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
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
She nodded, still laughing. “Sibyl hates cats. I keep them. She moves to
I was almost disappointed. No skeleton in the basement. No great murder mystery to solve. “I wish my sister would move to
.” 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.” Dallas
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.
(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.
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