A “Skene” Halloween!

One of my favorite passages in FORTE is the trick-or-treating scene at the “haunted” castle, Skene Manor. Appearing in chapter 17, it’s become a true fan favorite. As I’m working on polishing the sequel, here is a taste of spooky Halloween fun from FORTE. Enjoy!


Skene Manor looms before us, looking spectacular yet haunting in the sparse streetlights, its spires piercing the stars. I gape, awestruck, being so near it. And then it all adjusts and it’s just another house, altogether different up close than at a distance. I notice the peeling paint along the foundation, the latticework beneath the front porch. It’s not remotely as intimidating as it is far away.

But then we pass it, crossing over to a grassy ledge facing the village.

“Guys, where are we going?” My whispers aren’t heard. I have no choice but to follow the group to a gazebo where Maddie takes a seat.

Just then a light comes on.

From inside Skene Manor.

We scamper into the woods like frightened squirrels. Jess leads us to another wooded trail, one that gets darker and narrower the farther we venture.

“Holy crap. Holy crap,” Maddie chants.

The moonlight is sparse in here. Thank goodness Shaunie is wearing a bright yellow shirt. It’s the only thing I can see. To my left I see a plaque of some sort—or shield—on the ground by the trail. Its red rust plays tricks with my eyes in the darkness; its white painted calligraphy jumps out at me. Not all the words are legible, but I do make out some of it: . . . the Lord God will cause Righteousness and Praise to Spring Forth . . .

A headstone? My sneakers seem stuck. Is it quicksand? I’m standing on a grave of quicksand! My mouth opens but nothing comes out. Black tree branches claw at me as I stagger back, thumping to the forest floor—my pillowcase thrown as if ripped from my hand. Something rattles nearby leaves. A snake? I scramble to my feet, grasping chunks of earth on my way, and hurry along the trail to the others.

“Guys! Omigod,” I screech, breathless. “Did you know there’s a grave along this trail?”

“A grave?” says Thalia.

“Oh, sure,” says Jess. “But it’s not a real grave. It’s for Katherine Skene, so people will forget she’s actually buried underneath Skene Manor.”

“But there’s nothing there, Sami.” Carolyn’s voice is like a warm hug.

Jess nudges me. “Yeah, so don’t get your panties in a bunch.”

Still, it takes a few minutes for my heart rate to return to normal. Jess has led us to a rocky cliff where we huddle together on its natural steps.

“Hey,” Maddie says, “we should look in the basement windows to try and see her. Katherine Skene.”

The thought horrifies me. “What? Look in the windows? Of Skene Manor?”

“Or we can try to break in,” Jess says.

“Jess,” Carolyn tempers. “Come on, let’s be polite.”

“What did we come all the way up here for, then, if we’re not going to do something?” Jess counters in her best bratty voice.

Bile bubbles up my esophagus. Seriously? We’re talking about breaking in to Skene Manor? As if painting our necks wasn’t risky enough, now we have to do something illegal?

“She’s got a point,” Thalia says.

“We’re not breaking in to Skene Manor.” My boldness surprises everyone—including me.

In the next few beats of silence, I feel Jess studying me, sizing me up. She takes a step closer, and I instinctively rear back.

“Sami’s right.” Jess’ tone is too controlled, too kind. “We won’t break in. But there’s no reason not to spy through the windows.”

“No reason not to?” I squeak.

Jess lectures us, pacing in a circle. “A light just went on in there. If the light is on inside, they won’t see outside. That’s, like, basic. It’s too dark out here and there are no streetlights.”

“No way,” Carolyn says, and I want to hug her. “Technically, we’re already trespassing. I’m not going any nearer. You shouldn’t either. None of us should. We should go—”

“Do you think she’s in there?” Thalia asks.

Jess wiggles her fingers above her head. “Katherine Ske-e-e-e-e-ene,” she says, goblin-style. My head feels fuzzy like I might faint. Jess grabs my arm like she did at Carolyn’s, and I’m too weak to protest. “Come on, Superstar. Show me what you got.”

Jess isn’t talking about the window. A Poland Spring bottle is placed in my hand and my birthmark is triggered, and it’s like an electric current shoots up my arm. I’m alert now, jolted to attention. I avoid Jess’ eyes as I shake the bottle near my ear. It’s got that familiar, thick consistency. Even though it’s too dark to see, I know it’s Aquamarine. My salivary glands pop, forcing me to swallow a few times. Jess has an unending stash. It’s heavy in my hand as I wait for the other bottles to be doled out. But no more appear.

“I only brought one,” says Jess. “We’ll just share that. You first, Superstar.”

All eyes are on me now, the whites practically glowing, waiting for me to take my sip. A nervous laugh escapes me.

I won’t drink any more Aquamarine.

What am I supposed to do? I can’t refuse to snoop and refuse to drink. I’d be completely written off. And this is my team.

I unscrew the bottle and bring it to my lips, my hand shaking, my birthmark pulsing.

Don’t drink. Just pretend.

The smell reaches me first. That acidic tang activates my salivary glands. Tipping the bottle, I inadvertently coat my lips with the blue stuff. My tongue licks them clean. That does it. There’s no turning back now. My body wants it. Craves it. Whatever. Somehow it goes down. I close my eyes and hear myself swallow three times. My body clenches with the familiar swallowing-thistles feeling I’ve grown to adore, eager for what’s next.

It’s clear to me now: Mom was dead wrong. Jason too. There’s no way this stuff could be that bad for you. Toxic? No way. Nothing that can make me so strong and so capable could possibly rip years off my life. Besides, no one would do it if it were true. It’s all a myth. They weren’t lying; they were just wrong. An innocent mistake.

We all drink, we’re all feeling invincible. Somehow it’s just me and Jess approaching the lighted window.

 

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