As the bus pulled into the driveway at Dry Creek Middle School, Mitch felt her stomach tighten into a familiar knot. She tried to appear concentrated on the textbook spread out on her lap, but Mavis and Shawn were talking loud enough so that she could hear.
“So who do you think she’ll cast a spell on this year?”
“Uh—how many witches go to Dry Creek, Shawn?”
“Oh, you mean Freak Girl?”
Mavis shot an overdramatic laugh in Mitch’s direction from the back of the bus.
Mitch tucked her head down into her book and tried to block out her classmates’ mean jokes. She should be used to it by now, but somehow she managed to keep hoping things would change. Each year, the Corridor County Harvest Festival signaled the start of a new season—and with it, new possibilities—but something always seemed to happen in between the time the carnival collapsed its tents and the bus pulled up to Mitch’s stop on the first day of school.
That morning someone had launched a crumpled ball of sticky paper from the back of the bus just as Mitch popped her head around the stairwell. The entire bus erupted into laughter when the note stuck to her frizzy hair.
Mitch ducked into the first empty seat she could find and pulled the paper from her messy bun. It appeared to be coated with glue. She wiped her hands on her jeans and uncrumpled the note. A crude drawing of a witch on a broomstick hung above familiar words.
Mitch the Witch.
She ripped up the note and dropped the pieces to the floor, faced with the fact that her seventh grade year would be no different than her sixth.
The rest of the ride to school passed without incident, but as the bus pulled up to the lot, Mitch could feel Mavis and Shawn growing restless behind her. As if on cue, she felt a hard yank on her bun, and all her hair fell loose around her head.
Mitch spun around in her seat. A girl with a half-shaved blonde ponytail and painted plum lips leered down at her. Mitch stared back defiantly.
“Nice costume,” she said, surveying Mavis’ oversized flannel and ripped jean shorts. “So I guess you’re going for that grungy, bully look again this year?”
Mavis scowled. “Watch it, witch.” She tossed Mitch’s hair tie to Shawn who shot it off his finger at Mitch’s forehead. The two doubled over in laughter and pushed their way through the other students toward the front of the bus.
Mitch pulled her hair back into a bun and gathered up her belongings as the bus emptied out. Glancing back to make sure no one was waiting to ambush her with another sticky ball, she made her way down the aisle past the sleepy looking bus driver chewing on the end of a pencil.
She crossed the main yard where students were huddled in groups waiting for the morning bell to ring, and took a seat on an empty bench outside her homeroom. Usually, she felt a bit lonely in the yard, but this morning, Mitch actually wanted to be by herself. She needed time to think.
So much had happened in the last twenty-four hours! There was the carnival and the strange man in the top hat—her uncle, or rather, great-uncle Oren Arlington, who she hadn’t even known existed for the last eleven years of her life. Then there was the drive home, and, of course, the detour through the enchanted apple orchard that somehow landed her in the middle of a French Quarter cemetery where her great-grandmother—a real witch—was buried!
Graham had chided her last night when she used that term in reference to her great-grandmamma Scarlett.
“Ain’t no witches or wizards in this family!” he huffed impatiently. “We’re just plain people with a few special powers, and because of that we have a responsibility.”
Mitch remained unclear as ever about the nature of this responsibility, but as she followed her grandfather through the winding rows of tombstones and crumbling mausoleums, she had learned more about her great-grandmother’s story.
It was the year of the Great Hurricane, and Etta’s entire family had been swept out to sea after a violent wave crashed through her village. Miraculously, Etta survived, but her island home was completely destroyed.
Seventeen and destitute, Etta snuck aboard a rescue vessel that had arrived from the mainland. The ship made its way back to the port of New Orleans, and Etta was eventually able to find work as a chambermaid at a hotel in the French Quarter.
