almost teetering over before righting itself.
You know what they could have used in those days? Seat belts!
The reins were yanked and the horse let out a terrified neigh as it reared in front of a granite arch with a name carved into the stone: LAVEAU. Normally the gate was locked tight, but on this night its iron wings were spread wide, as if it sensed the dark desperation of their mission.
Grady pulled the horse to the left and the carriage jolted forward, diving beneath the arch and onto the gravel drive. Lanterns swinging from the roof of the carriage gouged a path through the low, overhanging branches of a grove as the horse charged on. The carriage shook so hard within the canopy of darkness it was as if it was leaving this world and entering another.
The woods ended and something wide and fearsome shone dimly on the crest of the hill, something like a great curled dragon. A slash of lightning killed the illusion—it was not a dragon at all, just a large stone house with wings stretching on either side.
At the front entrance, the two aunties jumped into the rain, carrying young Keir to the large crimson door. The mother struggled to follow. Auntie Erin held the boy as Rowan lifted the knocker and slammed it down again and again.
The young mother, bent over at the waist, whispered, “Let us in. Save my boy.”
As if in response only to her plea, the door opened slowly. In the gap stood a skinny old man in black, with bony hands, long gray hair, and the blue face of a rotting corpse. Rowan gasped when she saw him and backed away from the door.
“We’ve come to see the Countess Laveau,” said Erin.
“You are not those we were expecting,” said the old man in a high-pitched warble.
“My son is fading,” said the young mother. “He is on the edge of death.”
The man, more bone than flesh, stared for a moment before he closed the door to them.
The wind and rain lashed their backs as they waited. There was nothing to be done but wait. And wait.
Finally the door opened again, and standing now beside the skinny blue man was a woman, tall and fierce, in a perfectly tailored man’s suit with jewels at the cuffs and a red scarf at her throat. Her skin was deep brown, her cheekbones were sharp, her black hair was wound like a living thing about her face. She took the boy’s rain-soaked face in her hands and raised his eyelids with her thumbs.
“Influenza?” asked the woman.
“The doctor already declared him dead,” said Erin. “But still he breathes.”
“How much they don’t know could fill libraries,” the woman said in a Caribbean accent.
“Please, Countess,” said the young mother, “save my boy.”
The countess looked at her as a bolt of lightning ignited the sky. In that instant the skull beneath the countess’s face glowed through her flesh. “You come to me even knowing the cost?”
“He is all I have. My boy. My Keir.”
“If we do save him, he can never leave this place,” said the countess. “If he lives, he will be bound to me for as long as he walks this earth.”
The young mother coughed and looked away. “I can’t let him die.”
“Do you agree to the terms?”
Just then the eldest of the aunties, the one still holding the boy, spoke. “Surely you’ll let our Caitlin see him if he lives. Surely you’ll allow a mother time to visit with her only child.”
The countess looked at Erin, then at Rowan, then at the mother, who was pleading with wet, red-rimmed eyes.
“Once a month, that is all,” said the countess. “On this same day each month she will be allowed a visit. Do you agree?”
“Yes,” said the mother. “I agree.”
Without another word, the Countess Laveau seized the boy from Erin’s arms, spun around, and carried him into the house. As the door slammed shut, the young mother collapsed, clutching at the ground as she cried out for her son.
The aunties were in the process of lifting their weeping sister from the wet stone when the door opened suddenly and the old man once again appeared before them. In one blue hand he held what looked like an irregular brown piece of paper, words scrawled upon it in red ink. With the other, he took from his jacket pocket a feather quill.
“Before you go, Caitlin McGoogan,” he said to the young mother, “you’ll need to sign.”
Even in the world of the supernatural, paperwork exists. Like your middle school permanent record, it follows you through the decades of your life, past your death, and then into the long beyond, where it is up to the Court of Uncommon Pleas to decide how it rules your fate.
And that’s where I come in.
Some girls play basketball. Some girls play the electric bass. Some girls dance like pogo sticks to punk rock and sleep with their headphones on. We all have our things.
My name is Elizabeth Webster and my thing is speaking for the dead.
Speaking for the dead was not my choice. I was a normal kid who only wanted what normal kids want, like a new phone, being left alone, a pool, being left alone, a butler. Was a butler too much to ask for? Shall you have your ice cream now or after your swim, Ms. Webster? No, a butler was not too much to ask for.
Did I have the butler? I didn’t even have the pool.
