For the Removal of Unwanted Guests
By A.C. Wise
The witch arrived at precisely 11:59 p.m., just as September ticked over to October, on the day after Michael Remmington moved into the house on Washington Street. She knocked at exactly midnight.
The house was all boxes, and Michael all ache from moving them. He’d been sitting on an air mattress — the bed wouldn’t be delivered for another week — staring at a crossword puzzle at least five years old. He’d found it in the back of the closet, yellow as bone, and peeled it from the floor — an unwitting gift from the previous tenant.
Michael opened the door, only questioning the wisdom of it after it was done. It was midnight in a strange neighborhood; he wore a bathrobe and slippers, and he’d left his phone upstairs, so if it turned out to be an axe murderer at the door, he wouldn’t even be able to call 911.
“Hello,” the witch said. “I’m moving in.”
A suitcase sat on her left, and a black cat on her right. The cat’s tail coiled around its neatly placed feet. It blinked at Michael, its gaze as impassive as the witch’s.
Michael couldn’t say how he knew she was a witch, but he did, deep down in his bones. The truth of it sat at his core, as inevitable as moonrise, or spaghetti for dinner on Tuesdays.
“Okay,” he said, which was not what he’d meant to say at all.
But he’d already stepped back, and the witch had already picked up her bag and crossed the threshold.
“I mean — What?”
The cat dragged a silken tail across Michael’s shins, following the witch. It felt like a mark of approval. A chill wind chased the cat, swirling fallen leaves; Michael closed the door. The witch set her bag down, turning a slow circle while remaining in place.
“This house should have a witch.” When she stopped, she faced him.
Her eyes were green, like pine boughs in winter, or the shadows between them.
“A witch needs to live here,” she said, sniffing the air. “Can’t you feel it?”
Michael sniffed, smelling only the witch herself. She smelled of cinnamon and fresh-cut cedar. She didn’t look like a witch, except that she did. Not that Michael knew what witches looked like. People, he guessed. Mostly.
She wore black, a loose-fitting sweater over a long skirt that seemed to have layers. It reminded him of petals, like a flower, hung upside down. Her shoes clicked when she walked.
Michael couldn’t begin to guess the witch’s age. When he closed just his left eye, she might be around forty, but when switched and closed just his right eye, she seemed closer to fifty. Either way, her skin was smooth, except for a few crow’s feet around her eyes, and a few lines at the corners of her mouth. Her hair hung half-way down her back, dark brown like thick molasses, threaded with strands of honey, rather than gray, and she wore a lot of jewelry — most of it chunky, most of it silver.
“Okay,” he said again, then, “Why?” after he thought about it.
“The windows are in upside down.” The witch pointed.
Michael couldn’t see anything unusual but considered he wouldn’t know an upside down window from a right-side-up one.
“The board for that step,” the witch indicated a tread halfway up the staircase, “comes from a pirate ship that wrecked off the coast of Cape Cod, near Wellfleet.”
She paced three steps forward. The floorboards clonked hollow under her shoes.
“There’s a black cat buried in the leftmost corner of the basement. Sorry.” She addressed the last to the cat at her feet, not Michael.
“So, a witch should live here. I’ll take the attic.”
“But it’s my house,” Michael said. “I have papers and everything. You can’t just . . .”
The witch lifted her suitcase: a small thing, battered at the edges, and held closed with two brass catches. She gathered her skirt, and Michael found himself following her up the stairs.
“I haven’t even unpacked yet,” Michael said.
“I’ll help you in the morning. I get up at seven. Tea with honey.” She rounded on him so suddenly Michael nearly tripped on his heels.
They’d come to the foot of the second set of stairs, leading to the attic. Close up, the witch’s eyes were flecked with gold, like bits of mica in stone. Michael stepped back a pace, but was annoyed when he did. He could follow her up the stairs if he wanted. Couldn’t he?
“Hoop,” she said.
