Jane had always thought that strange things were supposed to happen at midnight. Midnight was a time for fairy tales and ghost stories, when phantoms groaned and darkness cloaked the prairies with a tapestry of winking stars. Then again, Jane’s mother was always scolding her for indulging in idle fantasies. They lived in Wellmere, a tiny farming town where the people were bitter to the bones and, apparently, imagination was considered largely impractical.
Not even Jane could have imagined what would come, though.
In defiance of everything she had ever expected, the stranger appeared shortly after noon. It was one of those days when the sunlight wormed its way into every crack, and Jane was sitting on her house’s porch. Living at the edge of town meant that she could usually see anyone approaching before the rest of town, though they were rarely interesting visitors.
He was a man around her mother’s age, wearing what looked like his Sunday best and the grimmest expression Jane had ever seen. She flipped her braid over her shoulder and squinted her eyes, watching him approach. The man was on foot, which was unusual, and he was headed towards Jane’s house, instead of the main road into town, which was even more unusual.
He held a hand to his forehead, blocking the sun. Jane couldn’t see his face well enough to be certain, but she felt that he was staring right at her.
As the stranger continued his approach, it occurred to Jane that perhaps she should be doing something. Her mother was the only other person home—Jane’s father was visiting old friends another town over—but she might be interested in the newcomer. The girl dashed inside, tripping over her own feet in sudden urgency, and found her mother mending a torn blouse. Her back went rigid when Jane told her about the stranger, and she made Jane repeat her description of him several times. Uneasiness coiled in Jane’s stomach as she followed her mother back to the porch. The approaching figure was much closer now, and most definitely headed for the house. As they stepped onto the porch, the man raised his hand and waved.
“Maggie!” he called.
Jane glanced worriedly at her mother, who was as stiff and still as if she had died on the spot. Maggie was her mother’s nickname, she knew, but only family friends called her mother that.
“Harry,” the woman murmured softly.
The man jogged across the last stretch of ground between him and the porch. “Maggie,” he repeated, “I’m sorry for appearing like this. I know it is...unexpected, to say the least.
“What are you doing here?” Jane’s mother sounded more surprised than angry.
The man’s shoulders slumped, almost imperceptibly, and Jane had the impression that he was being pulled on by the ground, struggling not to crumple downward.
“I need your help,” he said.
Mary stared unseeing at the journal in her hands. It even smelled like a diary, like ink and paper and old leather, though it wasn’t actually leather-bound. Mary though she might be deluding herself about the smell—it wouldn’t be the first time. Ever since her mother died, four months ago, reality seemed to be slipping away, bit by bit. She had heard her father talking about personal demons like they were fanged, clawed monsters, instead of weights inside of his mind. Mary’s demons weren’t monsters, she decided, but mice, nibbling away at the edges of everything she knew, so that whenever she looked at her life, something new was gone.
The smell might not have been real, but it was definitely a diary. Across the front cover, the words Diary of Jane Alexander were scrawled in cramped cursive. Mary’s father had found it when sorting her mother’s things, and Mary had snatched it away without him noticing. It burned at her soul, to know that in her hands she held a window to her mother’s mind, but she could neither open it nor put it down. The pain was too raw, too primal and all-consuming, but she couldn’t simply abandon the diary. It was her secret, her one solace in a world where her mother was all but gone.
And yet she couldn’t read it. Her brother, Will, would tell her she was being a fool, that there was no point in keeping a book she would never read. Will, however, had disappeared one moment when Mary wasn’t looking. He had joined the military last month, and Mary hadn’t seen him since, just a few letters crammed with his spiky script. She knew that he loved her, but she wished he hadn’t left her in this aching, empty house with her father and her grief.
Mary placed the diary carefully in the drawer of her bedside table. She would never read it, but she would keep it with her until the day she died.
Thomas and his closest friend, Sam, stood before the burnt husk of Ash House, their bikes leaning against a twisted tree nearby. It had been home to the mayor of Wellmere, back when the town was smaller and people actually cared about titles like mayor.
“I thought it would be more...impressive,” Sam muttered.
Thomas frowned at him. “You’ve seen it around a thousand times before.”
“I know, but I thought—I thought there would be something special today. It being the anniversary and all.”
“I guess,” Thomas conceded. “Fifty-first anniversary of the day it burned down. Too bad we missed the fiftieth, last year.”