Instead, about three months ago this headless ghost started calling my name in the middle of the night. It all went back to my bizarre family history, which till then I hadn’t known anything about. That might seem careless of me, like I had misplaced old family stories along with my house key, but do you know who your great-great-great-granduncle was and what promises he wrestled out of the Lord Demon of the Underworld? Neither did I!
Yet somehow it all resulted in the family law firm—Webster & Spawn: Attorneys for the Damned. I’m the spawn. And because of that little detail, the dead keep asking for my help. And here’s the frightening thing: if you’re going to speak for the dead, you have to first speak to the dead.
I’m not complaining, mind you. There are cool things about talking to ghosts you might never imagine. For one, there is no small talk with the dead. No How was school today, Elizabeth? No Are you really going to wear that outfit? And even better, they don’t have that annoying urge to tell you what your problem is.
No dead person ever said to me, like my mother, “Enough of this messing with ghosts, Elizabeth. It’s time for you to choose to get serious about school.”
And no dead person ever told me, like my father at the office, “Show some patience, Lizzie Face. You’re always in too much of a rush.”
And no dead person ever pointed out to me, like my stepfather, Stephen, at dinner, that I should stop being so moody. “Come on, Elizabeth. Turn that frown upside down.” This last bit was so him it always made me want to scream. I’d try to stifle it, at least until my little brother, Peter, put his fingers in his mouth and yanked the edges of it up, turning himself into the Joker to hammer home the point. Then screaming would usually commence.
Truth is, if my parents had given me something to smile about, I would have smiled plenty. If they had given me the pool or the butler—or even better, if they had just left me alone—I would have been like JoJo the clown-faced girl. But they gave me none of those things. All they did was tell me all the ways I wasn’t making the right choices. And it’s not like I didn’t know they wouldn’t like my outfits, or my pink hair, or the way I chewed my pencils. There was a mirror in my room, after all. They might not have forked over the butler, but they didn’t stint on the mirrors.
When you think about it that way, talking to the dead was in many ways better than talking to my parents.
And then, sometimes, talking to the dead could turn into something fun. Like the February night we were all dancing in Young-Mee’s basement while we waited for some Irish ghosts that were haunting her house to appear and tell us what they were complaining about.
Banshees? You bet!
I thought it would just be another chat with the dead, but it turned out to be the first step of a perilous journey that would take me from the story of that late-night carriage ride straight to the edge of the Portal of Doom. Just by the sound of it you know it’s not a vacation destination. There are no character breakfasts at the Portal of Doom. And that trip, dangerous as it was, started with a toga party because, well, of course it did.
“Should Charlie turn the music down?” said Natalie Delgado, wrapped in a pretty blue sheet with red flowers because white sheets were just so ordinary. “We want to be able to hear the ghosts when they come.”
“Oh, you’ll hear them,” said Young-Mee. “And when you do, you’ll wish you didn’t.”
“Would you like it louder, Ms. Kwon?” said the DJ of our party, Master CF Vici, which was Charlie Frayden’s DJ name. Charlie had come in a fitted plastic sheet that made him look like a pale-faced chipmunk wrapped in wax paper and bound with rubber bands. To set the mood he was playing Halloween pop songs like “Rather Be a Zombie” and “Secret Vampires.”
“Any louder and it would wake the dead,” said Young-Mee.
“Isn’t that the point?” said Henry Harrison.
At the party there were six of us from good old Willing Middle School West, a crew sworn to secrecy about the whole I-talk-to-the-dead thing. There was Young-Mee, of course, since it was her basement and her ghosts. Then there was Natalie, my best friend since kindergarten, along with Charlie and Doug Frayden, two sixth graders who were my teammates in Debate Club. Henry Harrison, the eighth-grade swimming star and king of our middle school hallways, was also there, still recovering from being visited by his own personal ghost. And then there was me, moi, the teller of this tale.
“Will our ghosts want some snacks?” said Natalie.
“Snacks?” said Doug Frayden, Charlie’s twin, who had become our resident ghost and ghoul expert after being given my grandfather’s copy of White’s Legal Hornbook of Demons and Ghosts.
“It could be all they want is a snack,” said Natalie. “I brought some caramel popcorn.”
“I don’t think banshees eat popcorn,” said Doug.
“Just souls,” said Master CF Vici.
Young-Mee’s parents, gone for the evening, had been only too happy to let their daughter host the crew for a Shakespeare-themed educational event in their basement. That’s why we were pretending to throw a Julius Caesar party taking place on the fifteenth of the month, the date that Julius was poked to death and the only night each month the ghosts appeared. The fruit punch was dark as wine, the music was punk, and a square was marked by tape in the center of the floor. Within that square we danced like a pack of Roman fools while we waited for the ghosts to come so I could ask them what they wanted.