“It’s the answer to 47 across.” She flicked the crossword puzzle, and Michael realized he still held the yellowed paper in his hand.
“All around, Robin’s backward friend. Four letters. It’s Pooh spelled backward. As in Winnie the. Sixteen down is Marilyn Monroe. That should give you enough to get started.”
“Oh.” Michael didn’t know what else to say.
“You’ll find the mugs in the third box from the left in the kitchen. For the tea. I’ll see you in the morning.” Halfway up the steps, she paused, and turned again. Her eyes were luminous in the dark.
“You’ll want to shut the windows. It’s going to rain.”
Michael stared until the door at the top of the stairs closed. He listened to the witch’s shoes clomp over the floorboards, and wondered where she would sleep. There was nothing in the attic except dust and dead spiders. Maybe she’d hang herself from the ceiling like a bat. Maybe witches didn’t sleep at all.
“Okay. Goodnight. I guess,” he said to the silence.
Michael went back to his room. He closed the door, and after a moment’s consideration, closed the window, too. The witch’s cat had taken up residence in the middle of his pillow. It opened one eye, defying Michael to displace it. He sat gingerly and when the cat didn’t leave, he risked petting it. The cat rewarded him with a faint purr.
As if on cue, rain tapped light fingers against the glass. The house creaked, settling its bones around them. No, not around them, around the witch. A few moments later, the downpour began in earnest.
* * *
The witch came down the stairs precisely at seven, the cat at her heels. She seemed to be wearing the same clothes as the night before, only in the dust-laden light slanting through the kitchen windows they looked deep green, or blue, rather than black. Michael wondered if he simply hadn’t noticed the subtleties of shading last night. He handed the witch a mug of tea.
She breathed in steam, be-ringed hands wrapped around the mug, which he’d found exactly where she said it would be. He’d found the tea and kettle there, too, and other kitchen things, which remained in the box, largely untouched. Michael sipped from a mug that had been chipped in the moving process; to his annoyance, he’d saved the good mug for the witch.
“You can’t stay here,” Michael said.
He’d rehearsed the words in the pre-dawn light, lying in bed before coming downstairs to make the witch her tea. In his mind, the witch had accepted them, and everything had been perfectly reasonable. Normal. In the bright sunlight, with the witch looking at him over her mug, he wavered.
“Look, you don’t even know anything about me. I could be an axe murderer!”
“Well, no, but . . .”
The witch’s cat leapt onto the counter, a stream of black ink defying gravity. It twitched its tail, smug. Michael wanted to ask how long the witch planned to stay, and what her name was. Would she split the mortgage payment? Did she have a job? Did she expect him to take turns cleaning out the kitty litter? But the witch’s even gaze dismissed all his questions before he could voice them. Maybe a witch should live here.
If last night was any indication, the witch mostly kept to herself. He’d certainly slept much better, as in sleeping at all, once she’d arrived. It was as if the house had been holding its breath, waiting for her, and when it finally relaxed, he could, too.
“Is there a problem, Michael Remmington?” the witch asked.
The question came so suddenly, Michael choked on his tea. He was certain he’d never told her his name. This morning, her eyes were amber. She no longer smelled of cinnamon, but of salt; it made him think of storms and shipwrecks.
“No. Yes. I mean . . . Look, I don’t want a roommate. Or a cat. I just want to live a normal, quiet, happy life. In my house.” He left unspoken the word alone.
The witch narrowed her eyes, as if she’d heard the part he hadn’t said. The cat pushed its head against Michael’s hand. Instead of shooing it away, he scratched it behind the ears. This time, there was no mistaking the purr.
A stray leaf, snatched by the wind, smacked into the window, making Michael jump. He had no reason to feel guilty. His name was on all the legal documents for the house. The witch had crashed into his life, invited herself in. He didn’t owe her a thing.
“Look . . .” Michael said.
“Thank you for the tea.” The witch set her cup down.
