Sam woke up and immediately regretted it.
What the fuck did I get into last night?
His head was pounding, he was in the fetal position, his stomach was in the fetal position and crying, his mouth was like a desert…
Desert. No, the woods. The camping trip. Fuck.
Now he remembered. He was upstate, on the boy’s weekend at the lake. The north side of the lake. Perfectly good cabins on the south side of the lake. Perfectly good road leading into town, too. But Billy was going through some sort of post-divorce crisis and for some God-forsaken reason that was manifesting as trying to be fucking seventeen again. Insisted they rough it. Get a tent, hike into the middle of nowhere, hang the food from the trees to protect against raccoons and bears. Sam wasn’t old yet, but he wasn’t young enough to be sleeping on the ground with nothing more than a bag and a slip of nylon between his back and a bunch of rocks, neither. And then Billy had wanted to party they were still seventeen and now-
Sam shot up. Into a sitting position. He tried to stand and could actually hear the psychic screams of his entire gastro system before his knees gave out. His hands scraped across dirty rock as he caught himself. At least his head didn’t hit the…the…
Is that stone? Rock? Not like a stone floor. Like…stone.
Once he was sure he would keep from throwing up all six or seven liters of variously colored poisons he had drank the night before, Sam slowly raised his head.
A cave. He was in an honest-to-God cave. Not a big one by any stretch, maybe the size of his apartment. Stone floor, stone walls. Moss growing across the way. A woman standing on the other side. Strained sunlight came in from a hole up-
Wait. Go back.
A woman. Simple dress, no shoes, black hair down to her ass, and a face he couldn’t read. Standing here. In the middle of a cave.
Why is she in the middle of a cave?
Why am I in the middle of a cave?
“What.” It was all he managed to get out. Then his gorge rose and he sat back, walking his way through the lyrics of We Didn’t Start the Fire until the nausea passed.
“Are you okay?” she asked, her voice breathy. It made her seem younger than he’d originally pegged her. She knelt down next to him, putting a hand to his forehead. “You’re warm. Do you have a fever?”
Sam managed to shake his head. “No…no fever…just…I think we drank everything we brought for the whole damned weekend last night. Where are we?”
The woman – girl? – tilted her head to the side. “You don’t know?”
“Can’t remember,” he said. “I know I shouldn’t be here. I should be at the camp.”
“We set up near the lake. On the north side.”
She let out a small gasp, even putting her hands over her mouth. “The lake? That’s almost a mile from here!”
A mile? A MILE? How the fuck did I drunkenly wander a whole damn mile? Why the fuck would I leave?
But it didn’t take long to remember. A fight. He had gotten into a fight.
Fucking Billy, man. Gets divorced and takes it out on the rest of us. All that booze. Egging us on. Game after game. Who plays drinking games at our age, huh? And then that stupid mother fucker…
“He stars talking shit about women. All women. All this red pill incel bullshit. I don’t even know where he heard it. When he had the time to find all that on the internet. And he tried to drag us into it! Get Connor to talk shit about his wife and Tim, his girlfriend. Wouldn’t fucking let it go.”
“But you respect women? Don’t mind a woman in charge?”
“Of course not!”
He’d finally had enough, he remembered now. Sort-of. Sam remembered finally screaming. He remembered it started off with what’s your problem, man? And then sort of devolved from there.
“Then what?” the woman asked.
“I hit him. Sucker-punched him, more like it.”
Billy had missed the fire by mere inches. Sam could remember the way the flames reflected on his wide open eyes as he stared at his near-death before scrambling away, spitting out blood, and coming for Sam.
“If Connor and Tim hadn’t gotten between us we would have killed each other,” he said. “That’s when…yeah, that’s right…I walked off. To cool down. Just to cool down. But I was already three sheets to the wind, and I got lost, and then in the darkness I saw a cave and…fuck, they’re probably looking for me.”
He stood up suddenly, hoping that if he did it quick enough he’d catch his body off guard and get it to work out of reflex. It mostly seemed to work. Nausea simmered and his head throbbed but he managed to keep his balance.
“Where do you think you’re going? You can’t go anywhere in this condition.”
“They’re going to get worried. If they haven’t already. I drunkenly walked off into the night…near a lake…Christ, they probably think I’m already dead.”
“That would make things easier.”
Sam stopped at the entrance to the cave. Barely an entrance, really. A hole in the wall and a pile of stones leading out. Into another part of the cave. The stones looked freshly disturbed, like they had been plugging up the hole until only the night before. Until someone came and…
He turned to look at the girl again. Except she wasn’t a girl, why had he thought that? She was a woman, clearly, around his age. Had her voice been breathy? It didn’t sound that way now.
“Easier?” he asked. “What…what are you doing out here, anyway?”
The woman clasped her hands in front of her and shrugged, looking around the cave wistfully. “This used to be my home.”