It seemed a simple enough plan.
“Maybe they won’t come at all,” said Henry in the quiet between songs. “Maybe we scared them off just by being here.”
“Nothing scares them off,” said Young-Mee. “Not the dog, not my parents being upstairs, and certainly not the Fraydens.”
“The Fraydens would scare me off if I was a ghost,” said Natalie. “No offense, guys.”
“None taken, Natalie,” said Doug. “I think.”
“But if these ghosts are Irish banshees, like Doug says,” said Young-Mee, “why are they haunting us?”
“Maybe they’re not haunting your family,” said Natalie. “Maybe they’re haunting the house. The place of some long-ago tragedy. A dead boy. A girl still in love from beyond the grave. How romantic would that be?”
“Pretty romantic, actually,” said Young-Mee.
“So, what’s the plan, Webster?” said Henry.
“You do have a plan, Elizabeth, don’t you?” said Charlie.
“Sort of,” I said, before turning to look at the corner of the room, where the seventh member of our party sat alone in one of a row of chairs. No toga there. “I’m kind of following his lead.”
“Barney doesn’t look very happy to be here,” said Natalie.
“His name is Barnabas,” I said. “And that’s the way he always looks. But I’ll go talk to him. I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.”
I was wrong.
Barnabas Bothemly sat rigidly in his chair as if he was frozen in time, which, sadly, he was.
He wore a long frock coat as black as his ruffled hair, and his long gloomy face and bony hands were so devoid of color he might have been a ghost himself. His expression could have fooled you into thinking he was terribly frightened by the impending arrival of a pack of screaming banshees, but for a very tragic reason Barnabas Bothemly, chief clerk at the firm of Webster & Spawn, was afraid of very little in this world or the next.
It’s a sad story that I’ve told before, but the gist of it is that Barnabas’s fiancée, Isabel, was tricked to the other side by the demon Redwing, and the two could only be together again when Barnabas himself died. But Barnabas, against his wishes, had been turned into an immortal by Redwing, so the two lovers were forever yearning for each other across the boundary line of death. Talk about a tragic romance.
“It is quite a party you and your friends are tossing, Mistress Elizabeth,” he said when I sat down beside him. His accent was very British.
“It’s sort of cool, I admit, even with the sheets. Don’t you like parties, Barnabas?”
“Oh, there were some superior parties in Sussex when I was still practicing the law.”
“That must have been fun.”
“The parties were not about fun, Mistress Elizabeth, they were about seeing and being seen. They were about maintaining one’s position in society.”
“That doesn’t sound like fun at all.”
“I avoided such events like the plague. I was much more content by the fire with only a book and a cup of tea to keep me company. At least until I met my Isabel. But it is good to see you and your friends enjoying yourselves before the evening takes its turn.”
“Do you want to join in?”
“Certainly not. And even if I were willing to strut like a heron in a white sheet, tonight would not be the night.”
“Why not tonight?”
“Because, Mistress Elizabeth, when a banshee comes, normally she comes to warn the household that one of its members is soon to journey to the other side. That means someone, possibly in this very room, is likely to die in the near future.”
I turned my head and scanned my friends, who were talking and laughing and dancing. Suddenly I felt just as sad and scared as Barnabas looked.
“Do you remember the Latin words I taught you?” said Barnabas.
“Yes, of course.” I was about to repeat them when Barnabas raised a hand.
“Not now, Mistress Elizabeth. Wait until I tell you. We wouldn’t want to summon the wrong spirit, now would we?”
“No, we would not,” I said.
“When we hear the first mournful cries I will set this up”—he patted a long rectangle covered with black velvet by his side—“and you will recite the words I taught you and perhaps then we shall learn what these sad spirit women from the other world are trying to say.”
“Will it be dangerous?”
“Not for me, I don’t believe,” he said without cracking a smile.
That was the thing about Barnabas, he never laughed at his own jokes, and so you never really knew if he was joking.
Just then the distant caw of a raven rose above the song Master CF Vici was playing through the speaker. The sound was so distant I wouldn’t have noticed it if Young-Mee hadn’t turned to us with frightened eyes.
“I believe the time has come,” said Barnabas.
I stood and slashed a finger across my neck to signal Charlie to cut the music. In the sudden quiet the caw swelled, coming now from one, two, three black-winged birds, growing louder as if the ravens were swooping toward us with claws bared.