Her eyes had shifted color again, taking on the hue of burnt wood. Michael could almost smell smoke in the air.
“Give me your hand.” The witch held out her hand, palm up. Her bracelets rattled.
She looked younger this morning, no more than thirty-five, at a guess, but Michael was tired of guessing.
“So I can be sure you’re not an axe murderer,” the witch said. Her smile suggested she might be laughing at him.
He gave the witch his hand. She traced the lines, and her eyes turned pale violet, inexplicably making Michael think of dragons. The witch pursed her lips. She said, “Hmmm.” He couldn’t tell whether it was a good thing, or a bad thing.
A line of concentration appeared about a third of the way across the witch’s lip, like an old scar. Like a sudden flash of lightning in the dark, Michael knew things about her — all true down in his bones.
The witch had drowned in 1717, and burned to death in 1691. In the 1800s, she’d died with a rope around her neck. In 1957, she’d been murdered — a kitchen knife to the gut, and blunt force trauma to the head combined.
Michael sucked in a sharp breath.
“It’s all true,” the witch said, without looking up.
Could she feel him in her head? Or was it like a broadcast, and he just happened to be tuned into her frequency?
“I don’t mind,” she said, and then, “I’ll be staying until at least Halloween.”
“What happens on Halloween?”
She let go of Michael’s hand, blinking eyes gone the color of pumpkins. There was a flicker of disappointment in her gaze, as though she couldn’t understand why he regularly failed to keep up. The connection broke, taking the witch’s deaths, spooling away from her, with it. Which was just as well, because Michael knew somehow they’d been headed for a knife made of stone, and a blood-covered altar, and he suspected there were things in that death in particular he didn’t want to see.
“That’s up to you.” The disappointment in the witch’s eyes turned to something else, something deeper and sadder that made Michael’s skin crawl.
An apology rose, and he clamped it down. Nothing about the witch made sense. He pressed his lips tight. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he heard her sigh. It reminded him of leaves pulled from branches by the October wind, of shortening days, and snow piling up behind the clouds.
“What do you want?”
Michael didn’t realize he’d spoken aloud until the witch smiled, brief as a moth’s wing. But the sadness hadn’t left her eyes. She held up a hand and ticked off points.
“I want to live in this house. I want tea every morning at seven, with toast on Wednesdays. I want not to die until I’m good and ready.” She lowered her hand. “The rest I’m still figuring out.”
Ink threaded the gold of her eyes; Michael fought the urge to shiver.
He wished the witch would stop looking at him. But when her gaze moved away, going to the window, he felt lost and unanchored.
The witch’s eyes were green again. They reminded him of a toad he’d caught by accident in third grade. He’d given it to his teacher, who’d explained patiently that toads were much happier living outside than in classrooms, and would he please release it back into the wild.
“You should unpack now,” the witch said.
Her voice was very quiet, but it still made Michael flinch. He stared at her for a moment before realizing the words were a dismissal. Since he couldn’t think of a good retort, he obeyed.
Michael didn’t know where the witch went during the day, and he didn’t ask. He could picture her flying around the neighborhood on a broom, or transforming into a flock of birds. He could just as easily see her curling up in the attic reading books on economic theory.
He still didn’t know her name. He didn’t know anything about her really, and sometimes he amused himself by making up little stories about what she was doing at the exact moment it occurred to him to wonder — horseback riding, bowling, waltzing with the Zombie King of Austria on a floor made of crystal teeth. It annoyed him when he caught himself doing this. He constantly had to remind himself that the witch was an unwelcome intruder in his house. He couldn’t let himself get used to her. He couldn’t let her settle in and simply take over his life. Things just didn’t work that way in the real world.
In college, he’d tried to picture what his life would be like after graduation. He’d long since given up on the high school fantasies of being a rock star, or an astronaut. He was tone deaf, and he’d barely passed intro to calculus. He didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do with his life, but nowhere had his life plans included living with a witch. Magic was for fairy tales. Real life was bills and deadlines, not spells and potions.
