The Summonings 2023 Imprint Short Horror Contest Winner


It was four years ago when my older sister was compelled to walk out in the middle of her English class, and through the burnished brass doors of her school – doors that had stood in our town for almost a century.

I remember that day succinctly. The leaves of the season were just starting to turn from a summer green to a bronze autumn orange. The fall air was crisp and the sky was so blue, injecting the day with a sense of unbridled optimism, as if nothing could go awry.

It was through this patina of well-being that my sister was swiftly being walked with steps so unlike her regular gait. By the time the school principal had been alerted of the situation, she was already out of the neighbourhood, heading to the Square on Main Street, towards the abandoned Highway 413.

The principal alerted the Sheriff, and the sirens started. When people heard those tell-tale sirens racing through the town, they let out a sigh of relief, a shared sense of tension suddenly easing. Relief that another year had passed and that they had been spared.

We learned early on that there was no stopping someone amidst a Summoning. A couple of years prior, when Lee Graham had stopped mid-lick and dropped his waffle cone on the checkered black-and-white floor of the ice cream parlour, Mrs. Graham had only assumed that it was a mistake on his part. He was young after all. When she looked down at him, however, he was heading out of the parlour, leaving a trail of ice cream steps in his wake. Mrs. Graham was by no means an athletic woman, but she had the wits of a fox, and it didn’t take her too long to recognize the circumstances under which Lee Graham had left the ice cream parlour that day. She had wrestled her way to Lee, where she held him by his tiny arm and wrangled him to the Sheriff’s office.

About an hour later, they had made preparations to put little Lee Graham in the ground, still alive. Mrs. Graham screamed and cried, of the injustice of it all, of how it just wasn’t fair. The Sheriff was a man of iron, though, and he affirmed that it would only take a night or two of solitude, and Lee Graham would be back to his normal little self. It was in Lee Graham’s best interests, the Sheriff insisted, for whatever lay at the end of Highway 413 was bound to be a worse fate. By then, half the town had heard of Lee’s Summoning and came to witness the casket being lowered into the ground. They planned to bring him back up in two days, to see if time had erased whatever this curse was. But the next day, they awoke to find a dug-out hole containing an empty casket that had been broken open, or perhaps broken into. There were slivers of wood protruding from the dirt around the hole, like bloodied thorns emerging from the wet earth. And next to the open casket lay a couple of Lee Graham’s tiny fingers, sliced off and covered in an oozing, yellow slime. Leading away from the casket was a red trail, as if something had dragged Lee Graham out of town, up Highway 413, and into Bell Witch Cave.

We didn’t know who or what was behind these Summonings. We just knew they happened once a year, around the time that the leaves began to change colour. One person would stop what they were doing and start walking, always towards Highway 413, always into Bell Witch Cave, and never to be seen again.

They always happened around this time, with summer at its end and the beginning of fall apparent in the air. As the seasons changed, a palpable sense of tautness seemed to heighten in town. People walked a bit faster, kept their heads a bit lower, held onto each other a bit tighter. There was an unspoken shared consciousness that lingered in conversations at the grocery store, in line at the bank, or just before religious services, that seemed to ask: Who would be next? And when? After Lee Graham’s Summoning, one thing became frighteningly clear to us – we were to never interfere with these Summonings.

That is why, though the sirens had reached my sister in time, just at the edge of the Square at the mouth of Highway 413, hardly anything was done to stop her ascent. They simply hung a plastic knapsack around her neck as she walked past, complete with a dagger, wheat crackers, a small jar of blueberry jam, a water bottle, and a silver chain with a cross affixed to it. ”There was no saving her at that point,” the Sheriff would later recount. She was gone forever, disappeared up Highway 413 and into the craggy entrance of Bell Witch Cave.

There were many stories that I had heard of Bell Witch Cave – stories passed down and circulated as clandestine bedtime whispers between brother and sister, off-kilter remarks at the dinner table, or tales from the crypt around a blazing campfire.

During a walk home from school, when I was a bit younger, once Mother had picked me up from my last class and as we traversed the wooded trail that led up to our house, she began sharing her own tales.

