Forgotten, by Abby Hall. 2019.
Light gleamed across the hardwood floor of Hector’s living room. A thick piece of paper sat in front of Ada on the floor, rolling up at the edges from the watercolor scene painted across it. A jar of murky paint water held down one corner, and Ada’s socked foot delicately pushed on the other side.
She’d borrowed one of Hector’s hair ties—a drugstore brand that snapped when Ada pulled the band too tight, so that she had to tie the severed ends together and try again—and tied the top of her hair back into a ponytail. Pin-straight pieces still poked out at her hairline and tickled her forehead.
The painting on the floor was an hours-long project she’d started just after lunchtime. After hearing her mother’s voice the night before, Ada’s heart yearned for something she no longer was; her mother called for a woman named Adathis, not Ada. Her mother never knew Ada as she was, never knew the struggles and changes her daughter would face.
When she awoke from her dreamless sleep, Ada felt something bitter and writhing in her chest, and she asked Hector for some paints. She’d been unable to paint since waking up without her memories, and the events of that day played back on repeat in the bottom of her brain while she gingerly gripped the end of the paint brush and tried to recreate Hector’s living room on paper.
At first, Grandpa Mellis spoke with her, interrupted every few minutes by his death. Eventually, the old ghost tired—something Ada didn’t realize could happen—and fell into a deep sleep on the couch. He still crumpled to the floor in a heap at regular intervals, but simply crawled back onto the couch afterward and snored away, pipe in hand.
After the gruff voice of Grandpa Mellis dissipated, Ada fell into the tense moment on a sticky July day that she longer knew who she was.
Her eyes had fluttered open with difficulty that morning when she realized, with a shock down her spine that sent her heart beating too fast, she didn’t remember waking up ever before. She’d sat up in bed, and her blankets had felt too scratchy on her bare feet. She’d rubbed her head, which ached with a hollow pain that sent jolts of fear behind her eyes and into her shoulders.
A deep breath; it felt like the first she’d ever taken. She’d stumbled out of bed and stubbed her toe on a dresser that seemed much too close. For a moment, she knew nothing. Only colors swirled through her mind, no words, and no images.
She’d blinked and blinked and blinked. She’d put a hand against the wall and moved slowly toward a mirror above her dresser. Upon seeing her own reflection, and realizing she was she, and that reflection was she, Adathis knew her name, but it felt hot in the back of her throat.
Ada, she thought. Someone had called her that, once. A friend or an enemy, she did not know—but it was all she could stomach of the life she’d had before.
In the moments following, Priddy had bounded down the hall asking if Ada had slept well, and the two tripped over reintroductions and explanations. Priddy didn’t know much, but she did know enough to tell Ada that she had been a painter, and that she’d had powers. Ada didn’t know what that meant, then. Looking back, she felt ridiculous those three months before she visited the foxes in Home and learned the truth.
The memory was a taunting, tight feeling instead of a clear story as she sat painting. Ada’s fingers felt at home on the paintbrush handle, but as if they were a home she’d been away from for years. Her grip wasn’t comfortable, and she shifted it often, trying to feel natural as the thoughts swirled in her mind.
The painting, too, was rough. The shapes were coarsely done and there was too much water, making the paper pill up in patches.
Still, she finished it. The likeness wasn’t perfect, but it was recognizable. She didn’t add Grandpa Mellis in, but a blueish-gray blob sat in his place on the couch.
Ada took a deep breath and dropped her brush into the cup of water. Outside, Priddy ran into view with a group of translucent dogs behind her, and one white rabbit beside her. Hector had explained that the animals were old family pets, test subjects for tethering the dead to the living plane.
A creak in the floor forced Ada to turn, and she saw Hector standing at the foot of the stairs. Grandpa Mellis woke up with a ruckus and greeted his great, great grandson.
“Will you come outside with me, Hector?” Ada asked when she saw Hector tense up at the greeting. She stood and brushed her hands on her sweatpants—freshly cleaned in Hector’s laundry room. The man followed her outside and she noticed that he was wearing a slightly cleaner, less hole-filled pair of pajama pants that day, and that his hair was newly washed.
“Of course,” Hector replied. Barefoot, the fellow witches moved past the old screen door and stood on the porch, watching the animals run in tiring circles on the yellowing grass.
Ada waited until she was sure they were out of earshot of Grandpa Mellis before speaking. “Why don’t you get a new dog? You seem happy when Priddy is around. Maybe a pet would cheer you up.”