Yet, the witch stayed, and life went on as though she’d always been there, an inevitable fact as much as the bills and deadlines. He gave the witch’s cat the name Spencer, one of several dozen secret names he imagined the cat had accumulated over its lifetimes, as cats do. Michael only ever saw the witch at seven in the morning, and then again after dusk, as though she ceased to exist in-between, which he knew was as just as likely or improbable as every other scenario he’d dreamed for her.
On a Thursday afternoon, Michael found himself at the foot of the attic stairs, listening intently. He didn’t know what he was listening for, but it never came, so he climbed the stairs. The witch’s door stood open. It was just past three.
Afternoon sunlight, already burning to deep gold, slanted through a window set angle-wise in the slope of the roof. What the light illuminated was certainly nothing that had been in the attic before. Either the witch had snuck things in without making a sound, or magicked them into being from dust bunnies and dead spiders.
A rocking chair sat tucked under the angle of the roof, next to a white-painted dresser holding a single, season-incongruous daffodil in a slender vase. A braided rug lay on the floor between the dresser and the bed, and the bed was covered with a neat, white duvet. There was a dress-form in one corner, a carousel horse in the other, an empty birdcage hanging from the ceiling, a cello leaning against one wall, and seven identical pairs of shoes lined up beneath the second window. A sea chest footed the bed, and Spencer sat on it, tail twitching impatiently in response to Michael’s wonder.
From the cat’s perspective, Michael imagined, it was all so obvious. A chandelier hung, unlit, near the birdcage. The crystals caught the afternoon light, casting rainbows, and tinkled softly. The only thing Michael didn’t see in the room was the witch’s suitcase.
If he came back tomorrow, he truth-in-his-bones-knew the room would be different — there would be an easel, a fish tank, a music box, an accordion, and a plethora of bookshelves. Spencer jumped lightly from the chest, and wound around Michael’s ankles. Where the cat had been sitting there was a leather bound book, swollen slightly, as though the pages had been wet and dried in crinkled waves.
The cat slid past Michael, leaving him alone in a room that suddenly seemed to contain less air than it had a moment before. He shouldn’t, he knew he shouldn’t, and he still watched himself reach out, his hand hovering just above the leather cover. His fingers touched down. He’d been expecting an electric shock, but nothing happened. The cover was soft, like worn velvet; the book was just a book.
He let out a breath. Still knowing he shouldn’t, he flicked the cover aside. The book fell open near the middle, as though its spine had been broken there again and again. The pages were handwritten, the script thin and spidery, the ink brown.
For the Removal of Unwanted Guests
Midnight frost, one cup, melted
Trametes Versicolor, one handful
One each: tail feather of raven, crow, and owl
Six windfall apples
Soil from beneath a ripe pumpkin
Candy Corn, the proper kind
Michael’s breath caught. If he didn’t know better, he might think the witch had left the spell, the recipe, whatever it was, there for him to find. It was a trick, a trap, it had to be. He glanced around, expecting to find the witch in the doorway, her eyes the color of steel. But he was alone. And that was almost worse somehow.
With his pulse racing, Michael slipped his phone out of his pocket, and snapped a picture of the page. Then he slammed the book closed, turned, and fled down the stairs.
On Sunday, he went apple picking. The place he chose also had pick-your-own pumpkins, which made at least two items on list from the witch’s book easy. On the way home, he planned to stop at the store and buy candy corn. That was half the items right there. And that frightened him.
Driving home, jumpy and unsettled, Michael couldn’t keep his eyes off the rearview mirror. He expected the witch to come bearing down on him at any moment, all blood and fire and vengeance. He pictured her in a storm cloud, lightning in her hair, her eyes the color of rain. He almost went off the road twice, and when he finally pulled into the driveway and killed the engine, his hands were shaking so badly he could barely pull the keys from the ignition.