The property had just been sold to a wealthy businessman named Rebel Arlington, who had a reputation for turning everything he touched into gold. Over the next few years, Rebel added thirty rooms to his hotel, hung a great big chandelier in the lobby, and brought in a giant French carousel, which he turned into a bandstand. Given his success in business, it was no big surprise that the Hotel Arlington soon became the jewel of the Crescent City. What shocked the city to the core was that the most eligible bachelor in all of New Orleans chose a chambermaid for his wife.
Rumors started flying. Many believed Etta Lafitte had enchanted Rebel with voodoo magic. Some thought she was a relation of the infamous pirate, Jean Lafitte. Others whispered she was one of the vampires who haunted the old Ursuline Convent, draining Rebel of his blood and his free will!
If Rebel knew the stories folks were spinning, he didn’t seem to care. On a warm June evening, in the gardens of Jackson Square, Rebel Arlington married Etta Lafitte, and invited the whole city to a wedding party that would rival that year’s Mardi Gras Ball.
Floats filled with dancers in bright masks and glittering costumes circled the hotel foyer; trapeze artists dazzled guests with their acrobatics, tumbling through the air and leaping from swing to swing; and from two giant interlocking staircases, perfumed rose petals rained down onto the carousel bandstand where a twenty-piece orchestra played. But best of all was the food—dish after dish of delicacies like oceanspice oysters and buttercream crab, sugarberry beignets and banana rum cake!
Mrs. Arlington proved to be a perfect host, and to everyone’s surprise, except maybe Rebel’s, she ended up fitting in easily with the high society circles her husband ran in. She was both bright and kind, with a strong charitable spirit. With her husband’s help, she set up hospitals and orphanages throughout the Quarter and volunteered her own time working with the city’s poor.
Etta and Rebel were happy together, and before long they had another reason to celebrate. They named their first son Oren, after Rebel’s father who died in the war when Rebel was still a young boy. Little Oren Arlington lived a charmed life for his first six years. He was beloved by the hotel staff, especially the cooks, who snuck him pieces of sugary praline whenever he wandered into the kitchen. But it wasn’t long before Oren, like his own father, would suffer a tragic loss.
The fire started as a small flame in the hotel courtyard. Rebel was running buckets of water into the lobby when the great chandelier crashed to the floor. Etta had just enough time to gather Oren into her arms and duck into the street before the blue flames shot through the portico. At that moment she knew everything—her husband, her home, the city—was lost.
Over two hundred buildings were burned to the ground. It took years for the Quarter to rebuild itself. Still reeling from grief, Etta rolled up her sleeves and threw herself into the work. Five years later, the Hotel Arlington was purchased by a new wealthy businessman and renamed, and Etta remarried a stonemason from the north who had worked alongside her to help rebuild the city.
Hickory Scarlett had taken an immediate liking to Oren, and Oren to him. When a baby brother was born, Etta thought they might be able to put the painful past behind them all, and for many years they did.
This is where Graham’s story ended. He and Mitch had walked the entire length of the cemetery and ended up back at the pickup parked next to Etta’s grave. His face looked tired as they climbed into the truck. Mitch felt guilty for wanting to ask more questions, but she had so many. Not that they had much time to talk. The ride back felt even shorter than the ride there, though at least this time Mitch was more prepared for the strange twister that swallowed their truck when they turned sharply down a narrow row of vaults.
Seconds later, they landed safely at the entrance to the bridge that connected the bayou road to their long driveway. As the debris settled, Mitch decided to press for answers.
“What’s a Corridor and why did you and Uncle Oren want to close it?”
Graham sighed heavily. “A passage through time.” He stared out the window and the bitterness returned. “It’s just a passage though time. Why should it govern us—everything we do, everything we could be?”
“Everything who could be?”
“All of us!” Graham replied heatedly. “Our family, our friends, our people—it was the people we cared about, Mitch. It was the people we did it for! This world used to be a pretty bad place, you know. Things have changed since the Corridor’s been closed. All the things we used to fight about—they’re fading from memory—and that’s what we wanted! That’s why—”
“But what does magic have to do with all this?” Mitch broke in impatiently. She realized her mistake as soon as the words left her mouth.