“It’s not my fault I got shipped off to visit my aunt in California!”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Still, kind of disappointing.” Sam had a faraway look in his eyes. “There should be something special.”
Another group of kids sped by on bicycles, stopping at the edge of the property to gape at the ruin, and Thomas shook his head. Up close, it really was just a stupid ghost story.
As the legend went, Ash House had burned down unexpectedly in 1920 with the town mayor inside. His family had been out at church, but the mayor had stayed home to work on some piece of town business or other. By the time whatever passed for the town’s fire brigade had arrived, there was no saving the building or the mayor. The strangest part, though, was the jewellery. Necklaces and pearl earrings, silver bracelets and fancy brooches, all laid out just past the property line, safe from the flames. Many of the pieces were identified as belonging to the mayor or his family, but in all, it was far more than the family should have been able to afford.
The more religious people of Wellmere said the mayor was struck down by God for skipping Sunday Mass. Other, more morbid rumours, said that the mayor had been mixed up in something nefarious, and it came back to bite him. Maybe the man was secretly a smuggler, murdered by a rival, or was killed after accumulating horrendous gambling debts that he refused to repay. Or perhaps it was a lover’s angry husband, looking for revenge? There was no proof of anything—it might even have been a weird accident—but the people of Wellmere adored a good folk legend, and the story had flourished in the decades since the fire. Every so often, one of the townspeople would show up white-faced and shaking, gabbling about a ghost sighting, but the reports were generally dismissed out of hand.
Thomas didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. There wasn’t even much left at the ruin site—more than five decades had washed away the ash and rotted what little of the house survived. All that remained was the gaping emptiness where the cellar had been and the scorched-looking ground where the grass refused to grow. Shaking his head, Thomas turned away and reached for his bike. He wheeled it back over to Sam, who hadn’t moved.
“Well?” Thomas asked. “We going?”
“Yeah,” Sam replied. “Yeah, we are.”
The boy still didn’t move, but stared with wide eyes at the empty lot where the house had burned down.
“Sam?” Thomas prompted.
The other boy shook himself, as if retreating from a trance. “It’s funny,” he murmured. “It doesn’t really look like anything, but it still makes me shiver.”
“Oh, come on,” Thomas groaned. “They’re just stupid stories, Sam.”
“We don’t know that. We don’t know what really happened.”
Thomas shook is head and remounted the bicycle. If Sam was being an idiot, that was his own problem. Still, as Thomas cycled away, he couldn’t help but feel a prickling unease in his gut. His family on his mother’s side had lived in Wellmere back when the mayor died. His grandma would have been just a kid back then, younger than Thomas was now. A part of him wished that she was still alive, so he could ask her about what happened, but she had died years before Thomas was even born. Some mysteries, it seemed, were consigned to the past.
Leah’s favourite possession was a bright red antique telephone, which lived on her dresser beside a potted cactus. Her friends teased her for her preoccupation with everything vintage, but it never really bothered Leah. She had always been fascinated by years past, the hundreds of different worlds that had existed before they evolved to become her own. There was so much history in the world, so much insight into human nature, so many stories to be told.
The attitude served her well, at least. Leah worked digging through archives and historical databases for an ancestry website, which suited her perfectly.
It was only when Leah’s grandmother died that she realized how little she knew about her own family history. She had gone to the funeral with her parents the week before, and had been shocked by how much she had learned about the woman in her eulogy. It turned out that her grandmother’s middle name was Begonia. Mary Begonia Clark. Leah hadn’t known that.
Of course, that was far from the biggest surprise.
It had taken some time to go through Mary Clark’s possessions. The woman had lived in the same house for over sixty years, refusing to go to a nursing home even after her husband died. Leah and her parents had spent ages throwing out expired food items from the pantry, and had been exhausted by the time they reached the bedroom. To Leah’s relief, there hadn’t actually been much in there—mostly clothes. However, when she opened the bedside table, she found a diary. The name Jane Alexander was written on the front.
Leah had done some research, at least. She knew that Jane was the name of Mary’s mother, and a little poking around revealed that her maiden name had, in fact, been Alexander. Still, it was strange that the woman had kept her mother’s diary so close for all those years. Leah wondered if she had read it often, perhaps to remind herself of her childhood.
