Ninth – (day 9)

by

David G Shrock

Standing at the bar, Larry York listened to classic rock playing over the jukebox. The song took him back to high school, his first kiss with Nadia. He could almost taste her lips. He pushed his empty beer bottle around on the moist surface. Flicking his finger sent the bottle sliding into his left hand. He watched condensation smears reform into a trail of drops. Sadie Hawkins. The same song had been playing at the Sadie Hawkins dance when Nadia had kissed him. Strange how a memories travel through time within music.

Larry pushed the empty bottle away. “One more.”

“Nine is unlucky.” Taking the bottle, Nancy swiped a cloth across the counter clearing condensation circles and peanut crumbs.

“What’s that?” Larry shook his head. “Oh, don’t worry about me driving. I walked.”

“All the way from Pine Grove?”

“Doctor’s orders. Have to walk for my heart.” He tapped his chest. “Besides, I only had four.”

“That’s what I’ll have left. Nine.” Dropping the bottle behind the counter, Nancy set her hands on the bar. “How about something from the tap?”

“What’s so unlucky about nine? It’s a solid number.”

“Back in the old days. They hanged some young women. Black magic. Summoning spirits. That sort of thing. Anyway, the ninth got away before they could string her up. Men chased her on the ridge. They caught up with the gal, but they slipped in the snow. Fell to their death.”

“So?”

“That makes nine unlucky.”

“Cat’s have nine lives.”

“No cat I know wants to be on her ninth. Bad luck.”

He was familiar with the story of the nine necromancers. The old man at the far end of Pine Grove had told it to him once or twice. Everyone in Pine Grove enjoyed their stories. Tales about frontier settlers or bootlegging seemed popular, but the old man preferred stories about dark spirits. Nancy didn’t seem like the superstitious type, but she knew all the stories.

Larry pointed a finger in the air. “What about nine gold bars? Sounds mighty lucky to me.”

“Not if they fell on your head.”

“You’re a funny lady, Nancy.”

“How about coffee?”

“No, I should get going. Long walk.”

“Nine miles isn’t it?” She wiggled her eyebrows.

“By road.” Larry shook his head. “I take the trail. Four solid miles for my heart.”

“Snow starting to come down.” Nancy nodded at the front window where swirling flakes glistened under the lamp against the dark backdrop of the forest. “Chuck should be on his way with the gravel truck if you need a ride.”

“I’ll be fine. Have my gloves, hat. Even have my lucky flashlight.”

“Stay safe, Larry.” Nancy waved. “And careful of nines.”

Opening the door, Larry met a blast of cold air followed by a spray of snow. A dusting covered the parking lot and Nancy’s pickup truck, but it was coming down in big fluffy flakes. The first storm of the season always transformed Nancy’s quiet tavern into a bustling burg full of travelers on their way to and from the ski resorts. He liked the quiet before the storm when he could sit back in Nancy’s and listen to the timber pop in the wind. He pulled his hat and gloves on and marched across the parking lot.

The clatter of a diesel barreled up the highway, and lights exploded out of the trees. The truck, a black rig hauling an orange trailer with “Needles” printed in blue, rumbled by throwing up a cloud of snow bathed red in the taillights. Trucks always appeared menacing, this one in particular with its black cab and ugly trailer. What kind of a name was Needles anyway? The clattering engine dropped a gear hitting the long groan up the pass.

Larry listened to his shoes scuffing the pavement and the trees groaning. He turned away from the highway onto the forest service road. On clear nights the two-lane road snaking through the forest was easy to navigate without a light. Snowfall shrouded the forest, but the white blanket made following the road easier. He pulled his pocket flashlight out and held his finger over the button. The long walk meant saving the battery for the trail or passing cars.

“Nine,” he said. He shook his head. “I thought it was seven summoners.” He couldn’t remember if it was seven or nine, but nine was a good number, a perfect square. Thirteen was the grandfather of unlucky numbers and prime. Nobody messed with prime numbers.

Around Pine Grove there were few pine trees, mostly tall firs. Pine trees gathered over on the dry side of the mountain. Here the snow fell wet, but the road wasn’t slick. Not yet, anyway. His hiking shoes crunched through the snow along the edge of the road. The going would be easier on the trail under the protection of the evergreen canopy until the open ridge.

The sound of an engine broke the silence. The growl fell to a purr, and cried out again; the car turned off the highway and headed up the narrow road.

Larry moved farther off the road and turned around in time to see the headlights blazing out of the trees. He switched on the flashlight and aimed it towards the approaching vehicle. The last thing he needed was to become a hood ornament. His shoe slipped on gravel. Waving his arms, he caught his balance dropping a foot into the ditch.

The slapping of tire chains arrived with the rumble of the engine. Brake squealing, the car slowed and stopped, engine thudding on six cylinders. He recognized the model, an old Nova. The passenger door creaked out a few inches.

Climbing out of the ditch, Larry gripped the flashlight. It wasn’t much good for self-defense, but the little thing could blind an attacker. Keeping the beam on the side of the blue Nova, he approached the passenger door. Pulling the door open, he leaned over and peered inside.

Dressed in sweatshirt and blue jeans, a young woman held the steering wheel with one hand a cigarette in the other. “Hop in,” said the driver, waving the cigarette.

“Thanks, but I need the walk. Doctor’s orders.”

“I couldn’t live with myself if I heard on the news that you fell or froze to death. So, get in.”

He switched off the flashlight and climbed into the car. “I’m Larry.”

The driver stomped on the accelerator sending the tires spinning, chains slapping. The car fishtailed and straightened out. Steering the car with one hand, she took a drag on the cigarette.

Inside the car was as cold as outside, colder if that was possible. He could see his breath in the glow of the dash light. Pale flesh and only a scarf for warmth, the driver appeared cold although she didn’t shiver.

“Where you headed?’

“Pine Grove.”

“My grandaddy lived in Pine Grove before he moved to the dry side of the mountain. He couldn’t stand the rain.”

“He live in Dufur?”

“Nissa.”

He had never heard of a name like that. “Where at?”

Flicking her hand, she indicated a yellow gate blocking the road. She slowed the car to a crawl.

“That’s Chuck.” Larry shrugged. “On nights like this, he closes it early to keep the tourists on the highway until he can get the truck up here.”

She stopped the car before the gate. Turning her head, she met his gaze. “Nissa is a forest nymph.”

“That so?”

“Her dance is a sign.” She waved the cigarette over her shoulder. “Does that tavern stay open late?”

“Nancy’s?” He nodded. “Sure, she keeps the coffee warm for Chuck while he’s out sanding the roads.”

“How about we go back there and wait for Chuck?”

“The road ain’t bad yet.” Larry opened the door. “I’ll get the gate.”

“I’ll let you buy me coffee.”

Looking at her brown eyes, he considered the offer as the breeze tickled his face. The driver nearly smiled, but her dead look matched the season giving him a shiver of doubt.

Larry pointed at the gate. “This could be your last chance if the storm lives up to forecast.”

“Always listen to Nissa. Bad luck comes with nine names.”

Knowledge of the story made her local, but her dead stare made him uncomfortable. Pushing a smile on his face, he extended his hand. “I didn’t catch your name.”

“No names.”

“Well, thanks for the ride.” He lowered his hand. “I’ll walk from here.”

She took a drag on her cigarette and shook her head.

“Nice Nova.” As he closed the door he caught her scowling at him. Maybe she hated the snow.

Watching the taillights of the Nova disappear around the bend, he thought about the warning. Nine was a good number, a perfect square. Besides, it had been the first eight women that had lost their lives. The ninth had survived. Of course, not so lucky for the men that had fallen from the ridge. According to the old man at the end of Pine Grove, the men had been driven off the ridge by the spirits of the eight. The ninth had crafted a spell to bring the other ladies back.

He walked around the yellow gate. Chuck didn’t like tourists getting stuck on the side roads. Local access only. It wasn’t all that bad, a nice blanket of snow.

“Nissa.” Larry chuckled. “Faerie name.”

His foot slipped, gravel crunched, and he waved his arms. Catching his balance, he straightened up, his back popping.

“Walking might do good for my heart, but it’s killing my back.”

A wide spot in the road marked the trailhead. Larry splashed the flashlight at the edge of darkness where the woods met snow. Two snow-covered rocks and a post stood at the trail entrance. Recalling the name of the trail, he flashed the light at the sign.