Graham looked at her with raised eyebrows. His granddaughter wasn’t getting it, and he was doing a poor job trying to explain. Every question she asked seemed to lead into another labyrinth of tangled explanation. He decided they had talked enough for one day.
“Mitch,” he began carefully. “I know you have questions, but I’m not going to be able to answer them all tonight. What do you say we pick this up tomorrow?”
Mitch agreed with a nod and settled back into her seat for the rest of the short drive. Back home, she performed her normal nightly ritual—changed into her flannel pajamas, brushed her teeth, and finished a chapter of the book she was reading before slipping it back into the secret compartment of her nightstand—but just as she was about to turn off the light, Graham gave a soft knock at her door.
“Come in,” Mitch answered, rubbing her sleepy eyes.
“Just want to say goodnight,” Graham said, peeking his head around the door. “I know this has been one strange day for you. To be honest, it has for me too.”
Graham looked as tired as Mitch felt.
“It’s alright granddaddy. I know we’ll talk more tomorrow. Right now I’m just going to—”
“Get some sleep,” Graham broke in. He crossed the room and pulled the curtains tight. “You get some sleep, and don’t you worry about anyone—I mean anything—any more tonight.”
Mitch nodded. Graham gave his granddaughter a tired smile, flipped off the light, and closed the door gently behind him.
Despite the questions racing through her mind, Mitch fell asleep almost immediately. It seemed only a matter of minutes, however, before she was awakened by the sound of scratching at her window. Her heart jumped as her eyes focused on the long crooked fingers silhouetted against her curtain. She blinked and the shadow was gone.
Jolting upright, she stared at the curtains and listened hard through the howling wind and rustling leaves. The fingers returned, but now Mitch could see it was just the low-hanging branches from the old oak at the back of the house.
Relieved but still wary, Mitch laid down and tried to go back to sleep, but shortly after she was startled awake again by the sound of her alarm clock. Music from the radio filled the dark room as Mitch fumbled for the off-switch.
Strange, she thought, when she finally managed to shut it off. The red digits on the screen read 3:00—hours before she had set the alarm to wake her up for school.
It was then that Mitch noticed the faint blue glow coming from her nightstand.
She rubbed her eyes, sure she must be seeing things, but light continued to spill from the secret compartment where she had hidden the book she was reading before bed. She had pulled it from the attic that very evening, after her grandfather retired to the porch for a cup of tea. Mitch made sure he was out of ear shot before stealing up the tight staircase that led to the attic. Very carefully, so as not to make a sound, she turned the key in the lock, pushed open the door, and ducked inside.
Once her eyes adjusted to the dark, Mitch was able to find her way around the piles of old clothes and broken furniture to the stack of books Graham had moved from his library to the locked attic right around the time Mitch was learning to read.
“Don’t much need these old books anymore, now that I’m retired,” he had told his young granddaughter. “How ‘bout we make some room for the books you’re reading now.”
It seemed like a nice thing to do, but Mitch had a feeling, even then, there was something more to his reason for packing away the books, and this stirred her curiosity. By the time she was eight, she had found the key to the attic and was “borrowing” a new volume from her grandfather’s secret library every few months or so.
Most of the books were very old, and not all of them were written in English. At first, Mitch couldn’t make any sense of the strange words and symbols, but the more she learned in school about science and history, the more the books began to open up for her. Certain words—like flarefield and timechute—remained a mystery, but Mitch was sure her experiences today could help her fill in some of the missing pieces. She had searched the stacks until she found the one she was looking for.
The Corridor Atlas.
Mitch gathered her courage and reached behind the back of the nightstand. As she worked to dislodge the book from its hiding place, her hand began to tingle with warmth. She yanked the booked free and blinked disbelievingly as rays of soft blue light spilled from the pages and traveled up her fingers. The gold leaf lettering on the cover started to glow. Instinctively, Mitch dropped the book and the light went out.
