Wednesday, October 22, 2014

"The Witch of Mistletoe Lane," Part 4

Read Part 1 HERE

Read Part 2 HERE

Read Part 3 HERE



Part 4 of 5

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 next week in Part 5)


"The Witch of Mistletoe Lane" copyright 2011 by Court Ellyn. No part of the story may be reproduced without written permission of the author.

Image credits -

background: FantasyStock
texture: GrandeOmbre-stock
fog brushes: BBs-Brushes

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"The Witch of Mistletoe Lane," Part 3

Read Part 1 HERE

Read Part 2 HERE



Part 3 of 5

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 with the same expression of astonishment as the toads who didn’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.

#

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 flipped 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 sat 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.


(continued next week in Part 4)


"The Witch of Mistletoe Lane" copyright 2011 by Court Ellyn. No part of the story may be reproduced without written permission of the author.

Image credits -

background: FantasyStock
texture: GrandeOmbre-stock
fog brushes: BBs-Brushes

Friday, October 10, 2014

Review: The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma


Blurb:
Characters real and imaginary come vividly to life in this whimsical triple play of intertwined plots, in which a skeptical H. G. Wells is called upon to investigate purported incidents of time travel and to save lives and literary classics, including Dracula and The Time Machine, from being wiped from existence.

—Amazon

Review:

This spring I was on a desperate hunt for new authors to explore and happened upon what looked like a Steampunk novel sitting on the literary fiction shelves. “What’s that doing here?” I asked and picked up a copy to examine (yes, I judged a book by its cover, and I’m glad I did). The ensuing adventure was more than I expected.

Several elements of this novel struck me as noteworthy. That “whimsical triple play of intertwined plots” is the first. One of the main reasons I have not attempted to write a time travel story is the complex plotting that must surely be involved. The Map of Time provides an intimidating example of exactly that.

Part 1 centers on Andrew Harrington, a wealthy young man who has fallen in love with a prostitute from Whitechapel. As the names of characters and setting were gradually revealed, I began to cringe. History recap: Victorian England + prostitute + Whitechapel = Jack the Ripper. “Oh, Lord,” I groaned, anticipating what must surely be coming, “is this a Jack the Ripper story?” I hadn’t bargained for this. I was expecting steam engines and, well, time travel, not a plot involving the most notorious serial killer of all time. Indeed, Andrew Harrington turns to H.G. Wells for help, hoping to travel back in time to save his beloved from the Ripper’s blades.

Part 2, fortunately, moves away from the gore, and brings us to Claire Haggerty, a proper lady who is wholly disgusted with her life and the stifling mores of Victorian society. When she hears of an opportunity to travel to the year 2000, she eagerly jumps on board. In the future, she finds the man of her dreams. But can she keep him without irreparably damaging the fabric of time? Only the author of The Time Machine, who must be an expert on the subject of the time continuum, can help the lovers find a solution.

In Part 3 … well, I won’t give spoilers. Suffice to say that in this gripping conclusion, H.G. Wells must make the most difficult decision imaginable. It involves a letter from his future self, three famous novelists, and a heat ray gun. Which thread in the time continuum will Wells choose? Or is choice ultimately irrelevant?

That brings us to the second aspect of the novel that impressed me: the science of time travel. This is another reason I haven’t attempted to write a time travel story. The possible loops in time and splits in universes are just too big for my brain to fully comprehend. Some of Palma’s explanations and theories I just had to swallow because puzzling them out in my head threatened to make me dizzy. There are far too many fans of time travel for Palma to explore the theories and problems in any way he chooses. Had Palma done so, those fans and theorists would be able to call him out. Given to my own limited education on the subject, there’s nothing to criticize him for, and therefore, the story and its conclusions remain believable.

The third noteworthy aspect might have made an impression on me merely because I write. Through his rendering of H.G. Wells, Palma beautifully expresses insights into a writer’s life and psyche:

“…no other pleasure Wells could think of gave him a greater sense of well-being than when he added the final full stop to a novel. This culminating act always filled him with a  sense of giddy satisfaction born of the certainty that nothing he could achieve in life could fulfill him more than writing a novel, no matter how tedious, difficult, and thankless he found the task, for Wells was one of those writers who detest writing but love ‘having written.’ … 

"… for Wells the act of writing was much like a struggle, a bloodthirsty battle with an idea that refuses to be seized.” (p. 534)

And:

“He was back at the point of departure, at the place that filled writers with dread and excitement, for this was where they must decide which new story to tackle… At that moment, before reverently committing the first word to paper, he could write anything he wanted, and this fired his blood with a powerful sense of freedom, as wonderful as it was fleeting, for he knew it would vanish the moment he chose one story and sacrificed all the others.” (p. 676)

“That’s it, exactly!” I kept saying. Never before have I read explanations of what it’s like to be a writer in such clear, powerful language.

The only drawback I was able to pinpoint in the novel was that the ending seemed a bit drawn-out. I can’t go into detail without spoiling things, but suffice to say that I understand the reason that the mundane must follow the extraordinary, and so there lies the ending’s redemption.

Conclusion:

People have been fascinated with the idea of time travel ever since it was explored in Wells’ novel over a century ago. Palma takes what has since become a common science fiction theme back to its literary source and winds a whole new adventure around it, turning H.G Wells himself into an unlikely hero. More, the novel is exquisitely translated from the Spanish. My standards of competent language are quite high, and this novel does not disappoint on that count either. Nick Caistor, the translator, and presumably Palma himself manage to present the story in language as it would have been written at the turn of the 19th Century.

And so, The Map of Time impresses me on many different levels. I recommend the book to anyone interested in time travel, adventure, and fine writing.


Rating:


5 of 5 magic wands


Find The Map of Time at Amazon, B&N, and many other booksellers.

The Map of Time, Book 1 of Victorian Trilogy (Trilogia Victoriana) by Felix J. Palma is published by Algaida Spain as El Mapa del Tiempo, 2009. English translation published by Simon and Schuster, 2011.

Read another review of this book at The Bearded Scribe Press.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"The Witch of Mistletoe Lane," Part 2

Read Part 1 of this Halloween story HERE.



Part 2 of 5


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 Calvary Baptist Church 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 midnight, 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 2 a.m. 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 next.

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 Melissa 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.”

“Since when?”

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.


(continued next week in Part 3)


"The Witch of Mistletoe Lane" copyright 2011 by Court Ellyn. No part of the story may be reproduced without written permission of the author.

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background: FantasyStock
texture: GrandeOmbre-stock
fog brushes: BBs-Brushes

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

"The Witch of Mistletoe Lane," A Tale for Halloween

In 2011, Brian Fatah Steele of Dark Red Press asked me if I wanted to contribute a story to a Halloween anthology he was putting together. Brian is a horror writer extraordinaire, so the prospect was intimidating. Luckily, he said my story didn't have to be horror, so I agreed.

The result was "The Witch of Mistletoe Lane," a novelette featuring small town young boys who believe they have discovered a real witch living down the street. The experiences of these boys, minus the witch, draw heavily from my own childhood. Because of that, this story was a blast to write.

Once a week throughout the month of October I will post chapters of the story, until the whole thing is available here to be read for free. The anthology, Past the Patch, is always available for free download at Smashwords, Scribd, and a host of other sites.



Part 1 of 5


Every autumn, the clatter of leaves somersaulting along sidewalks reminds me of the October I met the witch. The small southern town of Saint Claire didn’t have a lot to boast about but the worst football team in the county, the annual watermelon festival, and Ag shows that brought the fattest pigs and beefiest steers to Main Street, where they showed their appreciation by crapping in front of the cafe, the antique store, and the True Value hardware that still sold hard candy from glass jars. Unbeknownst to the folks outside our insular world, Saint Claire had its very own witch, too. Mothers all over town scared the devil out of us kids every time they warned us to steer clear of the rickety old house that lurked on Mistletoe Lane. My own mother joined the hype. “Colton, you leave that place alone. I see you anywhere near it, I’ll bust your hide.” To which I inevitably replied, “But why, Mama?” She’d only respond with the look that meant, “You better do as I say.”

The first time I found myself outside the witch’s gate was a complete accident. Jimmy Harden and I rode our bikes to the cow pond on his grandpa’s place, hoping the fish liked the taste of the grubs on our hooks. They did, as it turned out, so we kept tossing our lines in till almost dusk. Realizing the time, we tied our stringers full of half-grown bass to our handlebars and hustled back to town. We were in such a hurry to avoid a whooping for being late to dinner that we turned one street too soon. Jimmy hit his brakes; his back tire left a black streak that must’ve been a mile long before he came to a stop. Pulling up alongside him, I stared in horror at the crumbling gingerbread house. I’d only ever seen it from the corner, in passing, as Mom hit the gas to get through the intersection fast as she could. Now that I was getting a good look at the place, I decided she’d been right all those years. It was a wonder anyone could live there at all. The house was scary as hell, staring back at us in the manner of Hamlet’s skull, pondering our demise. Weeds grew thick as jungles inside the leaning picket fence, and a pair of arborvitaes hid the front fa├žade like hands thrown over a face too hideous to endure. White paint scrolled from the eaves, the wood underneath dry and gray. A couple of upper story windows boasted holes big enough for birds to fly through. The whole place reeked of cat piss.

To me, the creepiest part were the tattered Halloween decorations left over from years past. Though it was June, plastic jack o’ lanterns lined the walk to the front door. They used to be orange, but had faded in the southern sun to a whitish yellow, just like skulls of beheaded children. One of those ridiculous “crashed witches” was nailed to a giant catalpa tree near the rusted mailbox. Her broom had lost its broomcorn and was just a plastic stick that made a likely perch for blue jays. On the front gate hung a weather-beaten sign that read “The Witch Is In.”

Scared the witch might be watching, I backhanded Jimmy in the shoulder. “Let’s get outta here.”

Jimmy grinned in a way that said he was contemplating mischief and swept up a chunk of gravel from the ditch.

“No, man!” I cried.

He chunked it with his Little League arm; it sailed right through a window. Clink, clink, crash, went the glass.

We hightailed it for home, scared out of our minds and exhilarated at the same time, but Jimmy soon came to regret chucking that rock. The next week, his dad fell off a roof and broke his spine. He’s been in a wheelchair ever since. Then Jimmy came down with appendicitis that nearly killed him before his mom got him to the hospital. We never openly blamed these things on the witch or told our parents about the rock he threw, but he and I knew. That was when we were nine or ten.

The autumn I met the witch in person, I was thirteen, suffering through the tortures of Junior High and wet dreams about Elizabeth McDuffy, the Freshman cheerleader with green eyes and hair the color of autumn itself. It was Saturday afternoon, and the week before Halloween. A handful of jocks led by our star running back, Trev Reynolds, were conducting the yearly cat round-up. It was an unspoken tradition. Though all of us Saint Claireans knew about it, we openly denied its existence. For the whole month of October, the town’s cat lovers locked their pets indoors to protect them from the annual purging. It was the vagrant alley cats and their unwanted litters that satisfied the grotesque human desire for destruction. Me and Jimmy, along with Adam Laughton and Tyrone Banks, weren’t invited to take part. The secret ritual belonged to the cool older guys, not green, virginal junior high boys. We could only stand back and watch Randy Tillman’s black pickup truck painted with orange flames roar past just like a dragon. Piled into the cab and in the bed, our heroes hollered and cussed and displayed their trophy: another plastic grocery sack writhing with an irate cat.

All we had was our bikes, bigger and better ones now that we were older, but we were still unable to catch up. At Jimmy’s urging, we tried. We pumped those peddles as fast as our scrawny legs could go. Our war cries sounded less inspiring, because our voices were cracking and we kept choking on the dust kicked up in the pickup’s blazing wake.

Out on county line road, Tyrone hit a pothole and flipped over his handlebars. We stopped to shovel him off the asphalt. “Ah, hell, Ty,” Adam complained. “We’ll never catch ‘em now.”

Tyrone’s hands were bleeding, so was a gash on his leg where he’d caught the jagged edge of a peddle. He groaned and cussed, and Jimmy said, “Shut up. I hear something.”

We listened. Rrreeeeow! A cat in distress!

Up ahead, the road crossed Tallulah Creek. A dirt trail, no more than twin lines of red earth veered off the main road and plunged out of sight. We tossed our bikes into the ditch and followed it to the creek bank. Tyrone hobbled fast as he could, dragging his bleeding left leg. Randy’s black truck crouched at the end of the trail, silent and sleeping. The jocks clustered under the bridge, struggling with a manic beast. Rrreeeeow! it shrieked. The bridge amplified the protest. I imagined a creature the size of a panther, but when the hunters tugged the rope and hoisted up the noose, all I saw was an ordinary alley cat, orange and white. Her teets were heavy. She had babies somewhere. Jimmy, Adam, and Tyrone cheered with the big guys as the cat kicked and scratched at the noose around her neck. I watched, mesmerized and feeling like I might throw up. The cat was so scared it dropped feces, and the big guys jumped back, squalling and cussing as if the cat had done it as a purposeful act of revenge.

It was then that a couple of the jocks noticed us and chased us down. Trev Reynolds grabbed me and Tyrone by the scruff. Joey Osborn, the coach’s son, caught Adam by the shirttails. Jimmy stopped halfway up the trail and measured his options. Ditch his friends or help them out. He was a beefy kid by now, but nowhere near big enough to stand up to these guys. He crossed his arms. “We just wanna see!”

The rest of the brave and bold hunters saw that they’d been caught, and some began to panic. “Ah, man, they’re gonna tell Coach!”

“He’ll kick us off the team,” said Randy Tillman.

Joey Osborn said, “You dumbnut, we are the team! What’s he gonna do?”

“My dad’s the Baptist preacher! He’s gonna kill me.”

“They won’t tell,” said Trev Reynolds. He had eyes like a snake, real cool and mean. They looked straight at me, then at Tyrone and Adam. “We’ll beat the shit out of ‘em if they do, and they know it.” He jabbed a finger at Jimmy, lingering a safe distance up the hill. “You! Get down here.”

