The static from the radio crept into Mitch’s dreams. She felt a sharp sense of dread, as if something terrible was about to happen, but as she blinked away the sleep, the strange images began to fade. She sat upright and rubbed her neck, which was stiff from the awkward angle her head had been resting in. Looking out the window, she realized they were almost home.
Mitch slumped back in her seat and closed her eyes. Her body felt tired from the long day at the carnival, but her mind was spinning as she remembered the events of the last few hours.
Her grandfather’s show had been a success—as usual—but Mitch had sensed something different about his performance this year. She thought her grandfather must have felt it too because the hour-long drive home had been marked by unusual silence.
Mitch opened her eyes and glanced at her grandfather, wondering how to begin, but Graham beat her to it.
“Well, Mitch, I know you must have seen him.”
“Who?” Mitch asked, taken aback.
“You know who I mean. The man. The man with the top hat.” He paused. “The man watching you from the back of the crowd.”
“Oh,” Mitch said, unsure how to proceed. Should she tell her grandfather about their chance meeting in the street? How she had tripped and he had caught her from falling? How she had felt fearful staring into his eyes?
Graham looked Mitch over with alarm as if he had somehow read her mind. He opened his mouth to speak, but then snapped it shut. It wouldn’t do to reveal everything all at once. He needed to stay focused.
“I don’t know quite how to tell you this…” he said finally. “But that man…well, that man…” Graham sighed heavily. “That man is your uncle.”
“What?” Mitch asked incredulously, turning her whole body to face her grandfather.
“Well, your great-uncle,” Graham hurried on. “He’s my brother—half-brother.”
Mitch stared at her grandfather disbelievingly. When he refused to meet her eyes, she exhaled sharply and turned to the window in frustration. She tried to push down the questions by focusing her gaze on the rows of apple trees zipping by, but she couldn’t stay quiet for long.
“I thought we had no family, granddaddy.” How could you lie to me about this? she wanted to add, but didn’t.
Graham’s response was automatic. “We don’t, baby,” he insisted, but as he caught sight of his granddaughter glaring out the window, he chose his next words more carefully.
“Mitch, what you have is a great-uncle. What I have is a half-brother. Oren Arlington may be a relation, but that don’t make him family. It only makes him more dangerous.”
Graham’s tone was unusually firm, but all Mitch could do was shake her head.
Graham returned his eyes to the road, popped his gnarled knuckles on the steering wheel, and made up his mind.
“Alright then. I guess if it’s come to this, we have to go.”
Graham shifted gears and Mitch launched forward.
“Go where?” she asked settling back against her seat and casting an uncertain look in her grandfather’s direction.
“What?!” Mitch cried out. Surely she must have heard wrong. “Did you just say we were going to—”
“Yes,” Graham responded definitively. “The Quarter. We’re going to the Quarter. There’s something there that you need to see.”
“But granddaddy,” Mitch protested, “It’s a day’s drive there and back, and I start school tomorrow!”
As tempting as the idea of evading her classmates for one more day might be, Mitch couldn’t bear the thought of falling behind in her studies.
“Don’t you worry about the time,” Graham said with a faint smile. “Now hold on.”
Suddenly, Graham pulled the truck sharply to the right, and the old pickup bounced off the gravel country road and into a deep ravine leading straight toward a row of apple trees. Mitch gasped and braced herself for impact, but as the truck met the edge of the orchard, the trees lifted their low-hanging limbs and pulled back their roots. The pickup was swallowed into the shade.
“Granddaddy!” Mitch cried out, but Graham’s eyes were fixed fast on the road. A thick cloud of dust had gathered around the truck. Though Mitch couldn’t see more than a foot ahead, Graham seemed to be accelerating, driving faster and faster along the bumpy road through a twister of gold leaves, bronze branches, and ruby-red apples.
Mitch ducked down and buried her face in the seat between her and her grandfather, but she could feel the truck picking up speed. Overcome with fear, she let out a scream.
“STOP THE TRUCK!”
Abruptly, the truck came to a complete stop, but somehow Mitch wasn’t launched into the dashboard like she expected to be. Absolute stillness surrounded her as the dust began to clear. Lifting her head off the seat, Mitch jumped suddenly as a loud thud broke the silence. A single apple rolled off the roof and onto the windshield. Before she had time to catch her breath, a windfall of apples dropped from the sky, pelting the pickup. Mitch ducked down quickly.
When the last few thuds against the roof had given way to silence once more, she counted to ten and picked herself up off the floor. To her horror, the driver’s seat was empty!
“Granddaddy?!” Mitch called out frantically, craning her head out the driver’s-side window. There was the soft click of a lock from the other side of the vehicle, and before she knew what was happening Mitch was being gathered up in her grandfather’s arms and pulled out of the truck.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” Graham said, setting Mitch down on the soft grass. He patted her head, releasing a thick plume of dust.
“There’s no real way to prepare someone for that though.”
“What—was—that?” Mitch demanded breathlessly.
But Mitch had enough of her grandfather’s stalling.
“What in the world just happened, Granddaddy? How did you disappear just now? And how do you explain those trees jumping out of the way for us and that apple tornado?!”
She gestured wildly at the fruit that lay scattered about the truck.
“What is going on?!”
Graham took a deep breath and looked his granddaughter straight in the eyes.
“Magic,” he exhaled, and stepped around the side of a large marble headstone. “Been in the family for generations.”
It took a few seconds before Mitch was able to register her surroundings.
Stone mausoleums stretched out in every direction, their slanted walls rising up out of the uneven ground at strange angles. Dried bouquets and dead leaves lay piled against cracked and crumbling tombstones. Gravel walkways twisted through rows of stacked vaults and past padlocked gates surrounding sunken graves and mounds of fresh grass.