A former opal mining pit, now the site of these Summonings, it was generally advised to never seek out Bell Witch Cave. It didn’t matter though, because no sane being had ever gotten close enough to see what was on the inside. Everyone who had ever attempted to explore its dark depths returned from their journey dead, their bodies appearing in all sorts of odd places around town.

A place nastier than Hell itself, light never penetrated past the entrance of Bell Witch Cave. The air was said to be so stale, so old, so preternatural, that no human had breathed it in decades.

“What about everyone who has been Summoned? Did they not go inside?” I asked, reaching for the comfort of Mother’s hand. That day, the wooded trail seemed more vacant than usual, and the forest breeze was biting, as if it had been blown down the mountain from the hellish depths of Bell Witch Cave itself.

What had started out as a light tale had suddenly turned cautionary as Mother held me by my shoulders. “There is a darkness that is bred in the shadows of the Bell Witch Cave, a darkness that will drive you mad. You must never seek it out.”

“What’s so wrong about going mad?” I pondered.

She paused, and her eyes, bright and full of life, were downcast towards me. Then a light chuckle, a light squeeze of my hand. “Nothing wrong with being a little mad,” she said, “Nothing at all.”

A week later, as my sister was being Summoned, Mother had obstinately tried to follow her up the highway, despite warnings from all around us. I’d like to presume she simply ended up tripping on a rock or a tree stump and hit her head. Something quick and painless. Either way, she was dead and three days later I had opened my front door to find her draped across the balustrade of our front porch, bent forwards at the waist, like a towel drying in the wind. Her face was sickly bloated, as if she had drowned in a great river and just washed up. Her skin was covered in the same yellow slime that Lee Graham’s dismembered fingers had been immersed in. There were drops of blood that fell from the ends of her hair emerging from a scalp that had been split open. The putrid, rotting smell that emerged from the body fouled the air and made it so that I couldn’t even bring myself to take her off the porch, to even gaze upon her face..

These are the things I recall as I walk up Highway 413. The memories come back to me like images, playing one after another incessantly. My hand clasped in Mother’s, her bright eyes gazing down at me. The changing leaves rustling in the autumn wind the day my sister was Summoned. Lee Graham’s blank eyes as the casket closes over him. What images was he seeing, in those moments?

I remark to myself that this is madness. Pure madness. But there is nothing wrong with being a little mad. I’ve stepped in something, roadkill maybe, which is silly thought, because cars and trucks never drive on Highway 413. There is a festering slime on my shoes now, staining my imminent trek an evil shade of yellow.

And then just there, I see it – the entrance to the cave, half-obscured by the saw-toothed edges of fallen rocks. There is something hanging from my neck – a plastic knapsack. I feel inside it, sorting through its contents, before stiffly curling my fingers around a pendant attached to a metal chain, shaped like a cross.

I stare into a diseased darkness as I approach the mouth of Bell Witch Cave. The darkness leers back, as if mocking me. Something crunches under my feet – perhaps a tree branch, or a stone. I can’t stop moving. I feel the wind beneath my soles, urging me to step forth into the darkness. A rancid stench fills my nostrils. The shadows spread around me like ink on a page, and a final image flashes in my mind – the rotting flesh on Mother’s distended scalp – and suddenly I’m free, realizing where I am and what has happened.

The sound of silence echoes.

I wait with bated breath. I have finally stopped walking, and the toll of my journey up Highway 413 finally registers. A chorus of voices sounds from deep inside Bell Witch Cave. Amongst the unearthly sound, I hear my sister calling to me.

And even the cross I tightly clasp cannot help me as I am knocked off my feet by some unseen force, falling into a pile of not branches, not stones, but bones, belonging to all those who have been Summoned before me.


Ananya is a fourth-year chemical engineering student and the winner of Imprint’s Short Horror Story Contest. She wrote her first short story when she was nine, about a small boy who loses his pet kitten and has to fight a sly fox to win it back. She would like to believe her writing has gotten better since then. When she is not writing you can find her making stop-motion videos, reading funny comics, or trying on all the sample perfumes available at Sephora.