Devil

It wasn’t cheating. Thomas had convinced himself of that years ago, when making grades on his own had become too hard. After all, research was research, and it wasn’t his fault he had advantages none of his classmates even dreamed about. He was merely playing to his strengths. Everyone did that.

Thomas scanned the dim parking lot of the Endicott Medical Offices, nearly empty in the middle of the night, and then hurried along the manicured lawn to a tall fence. He threw a ladder up against the wrought iron, wincing at the noise, and scuttled up with another glance over his shoulder. Tossing a length of carpet over the spiked top, he hooked a foot onto the crossbar and swung a leg over. He paused to catch his breath at the top, a desk-bound history student after all, and then dropped to the ground. He landed poorly, swearing as he flopped onto his belly, nose grinding into the fragrant soil. He looked back once more, dreading the flash of red and blue, and clambered toward the Endicott Pear Tree. He pressed his hands against the rough bark and closed his eyes.

He opened that little part of his mind that his mother had warned him over and over never to tell anyone about.

The air rippled, cracked, and he was gone.

#

Thomas opened his eyes to a broad fruit plantation under a blanket of stars. He sagged against the tree suddenly centuries younger and took a great, shuddering breath.

The magic was spent, or whatever it was, and it would take at least a week for it to come back. Maybe even longer this time. He’d never jumped this far before. And other than his grandpa and an aunt, he didn’t know any other skippers he could ask.

And he didn’t know anyone at all in this era.

Thomas glanced down at his costume, filched from the drama department just the night before, and stood again, panting and shaky. The air was cold and clean, and he drank in deep lungfuls, steadying himself. He dug a small, leather bound notebook out of his jacket pocket and oriented himself to a hand-drawn map within. There was the Endicott home. There, the salt marshes. So that direction was the village. He took a deep breath, shivering in the frigid air.

And then he laughed, a burst of triumph that echoed through the silent trees.

He had done it. He had made it.

Thomas cut east through the silent orchard, dazzled by the darkness of the sky, the brightness of the stars. Dazzled by his own ability.

He had never jumped back this far before, hadn’t really known if he could. He had chosen a career in history due in large part to his gifts, but he hadn’t dared to hope he could reach this far, maybe even farther. Could he watch the assassination of Caesar? Document the fall of Jerusalem? Witness the embalming of King Tut?

Thomas shivered again and folded his arms against himself. It was awfully cold for autumn. Maybe that was what had started it all- unseasonable weather seemed a good enough excuse for a witch hunt. He paused to jot a quick note down, and then added a reminder to himself to seed evidence to support his upcoming senior thesis.

He closed the notebook and tucked it back in his pocket, then started walking again. He finally came to Ipswich Road, and then paused again to write down another idea for the thesis title.

Hailstorms and Hysteria: A Study Outlining the Causes of the Salem Witch Trials

#

Betty Pariss leaned back from the window and whispered, “Abigail. Abigail.”

“Not tonight,” she groaned.

“Come see- a man walking.”

She shifted onto her belly, grumbling into the quilts, “You dream, cousin.”

Betty rolled her eyes. “Come and prove me then.”

Sighing, the older girl kicked the covers back and sat up, pushing her loose hair back from her cheeks. The cold air and movement brought her awake and she hissed, “God save us, and the window open in winter? Your father will give you the thrashing of your life.”

“Only if you speak of it. Would you not rather look instead?”

She frowned at her cousin a moment longer and then peered curiously out into the night.

She saw him immediately, ambling down the road and pausing at the corner. Pulling something from a pocket. He looked up and down the street, his unfamiliar face lit in moonlight. It had been months since Abigail had seen a stranger on the streets of Salem. And never at night. She slowly pushed the window wider, craning her neck as he turned toward the church and out of sight. Still staring after him, she whispered, “Do you know his face?”

Betty shook her head.

“Nor do I.” She frowned and gently closed the window. “How strange.”

#

Thomas woke shivering in the morning twilight, huddled against the side of the church. His eyes focused on the dusty hem of a skirt and he startled, looking up.

A young girl jumped back and ran, disappearing around the corner.