“I am lonely, Ada, but not for lack of company,” Hector replied. He wiggled his toes on the cold porch and wrapped himself in a hug. Ada, who never felt cold after being blessed by Ostra—the thought gave her an extra warmth in her cheeks—stood in a tank top in the autumnal chill. “I’m haunted by these ghosts. I am never alone, and I am always alone.” He sighed deeply, and his dark eyes closed against the pain he felt. “Plus, the animals nearly always stay. Usually, we can only trap those spirits we attempt to trap, but after we succeeded with the children, the animals always seemed to stick around. I haven’t had a pet in decades because I can’t stand trapping them here.”
“You don’t like the ghosts, then?” Ada asked. She didn’t look at Hector as she spoke; he didn’t seem to like being seen.
“They’re my family,” he replied. “But this fear of death that has been passed through my family for centuries has led to something much, much worse—we’re afraid to live. My parents, my grandparents, spent their lives researching the dead in order to hone their practice, to learn more, to keep their family members alive, in some sense, forever.” Hector put one hand on his face with a tsk. “Instead, they die multiple times, every day. And I—I was so afraid of death that I traded my life to paint for a demon, to be surrounded by death for eternity.”
Ada was quiet for a moment. “He isn’t really a demon, is he?”
A sigh, and Hector moved to lean against the rotting wood of the porch bannister. “No, I don’t think so. He is something more than a thought, and less than a corporeal being. He exists, that’s for sure, but he is worldly, not heavenly.”
Ada nodded and stood in silence, cool air tickling stray hairs against her face. “I’d like you, Maeve, and Priddy to stay for a few days, if you can spare the time. I do enjoy your company, Ada,” Hector said toward the yard. A small smile grew on Ada’s face, and she said she would talk to Maeve, but that she’d love to stay.
“I’ve wanted to ask, but I haven’t found the proper time.” Hector hesitated and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “I’ve been wondering why you made your pact. Surely all of us under contract with him were afraid of something, right?”
BANG. Ada jumped as the cellar door to the right of the porch slammed against its padlock. “What in the—”
Hector buried his head in his arms and stomped his foot. “Damn it—the children. It gets worse the nearer we get to winter.” He stood straight and turned to Ada so seriously that she nearly shuddered, staring at him with wide eyes. “Come with me. I’ll show you the price of chasing eternity.”
He stepped off the porch with his bare feet. Ada looked out across the yard one last time, saw the pets running further into the meadow, getting smaller and dodging trees. She stepped into the grass and followed.
The cellar entrance was chipping and nearly falling apart at the hinges. It was held together by a rusting metal chain and a padlock. The doors shook again and Ada shrunk back.
“They can’t hurt you,” Hector assured her, but that didn’t quell the blood pumping through her body. “They were young when they died, and terribly frightened. Elijah and Honora Mellis, my great grandparents, performed the ritual, but they hadn’t realized the children were missing until too late. They nearly ran out of time, and their skills were unsharpened. The result was less than satisfactory.” Hector removed the padlock and opened the doors as he spoke. The cellar was dark and deep looking, with a set of cement stairs descending into the pitch.
“Josie, the oldest, was ten. Elmer was eight, and Della, five. Grandma Honora had been nursing my grandfather, Norman—a baby at the time—when the other three ventured into the cellar, as children do, looking for somewhere to play. Elijah was in town, stuck late due to a snow storm.” He continued talking in a whisper as they took each step slowly downward until the sun only barely breached the space. “The doors stuck, and Honora was too far to hear them screaming. She fell asleep, only realizing the children were gone when Elijah returned home the next morning.” The witches stood in the middle of a whirlwind of windy whispers. “They performed the ritual to bind their spirits as quickly as they could. Still, the children weren’t fully bound. They are trapped, truly trapped between worlds. They—” Hector gulped, a tightness to his voice. Ada fought the urge to reach for his chapped hands. “They don’t realize they are dead. Constantly do they feel the fear they felt that night, never realizing that no more harm can come to them.”
“Do they feel it? The pain?” Ada asked between the growing whispers around her. She couldn’t pick up any words, but a freezing cold washed over her that reminded her of the true bite of winter, and an agitation burrowed into her bones as if it was finding a place to hibernate warmed by her blood and flesh.
Hector shook his head. “I don’t know, truly. Millie says she feels nothing anymore—says she isn’t even afraid anymore. Granpda Mellis is the same. But I think—I think it doesn’t matter, does it?” The whirlwind grew, and Ada watched Hector wipe tears from his eyes. “They believe that they will feel pain, at the least, and they have for more than a hundred years. And I can’t fix it.”