Far off in the distance, Mitch could hear the familiar notes of jazz rising up out of the bustling city streets and the steamboats blowing their horns in the harbor.
Could it be possible? Mitch looked around the cemetery in wonder. Had they really come all the way to…
“New Orleans,” Graham nodded. “This, Mitch, is St. Louis Number 1, and here,” he said, gesturing toward the headstone he had stepped around, “rests your great-grandmamma.”
Mitch looked from her grandfather to her great-grandmother’s grave. A thick growth of blue wisteria covered the headstone. Mitch pushed aside one of the branches so she could read the inscription.
Etta Lafitte Arlington Scarlett
“She died when I was still a young man,” Graham continued, his eyes darkening with sadness. “Before I had my own family.”
Mitch held her breath and waited for her grandfather to say more on the subject of the family they had both lost all those years ago, but he abruptly changed direction.
“There’s magic in this world Mitch—powerful magic. Not the kind of tricks that entertain them folks at the fair—those are illusions like I been telling you all these years. No, I’m talking ‘bout real magic, old as earth itself, tied to trees and rivers and rock.”
Graham paused and gave his granddaughter a long, measured look.
If it hadn’t been for the fact that she had just crossed seven county lines in a matter of seconds, Mitch might have burst into laughter or rolled her expressive eyes up into her head. Illusions dreamed up to dazzle a crowd were one thing, but ancient earth magic? Time travel? Even the years she spent nosing around the strange books tucked away in the tight corners of their attic wouldn’t have prepared her to believe what her grandfather was telling her now.
But then again, she had seen—with her own eyes—those trees move out of the way as their truck bore down on the apple orchard. She had felt the strange acceleration as the pickup seemed to zip through space before dropping her and her grandfather into the middle of a cemetery! And now here they were, hundreds of miles from the Corridor County fairgrounds and their quiet country home. How could these strange events possibly be explained if not for—
“Magic,” Graham nodded, finishing her thought. “I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s real. It’s how we got here so fast. Those apple orchards are growing right on top of a timeshaft—an energy field that opens into a tunnel of collapsed time. There’s thousands of them all over the earth. You can zip right through from one side of the world to the other if you know where they are, and how to use them.”
Mitch raised an eyebrow.
“I know what you’re thinking…and well…that’s another thing. This magic connects time and space, but it also charges your mind. It’s how I can tune into those thoughts running through that head of yours.”
Mitch shot her grandfather a mortified look.
“From time to time!” Graham quickly added, equally embarrassed at the thought of prying into his young granddaughter’s mind.
“When you’re agitated—like you are now. There’s powerful energy in your mind, Mitch, and it connects with mine whether you want it to or not.”
Mitch’s face softened a bit, but she continued to press for answers.
“Granddaddy, I’m just so confused,” she said, running her hands through her dusty hair. “Why would you keep all this from me? Why would you hide these powers from me all these years? Why wouldn’t you tell me that man was a living relation of ours?”
Mitch shivered as she remembered the stranger’s hard amber eyes that looked so much like her own. She looked accusingly at her grandfather.
“Why all the secrets? Don’t you trust me?”
“Of course I trust you!” Graham insisted. “You have to believe me—none of this—none of the secrets—has a thing to do with my trust in you.”
Mitch continued to look skeptical.
“There’s just so much!” Graham said, turning from Mitch to his mother’s grave. “There’s so much I don’t know how to tell you. So much I’m afraid for you to know.”
His next words were choked with bitterness.
“This magic took everything from me, everything I ever loved in the world…except you.”
“Oh granddaddy—” Mitch started, but Graham held up his hand.
“Please,” he said firmly. “If I don’t get this out now I’m afraid I never will.”
Mitch closed her mouth and sat down on the grass beside her great-grandmother’s grave.
“Look,” Graham sighed. “Me and your Uncle Oren…we believed in something once. It was just an idea, at first, but once it took hold we couldn’t get it out of our minds. We wanted to make a change, Mitch. A big change. A change that would make the world a better place, once and for all.”
Graham ran a dark wrinkly hand along the smooth white marble of his mother’s head stone.
“Mama was proud of us. She taught her boys to have conviction in their beliefs. She taught us to care about people and to take the power we were born with—the power she was born with—very seriously. When we closed the Corridor, we thought we were doing the right thing.”
As his memories swept over a dark and closed off past, Graham’s face turned from forlorn sadness to anger.
“Oren still does, I’m afraid. I don’t know if I do anymore, but it doesn’t matter. The cost was too high. I accepted I might die fighting, but I wasn’t prepared to lose Sula and Ryland.”
Mitch started at her grandfather’s direct reference to her grandmother and father. It had been years since either of them had been brought up. Graham noticed Mitch’s surprise and dropped down next to her on the grass.
“There’s been a lot of loss in this family,” he sighed. “All these years I thought it would be better if our history were to disappear too, so the two of us might have a shot at some happiness. I never thought Oren would come back around these parts—not after what happened all them years ago—not after he decided his commitment to that blasted mission was more important than his own family. But now here he is, prowling after you like he done your daddy, and I know it’s only a matter of time before he starts closing in.”
Graham’s eyes darted around the cemetery, looking for any sign they weren’t alone. “I’ve seen him creeping around town, staring at the festival posters. Caught him lurking in the woods outside our house. He’s watching us, Mitch. He’s watching you. And he won’t stop until he has you believing you’re lucky he is.”
New chapters of The Secret Corridor will be published every Friday to CorridorCounty.com. Listen at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Buzzsprout.