Jimmy craned his neck, likely hoping there was some kind of help coming along the road. No luck. He did as he was told and crept back down under the bridge. Trev Reynolds grabbed him by the shirtfront. “We’ll let you see, but you gotta get us another cat. All of ya! Go find us another cat and bring it to the dumpster behind Al’s shop. We’ll meet you there. If you don’t show, we’ll find you and hang y’all up instead.”

Over the crowd of taller heads, I saw the cat. Her eyes were popping and her tongue stuck out of her mouth. She no longer struggled. Three others hung from rafters under the bridge.

Reynolds slapped me upside the head. “You gonna cry? Go with your girlfriends, Colton Brisby. Yeah, I know who you are, and I know where you live, too. Go get that cat.”

#

“Ah, shit, we’re dead. We’re dead!” groaned Adam. We walked our bikes back to town, our enthusiasm as withered as nuts dunked in ice-cold water. “We shouldn’ta listened to you, Jimmy.”

“Did they mean one cat for all of us, or a cat apiece?” asked Tyrone.

“Ah, shut up, man, we’re friggin’ dead.”

“Quit whining!” Jimmy bellowed, and Adam shut his trap. “We’ll stop by my place and pick up an arsenal and catch as many cats as we can. Then they’ll let us be.”

Our arsenal consisted of the pair of slingshots that Jimmy and I used to shoot frogs at his grandpa’s pond. He held mine out, but I shook my head. I didn’t want to shoot a cat, not after watching that alley cat strangle to death. But what’s a guy to do when his friends look at him like, “What the hell’s gotten into you?”

“Hey, I want it!” Tyrone grabbed the slingshot and practiced aiming with it. The rest of us loaded our pockets with bright steel shot and took off before Jimmy’s mom could ask what trouble we were up to.

The first cat we found was slinking around behind the police station. “We can’t shoot that one,” I said. “What if Wade comes out and sees us. He might arrest us for cruelty to animals or concealed firearms.” Saint Claire was so small we only had three town cops; Wade was the police chief.

Jimmy shook his slingshot in my face. “Not very concealed, is it, dimwit.”

“Well, for brandishing weapons inside city limits, then.”

Jimmy rolled his eyes. “How ‘bout jaywalking? We been jaywalking all over town, stupid. Everybody does it, and nobody gives a shit.”

“Jaywalking don’t hurt nothing, dumbass!”

Adam, at least, saw my reasoning. He broke up the argument before fists started flying. “C’mon, let’s find a different cat.”

We searched and searched, and the longer we searched the more Adam panicked. By late afternoon he started looking downright sick, trailing along behind, holding his stomach. We’d raked the town and finally found ourselves on the northern edge. Past Seventh Street, there wasn’t much but cow pasture.

Tyrone stopped cold and cried, “There’s one!” A giant beast slunk through the tall grass in the roadside ditch, on the prowl. He turned those malevolent yellow eyes on us and darted off. “It’s a black one, too! Get it!” Tyrone wasted three good shots trying to hit him on the run. Jimmy took slow, careful aim, leading the cat by a few inches. Then the stupid animal paused in the intersection to glance back at us. Jimmy let fly. The steel ball lit a bright streak across the breeze. The cat yowled, spun, looking for the source of its pain, then took off like a bullet. We loosed our war cries and gave chase, leaping fences and flowerbeds and scrambling over cars parked in driveways. For a while we thought we lost it, but it darted out from under Mrs. Stein’s garden shed, a dozen yards away. We were nearly on top of that poor cat, when it turned onto a dilapidated street. I stopped so fast that I nearly ran out of my Converse shoes. Mistletoe Lane. And that black cat was limp-running straight for the witch’s house. The guys seemed to realize all at once, and stopped in the middle of the street. Panting and sweating, we stared at a shadow moving across a window. The front gate was propped open and the ragged ol’ sign said, “The Witch Is In.” The cat hobbled through, leaving a bloody paw print every time it stepped with its back foot.

A strangled, gurgling scream came from the house. The screen door banged shut and a woman ran up the sidewalk between the faded jack o’ lanterns. Except for the green skin, she might’ve been the twin of the Wicked Witch of the West. Long chin, hook nose, bony fingers, everything. Her black hair was a wild mess of frizz, and her eyes bugged out of her face, full of madness. She scooped up the wounded cat and cradled it like a baby, cooing and whimpering in a strange, ungodly language.

The four of us backed away slowly, but she looked right at us, and her free hand flicked and snapped out some symbols. Jimmy wailed, “No! Nooooo!” He turned and fled. The rest of us weren’t two paces behind.


(continued in Part 2, HERE)

"The Witch of Mistletoe Lane" copyright 2011 by Court Ellyn. No part of the story may be reproduced without written permission of the author.

Image credits -

background: FantasyStock
texture: GrandeOmbre-stock
fog brushes: BBs-Brushes