Catch up on the story here
Warmth. Something soft beneath me. A crackling fire. Tripp’s voice nearby, groggy, saying “what… what happened?” A scuffling sound. Cool hands pressing against my arm, my face. “Maggie? Maggie wake up.”
My eyelids are so heavy and I feel so comfy. I don’t want to wake up.
“What did you do to us? Come on, wake up, Maggie!”
The panic in his voice scares me, so I slowly open my eyes. After adjusting to the light, I see Tripp is sitting on the floor next to the worn couch I’m lying on.
After a quick look around, I realize we’re in an old stone house, but not like the one where I first met him. This house has been well tended to and is in perfect condition. The interior walls are still standing here and are adorned with paintings, the floor is polished wood and covered with crocheted rugs, and the stairs leading to the second floor look as solid as the day they were built.
A smokeless fire is burning in the hearth nearby and next to it, rocking in a wooden chair, is the old hag. For the first time that I’ve seen, she is smiling.
“Ah, see there?” she says in a frail, thin voice. “I knew she would wake soon, there was no cause for alarm.”
I sit up as Tripp fusses over me, making sure I’m feeling ok as I do so.
“You both must have been very determined,” she continues to rock, watching up with a curious expression. “My wards have sent even the strongest hunters running off in the opposite direction, yet you two forced through them and even managed to cross my wall.”
“What’s a ward?” Tripp asks as he moves to sit next to me on the couch.
“A repellant spell, to keep people from getting too close to my home. Of course I also have other spells in place: a camouflage spell so the house isn’t visible to anyone who gets near enough, and the defense spell that you both are waking up from.”
“Who are you?” I ask.
“My family name has been lost to me, but you can call me Patience. I am the Witch of the Woods.”
My head was swimming with questions; trying to sort and prioritize them was almost impossible. Instead of a well thought out question, I blurted out, “How old are you?”
Instead of getting angry, her smile grew even wider. “Old,” was the only answer I got. She turned her attention to Tripp. “I owe you an apology.”
“Me?” Tripp leaned forward, eager to soak in every word Patience said.
She stopped rocking and slowly got off her chair, taking slow shuffling steps to the mantle above the fire. She pulls down a thin navy blue box. She runs her fingers lovingly across the lid before opening it like a book and sighing heavily.
She begins to take shuffling steps towards us when Tripp hops off the couch and crosses the distance of the small room. I follow his lead to look at the object in her hand.
What I thought was a box was actually a portfolio style case for an old tintype photograph. The man in the photo looks to be around his mid-20s and although he is posed stoically, you can see the warmth in his eyes. I look up to see Patience is choked up. I guided her back into her rocking chair, Tripp and I sit on the floor in front of her.
“My Amos.” It seemed as if even saying his name was painful. “I have lived more lifetimes than I can count and he is the only man I have ever loved. I used my magic to extend his life, but all magic comes with a price. I couldn’t make him immortal as I am, but the spell I did extended his life immensely, but doing so instantly took my youth and vitality and made me into what you see in front of you.”
She closed her eyes, for a few seconds before continuing. “My Amos didn’t care. He loved me no matter how I was. We lived here blissfully, completely disconnected from the world around us for over one hundred years.”
“He aged over the years, at a much slower pace than he would have without the spell. After enough time, we looked like a proper couple.” A dry chuckle escapes her throat. “Even though we knew it was coming, his passing was too difficult for me.”
I glance over at Tripp and his gray eyes watch her raptly.
“Those first days were the hardest of my life. I made the fateful decision one night after crying nonstop for hours.”
Patience took a slow, steadying breath, but I knew what she was going to say. “You decided to bring him back.”
Her chestnut brown eyes opened and fixed on me, they appeared decades younger than the rest of her. “I did,” she nodded lightly. “A powerful full moon was approaching. At the height of it, I performed the ritual and within minutes he was back with me, just as he was before – except his eyes.” She shifts her glance to Tripp. “We spent the night holding each other and smiling.”
She points to a shelf on the far wall, “my dear, bring me the doll over there.” I jump up and cross the room. On the shelf is a small, hand sewn doll made of a coarse brown woven material and a blue cotton shirt material. Small gray pearl buttons have been stitched on for the eyes. I never believed in magic before all of this, but holding this doll, it radiated with magic.
I brought it back to Patience and she cradled it in her lap. “Amos and I spent the next two weeks back in our euphoric state.”
I held my breath, I knew what was coming.
“But as I said, all magic has a price.” She looked back to the doll in her lap, unable to look at us as she continued to tell her tale. “The new moon came around. A full lunar cycle from the night he passed. As soon as the sun went down…”
“He changed,” Tripp filled in when she couldn’t bring herself to say it.
“He wasn’t himself. I had no choice but to-“
“You did what you had to,” I chimed in.
She brought her gaze back up to meet my eyes. “I did. I didn’t know he would change back, I couldn’t leave him like that. So once again I was alone. It wasn’t long after… that when I noticed all the helicopters overhead. I ventured out past my wall and into the town and saw that my spell had brought more than just Amos back.”
“I wandered the towns gathering information. I learned that everyone who came back ‘changed’ during the new moon but were themselves again the next morning. I should have broken the spell right then but despite the new moon challenge, I saw families reunited. I couldn’t break them up again.”
Patience whispered, barely audible. “I’m so sorry.”
“It wasn’t your decision anymore,” Tripp said. I could only watch, confused, as he reached forward and took the doll from Patience’s lap and stood up. He spun the doll around in his hand, slowly, inspecting every inch of it.
I stood up as well, thinking he was looking for something on the doll. I stood mesmerized as he twirled it in his strong hands.
“Maggie…” he began but stopped himself.
Beside us, Patience worked her way out of the chair and made her way across the room to the small kitchen area, her back to us. I almost thought I heard a sniffle as she walked away.
