The Secret of Sleepy Hollow
by Andi Marquette
Tabitha “Abby” Crane, a doctoral student working on her thesis, doesn’t allow herself much time outside academia. Fortunately, she’s managed to squeeze in a research trip over Halloween weekend to the historical society of Sleepy Hollow, New York, where she hopes to uncover new research on the notorious town’s most infamous legend—that of the headless horseman. But she has a personal stake in this trip: Abby’s own ancestor, Ichabod Crane, disappeared mysteriously over two hundred years ago, perhaps at the hands of the ghostly horseman.
Abby has no reason to expect anything of Sleepy Hollow beyond immersing herself in archival collections and enjoying its Halloween festivities, but then she crosses paths with Katie, who makes her head spin and her heart pound. When Katie invites her on a nighttime visit to the glen where the horseman allegedly rides, Abby can’t say no, upending her plans for a quiet research retreat. And when Abby and Katie, who has her own ties to the famous story, find what may be the key to the disappearance of Ichabod Crane all those years ago, love, legend, and magic intermingle, making clear that Sleepy Hollow has plans of its own for yet another Crane.
Katie put her phone down on the table. “Here’s what we know. Ichabod was a feminist—as much as he could be back then—he was handsome, and treated Katrina with respect. Plus, she liked him.”
“Not just ‘liked.’ She seemed to be into him,” Abby clarified. “And I just don’t think finding out that he was a spy is something that would distress her or elate her. So I’m ruling that out, too.”
Katie took another sip of beer. “I’m thinking that Katrina and Ichabod had a lot going on, Brom found out, dressed up as the horseman, and basically ran him out of town.”
“But that still doesn’t explain the secret. God, history can be so damn frustrating.”
Katie grinned. “Have you been to the glen?”
“Want to go? I’ll drive. It’s only a couple of miles.”
“It’s dark out.”
“That’s the best time to go. You’ll get a feel for it. And this time of year, lots of people go to ghost watch. So it’s not as creepy, I guess, as it could be.”
She should probably say no. But Katie’s smile and the look in her eyes convinced Abby otherwise. “Okay.”
Katie waved the server over and Abby handed him a credit card. Katie gave him cash before Abby could offer to buy the beer.
“Let me ring this up. Be right back,” he said to Abby. To Katie, he said, “Do you want change?”
“No.” Katie smiled at him then looked at Abby. “Are you staying for the Halloween festivities on Saturday?”
“You’re kidding, right? I geek out over folklore. How could I miss something like that?” It was the day after tomorrow. She hoped to get as much research in as possible before then.
Katie smiled and leaned back against the booth. She put her arm up so it lay along the top of it and Abby wondered why a motion that simple could be so enticing. But on Katie, it was. It had been a while since Abby had dated. She had been busy with research and hadn’t met anyone lately, so she had quit thinking about it. Until now. Funny how that happened.
“The glen is usually crowded around this time because everybody wants to see the ghost horseman,” Katie was saying. “Legend has it this is the best time of the year for sightings. The day of the ride, I know a few places that aren’t as packed and generally, our horseman rides there, too. He tries to make a big circuit, so most everybody gets a chance to see him.”
“Sounds great,” Abby said as the server returned with her card and receipts. She signed and gathered her things to go.
Katie slid out of the booth and Abby followed her, trying to keep her gaze above Katie’s waist. She didn’t succeed.
She followed Katie to her vehicle, a gray SUV parked just outside and it dawned on Abby that this was the car she’d seen the evening before outside the historical society, and Katie must’ve been the driver who waved at Lu. Katie unlocked it with her key fob and went around to the driver’s side.
“So how’d you know I was at the pub?” Abby asked as she got in and buckled up.
“I didn’t. Guess I got lucky.” Katie flashed her another smile, put the SUV in reverse and backed out. The interior smelled faintly of vanilla. It had the comfortable, lived-in look of a vehicle that got a lot of use but was well cared for.
“Guess I did, too. After all, I’m getting a ride to the glen.”