Climbing to his feet, Thomas smiled again at his surroundings, straightening his black suit. He twisted the kinks out of his spine, and then walked around the church and onto Meetinghouse Road, digging in his pocket. He found his notebook and felt in his pants for the charcoal pencil.

Perplexed, he kept digging, checking the other pocket. He was sure he had- Finally, he felt something and pulled out a used tissue and a blue pen from the bank. He stared at the contents of his palm, baffled. A pen? A cheap ballpoint pen in the 1690s? He shoved the hem of his jacket away and stared down at his pants, a pair of black slacks he’d worn for his advisory board last Tuesday.

He’d grabbed the wrong pants.

Disbelieving, he flipped the notebook open and stared at the notes he had written in the dark last night- all in bright blue ink.

Thomas huffed out a quick breath, squeezing the pen in his fist. He couldn’t not take notes. And he wasn’t sure what else he would use. Maybe he could make a new charcoal stick at the next fire he saw. But in the meantime…

A woman turned down the road toward him with her children and paused, eying him suspiciously.

He cast her a smile as plastic as his pen. Hiding it as well as he could in his palm, he bobbed his head politely as he strode closer. “Excuse me, ma’am. Can I ask you some questions?”

#

No. Time and again, the answer was no.

After a frustrating morning of slammed doors and muttered charms against the devil, Thomas finally found his in. The children were fascinated by him, and shared none of the reservation of their elders. Thomas laughed, taking rapid notes about them as they chattered through their chores. Course clothing. Plain colors. No make-up, no jewelry. All busy, even those hardly out of the cradle. While their parents were dangerously mistrustful, the children answered his questions teasingly, laughing at his strange accent, his absolute ignorance.

“Truly, have you never seen a stocking darned?”

“Never. My mother was awfully lazy about it.”

The younger ones giggled at the scandal of slandering one’s own mother, while the girl stitched importantly. “My parents would never tolerate such sloth.”

He laughed, scribbling a quick note. “How old do you think you were when-”

“Your quill is surpassing strange,” another girl announced suddenly.

He immediately stuffed it in his pocket, chuckling. “Not so strange.”

“Exceedingly strange,” she insisted, grinning with a spark of mischief. She could smell his discomfort. “Whence came it?”

“The pen?” He shrugged. “A few towns over.”

“Like you?”

“Sure.”

“Are you homesteading here?”

“No. I’m just visiting.”

“Who?”

He shrugged again. “Just the village.”

The girl frowned. “Who are you staying with?”

“Nobody yet.”

“Are you a friend of the Porters?”

“Not… really.” He frowned. Why was that name familiar?

Her eyes narrowed. “Are you a friend of the Putnams?”

The other children fell silent.

“I…” He stared down at her for a long moment, finally realizing what he had just stepped into, and then put his notebook away. “I should let you guys get back to work.”

#

“Reverend Pariss.” The woman curtsied respectfully and he nodded in return.

“Goodie Putnam. Is your family well?”

She drew a shuddering breath and shook her head. “My daughter… her condition worsens.”

He sighed grimly, waving her into one of the pews. “Mine as well. Sit.”

She sank into the pew, folding her hands in her lap. She was exhausted. Weeks of this strangeness, this devilry, with no end in sight. Each night worse than the one before. At first, she had thought it a demand for attention, but it went on for so long. She couldn’t tell if it was merely a cruel children’s game, or if there were darker forces at play. It was all she could manage to not lean forward on the pew before her and sob out her frustrations.

“Naught remains but to seek our Lord’s grace in prayer.”

She nodded, lips pursed, and then asked, “Thursday last… heard you of anything strange?”

“None. What do you speak of?”

“My child was sore afflicted in the night. She claims…” She glanced backward, then leaned in and whispered, “She claims she beheld a man in a black suit, walking the streets at night. She saw a man this morning and showed me, claiming it was the same man. I thought it a fancy, but then watched him write in a black book with an enchanted quill.”

He frowned. “You saw this?”

“Yes.”

“Hm. Who spoke with him?”

“Sarah Good, Sarah Osbourne, and some others.” She shook her head. “God only knows. I did not stay to watch.”