What was he doing? The witch wasn’t bothering him; he barely ever saw her. Why should he want to get rid of her? And what made him think a spell from a water-logged book would banish her? Fight fire with fire, and magic with magic.
Even if he could gather all the items, what was he supposed to do with them? Brew them up in the witch’s tea like a potion, and trick her into drinking it? And if he did, what then? What if he chased her out and she died again? She had drowned and burned and hanged already. All she wanted was tea, to live in his house quietly, and not to die again. Was that so wrong?
He carried the items upstairs and hid them under his bed. His heart wouldn’t stop racing, and he couldn’t get his breathing under control.
When he came back downstairs, he found the witch organizing the utensils in the kitchen drawers. Under the butter-warm light, her black clothes looked like an incredibly deep, dark red. The honey strands in her hair stood out. He couldn’t even imagine what color her eyes must be. Spencer brushed against Michael’s leg, and he nearly screamed.
After a moment, he scooped up the cat. Spencer purred, rubbing Michael’s neck with its head.
“You’re lucky,” the witch said without turning. “She never lets anyone pick her up.”
So, Spencer was a she.
“She’s the one that found this place, you know.” The witch’s tone was conversational, but there was a hint of melancholy underneath it, wistful. “I could smell it, but I couldn’t pinpoint it. She led me right here. She’s got a better nose.”
“Where . . . were you before?”
The witch paused, the knives, forks, and spoons stilling in her hands. Michael wasn’t sure he wanted the answer.
“A long way away.” The witch’s shoulders stiffened.
Her words smelled of bonfires. They felt like dirt, filling his mouth. They tasted like Halloween.
His mind clicking over to her frequency again, Michael saw the witch walking barefoot along the side of a road, headlights sweeping over her through a heavy rain. Broken glass from a car accident cut her soles, but she didn’t seem to care. She either walked to, or from, her most recent death, and it clung to her like a shadow. Whatever her death had been, or would be, it wasn’t pleasant. Not that any death was ever pleasant, Michael supposed, except for perhaps dying quietly in your sleep.
“Witches don’t die that way,” the witch said, so softly he could barely hear her. He flinched, and Spencer squirmed out of his arms.
He should go upstairs right now and throw away the apples, the dirt, and the candy corn, pretend he’d never seen the list or been in the witch’s room. But if he did that, he’d be admitting she could stay. Even if he never said it out loud, he’d be inviting her into his life, and nothing would ever be normal again. Magic would be real, and witches, too. A woman could drown and hang and burn and still be in his kitchen organizing his spoons.
Cutlery rattled softly in the witch’s hands. Michael stared at her back. If she turned around, the witch’s eyes would be the color of smoke, the ghost of a thousand violent deaths drifting in the black at center of them. Could he live with all that death crowded behind her eyes? Could he live with all her impossibility? Michael was glad she kept her back to him. While the witch counted spoons, he turned silently, and slipped from the room.
It snowed the day before Halloween. The last time Michael remembered that happening, he’d been about nine years old. His parents had bundled him off on a Boy Scout trip, up in the mountains. It snowed on October 30, and the Scout leaders cut the trip short after one night because it was too cold. They all came back on the bus with flakes still falling, and white dusting the ground. Michael’s mother made him go trick-or-treating in a bulky snowsuit, so no one could tell he was supposed to be Spider-Man that year.
Michael stood in the open front door, coffee in hand, Spencer at his feet, watching the flakes fall. Carved pumpkins all along the street wore caps of white lace. It was peaceful, beautiful even, but Michael couldn’t shake his deep unease.
He’d spent yesterday at a nature preserve, where he’d found the mushrooms and the feathers from the witch’s list. At least half an hour of the excursion had been Michael sitting in the car with the heater going full blast, comparing mushrooms and feathers to Google image searches on his phone.