“Totally my pleasure. Besides, the glen should be part of your research. That’s where Ichabod disappeared. Or so they say.” Katie accelerated as they hit the edge of town. “It hasn’t changed much out here. Some clearing on the edges of the main glen for houses, but other than that, the heart of it has been left pretty much alone for pedestrian traffic. The historical commission in town likes to preserve it, since it’s a great tourist attraction.”
“Has anybody thought to keep the horseman working year-round?”
“You mean as a regular attraction?”
“Yeah. Or even just a sometime and unpredictable attraction. Just randomly have someone ride around out here and drum up sightings and interest.”
“I think there was some discussion about that when I was in high school, but locals decided that was too much crazy for one haunted glen.”
“Ah. So you’re not always a serious scholar.” Katie’s voice was warm and layered, like a caress.
Another round of sparks zipped through Abby’s chest and stomach. Kind of embarrassing, to have a crush on someone she’d just met. “No, not always,” Abby said, and to her ears it sounded kind of prudish. “After all, I’m going out to run around in said haunted glen. At night.”
“Good point. I stand corrected.”
“So what topic are you working on?”
“Just finished my master’s last year. I’m actually looking for a topic for a dissertation. I’m interested in early feminist movements, and how those translated in local politics.”
“Then your history background serves you really well. Define early.”
“Eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before 1850. I’d like to compare the political campaigns that women were involved in then with some of the more recent ones. Late twentieth century and early twenty-first.” She slowed down and turned right. “Because as we know, women were involved in politics, though they couldn’t vote.”
“True.” And Abby thought it was sexy, talking shop with Katie. That made her an even bigger geek, she supposed, but she didn’t care.
The SUV lurched a little on what was clearly a dirt road and Katie slowed down. “They do minimal maintenance out here. Local flavor and all.” Katie steered first left then right.
“How long has this road been here?” Abby hung onto the grab bar above the passenger window.
“As long as I can remember. I think it’s part of the original road through the glen. Lu will probably know.” She slowed down and pulled off to the right.
From the headlights, Abby saw thick forest lining either side of the road. Four other cars were parked there. Three were empty. The windows of the fourth were fogged up. Teenagers, no doubt. The area was probably a favorite make out spot. And most likely, over the years, it had always been one.
The thought of making out made her flush because Katie was the person who popped into her head. “So is there actually a bridge?” Abby asked, since she wanted to stop thinking about kissing Katie.
“There was. Not out here, though. The one described in Irving’s story isn’t there anymore. But we can check out the replica in the cemetery. And there’s some scary but cool stuff that goes on there, too.”
Katie turned off the engine and looked at Abby. “Do you believe in ghosts?”
“I don’t know. There are inexplicable things in the world,” Abby said. “And people have been recording sightings and strange phenomena for centuries, so I think there could be something to the idea.”
“Most of the stuff people report in the glen is weird lights, weird sounds, and the horseman.” Katie took a mini flashlight out of the glove box, reaching across Abby to do so, which brought her very close.
Abby froze. She caught a whiff of Katie’s cologne. Crisp and subtle. Abby couldn’t put her finger on what the notes were, but she liked it. Katie straightened, turned the vehicle’s lights off, and got out. Without the car lights on, Abby realized how very dark this part of the world was. Not much light pollution, either, but if she looked back the way they had come, she could make out a faint glow from the town, hovering over the trees. She got out and shut the door and Katie locked the vehicle.
“If you get freaked out, we’ll come back, no problem,” Katie said. She turned on her flashlight and started walking up the road. “I’m pretty sure that a lot of the lights that people see up here are ghost hunter flashlights. Especially this time of year.” Her own flashlight’s narrow beam seemed to stab the hard-packed earth of the road underfoot.
Abby followed, glad she had her keychain flashlight with her. Just in case. “Do you believe in ghosts?” She matched her pace to Katie’s, which was more like a stroll, fortunately, because the road’s surface wasn’t completely smooth, and Katie’s flashlight didn’t pick up some of the potholes right away.
“I take the position you do. I’ve seen some strange things around here, but so much of it might be influenced by local lore that it could, in turn, be influencing me to see things that I otherwise wouldn’t. There. Just laid some psychology on you.”
“That’s something I think about, in terms of deconstructing folklore and its surrounding cultures. I mean, where do you draw a line between what’s history and what’s been spun into folklore? How much of a community’s culture is influenced by either?”
“I think both are useful for telling stories. And I can tell you really love this topic,” Katie added with a soft laugh.
“Yeah. Sorry about that. My inner geek.”
“Which I totally enjoy. Don’t apologize for it. And stop here.”
Abby felt Katie’s hand on her arm, gently pulling.
“This is a good spot to see the sky and into the heart of the glen, through the trees. You’ll no doubt see some ghost hunters in there, too, but who knows? Maybe there’ll be something else.” She turned her flashlight off.
They stood in the road and in the light of the rising moon, some of the trees on either side seemed to shift and move, like gnarled and twisted dancers. The hair on the back of Abby’s neck stood up. “Okay, I get why people think they see weird things out here.”
“Right? Your brain and your eyes mess with you, especially in light like this. Power of suggestion. Look through there—” Katie had her hand on Abby’s arm again. “Do you see anything?”
She kept her hand on Abby’s arm and Abby was sure the heat from Katie’s palm was searing her skin, even through her fleece. Flustered, she tried to focus on whatever Katie might be trying to get her to see. A flash of light between the trees made her stiffen. “I’m going to assume that’s a flashlight,” she said, trying to sound braver than she felt.
“Probably. Hold on. Keep watching.”
The light flickered again, as if it was traveling between trees. A male voice floated in the night air, followed by laughter. Abby exhaled. “Flashlight.”
“Shh. Listen for a bit.”
Abby tried, but Katie’s hand was still on her arm and she suddenly wanted to grab her and pull her close.
“Do you hear anything?” Katie asked.
“You mean besides guys in the woods?”
Abby maintained silence between them for what seemed like a long time, concentrating so hard on her hearing that she eventually thought she heard her heart pounding in her ears. Maybe that was what people heard when they thought it was the horseman. It wasn’t hooves. It was their own fear, pounding in their ears from their heartbeats. Katie took her hand off Abby’s arm and the spot, where it had been, cooled abruptly, much to Abby’s disappointment.
“Too bad. Guess all you get is guys in the woods tonight,” Katie said, and she turned her flashlight back on.
“Well, there’s always Saturday.”
“You want some company on your folklore quest during the festivities?”
“Depends. Whose?” she teased, seeing what she could get away with.
Katie chuckled and Abby caught the flash of her teeth in the gloom. “Mine. I can drive again, but it’s best to leave cars outside the glen, so the horseman has room to maneuver and—”
“It’s a deal,” Abby said, and then she silently kicked herself for sounding overeager. On the other hand, so what? So, she thought Katie was interesting. And okay, really attractive. There was nothing wrong with spending time with an attractive woman on a research trip. Especially one who knew the collections like Katie did. Logical, right? Abby unsuccessfully tried to convince herself that her interest was purely pragmatic
“Come on,” Katie said. “There’s an old path up ahead that jags off this road. Whoever the horseman is on Saturday will use it. They always do. Some of the better ones have even ridden through the woods. When they do that, they burst out of the forest and scare the hell out of people walking around out here.”
“So he rides his horse through the trees? What about injuries?”
“Like I said, only the better ones do it. One of the best was three years ago and I’m pretty sure it was a woman.”
“There are women who ride as the horseman?” Abby moved a little closer to Katie and hoped it wasn’t obvious.
“Can’t say for sure, since nobody ever knows who the horsemen are year to year, but from what I’ve heard, there are a few over the years who’ve been women. Doesn’t matter, because it’s all about the illusion, after all.” Her arm brushed Abby’s but before Abby could move away to protect her hormones, Katie stopped.
“That’s the path, there to the left.”
Here, the trees seemed even closer to the road, branches entwined overhead, blocking the moonlight.
“Do you want to walk a little farther?” Katie asked.
“I think I hear something.” Abby stood, straining to pick up the sound she thought she heard over the sighing of the breeze and the creak of wood as tree branches rubbed across each other. Something rhythmic, like hoofbeats. And then it was louder, and Katie gripped Abby’s arm and pulled her closer as a figure appeared out of the darkness.