“Did he speak with you?”

She flinched. “No! He hailed me, but we fled. The devil only knows what mischief he be about.”

Reverend Pariss glanced out a window. Only the day before, the physician, at his wits’ end, suggested there may be witchcraft at play. Might this man be the source? “Show him to me.”

#

Thomas was infinitely relieved when he felt the magic prickling in his palms again.

Research had been hard. Not only had he come in the wrong pants and with a pen that caused a small sensation every time he pulled it out, but he’d somehow come in the wrong season entirely. Nobody was hiring workers and he had slept in the streets for three days before the Proctors had taken pity on him and let him sleep in their barn.

He wasn’t any closer to understanding what had started the hysteria, but he could feel the tension building in the streets and behind the shuttered windows. He suspected he would find out when he came back the next week. It couldn’t be long now. And he needed to study a few more things before that happened. He knew he couldn’t change the past, but he wasn’t so sure that the past couldn’t change him.

Thomas hurried back to the old Endicott Pear Tree, and was so eager to get back that he didn’t even check to make sure he was alone.

#

“He speaks with a strange tongue,” a man growled.

“He is no beggar,” a woman said. “His clothes be plain, but are as fine as the governor’s.”

“I asked after his people and he answered not. All questions he evades with the devil’s skill.”

Pariss shook his head. “The deacons searched him out yesterday but he seems gone. Has any seen him of late?”

“He labored for Goodman Proctor for some days, but I have seen naught of him since Monday last.”

“If… if I may,” a new voice said timidly. All eyes turned to her and she blushed. “My John… he followed the man endlessly, and… he came home two nights ago, powerfully frightened, and saying exceedingly strange things. He…” She hesitated again, looking away. “He claims the man flew into the air and was gone.”

The minister pursed his lips in the stunned silence, and then another woman, voice shrill, insisted, “The man may be gone, but his power lingers still. Our children are plagued. Our crops are failing. Sorcery abounds. Something must be done!”

#

Thomas came back after a rejuvenating week of study, hot showers, and dorm food. He remembered his charcoal stick this time, and the right pants. He cut through the orchard again and made his way back to the Proctor homestead. At least it seemed to be warmer today. The snow was even melting.

He froze on the road, staring at the farmhouse. The door was open, hanging forlorn and crooked. He couldn’t hear so much as a dog or a chicken. He crept closer, tiptoeing up the step. “Hello? Goodie Proctor?” He poked his head inside the dim house.

It was ransacked, everything of value claimed and everything else destroyed. He fell backward a step, wondering what month it was, or even what year. He had meant to come back to the moment he had left. When was it?

Thomas ran, hurrying down the road. He supposed the parents were arrested and could only guess what had become of the children. He ran along the outskirts of the village, wondering how he had gotten so far off. Was it because he was skipping back so far?

The Osbourne home was similarly abandoned. He turned away without investigating, hurrying onto Ipswich. He recognized a little boy he had met in his previous visit and waved, but the boy bolted away. Thomas considered trying the Coreys next, but was filled with misgivings.

The village was eerie. Abandoned. Where was everybody? He paused, panting.

Maybe it was Sunday. Turning, he headed for the meetinghouse.

#

The heart of the town was packed, an electrified crowd clustered around the open doors of the church, staring in with rapt attention. Thomas went to them unnoticed, notebook at the ready in his sweaty hands, and craned his neck to see into the church. Someone inside screamed, and then there was a whole chorus of cries and the throng shifted nervously.

Suddenly, a young girl turned toward him and her mouth fell open in shock. She pointed up at him and cried, “The Devil! The Devil walks in Salem!”

Thomas jolted, eyes snapping wide, and stumbled backward as another woman screamed and fainted.

Everything fell suddenly into place. Before they had a moment to get over their fear, he turned and ran, not daring to look back until he was halfway out of town.

“It’s me,” he whispered, feeling sick. “It was me.”

Gasping on horror, he ran toward the woods, haunted by the statistics he knew so well.

Hundreds accused.

Twenty-two killed.

And the Devil himself in a black suit, walking Salem at night.

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