Why only the men in the Prenderghast line could see the dead.
The villagers burned Aggie's body, afraid she would resurrect herself. Witches were known to do that after all. Just before they could throw Aggie's ashes into the lake, her mother managed to grab a handful of her daughter's ashes, still hot and scorching her hands, and ran to the spot - the last spot where they were happy together and sprinkled her daughter's ashes there in the hopes she would have peace.
Everyday after supper, just before the setting sun, after her husband retired for the evening, Aggie's mother would read to her daughter underneath the tree.
The six villagers and one judge mysteriously died, one by one that year; succumbing from disease no doctor or healer could save them from.
That same year, Aggie's mother realized she was pregnant.
She prayed - she went to church everyday, ignoring the stares and whispers, the villager's children throwing mud and sticks at her as she walked into town.
She prayed for a son.
She drank every known and lesser known remedy and elixir for a son. Very rarely were men convicted of sorcery and after Aggie...after they murdered her daughter, she knew there would be another witchhunt if she had another daughter.
Sometimes she would take the mind-numbing walk to the tree where her daughter rested and read to her. A picture book rested against her lap, her hand absently touching her growing stomach.
She cried, relief and so much guilt, when she found out she had a son. Relief that her prayers came true and guilt that she has desperately wanted a son so badly.
She kept reading to her daughter, her little baby boy on her lap, the picture book resting against her knees, and his hands curiously pawing at the pictures.
He was only three years old when she first caught him talking to himself outside in their backyard near the woodpile. No, no he wasn't talking to himself, he was looking at something, a wide smile on his face (just like Agatha) and she dropped everything, falling to her knees and cried.
She made him promise not to talk to his friends in front of other people, not his father, not the villagers, and please, please, please don't tell anyone, it's a secret, darling.
He promised. He didn't understand, but promised nonetheless and his mother smiled so sadly at him.
He understood as he got older though. Apparently, very few people had kindness in their heart for his family. He learned about Agatha when he was pushed into the mud.
He ran home to his mother, one look at his face and his mother just grasped his hand, the story book with the sleeping princess in the other, and they walked to the old tree. She read to him, to his sister, and he fell asleep, dreaming of a little girl whom he hoped was as pretty as his sister.
He was eleven when his mother fell ill. She was bedridden. Just a cold, a healer had said. She always read to Agatha at this date. He never knew why, but she always, always, always read to her, tears in her eyes, and an incomprehensible sense of loss in her voice as she read out loud.
He grabbed the book and trudged up to the tree, the setting sun elongating his shadow and he briefly pretended that he had friends tagging along with him as he walked by himself up the trail to a sister he had never met. He didn't realize the sky had darkened until he heard a screech that filled the air like the hounds of hell.
"Who are you?!"
A girl, his age, appeared in front of his face, and he knew who she was. He knew because he had known her before he knew himself.
"Archie," he answered, "Archie Prenderghast."
He heard people screaming in the distance. He ignored them in favor of staring at the girl who was staring at him.
And she was crying. Her small fists, clenched against her sides, trembled.
"Want me to tell you a story?" Archie said quickly. Whenever he cried, his mother always read him a story. She nodded.
Tucked against the comforting roots of the tree, Agatha pressed against his side, he read slowly. He stuttered over words and he didn't make the voices of the dwarves as well as his mother did but Agatha didn't mention his poor reading. Instead, she rested her head against his shoulder. The screams from the village still came every now and then and he could see the bright yellow lights of several fires in the distance. He only read louder.
He inhaled for a breath -
"I died today..." Aggie murmured against his shoulder. "I was alone."
Archie was only a page away from the happy ending. He swallowed the lump in his throat and kept reading, stopping before he could say And They Lived Happily Ever After.
"I'll read to you," said Archie. "I'll read to you every year. So, so you're not alone."
Aggie lifted her head and stared at him, her blue eyes boring into his. "This isn't a happily ever after."
"It's...it's the closest I can get to it," he answered honestly. Because he really didn't know what else to tell her but the truth.
"Okay." She sighed, weary and so very young and innocent. She resumed resting her head against him, and he stayed, he stayed until she fell asleep. He stayed until the sky turned red and gold as the sun emerged from the horizon, the book clutched in his hands and stained with tears.
Archie kept his promise. He didn't tell anyone, not even his mother. Every year he read to his sister. It wasn't a happy ending but it was the only thing he could think of to do. He would tell his son to read to her, and his son after that, and hoped that one day, his older sister would get a better ending than what she was left with.