Over the next hour, Mitch turned each page of the atlas carefully, trying to locate the source of the strange glow. She poured over the ornate illustrations: multi-dimensional spheres that seemed to represent the earth and the moon, graphs with flame-like lines connecting the coordinates, and blueprints of what appeared to be a series of grand arcades.
When her alarm clicked over for the second time, Mitch realized she had fallen asleep reading. She tucked the book away into her backpack and hurried downstairs to the washroom to brush her teeth and get ready for school.
Now as she sat waiting for morning bell to ring, Mitch could feel the shape of the atlas pressed against her back. She wanted to read more, but she didn’t dare draw her classmates’ attention. With its worn leather cover and antique gold script, the book looked like it ought to come with a cauldron and broomstick. She could hear the Mitch the Witch jokes now.
At that moment, Mitch caught Mavis’ eye from across the school yard.
“Whaddya’ staring at, freak?”
Mavis charged her way through the huddled students with Shawn at her heels. Mitch braced herself for confrontation but was spared by the ringing of the school bell. Mavis stopped in her tracks. Shawn was so close behind that he knocked right into her and sent them both lurching forward.
“Shawn!” Mavis cried out. She steadied herself against Shawn and then gave him a hard push that sent him stumbling backward.
Mitch laughed and ducked into her first period classroom before Mavis and Shawn could turn their attention back to her. Settling into a desk at the back of the room, her thoughts turned back to The Corridor Atlas.
Mitch passed her morning classes waiting for opportunities to steal quick peeks at the book. In Math, she managed to hide the atlas under her workbook so that she could read more about voyage vessels, and in between her second and third classes she slipped into the girls’ room to study a particularly vivid illustration of a boy about her age who appeared to be transforming into a medieval princess.
At lunch, Mitch skipped the crowded cafeteria and hid in the greenhouse behind the science classrooms so she could finish reading about the dangers of being split in time. She was so absorbed in her reading that she barely heard the final bell ring to announce the end of the school day. Three o’clock! Looking up from the book in horror, Mitch realized she had missed her last two classes.
She began to panic. How was she ever going to explain this to her teachers, and what would her grandfather think when he received the call from the principal’s office? She had never skipped class before.
Stuffing the book into her bag, she scrambled to the door, peeked her head out carefully to make sure no one was around, and then made a beeline for the creek trail that connected the school to her home three miles down the road.
After the first mile, Mitch slowed her run to a jog and finally to a fast-paced walk. It was a brisk autumn day, but she was hot and out of breath from her dash across the countryside. She stopped for a moment to remove her sweater when she heard the loud crunching of leaves. A peal of mean laughter told Mitch that Mavis and Shawn were just around the next trail bend.
Not wanting to be delayed by a run-in, Mitch veered off the main trail and into the woods where she knew she could catch a shortcut back home. She could hear Mavis bragging to Shawn about making one of the sixth graders cry at lunchtime, but soon their voices grew distant and Mitch knew she was alone again.
As she climbed a steep hill, and the vine-covered roof of her and Graham’s small farmhouse came into view, Mitch slowed her pace. She needed time to think about what she was going to say to her grandfather.
By now the principal’s secretary had called and informed Graham that his granddaughter had not been in class. He was probably so worried! He knew Mitch cared greatly about her studies and would never skip class on purpose. She wanted to ease his mind, but how was she supposed to explain she had become absorbed in one of his forbidden books and lost track of time?
At that moment, Mitch felt a familiar tingling sensation against her back. She wriggled out of the shoulder straps and dropped the bag to the floor. As she suspected, it was glowing.
A branch snapped loudly on the trail ahead. Mitch froze. Heavy footsteps fell on the tree leaves blanketing the forest ground, and the tall grass ahead swayed from side to side as a man in a black coat pushed his way up the hill.
New chapters of The Secret Corridor will be published every Friday to CorridorCounty.com. Listen at Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or Buzzsprout.