I looked up into Tripp’s gray eyes and felt something warm on my face. With one hand, he wiped away the tears that had slipped from my eyes. My body knew what was happening before my mind had caught up but in that instant, I knew what was happening.
“No. Whatever you’re thinking, just… no.” More tears fell onto my cheeks.
“I- all of us, we were never supposed to be back. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved having this extra time, but every new moon that comes around…” He wiped away more tears and left his cool hand resting on my shoulder. “It’s not right. We need to go back to wherever we were before.”
“There’s protocols, to keep everyone safe,” my voice is so shaky it doesn’t even sound like me.
“For how long? What if they fail?” But he doesn’t wait for an answer, he leans down and kisses me, his cool lips connecting with mine.
A sob escapes my throat as he pulls back, he turns towards the fire. “No, wait, please!” I grab at his upper arm, desperate to hold him longer. “Not yet, please. Please.”
A small cough comes from the kitchen, we both turn and see the old hag pointing out the window, the forest beyond the glass is orange in the setting sun. The new moon is minutes away.
My breathing is ragged and I pull Tripp into a hug, not wanting to let go. He holds me tighter than he ever has and plants one last cold kiss on my forehead. Still in my arms, he tosses the doll onto the flames next to us. For a heartbeat nothing happens, but then with a flash of green flames, Tripp’s body crumples to the floor.
I drop down beside him, draped across him, and weep. After several minutes, Patience sits down on the floor beside me. She gently puts a mug of steaming tea into my hands, I sit up and look at her pleadingly.
“Bring him back.”
“Drink up, Maggie. Everything will be ok.”
The scent coming from the warm mug is floral and herbal and unlike anything I ever smelled before. As I lift the mug, my tears fall from my cheeks and mingle into the tea. With the first sip, my sadness lessens just a little bit.
Outside in the distance, the futile air raid siren sounds.
In a booth at the Lakeside Grill, I sit with my laptop open in front of me and my notebook open beside it. I scroll through the Undead Reporter website and all the articles that I’ve posted in the six months since The End. I told myself I would honor Tripp’s memory by reporting the whole truth. Thankfully, he had given me the username and password for his site so I used his platform to continue spreading the news.
I scrolled through the titles of past articles I’ve written: The Witch of the Woods; the CDC Interrogation; the Body Collection; and The Wall Comes Down posted only two days ago.
I go to the drafts page. The title stares at me in big bold letters: MY GOODBYE.
The empty field for the body of the post stares back at me. I’ve started and deleted this post so many times. Saying goodbye to his readers feels like a final goodbye to him. Tripp’s dedication to the truth gave me the drive I needed in my own life. In a few days, I start a new job at the area’s number one news station.
The Undead Reporter helped with that. My posts reporting on everything that happened got world wide attention. I had offers from LA to New York to London. I chose to stay local. My dad being gone again has been really hard on my mom so I wanted to be able to be with her and commute to work.
I begin to type: Thank you, dear readers, for allowing me to bring you with me on this whirlwind the last few months.
A camera flash to my left breaks my train of thought. I look up to see a plump woman with unnaturally red hair. The stunned look on my face prompts her to take a step closer to my booth.
“I’m so sorry to bother you, it’s just – you’re her, aren’t you? Maggie Kirkland?” Her sweatshirt is a pale pink embroidered with the name of a coastal town I had never heard of, the seashell details obscured by the camera hanging around her neck.
“Yes, I am. Hi, nice to meet you.” I shake her hand and as quickly as her name comes out of her mouth, I’ve forgotten it. She takes a selfie with me and goes back to her table, chattering excitedly and showing her pictures to the man at the table.
This kind of interaction is nothing new, since the wall came down, our town has been flooded with tourists. They all have traveled here to see the empty CDC containment centers, the paper mill, the lake, and the woods. But no matter how far they search into the woods, they will never find the stone house that Patience occupied.
The last time I saw her was that fateful day six months ago. I sipped my tea with Tripp’s lifeless body next to me. She told me the tea wouldn’t take away my pain, but it would make it bearable. She also said she was moving on from these woods, they would never be the same without Amos. She was going to find other woods to call her home. I drifted off to sleep and when I woke up, I was in the middle of the forest with Tripp’s body and both of our backpacks. I used his GPS to send my coordinates to my mom. I waited for hours until the retrieval team showed up. They took Tripp’s body and escorted us both out of the woods.
When the CDC team took the map and went back to the restricted area, they found nothing but more woods. No stone house, no wall, and no Patience.
I had no evidence for the CDC to back up my story other than a map to nowhere. But with no other explanation, they “unofficially” accepted my story. “Officially” all their reports claim it’s a freak combination of water and soil and bacteria that caused The Rising.
After the “official” reports were released, hits on The Undead Reporter site skyrocketed. According to all the tourists that have been interviewed, no matter what the CDC says, my truth has become the “official” story of the people.
Back to my laptop I delete what I had written and begin again.
Thank you, Tripp, for showing me that the truth-
I hit the backspace key, deleting what I just wrote until all that was left was, “Thank you, Tripp.”
A satisfying feeling passed through me as I pressed the big green “PUBLISH” button on the right hand side of the screen. As I tuck my laptop into my bag, I see a pair of worn converse step up to my table.
A familiar voice says, “Hi.”
I look up to see Tim standing over me. I only ever saw him sitting down and in a CDC hazmat suit, so seeing him out in the open like this was shocking. He’s muscular, and taller than I would have thought.
“It’s nice to finally meet you,” he extends his hand and blushes slightly.
I shake his hand, comforted by it’s warmth. “Nice to finally meet you too.”
He slides into the booth across from me and, without the aid of Patience’s tea, I feel like things might just be ok.