“Nala Trail,” said Larry, reading the sign. He looked back towards where the gate hid in the darkness. “Nala, Nissa, Nova, Nancy, and the Needles truck made five. Isn’t that peculiar?”

A tree groaned, and a branch snapped. Snow plopped on the ground somewhere in the darkness.

Following the trail, he marched on the frozen ground, flashing his light in the rocky sections and climbing the steep switchbacks. He enjoyed the forest between hiking season and snowmobile season when the world went quiet. A tune played in his head, and he hummed nearly a minute before he recognized the song from the jukebox playing at Nancy’s. He recalled his first kiss.

Nadia made six.

He was three short of a perfect square, and that had to be a good thing with nothing but forest between him and Pine Grove. Besides, they were only names.

“Nadia, Nancy, Needles, Nova, Nissa, and Nala.” He snorted. “Feminine names except for one. Nobody names nothing Needles. Never.”

“Excuse me,” said a voice.

Spinning around, Larry pressed the button on his flashlight and aimed down the trail.

Standing at the corner of the switchback, a woman dressed in a long fur coat waved at him. Her dark hair sparkled in the light. “My eldest sister is Needles.”

“No.”

“Well, that’s what we all call her on account of her love for tattoos.” She smiled, but pain crept onto her pale face.

The light flickered, and Larry shook the flashlight. The beam blazed. Gazing at the woman, he realized she appeared like a twin of the lady driving the Nova. Her face sparkled like her hair. Frost.

“I’m Neveah.”

“No!”

The flashlight flickered out.

Larry turned and scrambled up the hill cresting the ridge. Wind blew snow stinging his face. Stumbling over rocks, shoes crunching on snow, he headed for the protection of the trees.

“Nadia, Nancy, Needles, Nova, Nissa, Nala, Neveah.”

Trees groaned. A twig snapped underfoot.

Hearing an extra foot crunching, he stopped.

Wind rustled the tops of the trees.

Looking back, he watched the snow fall at an angle over the rocks on the ridge. A branch snapped, and snow plopped on the ground somewhere nearby. He gave the flashlight a shake, and light returned.

Creeping through the trees, he waved the light around finding fir, ash, and a few pine trees. Snow formed piles leaving swaths of bare ground. He kept to the bare ground so he could hear better.

A tree groaned.

Coming to a sea of white he found an open field with a single evergreen standing in the center. The tree was huge, or seemed larger out by itself. Its lowest branches were high enough for a small ash to crouch under, but no other tree dared steal its drinking water. Only a few frost-covered rhododendrons took shelter under the umbrella.

Larry crossed the snow cringing at the sound of his footsteps. He threw the light around, but the little beam couldn’t reach the dark areas beneath the other trees. He seemed to have lost the Nala trail, but that was fine. The trail started with the wrong letter.

“What’s wrong with nine, anyhow?” Realizing the wind carried his voice, he clamped his mouth shut. That lady was out here somewhere.

If nine was a curse then the world would be damned. How many times had he driven the nine miles down to Nancy’s? Nothing bad ever happened except for a weak heart. There had to be more to it.

Nine ladies. There was that. Nobody remembered the names of the nine necromancers. Did they start with the same letter? Maybe that was it. Their names were part of the spell. Didn’t Nova say something about names?

“Nine names,” he said, whispering. “Nine names for nine ladies.”

Approaching the edge of snow, movement caught his eye. He waved the beam around beneath the tree. Nothing moved among the rhododendrons.

The tree creaked.

Looking up, he found a dark shape swinging above his head. He brought the light up, and the beam caught a frost-covered human foot. He shivered, but he held firm.

“Seeing things,” he said. He glanced around, and sure enough, there were more frozen legs swinging in the breeze, branches groaning under the weight. Tatters of faded clothing stuck to their flesh. Looking up at the body above him, he spotted black swirling tattoos on her face and arms. Needles. A noose held her neck. Next to her, he found the face of her sister. And Nova on the other side. All of them, hanged, just like in the story. He didn’t know which names went with the others, but he named them anyway.

“Nadia, Nancy, Needles Nova, Nissa, Nala, and Neviah.” He looked around the tree counting them again. “That’s seven.”