Finally, Ada did reach out a hand, and she grasped Hector’s shaking fingers in her own. He closed his eyes. “I’m going to reach out to them, for a moment, okay? They can’t hear me, but we can hear them, and I’ve learned that reaching out tends to calm them. But, if you’re touching me, you’ll hear it all. I don’t want you to hear it, Ada.”
Ada nodded, squeezed his fingers once, and let go. Hector put his palms together then and bowed his head, as if in prayer. He whispered something, stood very still, and began to cry. Ada couldn’t hear the words in the whispers, but the noise around her subsided, and the chill disappeared. When Hector dropped his hands again, she reached for his shoulder, and he leaned into her with a sigh. Together, the witches emerged from the cellar, and bittersweetly locked the doors once again.
A hot anger riled itself in Ada’s soul and seemed to bounce back into its old place. She felt the anger, the feeling that had been encompassing her in bursts for the past few weeks of her journey, taking her to a place she knew she had been before—to a person she knew she had been.
In that anger laid her memories, and something deeper. She felt angry that the monster, that he had done such evil, that such evil could occur in the world, that such tragedy could happen under our noses. Ada’s blood surged with anger, and sadness, and a memory appeared to her.
Adathis looked up to the woman before her, a tall, rounded woman with long, crow-black hair that moved in gentle, frizzy waves over her shoulders. The woman sat on a stool in front of a vanity in a small room lit with one lamp in the corner. Adathis sat on the floor, a doll on her lap, and watched the woman as she brushed her hair, tanned fingers twisting pieces of hair into a braid that reached nearly to the stool.
“Your father,” the woman said, and her voice was like a bell. She stopped speaking for a moment, and her tense lips pushed her cheeks against her long, thin eyes. “Your father was not a good man, but he loves us very much.”
The woman—her mother, she realized—pursed her pale lips together and wound the braid up into a bun at the side of her head. She sighed as she stuck pin after pin into the wound hair, patting it constantly to check the strength of hold. “He has many responsibilities.”
“Why can’t he visit at least sometimes?” The child’s voice became whinier, and she noticed the plants around the room—hanging in baskets from the ceiling, decorating her mother’s vanity and the window sill behind her—shivered as the woman turned to Adathis with a mild glare in her eye.
“My dear child,” she said, blinking hard to soften the look, and she smiled. “He is far away, across the ocean, and he doesn’t have the strength to come here. But he loves us very much.”
“What is his name, then? Tell me, and I’ll write him a letter.”
The woman laughed under her breath, enough for the child to notice and strengthen her resolve of reaching her father. “Dumas,” her mother said. “He calls himself Dumas these days.”
“Ada? Hello, Ada?” Hector was holding Ada by her head on the grass. The rest of her body was splayed across the ground, and her elbow throbbed with a dull pain. “Oh, thank God,” her friend said as he fanned her face with a hand. Priddy was licking at Ada’s arm, her tail wagging hesitantly between her legs and her ears pressed against her head.
“Ada? You’re okay?” Priddy said. Ada reached out a hand, blurry in her vision, and patted Priddy to reassure her. “This hasn’t happened—I’ve never seen this happen,” the dog continued, but she licked Ada’s fingers between words.
“You fell over out of nowhere and hit your elbow pretty badly. I caught your head just in time.” Ada looked up to Hector’s worried, wrinkling face and smiled weakly. She croaked a thank you and asked to be helped to her feet. “Are you okay?” He asked, and she shrugged.
“I remembered something strong,” she replied.
“What did you remember?” Priddy asked. Hector helped Ada up the stairs, and Priddy pranced around their feet. The ghost dogs—and rabbit—were playing in a pile in the yard after Priddy left them.
“Something about my mother and father,” she replied. Even saying it out loud made her giddy with excitement but weighted by a certain kind of sadness that is felt most effectively during cold times. It was a mix of nostalgia and fear, of anxiety and hope that pervaded the senses for hours on end as the sun sank too early under the earth and plunged all thoughts into darkness.
“I’m so sorry,” Ada said finally as the three entered the house, “for passing out after you showed me something so personal. I was reminded of something down there, and it took me over.”
Hector shook his head and helped Ada into a chair in the dining room, separated from the living room by a wall and a door that—thankfully—did not alert the talkative Grandpa Mellis to their presence. “Don’t apologize, my friend. I’m sure you don’t schedule your fainting episodes.”