Along with the cries of the birds came the telltale breezes, swishing about us with a sulfurous stink.
“Yikes alive!” said Natalie.
“Here they come,” said Young-Mee. “And they always smell like this.”
“Maybe someone’s making egg salad,” said Henry.
“With deviled eggs,” said Charlie.
The caws grew louder, harsher, turning into screeches of misery that twisted into our ears like corkscrews. The cries shot through me with such wild abandon they shook my heart, filling me not just with their bitter, painful sound but also with a sea of emotions.
It felt as if my best friend had moved away, as if my dog had just died, as if every color in the world had turned to ash.
I lost myself in the sadness and closed my eyes for just a moment to stop my tears. When I opened them again the room had changed, as if my eyes had been shut for a very long while.
THE SCRYING MIRROR
The ghosts were still screeching and the stinky drafts were still whooshing, but the room now was lit only by the tiny flames of four candles set down on each corner of the marked square and five others held by my friends, who stood against the walls. I was alone in the middle of the square, next to my backpack, with Barnabas’s black-velvet-covered rectangle set on the floor in front of me.
Barnabas recited something in Latin, the official language of the dead, and the others, their faces glowing eerily in the candlelight, read from loose pages as they translated his words into English.
“Protecti sumus,” Barnabas called out from a dark corner of the room.
“We are protected,” my friends read in unison.
“Nos autem secure,” recited Barnabas.
“We are secure.”
“Spirituum quid quaeris.”
“Spirits, tell us what you seek.”
“Et vade in domum tuam.”
“And then return to your world.”
While they repeated their chants, I walked slowly up to the rectangle and lifted the black velvet from the front, letting it drop behind. Beneath the velvet was a stained and spotted mirror, what Barnabas had called a scrying mirror. Following Barnabas’s instructions, I sat on the floor in front of the glass and stared at my image flickering in the candlelight. Not much to see: mussed pink hair, beady eyes, funny-looking nose, a wrinkled sheet draped over my narrow shoulders. See what I mean about mirrors?
As I continued to stare at my reflection, the screeching grew louder as the foul-smelling breezes whipped my hair and billowed my sheet. A strange fog rose to cover the edges of the room where Barnabas and my friends stood, while the square within which I sat became its own world, a landscape as gray and sad as the sound of the banshees’ call.
“Now, Mistress Elizabeth,” I heard Barnabas call out as if from a great distance. “Say the words I taught you.”
I took a deep breath to steady my nerves and then recited a swarm of Latin. In English the words meant: “Come to me, all that are bitter in the soul.”
As soon as the words left my lips, my image in the mirror faded as something seemed to dart behind the glass. The back of the mirror was still covered with black velvet, but another thing seemed to flit behind it, and another, as if the glass was now providing a window into some other world. It wasn’t long before I saw them clearly: three women covered in black, swirling around each other like wisps of smoke while they sang their screeching songs.
Two were ancient, with spotted, wart-ridden cheeks and mouths as toothless as a baby’s. But the third was young, with a lock of bright copper hair escaping from the black cloak covering her head and eyes as green as emeralds.
For a moment it was as if I could see them but they couldn’t see me. Then one of the old ghosts pointed at me, and all three quieted. Barnabas and my friends were now so distant I couldn’t see or hear them. All I could see was the wide gray landscape, all I could hear was the whipping of the wind.
The youngest of the women floated closer to the mirror and leaned forward to stare right at me.
“Cé tusa?” she said.
She reached for the mirror, as if to touch it with her forefinger, but then her arm broke through the surface. While her skin behind the mirror’s glass was pale and freckled, the hand on my side of the mirror, reaching out from her drooping black sleeve, was nothing but bone.
“Cé tusa?” she hissed.
“Do you speak English?” I said. “Eeeng-liiish?”
Her bony finger shook at me as she said, “Táimid ag lorg, Elizabeth Webster.”
Hearing my name in the midst of her babble felt like being shocked by a spark. Had the banshees come to warn me of my own death?
- I love this book! William Lashner delivers humor and ghost-story shivers in a mixture of wit and intensity. He creates memorable characters, at once daring and vulnerable.—Ridley Pearson, bestselling author of Lock and Key
- A superb mystery....Elizabeth's spunky attitude and earnestness provide an emotional spine that couples with the novel's mystery, dovetailing together at the right moment, making for a very engaging read.—Kirkus Reviews
- This blend of ghost story and mystery will satisfy readers who ask for "the scary stories."—School Library Journal
- On Sale
- Oct 13, 2020
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers