MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
When you live in the most haunted town in America, you've heard most every ghost story that's ever been spun about your corner of the world: the tumbledown houses, the shadowed cemeteries and wandering souls. Whether you believe the stories or not, you respect them-just in case.
Plenty of places claim to be the most haunted. But Athens, Ohio, has something those other places don't.
He's every bit as repulsive as he sounds: a dark, hulking figure, seven feet tall, with ragged, brittle wings and burning red eyes.
Technically he belongs to Point Pleasant, West Virginia, where dozens died when the Silver Bridge collapsed in '67. Scores of people spotted Mothman in the year before the disaster. No one knew if he was there to help or harm. He's been called a ghost, an alien, and a monster. I've always thought death omen described him best.
Point Pleasant is forty miles from Athens. Mothman was never ours to claim, and I was glad.
Until this spring, when Mothman claimed Athens instead.
* * *
Dad's voice rose and fell, hummingbird quick, his mustached mouth crowding the microphone. "Up next we have a food processor, that's a Sunrise food processor, make you some nice coleslaw right there. Do I hear a dollar bill, dollar bill? Now two, two, two dollar, two dollar, and who'll give me three?"
I stood in the back corner, sizing up the shoppers. Sharp-eyed regulars hovered around the tables of merchandise in their T-shirts and trucker hats, sussing out valuable pieces. Clusters of stooped men in overalls debated the odds of another wet spring, their work boots squeaking on the auction floor. Several dozen customers perched in plastic chairs. They hugged cardboard boxes close to their bodies with hands that were callused and winter-pale, itching to fill them with what my younger brother Fox likes to call secondhand swag.
The great Fox Fletcher himself prowled the room. I spotted an easy mark at Table 3: a round, middle-aged woman in pink capris and a tennis visor. She was admiring a figurine trimmed in fake gold-a terrier with a huge bow on its head.
I caught my brother's eye, tipping my chin toward the lady in pink. Fox nodded; he'd spotted her, too.
Time to go to work.
He sidled up beside her, batting guileless green eyes. I slipped closer to listen in.
"You must be new in town," Fox was saying. "We know most of the regulars." He nodded at the milling shoppers. "You're a lot younger and ... truthfully, a much better dresser than our usual crowd."
"Well, aren't you a smooth talker?" She propped a hand on her hip, pressed the other hand to her blushing face. "I happen to be visiting my cousin and her family, the Lesters."
"Oh, sure. Mr. Lester teaches at the middle school, right? I'll be starting there next fall."
"So are you here for the ghosts, then?"
"That's why most people come to Athens." He pulled a stack of leaflets from his pocket and handed her a brochure titled "Haunted Tours of Athens County" from the top of the pile. "Some people say the town sits right on top of a spectral vortex. A doorway for the weird."
"Oh, I don't really believe in ghosts."
"A skeptic, huh? That's okay. Most people are." He held up the next brochure in the pile. "That's because they only visit the touristy sites: the mental asylum, Wilson Hall, the Weeping Angel. But if you want the real story, this map has sites only the locals know about. Ghost stories that go back generations, with real eyewitness sightings. The best of the best."
She took the flyer and unfolded it to reveal a hand-drawn map with blocks of careful printing in a child's hand. "Did you do this? What a lot of time it must have taken."
I crossed my fingers and toes, knowing Fox's next lines would be a tough sell.
Fox shrugged and kept his gaze on the ground. "My sister and I did them together to earn a few extra dollars. Our dad runs this place. He says we're too young to be of much use, but money's been real tight." He shuffled his foot, drawing attention to the ragged hole in the toe of his sneakers-the hole I'd watched him put there with a pair of scissors. Fox chewed his lip a little. Hung his head. Let his shoulders slump just so ...
"I'd love to buy one! What do you charge?"
"Just one dollar, ma'am."
"Oh, pish. Look at all this work you went to. So creative!" She pulled a ten-dollar bill from her fanny pack. "Here, now. You take this and share it with your sister, all right? The world needs more young people like you."
I rolled my eyes, feeling a familiar twinge of envy and awe. Still, ten bucks was a good start for the day. I didn't always agree with Fox's methods, but it was hard to argue with his results.
"That's very generous, ma'am. Thank you," Fox said. "By the way, that's a good piece you're looking at. Would fetch a nice resale price."
"You think so?"
"You hang around here long enough, you get an eye for things."
"That's real sweet of you. Thanks for the tip, young man. And the map."
He flashed a smile, a deadly one-two punch of twin dimples and perfect teeth. "It's Fox. Fox Fletcher. Happy to help, ma'am. I also happen to specialize in haunted objects, if you know anyone who's in the market." He strolled his way toward the exit, slowing down when something on Table 6 caught his eye. In one quick motion, he tucked the item under his T-shirt. Then, whistling, he breezed on out into the chilly March morning.
"Fox," I murmured, the word sounding like a sigh. "What are you up to now?" I ducked out, too, determined not to let him stray from The Plan.
I fell into step beside him. "What did you take in there? You know it has to go back."
"I'll take it back. Relax, would you? How about a thank-you for my flawless performance?"
"Speaking of which, can we please redo those maps on the computer? They look like a four-year-old drew them. It's embarrassing."
"That's the whole point, Josie. They generate sympathy. Sympathy earns us more money."
I flipped open my notebook and slid a pencil from behind my ear. "So what's our total so far? Was that a ten she gave you?"
"Nope. Just a five."
"Uh-huh. How about the truth this time?"
He breathed a long-suffering sigh. "I'm tired of pooling every penny we make. Just once I'd like a Snickers bar and a Saturday morning without you and your notebook."
"We all agreed on this. I have it in writing. Permanent marker, Fox."
"I don't see you in there earning anything."
"Not my fault you're the best liar in the family."
Our little brother Mason, a seven-year-old human wrecking ball, trotted over. He danced at Fox's other side, kicking up mud, his feet in constant motion. "What's under your shirt? Did you find something good? Let's see. I wanna see."
"What makes you think I found anything?"
"Foooooooox! What'd you find?"
"You mean this?" He unveiled his prize with an extra flourish. It was a Polaroid camera-decades old, dusty, and dented, nestled inside a worn leather case. The camera was a boxy, clunky thing, but it had a certain charm, a kind of techno-geek chic. And in Fox's hands, any old piece of junk suddenly seemed worthy of attention.
"Wow!" Mason tried to grab it away. "Can I take it apart?"
Fox settled the leather strap across his chest. "Nope."
I wrinkled my nose, pretending not to be interested. "What do you want that old thing for?"
"I like it. Besides, they won't miss it. It'll be hours before Dad gets around to Table Six. By then I'll have it back, safe and sound. Say cheese, Josie."
"There's not even any film in-"
With a click and a whir, the camera spit out a white square of photo paper.
"The film's so old it won't even-"
The square resolved into a picture of my horribly freckled face.
I grabbed it and stuffed it in my back pocket, ignoring Fox's grin.
"Can I try, Fox?" Mason said. "How does it work?"
"It's an instant camera, short stuff. The picture pops out as soon as you press the button." Fox handed the camera over for Mason to inspect. "Careful now."
Mason examined every inch of it. "Where's the view screen? Is there a memory card?"
Fox took the camera back. "It's older than that. Cameras didn't have those things years ago."
Mason's stomach rumbled loud and long, sounding like a question at the end. "I'm hungry. Can't we cancel The Plan, just for today? We haven't been to the corner store in weeks. Pleeeeaaase, Josie?"
Fox started in, too. "Pleeeeaaase?"
Being in charge wasn't as peachy as it sounded-not with two kid brothers who constantly ganged up on me. I sighed. "Go on, then!"
Mason tugged on my hand. "Aren't you coming, Josie?"
"Nah," Fox said. "She's afraid of Old Man Hicks."
"I am not," I lied. The crusty old man who ran the corner store hated everyone and everything. I wasn't much in the mood to get yelled at for the sake of a measly candy bar.
"Hold my camera?" Fox thrust the case into my hands. Then he and Mason took off running before I could protest.
"Get me a Hershey bar, without nuts!" I shouted after them. "And it's not your camera!"
I kicked a stone and watched it skip along the gravel driveway, feeling guilty about choosing candy over my duty as Plan Enforcer.
To put it simply, The Plan involved saving up enough money to get us to the state fair in Columbus-home of the junior auctioneer's bid call competition.
Our great-grandpa Henry started Fletcher Auctions. The same house, same junk, same life got passed down from one generation of Fletchers to the next. Dad handled estates all over Athens County, selling the stuff people left behind when they passed away.
On Saturdays, it seemed as if half the town hung around our place instead of their own perfectly good houses. Between the rubberneckers and the bargain hunters, it was hard to get a moment's peace.
Enter The Plan. When Momma was alive, our family would load up the car and head to the state fair every summer. Momma's apricot jam always won the first-place ribbon. Dad's skill with a rifle won us armfuls of stuffed toys on the midway. My brothers and I binged on funnel cakes and cotton candy. And Momma always said that when Fox was old enough, we'd sign him up for the junior bid call competition.
But then she got sick. Aunt Barb and Uncle Bill moved into the apartment above the garage to help out, and everything changed.
We hadn't been to the fair since Momma died three years ago. Dad said it didn't feel right going without her. All he ever wanted to do was work.
I missed Momma's too-loud laugh, and her smothering hugs, and the way she'd tuck my hair behind my ear and tell me my freckles were as beautiful as the stars in the sky. She was fearless and fun, the roller coaster to Dad's sure, steady Ferris wheel. I knew it would make her sad that we'd stopped going to Columbus. Plus Fox was turning twelve in June-old enough to compete at the fair. Maybe somehow, if we made it to the competition, she'd look down from heaven and see that her family was doing okay.
I didn't have any special talents, not like Fox or Dad or Momma or even Mason, who could eat a dozen hot dogs in three minutes flat. I wouldn't be winning any ribbons at the fair. But I could at least try to get us there. If that meant making sure we pooled every penny for the trip, then that was what I'd do.
All because Fox-as you might expect-was born to be an auctioneer.
Fox could sell water to a drowning man, could turn trash into a treasure map. Aside from the money we made from clueless customers, we held kids-only auctions twice a month with items we'd scrounged and salvaged and even a few we'd rescued from the garbage heap. Every kid within five miles knew that a Fox Fletcher auction was not to be missed-especially since Fox claimed that half the items were haunted. He got to practice his calling skills and earn money for The Plan at the same time.
I saw my brothers disappear into the corner store a quarter mile down the road. I took the camera from its case and looked it over, tracing the lines and curves with one finger.
I glanced around to see if anyone was nearby, then lifted the viewer to my eye and pressed the button, snapping a picture of the muddy pasture.
As I waited for the image to sharpen, a dark, blurred shadow began to form in the center of the picture. I squinted and held the photo inches from my nose ...
... And jumped when the shadow became a black-and-white image of a man staring grim-faced into the camera.
He wore thick, ugly glasses and a suit with a wide tie, like the kind in Grandpa's wedding photos. And he looked so sad I nearly burst into tears on the spot.
I stared. The field in the photograph looked normal, its colors unchanged. Only the man-the one who shouldn't be there-lacked any trace of color. My gaze traveled from the picture to the empty field in front of me, then back to the picture again. Fox had set this up somehow-I just knew it. I gave the camera a good shake, as if to dislodge whatever gadget he'd rigged to cause the unsettling image.
I saw the boys leave the store and head in my direction.
When Mason spotted me, he started to run. Fox chased him, the crisp air turning their cheeks rosy, their laughter floating ahead of them on the breeze.
"Are you taking pictures, Josie?" Mason mumble-shouted when he reached me, his mouth already stuffed with jawbreakers.
Fox pulled the photo from my hands. "Josie, who is this?"
"Like you don't know," I said. "Some joke, Fox. You shouldn't be messing with stuff that's already up for sale."
"What? I've never touched the camera before today." He took a closer look at the photo. "You're telling me you took a picture of the field and this is what came out?" Fox's usual cool exterior slipped a little. He licked his lips. Even knowing what a good actor he was, I found myself believing him. "Must be a trick camera," he said. "Or maybe an old image got transposed somehow. Josie, let me see that first photo I took of you."
I took it from my pocket and turned it over.
There I was in full-color, freckled glory, and there was the man-same stark expression, black and white from head to toe-standing right behind me.
I yelped and flung the picture away. My skin felt too tight, the air too thick.
"Who is he?" Mason wondered.
Fox bent to pick up the fallen photo. "It has to be some kind of trick."
"Now can I take it apart?" Mason said.
Fox and I answered together, "No!"
"Try another picture, Fox," I said, handing him the camera. Maybe my voice shook a little, and maybe Fox's hands did, too, but he covered it well, careful not to let Mason see.
He spun a slow circle and stopped, facing our property in the distance: our house; the barn; the long, low building that served as the auction floor; the few hundred cars and trucks belonging to customers, parked in uneven rows along the muddy lot.
And not a person in sight.
Fox raised the camera and pressed the button. A picture fell into his outstretched hand. I watched over his shoulder to see what would appear. Mason stood on his tiptoes. We held our breath.
The details sharpened into focus. It was our property, all right-with one key difference: the drab figure of our mystery man, close enough to count the smudges on his glasses.
Fox kept his cool, though only just. "Josie, how much money do we have saved?"
I checked my notebook. "Eighty-seven dollars and twenty-two cents-minus whatever you just spent on candy."
"We have to buy this camera."
Text copyright © 2015 by Christine Hayes
Illustrations copyright © 2015 by James Hindle