Ada reached a hand down to scratch Priddy’s ear. It was something of a habit when she felt bad or frightened, and Priddy seemed to enjoy it, her back leg thumping gently on the floor with each scratch. “You asked me why I made the contract,” she said, taking a deep breath. “I didn’t know before, but I remember now. I was afraid of death, too. My mother was murdered. I didn’t want to die like her, and I didn’t want anyone else that I loved to die like her.”
A hot wind blew through the room strong enough to make Hector knit his brows. He didn’t realize the source was Ada, and that the wind stirred her hair and flowed into and out of her nose with each breath. “I was selfish. I was frightened. I won’t do that anymore. I lost my memories for a reason; I wanted to change, and I’m going to.”
Hector nodded and squeezed Ada’s shoulder. “I believe you.” His voice was a whisper, and she could see the fear still shivering behind his eyes. He has been stuck in his ways so long, she thought. He doesn’t know how to, or want to, change.
Still, Ada smiled. She reached for his shoulder, too, and squeezed it. Inside her chest though, flames licked between the bones of her ribcage, ready to ignite.
The words of Ada’s mother trilled softly in the air above Ada’s head. She was laying in the four-poster bed of one of Hector’s guest rooms, focusing all the power she could muster on the image of her mother.
Without Hector there to conduct the séance, the voice of her mother was quiet and fluttered by like butterfly wings, but she could hear it. Bits and pieces of those last words danced past Ada’s ears like a whisper.
Every so often, she would hear a thump outside the bedroom wall. It was Millie falling down the stairs, and it took everything Ada had not to get up and check on the ghost girl every time. The night before, Ada had been so tired that the noise hadn’t bothered her, but it quickly began to grate on her nerves as she continually lost focus.
With a groan of defeat after the fifteenth thump, Ada let go of her mother’s voice and shook her head. She looked around the dark room for something to cover her ears with—a thick hat, or a scarf, maybe?
A scarf, she thought, and remembered the plaid scarf she had wrapped around Priddy’s neck for their travels. It wasn’t in Ada’s backpack, or in her bedroom; she decided it must have been in Maeve’s room, where Priddy had been sleeping to make the girl feel safe. Ada hadn’t made much leeway on the Collector business, and she could see Maeve growing jumpier every day. Of course, staying in a haunted house didn’t lessen anyone’s nerves.
Ada creeped out of her creaky bed and pushed open the door. Millie was wrapped in a blanket at the top of the stairs with her head on a pink cushion. Millie snored once as Ada tiptoed across the hall to Maeve’s room.
As she got closer to the door, Ada heard muffled sobs, and a quiet voice saying, “It’s okay. I promise we will keep you safe! Don’t cry, Maeve, don’t cry.”
The witch knit her eyebrows. Was it too much of an intrusion to enter the room now? But her heart felt tight as she heard her friend’s crying, so she knocked lightly and pushed the door open an inch.
“Maeve?” Ada said, staring at the floor. “Can I come in?”
“Oh.” Maeve sniffled quickly and took a deep breath, in and out. “Yeah, yeah. Come in.”
Maeve was sitting on her bed—nearly identical to the one in Ada’s room—with Priddy on her lap and the comforter around her shoulders. Ada took three slow steps toward the bed and sat on the edge nervously. She felt unprepared for these kinds of matters; it didn’t come naturally for her to support others, at least not emotionally.
“I was just, uh—did you need something?” Maeve said. She scratched Priddy behind the ears, and the tired dog yawned, but her tail still wagged. Ada knew that Priddy was a loyal, good friend. She would stay up with Maeve for as long as she needed to, even if she was exhausted. With a sigh, Priddy laid her head on Maeve’s knee and closed her eyes.
“Well, I came to get Priddy’s scarf. My room is right next to the stairs, so I can hear Millie every time she—you know.” At that moment, a faint thump echoed into the room and Maeve nodded knowingly, with lips pursed. Ada watched her face, watched the tear streaks on her sepia skin, watched the frizzy bits of her hair sticking out at all angles. She did not feel the same things with Maeve that she felt with Ostra; this girl, too, looked to be ten years younger than Ada—although, in actuality, was born decades after Ada even had made her contract.
No, Ada did not feel passion of that sort for the girl; her stomach did not tumble; her body did not turn red with heat; no, Ada did not pine for Maeve. Her feelings were more of a soft, mossy nature. Ada wanted to hold Maeve like a bird’s nest holds eggs. She wanted to love and support the girl like a sister, like a friend. She felt responsible, anyhow, for Maeve’s situation, even if she had no part in it. Seeing Maeve cry, then, in the haunted house of a witch named Hector, surrounded by death and fear, nearly made Ada bubble up in anger. She swallowed it down and reached out a hand to touch Maeve’s round fingers.