If her home was around here, he couldn’t be far off from town. Maybe he’d stumbled in that direction all night. His cell phone was back at camp, but if he could get into town he could find a phone and call someone. Let them know he was all right.
“Come on. I’m sure someone’s worried about you, too.”
Sam went to leave the cave.
And the funniest thing happened.
It was a weird sensation, one he had never felt before and thus couldn’t fully explain even to himself.
The entrance to the cave was right there. He wanted to leave and go back to his friends. The first step of leaving was leaving the cave, so obviously that’s what he should do now.
The woman behind him tsked. “You know, you’ve really thrown me for a loop. All this time waiting, and I thought whoever finally freed me would at least know what they were doing.”
“And then I hear you, stumbling around in the woods, tripping over all sorts of roots and rocks, and I figure, what the hell? What are the chances someone comes this way again?”
He tried leaving again, except he didn’t. For the first time, he felt something other than his hangover.
“Why were you in this cave?” he asked again, refusing to turn around.
“I told you. This used to be my home. Well, I guess the proper term would be prison.”
“Yes. These absolutely dreadful witch hunters caught up with me, some three hundred years ago now. They cheated. Used some magic from tribal people around the corner. I never saw them coming. Nex thing I knew, I was sealed up in here. Cursed.”
So dry…so dry.
“Witch hunters? That would make you…a…”
Somehow, he could sense her throwing her hands in the air behind him. “Oh, don’t be so delicate, darling. You aught to be able to say it, what with our new…relationship.”
So many questions. None of them made sense.
I was drunk. I wandered away from camp. I’m lucky I didn’t walk into the lake. I should be going home now. I need to tell my friends I’m okay. I need to apologize to Billy.
He didn’t want to ask. He didn’t want the answer. Sam swallowed and forced himself on, still unable to turn around.
“Why can’t I leave?”
“Because I’m not ready yet, silly boy. Neither are you, all sea-legged and sweaty. Come. Come back.”
Sam did as he was told.
He half fell to the ground.
The woman’s simple dress had turned into jeans and a flannel, with a red vest over it. Very modern. She inspected these new clothes closely, feeling the threads and smelling the fleece.
“Is this how women dress now? Fascinating. I think I might like this century.”
“Who are you?”
She placed her palm on her cheek and looked at him the way you might like at a wounded puppy. “Oh, dear man, you really don’t know, do you? Has three centuries erased the very whisper of my existence? Have you never even heard of the Widow Witch?”
Sam shook his head numbly. “I’m not from here. I live in Brooklyn.”
“Ah. Maybe the locals still know my name, if not my deeds. I’ll have to find that out. You’ll forgive me for not introducing myself earlier, you were in such a state. My name is Eleanor. You, of course, will be calling me mistress. Or is that an odd thing to do, nowadays? Oh, I haven’t even asked you your name yet?”
Don’t tell her.
“Sam Robins,” said his betrayer of a tongue.
“Sam. Fine name.”
“Oh! Lady will do. Lady will do just fine!”
Frustration welled inside him. This situation made no sense! And now he was on the verge of tears. This was like so many nightmares where no one would listen to him and he just couldn’t wake up!
“I need to get back to my friends.”
“Oh, no, you won’t be doing that. Like you said, you were drunk. You wandered into the lake. You’re dead.”
Eleanor shrugged. “That’s the story they’ll tell themselves, anyway. Maybe I’ll even put a body down there for them to find. If I’m feeling generous later, of course.”
Sam tried to speak and found a sob dangerously close to escaping. He breathed deep until the hitch was gone.
“Please…please, I don’t understand, I just…I want to understand…I want to go home.”
Eleanor sighed and sat in front of him, legs crossed. Again she began to look younger. Seventeen, maybe.
“Those witch hunters who trapped me didn’t know me. If they did, they would have known my tricks. I always have my tricks. And one of them was to add on to their little curse. Most think you cannot change another’s curse but it is not that hard. It’s not polite, of course, but it’s not hard. You see, I thought one of them would come back to check on me. Make sure I was secured. I thought one of them would come close. My power was diminished in here but not gone. I could…beckon. Get inside their head. Get them to dig me out.”
For the first time, Sam looked numbly at his hands. Covered in dirt, caked under the fingernails. Blood covered one of his fingers.
“Like I said, I didn’t have many options left. They never came back. Cocky bastards. But the little trick I had woven into their curse remained. Whoever freed me, became mine.”
“Well, a witch needs help, doesn’t she?” Eleanor asked brightly. “Especially in a century she doesn’t know. Tell me, has ale gotten any better?”
“I don’t want this.”
“I want to go home.”
“Darling Sam, you are home. Haven’t I made that clear?”
“It isn’t fair. It was only a fight…I only walked away.”
Eleanor the witch shrugged her shoulders. “Who ever told you that things are fair? Now, I think I’m finally ready to leave. Mope all you want, as long as you follow.”
The witch walked out into her new world, and her new familiar followed.