Leah hadn’t had time to read the journal on the spot, so she took it back to her apartment. It was only now, sprawled on her bed and smiling fondly at the bright red telephone, that Leah opened the journal. It was written in a gliding mix of cursive and printing, but the writer formed letters clearly and it was still perfectly legible. Her curiosity piqued, Leah began to read. The first several pages detailed Jane’s daily life as a young mother and wife, raising Mary and her brother Will. Leah was almost tempted to flip through and skim until she found that fateful passage. It didn’t have a date or any sort of title, but it was separate from the other entries.
I walked by the ruins of the old mayor’s mansion today. It has been over a decade since it burned, but the town still remembers. Every day, someone comes up with a new theory about what happened, and every day I have to bite my tongue to hold back the truth.
I remember the day when Harry Hughes showed up on the doorstep. I was ten, or maybe eleven years old, I think. He struck me as strange from the very beginning, wearing fine Sunday clothes and a thick layer of sweat. Harry was a younger brother of my mother’s, though one she had not seen in years. My mother had many siblings, too many for my younger self to keep track of, and Harry had grown quite distant from the rest of the family. I think my mother was as alarmed as I was when he appeared like a gentleman spectre in the noontime sun. She let him inside, as my father wasn’t home, and they began talking at the kitchen table. I wasn’t supposed to be listening, but they could not stop me, so listened I did. The tale Uncle Harry told widened my eyes and sent shivers up my spine.
The mayor of Wellmere, he said, was a killer. Harry did not know what drove the man to kill, only that he did, that some insatiable urge pushed him to violence. The man had a light cart with fast horses, so could travel between the nearby towns with ease. There had already been multiple killings in Wellmere, and Harry’s town too, though they had largely been written off as accidents. Harry had heard rumours, though, that there was a murderer on the loose. He said that you could tell when a death was one of the murders, because the killer always chose women as his victims, and always stole their jewelry when he did the deed.
Harry’s wife had been the latest victim. Harry had been coming back from Sunday Mass when an old friend approached him to talk business. My uncle sent his wife home ahead, and spoke with the friend for a while before returning home himself. What he found there, I can only describe as horrifying.
She was dead. I had trouble understanding Harry’s description, but that much was obvious. It seemed, however, that the mayor had not expected Harry to arrive home so soon, as he was still in the process of burgling the dead woman’s jewellery. That was when Harry saw his face, how he knew that the killer was the very man who paraded around my own town in a tall hat and bought candy for children.
My mother did not believe him at first, but I think my uncle’s pain was enough to convince her that he spoke the truth. I believe she tried to console him, then, but my attention had begun to waver. I do remember that she asked again why he had come to our house. A chill crawled up my back as Harry responded. His voice made me think of shattered glass somehow, broken but so very sharp. He said that he would see the mayor burn, even if he had to burn alongside.
Harry spent the night in our guest room. My father was not due to be back for some days yet, and would not arrive until after everything had happened. It is strange to think that, since the death of my mother, I am the only one left who knows the truth.
It was, to my astonishment, an uneventful night. Nothing unusual happened, and in the morning, we prepared to go to church. Harry refused to come with us, claiming he did not want the mayor to know he was in town. So my mother and I put on our Sunday best while Harry sat on the guest bed and stared blankly at the wall.
When we were halfway to church, I realized that I had forgotten my Bible, which I was supposed to bring to Sunday school. My mother sent me back to the house to fetch it.
That was how I caught Harry leaving the house. He had a grim set to his face, and his hands were curled into fists, one holding what I identified as a box of matches. We both saw each other at around the same time, and both froze like startled deer.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
I suspect that, by that point, he had realized lying would do little good. “To kill the mayor,” he replied.
I thought on that for a moment. It didn’t seem very Christian of him to go out and kill someone, but as I saw the matter, the mayor had done plenty to deserve it.
I wished Harry good luck and continued forward to find my Bible. It seems absurd, looking back, that I was so calm about it all. It was not until after Mass had ended that I saw the smoke. It already stretched far away into the infinite blue, like a pillar holding up the sky. The mayor’s house burned much more quickly than I would have expected. A flash of flame, and it was gone.
We gathered around like gawkers at a circus and watched that great, terrible man burn. Few of us even noticed the jewellery piled nearby until most of the structure had been eaten by the greedy flames. My mother and I returned home shortly after that. We found Harry sitting at the kitchen table with a pile of his wife’s jewels, smelling unmistakably of smoke. He smiled at us, thanked us for our hospitality, and told us that he would be leaving very soon. For a moment, I thought my mother would say something, but she didn’t. Neither of us ever said anything.