“Are you okay? I know this is a lot; I just learned about most of it myself.” When Ada spoke, Maeve closed her eyes and her face twisted up in preparation for another sob but took another deep breath and nodded.
“I know nothing about you, Ada,” Maeve said. “I’m scared, and I’m confused.”
Ada took a moment to think. She truly hadn’t had a minute to stop and talk to the girl since they met. They’d been running, and learning, nearly nonstop. When they weren’t doing that, sleep overtook them. “Well, I’m—a witch, first of all. My name is Ada, but it used to be Adathis. I lost my memories trying to top him—the creature we saw at Dole’s. I am also…very old.”
“I kind of inferred all of that,” Maeve grumbled, rubbing her eyes. “But I don’t know you. Where are you from? Why do you have a talking dog? Well, I assume that has to do with the witch stuff, but still.”
“I don’t know, either.” Ada was honest, but it still hurt her to say. The thought of not knowing herself made her sick. “And I’m sorry that you’re dealing with this. I only wanted to keep you safe while I found a way to stop the Collectors. They—they work for him, so I can’t help but feel like it’s my fault.”
Silence fell over the room like a heavy blanket of snow, and Ada shivered despite her warmth. “That scares me, too,” Maeve said finally. “You don’t know who you were before, but all of you—you, and Dole, and Hector—you use other people for your benefit. You use their souls. Those souls are trapped in your paintings; they can’t move on. They can’t go to heaven, or to hell, or anywhere!”
“You can go, though,” Ada said, so suddenly that she was surprised to hear it from her own mouth. “You can go home. I’ll buy your plane ticket. You can even take Priddy with you, if you’re worried about the Collectors.” Saying so stung Ada’s heart, but, as she watched Priddy sleep peacefully and wondered what Adathis had put her through, she wondered if going with Maeve would be better for Priddy, too.
At this, Maeve began crying once more, her whole body racked with sobs enough to wake the dog on her lap. Priddy blinked sleepily and began pawing at Maeve’s arm, asking “What’s wrong? What happened?”
“I can’t go home,” Maeve said between breaths. “I ran away from home. My parents—they died two years ago on a freakin’ sailboat, and I had to stay with my uncle. He’s awful, Ada, really awful.” The girl wiped her eyes and doubled forward in an effort to stifle her cries. “He pretends I don’t exist, and, when I do bother him, he hits me.”
“You ran away.” The words stung in Ada’s mouth. She hadn’t known, all this time. She’d never seen Maeve without a long-sleeved shirt and jeans; did the girl have bruises? Scars?
Maeve nodded. “The day I met you was the day I turned eighteen. I was living in Pittsburgh, on my way to Cincinnati for whatever reason—just to get away from him. Cinci seemed like an okay choice, I guess.” She let out a big breath and sat up, flipping her hair over her head. “I could join the baseball scene, maybe.”
Ada let out a small chuckle despite not knowing anything about Cincinnati or baseball. Without thinking, she reached forward and wrapped Maeve in a hug, Priddy excitedly between them. “You don’t have to go anywhere, if you don’t want. We can figure this out together and be safe.”
The younger girl leaned into the hug and sighed. “You’re a good person, I think. I’m glad you’re the first witch I met.”
The comment came and went quickly, but Ada held onto it hard. She tucked Maeve into bed, Priddy situated beside her, and squeezed the girl’s hand. “Maeve,” she asked, “I have an idea. Can you think about a happy memory of your parents? The happiest you have.”
Maeve blinked, her face twisted in confusion, but she shrugged and snuggled under the comforter. “Okay.” She closed her eyes and Ada reached for her hand.
“Think hard,” Ada said, and she closed her eyes too, reaching out for the memory that Maeve was projecting. She poured all of her energy into Maeve’s hand. Her palm began to sweat from the effort, and, just as she thought it wouldn’t work, Maeve gasped.
“I hear them,” Maeve whispered. Ada listened; under the breath of the wind, she heard two voices singing a lullaby. She couldn’t hear the words, but the tune lilted in and out of her head. She heard Maeve giggle softly, and, within minutes the sound stopped.
With a heart that felt full of clouds, Ada moved back to her room, eager to sleep. Even with the continual thumps outside, the warmth inside Ada’s chest drifted her away, and she felt happiness.