He still hadn’t decided what he was going to do. He told himself to think of it as insurance. Just because he gathered the ingredients didn’t mean he had to use them.
“You’re letting out all the warm air.” The witch’s voice snapped Michael’s spine straight, and he wheeled guiltily, accidentally stepping on Spencer’s tail.
The cat yowled, and shot away; the witch glared. Her eyes reminded him of sea-wet stones, slammed by endless waves.
“It’s my heating bill.” The words came more sharply than he intended.
The witch pressed her lips into an even thinner line, breathing through her nose. She’d snapped at him last night, too, when he’d suggested tacos for dinner. Spencer had hissed indiscriminately, taking in both their bristled postures without choosing sides, and stalked out the door when Michael had opened it to gather the mail.
Did she know he’d found the book? And if she did, why didn’t she come out and say something, or cast a hex on him? Or whatever it was witches did when they were angry. She could turn him into a toad, and the house would be all hers. She wouldn’t even have to share. Maybe it was the same for witches as vampires, and he had to invite her in, or she couldn’t stay. He had no idea what the rules were, if there were any.
The witch shifted without moving, strain showing in her clenched jaw. Now, more than sea-wet stones, her eyes reminded him of lightning trapped beneath a skin of dark clouds.
There was only one day until Halloween. The witch had said she’d stay until Halloween at least, and the rest was up to him. Did that mean he was supposed to make the potion? That he was destined to betray her?
“Why me?” Michael asked.
He hadn’t meant to speak at all. The witch’s eyes turned the color of certain snakes Michael had seen on a nature show — the kind that hid in the sand, and uncoiled all at once to strike.
“Because this house needs a witch.” The witch returned words like a slap. “And I thought you needed one, too. But maybe I was wrong.”
Even though she hadn’t moved, she’d folded the space between them somehow. They were face to face, the witch leaning into him, her nose pointed at him accusation-wise.
“All I want is to live a normal life. Is that too much to ask?” Michael stepped back. Coffee slopped over the edges of his mug, barely missing the witch’s toes.
“Yes.” The door banged shut behind Michael, punctuating the word. Startled, Michael dropped his mug; shards of ceramic skittered across the floor.
The witch made an impatient gesture with her hand, and the ceramic shards flew across the hall and into the kitchen, pelting the sink like hail.
“Life isn’t fair. Nobody gets to choose whether they have a normal, happy one or not. If they did, do you think anyone would get sick, or have their hearts broken? Would anyone die? It doesn’t work that way.”
The witch’s deaths were in her eyes again. And her eyes themselves flickered from moonlight, to toadstools, to tsunamis and flames. The heat of them, the cold of them, the shock of them drove him back another step. Michael opened his mouth, but the witch spun on her heel, and banged up the stairs.
The floorboards shuddered when she slammed her door, and plaster dust filtered down from the ceiling. Michael blinked, the grit catching in his eyes.
Something in him tightened, twisting. Her life wasn’t fair, but her anger wasn’t either. All he’d done was move into a house with upside down windows and a staircase made of shipwrecks. And he could hardly be blamed for that.
Michael’s slippers smacked at his bare feet as he climbed the stairs. Inside his bathrobe, sweat gathered at the base of his spine. He knocked on the witch’s door, and it swung open.
“I’m sorry,” he said to an empty room.
Michael gaped. The bed, the dresser, the chandelier — all gone. And the witch, too. A tired looking cobweb hung where the birdcage had been, stirring on a breath of wind. Curtain-less windows let in gray light, showing the desiccated bodies of arachnids in the corners. Dust puffed, gritty beneath his feet.
The sheer emptiness of the room shot through him, a current driven like a spike from his soles all the way up his spine. It was the worst kind of absence and it sent him running down the stairs in unreasoned terror. The witch was so thoroughly gone, she might never have existed.
The house bowed under the insubstantial weight of snow. No, it mourned. