Omigosh, I am so happy. "A Nocturne in Red," my fantasy novella featuring the lute-wielding bard Sanjen Laurelius, will be published by The Society of Misfit Stories. They have a rather high acceptance rate, and I knew someone somewhere would want the story (it's just too much fun), and I'm thrilled they took it. Even better, I had no other markets lined up to send the thing, so my relief is palpable.
It's been awhile since I had sold something (or had something to sell). This is a great pick-me-up. Will follow up with scheduling info and release in the months ahead.
Lord, have mercy! My house is a demolition zone, starting today. Breaking up old tile to lay new tile. The noise is horrendous. How will I write under these conditions? Noise-canceling earphones channeling some ambient sounds. I hope that will do the trick.
I heard Tyrone gulp in the dark. “We should go back to my place and watch scary movies.”
“Yeah . . . ,” Jimmy began. That’s when we heard the roar of trucks and shrill war cries in the distance. At the end of the block, a pair of shadows slunk between crepe myrtle bushes.
Half crouching, half running, we hurried up the sidewalk, looking for cover.
Randy Tillman’s flaming dragon of a truck sped around the corner. The two shadows sprang up, shrieking bloody murder, and flung little white bombs as it passed. The eggs shattered on the side panels, some sailed through the open windows, and whoever rode inside flung eggs right back, hollering for revenge. Neither Jimmy, Tyrone, nor myself dared throw eggs at our archenemies. We ducked behind the trees lining the street and waited for the truck to disappear. We could hear it roaring for several blocks, so we knew when we were safe. We tore after the shadows who fled into the night.
Turning onto Ranch Avenue, we stopped and stared at the math teacher’s house. Every tree and bush in Mr. Jamison’s front lawn was draped in toilet paper. “Math sucks,” written in whipped cream, slipped down the large front windows.
Tyrone cried out. “Something hit me!”
An egg sailed past my head. Across the street, a voice cried, “Get ‘em! Smear the little shits!”
I palmed an egg and lobbed it at the shadows running toward us. In the light from the streetlamp I watched it strike home. The shadow doubled over, squealing and grabbing his forehead. His fingers strung with egg yoke. Jimmy tugged my sleeve and off we ran, stopping every few feet to lob eggs at our pursuers. God, it was fun. Just like a war film.
Eventually, we joined forces with a gang of eighth graders and a couple of Freshmen. They weren’t exactly the cool kids, but we weren’t in a position to be choosy. The major drawback was that Rebecca Duckett lurked on the outskirts of the group. Though she was a Junior, only the younger kids would let her tag along. She wore a gray sweatshirt instead of black and appeared to be everyone’s favorite target. Her matted hair was wet with egg, and yoke smeared her clothes. She didn’t carry a single egg to defend herself, but followed us around with a scowl on her face and her arms crossed over her copious chest. Her presence was a threat to our budding reputations, so we stayed as far from her as possible without sacrificing our safety inside the crowd. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if Selsie had suffered the same sort of ostracizing when she was in school and finally offered Rebecca an egg. After that she stuck to me like a wad of gum on my shoe.
When I rolled my eyes in Jimmy’s direction, he chuckled and said, “You shoulda known better. Feed the cat and it keeps coming around.”
I was about to suggest we ditch this party, when an old blue sedan pulled around the block, paused in the street and revved up, challenging us. “Hey, that’s full of cheerleaders!” Tyrone cried. “Get ‘em!”
Cheerleaders! Elizabeth. What were the chances? The windows lowered and eggs started flying. Rebecca ducked behind me like I was her knight in shining armor. I gave her a shove. “Go pick on somebody else!” I shouted. Then, as I turned back to the battle, hands full of ammunition, an egg caught me under the left eye. I dropped like a stone. For a minute I didn’t know which way was up, which was down. I feared my eye had burst out of the socket, but it was only yoke I scraped off my face. Groaning, I rolled over on the pavement and for a moment I was sure I was dreaming: Elizabeth McDuffy leaned over me, red curls tumbling from under a black stocking cap. “You okay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I grunted, sat up, and declared more exuberantly, “Yeah!”
“Sorry,” she said, squeezed my arm, then jumped back into the sedan. It sped off, taking my heart with it.
I was so enraptured that I’d forgotten the love potion. Nor did I hear the growl of Tillman’s dragon approaching. Tires squealed, rubber burned, and those headlights chased us down. Jimmy dragged me to my feet and we dived clear. Eggs smashed all around us, so we returned fire. “Brisby!” I heard as the truck roared past. The driver hit the brakes.
“Shit! Here they come,” shouted Jimmy. We scattered, but Trev Reynolds was our best running back. I stood no chance. In an instant he had the hood of my sweatshirt, and my collar jerked tight as a noose. I kicked and swatted just like those cats under the bridge. Trev dragged me back toward the truck where Joey Osborn and Randy Tillman had collected a handful of others and were smashing eggs over their heads. Rebecca Duckett took the abuse in stoic silence. Jimmy and Tyrone were not among them. I feared they’d abandoned me until eggs flew from around the nearest oak. Randy and Joey hurried after them.
“Pat ‘em down!” Trev ordered. “Don’t you little girls know it’s dangerous out here?” Joey confiscated our eggs, while Randy gathered the candy from Tyrone’s paper bag and added it to their stash in the truck. How many other kids had they robbed tonight?
Trev searched my pockets. Clucking his tongue, he broke every egg he found over my head. With slime dripping down my face, I vowed to cheer for every football team but ours.
“Hey, what’s this?” He held up the love potion.
“No!” I cried, grabbing for it.
He tossed it to Randy. “I think it’s fake blood. We can make good use of that.”
“Nah, man,” said Randy, holding the bottle up to the streetlamp and gazing through the ruby liquid. “It’s that syrupy stuff little kids like. I used to drink this stuff all the time and gross out my sisters.” To prove it, he popped the cork and swallowed every last drop.
“Oh, no, no, no,” I whimpered.
Tillman started staggering around, groaning, and blinking like he couldn’t see straight. “What the hell was that stuff, Brisby?”
I threw my arm over my face, and who should Randy Tillman clap eyes on first but poor Rebecca Duckett. He swept her up and laid one on her. She shoved him away, but he caught her again in a way that made me think of Pepé Le Pew.
Trev Reynolds dropped me flat and seized Randy by the arm. “Don’t make me barf, man. What the hell you doin’?”
Randy just grinned, all doe-eyed, and hugged Rebecca around the neck. “This is my girl. Hey, don’t look at her like that! I’ll bust your face in.”
Trev and Joey exchanged a confounded expression, then looked at me. “What the hell’d you give him?” Trev shouted.
“I didn’t give him nothing! You stole it, douche-bag.”
He grabbed my collar and raised a fist. “What was it?”
Jimmy picked up the bottle, turned it over, examining it. “The witch give you this?”
Why, Jimmy? Why didn’t you keep your mouth shut?
“Witch?” asked Joey Osborn. “Ain’t no such thing.”
Trev watched his best friend necking on the school skank and said, “That crazy lady who lives on Mistletoe?”
“She’s not a witch!” I cried.
“Like hell! Look at ‘em! Is that where you got it?”
I shook my head.
“Lyin’ sack of shit. Joey, she’s gotta be the real thing. Go get the boys.”
“No! You leave her alone!”
Trev pushed me so hard I fell on my backside. He and Joey dragged Randy into the truck and sped off, leaving rubber for half the block. Rebecca ran after them, calling, “Wait!”
“Oh, shit,” I kept saying, turning in a panicked circle. “We have to warn her. C’mon.” I didn’t wait to see if Jimmy and Tyrone followed. I doubt either could keep up with me, even if they had. Reaching home, I dragged my bike out of the garage. Dad called from the kitchen, but there was no time. Randy’s dragon could be there already. I peddled so fast I thought my heart would burst. The house on Mistletoe Lane was dark but for one dim light in the living room window. “Selsie!” I called, running up the walk, then remembered shouting was useless. I banged on the door, on the window, waved my hands like a maniac. Selsie glanced up from the novel she was reading and leapt from the old armchair. Did I even look like myself, with shoe polish on my face and egg soaking my hair? I jabbed my fingers back toward town, made sure my expression was appropriately desperate, and finally she unlocked the door.
“Selsie, they’re coming!” I said.
She read my lips but failed to understand my meaning.
“Trev Reynolds and his bullies are coming.” I tried to speak slowly, shape the words clearly, but I was panting hard, and I was so scared of what they meant to do. “They found the love potion. They think you’re a witch and they’re coming here!”
“Who?” she asked. “Police?”
“No! Boys from school. Mean boys. You have to leave. Come to my house.”
She backed away, shaking her head. How long since she’d left her house? How did she get groceries and cat food if she never left? “You have to! Please!” Grabbing her wrist, I tried hauling her toward the door, but Selsie squealed like my hands were made of fire. I’d never seen such a freak out, not even when my sister got her Barbies taken away from her. It scared me so bad I released her and damn near started crying.
A roar down the street. The dragon was coming. I ran to the window, peered through the grime. Randy Tillman’s truck pulled up outside the gate, and the biggest boys in High School bailed out of the back. Trev climbed out of the driver’s seat and called toward the house, “We know you’re in there, witch! We’ve seen what you can do, and we don’t like it. We’ll give you till the count of three to show yourself, then we start firing.”
Firing? With bullets? Surely not with eggs. Someone clicked a lighter and lit a cigarette. Trev started the countdown, “One!”
Selsie had stopped freaking out and hovered over my shoulder, staring out the window. “What are they saying?”
I gave her a nudge toward the kitchen. “Back door. Run. I’ll stall ‘em.”
Sure I was going to get the crap beaten out of me, I hopped across the rotten porch and hurried down the sidewalk. “Y’all leave Selsie alone! She ain’t hurting nobody.”
“Brisby! I knew it,” said Trev.
“Selsie can’t hear you anyway. She’s deaf. Please! Leave her alone.”
“Grab that little turd and make him shut up.”
One of the team linemen was built just like a gorilla. He jumped the fence, nabbed me by the sleeve, and pinched me in a headlock till I thought my brains would burst.
“She’s a witch, deaf or not,” said Trev. “Three!”
The screen door banged, and Selsie emerged. Just like when she ran to scoop up the wounded cat, she ran at the lineman holding me hostage. She loosed that horrifying, strangled scream of outrage and raked her nails across his face. The lineman let me go and staggered back into the fence, breaking a big gap in it with his meaty ass. His teammates dragged him to safety. “Let’s get out of here!” some cried. Others demanded, “Burn it up, Trev. C’mon!”
“Read my lips, witch,” said Trev, pointing at his mouth. “We don’t want you here. Saint Claire is our town, and we mean to keep it safe.”
Whether she got the message or not, her fingers started flying with God knows what kind of curses, obscenities, and warnings.
“What are you gonna do? Cast a spell on us?” Trev taunted, mocking her with his fingers. “You gonna leave town, or do we have to get serious?”
I planted myself in front of Selsie, preparing to plead some more. She clenched my shoulders and together we started backing for the house.
“Light it up, Curtis,” Trev ordered.
The idiot with the lighter set fire to a strip of fabric tucked into the mouth of a beer bottle. Trev seized it and hurled it like a football. The bottle sailed high, snagged in one of the arborvitaes, dropped straight down and burst under the porch. Fire exploded. The stink of burning gasoline wafted past on the wind.
“Stop!” I shouted. With her mouth open in silent horror, Selsie watched the flame lick up the porch railing.
Three more bottles sailed across the yard. One busted on the roof. Another through the second story window. The last bounced off the arborvitae and set flame to the jungle of weeds in the front lawn.
“Burn the witch! Burn the witch!” The chant filled the night as the fire spread. But the brave jocks didn’t dare cross the fence to actually lay hands on Selsie. Burning her house satisfied them just fine.
Selsie turned me, shook me by the shoulders. “Cat!” she cried. “Cat!”
“They’ll run out,” I said, but the fire had nearly engulfed the house already. All those stacks of books and the old dry wood provided an ample feast.
“Cat!” she screamed and ran for the house.
“No, Selsie!” I chased her as far as the porch. She hopscotched over the flames and rotten planks and disappeared inside.
The frenzied chant withered; the jocks watched the house just as I did, waiting. Afraid. I could see it on their faces. They realized the weight of what they’d done. “Do something!” I shouted. “Call somebody!”
Randy Tillman started his truck. The lineman with the scratched face bellowed, “I’m getting outta here!” Some fled on foot. Some vaulted into the bed of the truck just before it sped off. Trev Reynolds missed his chance, so did three others. They cursed Randy for leaving them behind. When sirens wailed in the distance, they took off, disappearing down one street or another. I ran, too, afraid the cops would pin the fire on me. In the empty, overgrown lot across the street, I collapsed behind a boxwood, crying, and watched Saint Claire’s only fire engine go to work. The bright stream of water seemed to turn to steam before it hit the house. Police Chief Wade arrived amid flashing lights and screaming siren. I heard him tell the fire chief, “ ‘Bout time that old place gave up the ghost.”
“How long’s it been empty?” asked the chief.
“I don’t think it was. Crazy woman lived there.”
“Damn. Nobody could survive that inferno. When it’s out, we’ll look for bodies.”
They found bodies, all right. Lots of them. Eight cats, in fact, charred to the bone. But they never found Selsie. I like to think she snatched her black cat and her broom on the way out the back door and flew through the night, all the way to Dallas, where she lives to this day in her sister’s posh apartment. But who’s to say? Strange, lonely creature like that might well have turned into a beam of moonlight and escaped all our hatred and suspicion, and so much the better for her.
The love potion wore off eventually, but only after Randy and Rebecca had eloped. She came home, brokenhearted and crying, a few weeks later, and Randy lost his status as “one of the good ol’ boys,” not because he’d married Rebecca, but because he kicked her out. Nobody but Jimmy Harden and me believed Randy’s story about being ensorcelled, and we never said a word. So maybe there’s a little justice to be found in Saint Claire, after all.
Five years later, I left for college in St. Louis without once landing a date with Elizabeth McDuffy. By then, she was married anyway and running a beauty shop on Main Street. Me? I had to get out. Saint Claire had become stifling, as most small towns do for most boys. I have traveled half the country, England and France, but everywhere I go, there is something to remind me of home, and of Selsie. I still get cravings for peanut butter cookies, but none equal hers. I have followed countless cats, hoping they would lead me to her. And the site of trick-or-treaters and the clatter of dry leaves along the sidewalk bring her to mind every October. So who knows? Maybe Jimmy was right. Maybe Selsie ensorcelled me, too. No. Enchanted, and the spell has yet to diminish.
HAPPY HALLOWEEN! "The Witch of Mistletoe Lane" copyright 2011 by Court Ellyn. No part of the story may be copied or reproduced without written permission of the author.
The whole town turned out to watch the Halloween parade. Saint Claire was fond of parades. Still is, I guess. Besides the Ag shows and watermelon festival, parades were the only showy spectacle we had to entertain ourselves. Of course, the conservatives of Saint Claire, who amounted to ninety-nine percent of the town, deemed it sacrilegious to hold a parade in honor of a pagan holiday, so we had to call it the Oktoberfest parade, though only a handful of German descendants lived among us. Farmers filled pickup trucks with pumpkins and hay bales, while each class and every church festooned cars with balloons, ribbon, and shoe polish, our version of floats. The school band, two dozen inept musicians, led the thing down Main Street. Alongside the tuba and bass drum, Rebecca Duckett twirled a baton, or tried to. She dropped it three times between the drug store and Al’s mechanic shop. Jimmy made a point of laughing and shaking his head as she passed. Even we Junior High losers ranked higher than miserable, fat Rebecca Duckett. If the school building was full of wolf cubs, she was the Omega. I listened to Jimmy’s laughter, thought of Selsie, and felt sorry for Rebecca. She marched valiantly past, off-rhythm, tripped on her own feet, and nearly clubbed Mrs. Demitri to death. I cringed, unable to watch any longer.
The Homecoming Queen approached, riding loftily in a throne that was bolted to a jangling flatbed trailer. The team captain, who’d gotten to kiss her, stood beside her looking cross and bored. The queen sparkled in her cheap tiara, waved, and tossed handfuls of candy. The elementary kids scrambled in the gutters for broken lollipops and squished Tootsie Rolls, but Jimmy and I crossed our arms and stood our ground. We were in Junior High now and far too dignified to fight for candy off the street.
The rest of the football team came next, sitting around the edge of a second trailer. They looked tough in their jerseys and swung their legs while they watched the cheerleaders doing back flips to cheers from the crowd. Elizabeth McDuffy flipped past, a flash of red hair and long legs, and Jimmy nudged me, ruining my euphoria.
The Shriners took up the rear, old men in little clown cars and coffee-can hats. Once they puttered past, the parade was over. It had taken all of ten minutes of my life, but it was ten minutes I could never get back. The only positive to be found was that school let out for the event, and now we were free to go home. It was two days till Halloween. Jimmy and I had costumes to finalize.
“I wanna go as the Headless Horseman,” he said, pondering how to turn a black bed sheet into something convincing.
I milled through the box of costume parts on his bedroom floor. “You don’t got a horse. So you’d be the Headless-Horseless Horseman.”
He chucked a pillow at me and swung a foot. I rolled out of range, laughing to bust a seam. “It’s not my fault it’s stupid.”
“It ain’t!” He sagged on the edge of his bed. “What do you think I should be?”
“I think we’re getting too old to dress up, that’s what. We oughta paint our faces black and go egging.” Another Saint Claire tradition. The night of Halloween, tricks were the norm; they usually involved eggs, toilet paper, and canned whipped cream.
“Egging’s for High Schoolers only. We’ll get smeared. And if Trev and Randy catch us—”
“Who was so brave the other day under the bridge, Scaredy Cat? Hey, you know what we should do?”
“No more cat huntin’, man.”
“No, no. Go see if Selsie has anymore of them cookies. I been thinking about ‘em all day.”
“Who the hell is Selsie?”
“The witch, genius. Remember?”
“Aw, drop it, man. You’re never gonna get me back there.”
“I’m not a toad, am I? They were just cookies, damn it. C’mon! Don’t make me double dare you.”
Jimmy groaned and slunk after me. “If I end up in the hospital, it’s all your fault.” He fell farther and farther behind on his bike. I waited for him at the intersection of Seventh and Mistletoe. When he caught up, I showed him how to spell his name in signs. He didn’t even try. “Aw, this is dumb,” he whined. “She’s gonna eat us.”
That was the last straw. “Superstitious baby! Come or not, I don’t care.” Pumping the peddles, I left Jimmy in the dust. He had to hurry to catch up. We propped our bikes against the sagging picket fence and stood outside the gate, waiting. A wisp of curtain moved on the second story. Shortly after, the front door cracked open. At first, only her white hand appeared. I waved. The rest of Selsie emerged, but she didn’t look happy that I’d brought someone. I signed his name, J-I-M-M-Y.
She gave him the evil eye and slowly spelled W-I-N-D-O-W. Shit! She’d seen him throw that rock after all, and remembered him after all these years.
“Make a fist!” I ordered and, grabbing Jimmy’s elbow, tried to make the sign for “sorry” on his chest.
He shook me off. “What the hell?”
I had to apologize for him and drew the circle over my own heart. Selsie seemed reluctant to accept it, but she didn’t shut the door in our faces either. I didn’t know the sign for “cookies” but I could spell it with my fingers. After some deliberation, she nodded and waved us to come in the gate.
“It’s a trap, man,” said Jimmy.
“Are you kidding?”
“I told you, I still think she’s a witch.”
“Witches can’t be nice and give a kid some more cookies?”
“They charmed you, that’s what they did, and here we are, getting sucked in. Go in if you want to, but I’m waiting out here. Just in case you don’t come back.”
I hurried up the sidewalk to show Jimmy how stupid he was, and those leering jack ‘o lanterns were just faded bits of plastic. The front porch was rotting through, and the stink of cat piss nearly choked me, but I made it in the front door. The living room of that old house was cluttered, yet orderly. Stacks of frayed paperback books lined a trail that led to the kitchen, where a big cast iron pot bubbled on the stove. Bundles of herbs and dried flowers hung from the ceiling, and a gray-striped cat leapt off the small dining table and disappeared into another room. The whole place screamed “witch” at me. There was even one of those old-fashioned brooms propped in the corner by the back door. Funny to think of Selsie zooming over our rooftops under the crescent moon while we slept. Funny. And not so funny. She picked up a plate off the counter and let me choose a cookie. They weren’t as fresh as the other day, but they were still ambrosia.
Ah, hell, what was the sign for “thank you”? I couldn’t remember, so I just said it loud as I could. Selsie watched my mouth intently. To my surprise she spoke aloud: “Welcome.” The word didn’t sound quite right, and the position of her tongue was exaggerated, but I understood her just fine. She looked ragged and distrustful, eyes darting about the kitchen, like she was trying to assess it from my perspective, then she started wiping down the countertops. Next time she glanced my direction I made the sign for “cat.” She watched my mouth. “All right?” I asked.
She bid me wait and from another room brought a cat carrier. The great black beast was curled up inside with a white bandage wrapped around his hind leg. “Okay,” Selsie said. Relieved, I stuck my finger through the grate to pet the beast, but his ears laid back and he hissed like a demon. I jumped a foot back, and Selsie added, “Remember you.”
I felt like a shithead for following Trev Reynolds’ orders. Selsie set the cat carrier down and ran to stir whatever bubbled in her stew pot. Double, double, toil and trouble, I thought while I meandered back into the living room, nibbling my cookie. The stacks of books looked like towers of a miniature world. Romance novels, that’s what the scary witch spent her time reading, not grimoires of black magic or satanic bibles. The one bookshelf had no books on it, only pictures in frames. A bolt of fear shot through my guts, because in one, Selsie stood next to a woman that could have been her twin; less prominent a nose, sleeker hair, sharp suit. Was this the sister she murdered?
Glancing over my shoulder, I found Selsie glowering at the picture. The front door was only feet away. I could make it to safety if I sprinted, so I had to ask. “Cat,” I signed and pointed at the photograph, made a motion of eating. Selsie’s untrimmed eyebrows pinched.
“Sibyl eat cats?” she asked.
Sibyl, was it? “No,” I said slowly. “Cats eat Sibyl?”
Selsie laughed the laughter of those who have never heard laughter before. “No!” she said, then spelled D-A-L-L-A-S.
“Your sister lives in Dallas?”
She nodded, still laughing. “Sibyl hates cats. I keep them. She moves to Dallas.”
I was almost disappointed. No skeleton in the basement. No great murder mystery to solve. “I wish my sister would move to Dallas.” Selsie leaned so she could see my mouth better. “My sister!” I enunciated more clearly. “She’s a pain. She mothers me and bosses me around, even though she’s three years younger than me. And all she thinks about are shoes and Barbie dolls. It’s disgusting.”
I don’t think Selsie caught it all, but she smiled and asked, “You don’t got a girl?”
I thought of Elizabeth McDuffy and downed the rest of that cookie like I’d seen my dad throw back a shot of bourbon. “Well …,” I began. “She’s a Freshman. I’m just a seventh grader. She don’t gimme the time of day. But she said I was cute once. That was a long time ago, though, when I was eight or something. Her being older ain’t bad, is it?”
Selsie debated a long time, gnawing her lower lip. At last she sighed and told me to stay put. I heard her clattering around in the kitchen cabinets, drag out a step stool, and go fishing for something hard to reach. When she came back, she handed me a small glass bottle with a bulbous bottom and a narrow neck that was stopped with a cork and wax, the old-old-fashioned way. Inside was a liquid as red as lipstick and roses and Valentine’s Day. On the side in worn gold letters, it said “Lov- -otion.”
Selsie scratched at her nape like she was nervous or shy about giving it to me. “Your girl drink it. See you.” She shrugged to indicate the rest.
I couldn’t believe it! Maybe Jimmy was right, after all. “Does it really work?”
“Don’t know. I was saving it. But … you need it.”
Ah, the stacks of romance novels, the empty house, and a dusty old love potion that had been handled so much that the label had worn off.
I touched her arm. “Thanks, Selsie.”
Jimmy was shivering outside the gate. “I was just about to go for the cops.”
“Good cookies, man. You missed it.”
“You didn’t bring me one? Jackass.”
We hopped on our bikes and raced home, me with a secret tucked in my pocket. It was the first I’d ever kept from Jimmy Harden. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that he was right about Selsie. For Selsie’s sake.
I resolved to somehow slip the love potion into Elizabeth’s tea the next day in the cafeteria. That would be a feat that even Hercules would boast about.
Who in their right mind serves kids bowls of brown beans with cardboard that looks like cornbread? There was also something shaped like a pumpkin that I think was supposed to be a sugar cookie dyed orange, but after Selsie’s peanut butter masterpieces, I turned up my nose and gave it to Tyrone. We had thirty minutes to scarf down the rest before the High Schoolers were released for lunch and we had to return to class, but I was so nervous I could hardly eat. All Adam, Tyrone, and Jimmy could talk about were plans for Halloween. Tyrone still wanted to go trick-or-treating. Adam was never allowed to go because his parents “didn’t believe in it.” Well, hell, who did? His friends always slipped him bags of candy, however, and they didn’t seem to mind that.
The bell rang. High Schoolers began flooding the halls and lining up to claim their share of the sludge. Elizabeth McDuffy clustered near the front of the line with some other cheerleaders. Soon, she would be all mine. I double-checked my jacket pocket, felt the bulge of the glass bottle and tried not to look sneaky. Suave, gotta be suave. The older kids began filling up the tables, and Jimmy elbowed me. “C’mon, we gotta get.”
I stalled as long as I could, gathering my tray, even sweeping crumbs off the table, which was against school etiquette. Finally, Elizabeth came through the line and, thank Heaven, she sat at the end of a table. I dumped my tray in the trash bin that even flies won't touch, dug the bottle from my pocket and readied my thumb to pop the cork. Only trick was, how to be on hand until she drank the tea and looked at me? How to keep her from looking at anyone else first? Nothing for it, I had try. Thinking “James Bond,” I meandered back through the tables, trigger finger ready.
A foot shot out from under a table, hooked my ankle, and before I knew it, I was sprawled on the cafeteria floor, face planted in shoe-smudged beans.
Laughter roared. “Going for crumbs, Brisby?” Trev Reynolds asked, drawing his foot back into hiding. Across the table, Randy Tillman flicked bits of cornbread at me.
Oh, God! Elizabeth was looking! She’d seen the whole thing. She snorted with repressed laughter and turned away. I prayed, “Jesus, kill me now.”
The bottle! Where was the bottle? I snatched it up from under the next table and ran to the locker room where my mates dug books and pens from mini disaster areas. Tyrone’s eyebrows jumped. “Man, looks like you saw the janitor’s ghost.”
"What the hell's on your face?" ask Adam. "The ghost shit on you too?"
I wiped a smear of beans off my cheek, more off my elbows.
Jimmy cast me an I-told-you-so look that he’d inherited from his mother. “Them cookies making you hallucinate now?”
What could I tell them? I slapped my forehead into my palm, thinking, “James Bond, hell! You’re the biggest loser ever, Colton Brisby.”
By the end of the day, I had bounced back. I’d have plenty of chances to try again. Four years’ worth, in fact, before Elizabeth graduated and fled Saint Claire forever.
Halloween arrived at last. As soon as the sun went down, the doorbell started ringing. Dad handed out candy, while Mom and Melissa prepared to join the painted throngs haunting the sidewalks. Of course, my little sister dressed up as a Barbie doll. The mermaid version of Barbie. I started to tell her that she looked royally dumb with her feet sticking out of her pink fishtail, but Dad thumped me upside the head and kissed his Barbie-mermaid-princess on her rouged cheek and sent her off with a wave. “You look great, honey. Y’all be back in an hour, hear?”
While he waited for the doorbell, he watched the early evening news, and I purloined Mom’s carton of eggs from the fridge and slipped out the door. Under the vampire cloak I wore last year, I was decked out in black. Jimmy and Tyrone had agreed to meet me at the Elementary playground. They were hanging out under an oak tree when I got there. We ditched our costumes and Jimmy passed around the black shoe polish. Smearing it all over his face, he said, “We’re gonna get creamed.” At least tonight he sounded excited about it. Tyrone had brought a paper bag full of egg cartons. His mom raised chickens and sold the eggs to nearly everybody in town. “If she knew I took these,” he said, handing us each a carton, “she’d skin me.”
“It’s just once a year, Ty,” I said, tucking eggs into the pockets of my sweat suit alongside the love potion. I never knew when I’d run into Elizabeth and get the chance to slip it to her. Maybe tonight. Please, God, make it be tonight.
We started off up the street, a carton apiece stuck under our arms.
“How does this work, anyway?” asked Tyrone. “We just start throwing ‘em?”
“Ain’t you ever watched the big kids go egging?”
“Always had to go home too early.”
In truth, we betrayed our inexperience by showing up with our eggs before it was fully dark. In the meantime, we rang a few doorbells for lack of anything better to do, and while I munched a Tootsie pop (letting the stick hang out of my mouth like it was a cigarette), I began to notice that the number of trick-or-treaters was dwindling. The moon glowed bright above the oak trees; lights on front porches started flicking out. The time had come.
(concluded in Part 4 - ON HALLOWEEN)
"The Witch of Mistletoe Lane" copyright 2011 by Court Ellyn. No part of the story may be copied or reproduced without written permission of the author.
Finding poems for this lovely time of year has proven more difficult than I thought. Plenty of Autumn poems, but so many are melancholy or depressing or explore the season's gloomier aspects. This poem by Pound, however, captured the visual magic that so many of us love about the season. And in so few lines.
We didn’t stop running till we reached the school yard. The swings and teeter-totters for the elementary kids looked like the most benevolent place in the universe. Jimmy collapsed on the merry-go-round and sobbed. “I’m doomed. I didn’t know it was her cat. Ah, God, I didn’t know.”
“You’re not doomed, Jimmy,” Tyrone said, sitting beside him, fingers clasping the metal bar between them.
Jimmy ignored him. “Colton, you know. You saw what happened, and now my dad’s in a wheelchair, and it’s my fault. Ah, God!”
I couldn’t argue. I just stared at the deep wallow that hundreds of feet had dug around the merry-go-round and listened to him sob.
“My mom’ll be next. She’ll die of the plague or something and I’ll have to go live with Grandpa. I hate cows!”
“What’s he talking about, Colt?” asked Adam, looking sicker than ever. I told him and Ty about the rock Jimmy threw all those years ago.
“I never had my tonsils out,” cried Jimmy. “I don’t want to go back to the hospital. The food’s terrible and those nurses treat you like meat, then they hand you a balloon like everything’s gonna be okay, but it’s not. I’m doomed.”
I sighed. “Well, this time we’re all doomed together. Maybe the curse will just stick to us and not bother our families. We can die heroes.”
Adam finally caught on. “Cursed? Ah, shit, man, we’re dead.”
“You think she’ll eat us?” asked Tyrone. “My Auntie Tisha said the witch had a sister who used to live with her. But they fought and the witch poisoned her and fed her to them cats.”
“Nobody’s gonna eat us, Ty,” I said, though my tone lacked conviction. “Y’all come sleep over at my house tonight. We’ll go to church in the morning and pray that the curse don’t take hold.”
“What about Trev Reynolds and the others?” Tyrone asked. “We gotta bring ‘em a cat, or they’ll kill us before any curse will.”
I had to puzzle that one out. “We’ll sleep with the slingshots.”
“We only got two!” cried Adam.
“I got a BB gun,” said Ty.
“Okay, go get it, and be at my place by dark.” I’d rarely felt so exhilarated. All we needed was an Ennio Morricone soundtrack playing in the background. On top of dodging bullies and waiting for the shootout, we’d been cursed to boot. Life couldn’t get more adventurous in Saint Claire.
We sat in a solemn row on the front pew of the CalvaryBaptistChurch and prayed like we had never prayed before. The preacher kept eyeing us during the sermon, suspicious of our sudden devoutness, but for once we didn’t have any pranks in mind. In fact, we were a bit delirious. None of us had slept too well. Near , Adam swore he heard Randy’s truck growling past the house, and the streetlight shone through the oak tree on our front lawn, casting a shadow across my wall that at looked just like the witch’s wild black hair.
After church, the four of us shook hands. “Well,” I said, “I hope to see y’all on Monday. If I don’t, well, no crying at my funeral. Hear?”
“Gotcha, man,” said Jimmy. “Everybody stay low. Keep in touch.”
We parted ways. I can’t explain the sorrow I felt when I considered that I might never see those guys again. Peering in the rearview mirror, Dad saw me moping and asked, “Guilty conscience, kiddo?”
“Nah, I just don’t feel too good.” At first I thought it was just a lie, to get out of explaining the curse, but the more I thought about it, the more I really did feel queasy. The certainty struck me that a tumor was growing in my guts. I was sure it was already the size of a baseball.
My little sister scooted as far from me as the car door allowed. “Don’t you puke on me, Colton Brisby!” Melissa crossed her index fingers to ward off the evil of invisible germs.
“Ain’t gonna puke on nobody, big baby.”
Mom turned around in the passenger seat and frowned. “I’ll pick up some Pepto when I go in for the milk.”
“No, Mom, I’m fine.” How to explain that I was dying and Pepto Bismal wouldn’t help? We pulled into the lot of the grocery store, and Dad kept the car running while Mom and Melissa went in. I squirmed in the backseat for a minute before deciding that sitting still thinking about it was a bad idea. I hurried after Mom and offered to push the cart. She looked at me like I’d lost my mind, then smiled and humored my moment of selflessness. She put a bottle of Pepto in with the milk, the box of Rice o’ Roni, and several bags of Halloween candy. When she hurried ahead, I discreetly put the Pepto back on the shelf and pressed at the achy place in my stomach where the tumor was sucking the life out of me.
At the checkout counter, ol’ Mrs. Beals dropped our stuff into plastic bags while she ooh’d and aw’d over how big Melissa and I had gotten. Melissa rolled her eyes, because Mrs. Beals told us that every Sunday. I thanked Mrs. Beals, polite as I could, hoping to earn God’s favor. Then at the next counter, I glimpsed a flutter of fingers that snagged my attention like a grub on a hook. A woman flashed some hand signs just like the witch. A little girl who could only be her daughter, flashed more signs in reply.
Like a bolt a out of the blue, I realized. “She’s deaf!”
The woman across the way straightened and looked at me as though I’d given her the finger, then wrapped a protective arm around her daughter. My own mother pinched my arm, like she did when I misbehaved in church. “Shh, what’s wrong with you? For goodness’ sake.”
My face burned, and I slouched out of the grocery store. Climbing into the car beside me, Melissa said, “That’s Erin. She’s new in my class this year. She’s mostly in special ed though. Some of the boys made fun of her at first, but they got sent to the principal’s office. I think she’s real nice.”
I’d rarely felt more like a complete idiot. Such was our terror that none of us had recognized the obvious. The witch wasn’t cursing us. She was probably cussing us out in sign language. She probably wasn’t a witch at all, and there we were running scared from a deaf woman. Brave cat hunters, indeed. Damn.
By the time we pulled into the driveway, my tumor was gone.
First thing Monday morning, I gathered Jimmy, Tyrone, and Adam outside Mr. Jamison’s classroom and told them the good news. “You mean we’re not gonna die?” asked Tyrone.
Adam sighed and sagged against the wall.
Jimmy crossed his arms and looked disappointed. “Deaf or not, I still think she’s a witch. My dad’s still in a wheelchair.”
“He fell off a roof, Jimmy,” I said. “That could happen to anybody. And lots of people have their appendixes taken out. It don’t mean she cursed you.”
“Like hell it don’t.” Sulking, he went in to class.
Adam came to attention and fled in after him. A crowd of High Schoolers approached. Books that weighed a ton looked small under their arms. In their midst, Trev Reynolds pointed at Tyrone and me, and those cool snake eyes promised retribution for disobeying his order about the cat.
A crowd of cheerleaders tagged along behind, giggling and fussing with their makeup. Elizabeth McDuffy fluffed her red hair and looked just like a model in a Pantene commercial. I swear her green eyes met mine, and I felt ten feet tall. I couldn’t act scared in front of her. Instead, I stuck out my chin and pointed right back at Trev Reynolds. He threw back his head and laughed. “I’m gonna smear you into the pavement, Brisby. You and all your little girlfriends.”
Tyrone grabbed my finger and hauled me into algebra.
For third period, Mrs. Demitri took her English class to the library, where we had to choose something to read for the end-of-semester book report. I hated book reports more than long division. I even hated them more than the cafeteria food, which is saying a lot. We browsed through the achingly dull novels, groaning and fighting the urge to flee the building. I curled my lip at titles like The Good Earth and To Kill a Mockingbird and almost settled on Shane, because my dad liked the old Alan Ladd movie, but a little farther along, the word “witch” caught my attention. I slipped the book off the shelf and gave it a suspicious look-over, expecting to find a trick lurking inside. The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Hmm … award-winner, skinny, and look at that! The author’s name was Elizabeth. Couldn’t go wrong with that. While the librarian stamped the date on the inside for me, I began to regret my choice. I didn’t need a reminder of the witch. My tumor might be gone, and my family was surely safe, but I remembered the way that black cat hobbled home, and the look on the witch’s face as she scooped him up. I felt sick now for a whole new reason.
“We have to go back and apologize, guys.” We gathered around one of the tables whose scarred plastic chairs were always too small.
“Apologize? For what?” asked Tyrone.
“The witch?” asked Jimmy. “Are you crazy?”
“No way!” Adam said. “I’m never going back there.”
“Shhh!” hissed Mrs. Demitri. I sat back in the tiny chair and sulked. I didn’t want to go to the witch’s house by myself, but it seemed I had no choice. Searching the shelves in the reference section, I found a book on sign language. With the few minutes left of third period, I practiced making the letters and a few other signs. All the while, I knew I was putting my life at risk. The witch was said to have fed her own sister to her cats, after all. After what we did, she might decide to turn me into Meow Mix.
For the rest of the day I practiced the signs under my desk, though I forgot half the letters by the time the bell rang. After fetching my sister from the front of the Elementary building, I hurried home. Melissa got mad at me for leaving her half a block behind, but I didn’t listen. I blew through the house at top speed.
“Where you going?” Mom called after me.
“I’m s’posed to meet the guys. At the cow pond.”
“Do your homework first!”
“Ain’t got any.”
I was out the door and on my bike before she could stop me. The temperature had dropped throughout the day, and the sky was a gloomy gray. My fingers were numb by the time I reached Mistletoe Lane. Swinging off my bike at the end of the street, I stared at the horror of a house as if inside death was waiting for me. Step by pained step I approached the gate. It banged in the north wind. The sign announced, “The Witch is In.” Brown leaves rattled in the branches of an old oak, and a calico cat slunk away through the jungle of weeds.
My hand managed to reach out and still the swinging gate, but for the life of me, my feet refused to enter the avenue between the leering jack o’ lanterns. The heavy front door opened, and the witch stood behind the screen, hands flashing. My brain went blank, and I forgot the signs I had practiced. Finally, she made a swatting motion, as if I were a fly, bidding me get away from her gate. In truth, I felt about as small.
Closing my eyes, I recalled the picture on the page that had mattered most, then made a fist and drew a circle over my heart: sorry. With my thumb and forefinger I made like I was preening a whisker on my face: cat.
The witch stopped flapping at me, and her mouth opened a little in surprise. It was working! I shaped the letters of my name: C-O-L-T-O-N.
Slowly, as if she expected me to start throwing tomatoes, she stuck her hand around the screen door and spelled S-E-L-S-I-E. When I didn’t start laughing or chucking rocks, she gave me the flat palm that means “wait” in every language. She disappeared inside the house for a good long while, then came back carrying a brown paper bag, the kind Mom packed our lunches in when we could’t stand the cafeteria food a day longer. Selsie sidled up the sidewalk, overweight and smelling warm and musty and barely able to look me in the eye. She might have been as old as my mother. Hands that badly needed lotion extended the bag over the gate. I stared at it, the old scolding racing through my head: Never accept candy from strangers! But it was almost Halloween, the only time we were allowed to break that rule. And how old was I anyway? I took the bag, and Selsie retreated, wild hair blowing like a tumbleweed in the wind. I waited till I’d ridden back to the intersection before I peeked inside the bag. I don’t know what I was expecting, fried baby fingers or blood-colored lollipops, but the sight of those enormous peanut butter cookies still warm from the oven made my mouth water.
I peddled fast as I could to Jimmy’s house, which was only two doors down from mine. He came running when I called and listened to my tale, looking as astonished as the toads who don't see the bicycle wheel coming. “She seemed scared of me, but nice. She gimme this.” I held up the paper bag.
“What is it?” Jimmy edged away, expecting something to spring out and latch onto his face.
“Cookies. You want one?” I offered one to him. They were cooling off already.
“No way, man.” He started backing up the wheelchair ramp. “They might turn you into a frog or a mouse, and her cats will eat you. Look, my dad’s calling. I got homework to do. Talk to you later.”
Confounded, I walked the rest of the way home, carried the paper bag up to my room and sat on my bed, staring at the cookies. Could Jimmy be right? Mustering my courage, I nibbled an edge. And sighed. Crunchy but melt-in-your-mouth good. I waited for the change to happen. No warts. No croaking. I took a bigger bite. Had to be the best cookie I ever ate. By the time I finished the first one, an old bedtime story returned to haunt me. A little boy named Tom ate a magical jelly bean, but it wasn’t until the next morning that he woke up and found he’d shrunk to the size of a cockroach. He spent the next several pages battling dust mites under his bed before the magic wore off and he returned to normal. Maybe I’d wake up the same way, or maybe I wouldn’t wake up at all. I ate every cookie Selsie gave me, telling myself what a sweet death it would be.
All I got was a stomach ache and a scolding from mom and dad when I didn’t eat my supper. They banished me to my room for the rest of the evening. Those kinds of silent martyrdoms were unavoidable at times, but well worth the trouble.
(continued in Part 3 - NEXT WEEK)
"The Witch of Mistletoe Lane" copyright 2011 by Court Ellyn. No part of the story may be copied or reproduced without written permission of the author.