“Only two more,” said a voice, singing.

Spinning around, Larry aimed the light at a woman standing barefoot in the snow. Her black dress floated about her feet as if in water. A ragged noose hung from her neck, and her white hair defied gravity flowing above her head. Her eyes simmered like coals. Waving the flashlight, he studied the woman making sure she was real.

Her dress swallowed the light, and he realized her dress wasn’t a dress at all. Darkness floated about her.

“Nyx”, he said.

Satisfaction dripped from the woman’s face. “One more, my sweet.”

Names. They needed their names spoken. Had it all been part of a trick? The truck driving by? Nancy’s? The song on the jukebox? Feeling defeated at falling for their dance, he looked around at the others. They were sprits. They had been necromancers in life, and now they were spirits trying to return to the living. They needed someone to finish their spell.

“No,” he said.

“Say it.”

He shook his head. “Never.”

Heading towards the ridge, he searched for the trail. Now that he knew the steps, he wasn’t about to continue their dance. The snow had stopped falling, and the stars were trying to peek through breaks in the clouds. Spotting an opening in the trees, he turned the flashlight off and followed the white ribbon of the Nala Trail.

Glancing back, he saw Nyx gliding along the trail.

“Pester me all you want.” He batted his hand knocking snow from a tree branch. “I’m not saying another name for as long as I live.”

Flashing his light, he navigated a dark section. The trees thinned out, and he found the ridge. More stars lit up the sky. Peering down, he could make out the white path of the forest road snaking up the mountain. The mountain was quiet as ever, and he could hear his own heart beating, faster than he had realized.

Glancing around, he noticed Nyx was gone. He was alone as anyone should expect hiking the trail at night. He took a deep breath, and stepped towards home.

Ground giving away, his ankle twisted, and he tumbled over the edge. His shoulder hit hard throwing him into a roll, and his leg struck something. Snow sprayed his face, and he bounced and tumbled until he fell to rest on his back.

Larry grumbled. “Nine.”

“What’s that, mister?”

Opening his eyes, Larry met the clear blue sky.

Two children holding plastic sleds gazed down at him. The boy tugged at his hood.

“This is my brother,” said the girl, poking the boy in the gut. “Diego found you here in the ditch, and we wanted to make sure you’re okay.”

Lunging upright, Larry felt pain in his head shoot down into his back. He grimaced as he rolled over. His knees sunk into the snow, but he didn’t feel the cold. Except for his throbbing head and the pinch in his back, he felt fine.

“I took a spill,” he said. The sun was low so he had been unconscious for a good seven hours ore more. He touched his face, but he could barely feel the press of his glove against his cheek.

Slowly, he stood up straight finding the snow-covered forest road overlooking a canyon. “My name is Larry.”

The girl held out her hand. “I’m Nadia.”

“Nadia?” Larry stared at her hand realizing he had spoken the name. “The ninth.”

Scrambling out of the ditch, Larry felt his back pop. He twisted and went down on the road, sliding. He dug his hands into the snow pitching him around in a circle. He waved and kicked, but he kept sliding until the world fell away.

Their dance was done, and he had named them all finishing their spell. As the trees rushed up at him he wondered if the old man at the end of Pine Grove would tell his tale. Likely not, he thought. The nine ladies would see to that.

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9 Responses to “Ninth – (day 9)”

  1. Chuck Allen

    Nicely done! You kept me hooked all the way.

  2. Tony Noland

    Great weaving of the mystical.

  3. PJ Kaiser

    Very nice, David! This story swept me along. I love the juxtaposition of our stories 🙂

  4. Eric J. Krause

    Very cool story! (No pun intended with all the snow.) The mysticism and creepiness made this fun to read.

  5. Cecilia Dominic

    Very creepy! The sensory details in this one were great.

    CD

  6. Icy Sedgwick

    Wonderful story. Very Gothic.

  7. TEC4

    Loved the rhythm and alliteration of the names and the setting … very creepy. Great story!

  8. Susan May James

    Well done, I loved the atmosphere – all those groaning and creaking trees! Nice play on the names too, coming back to Nadia was neat.

  9. Patti Larsen

    Great job, very engaging… had me right to the last! Creepville!

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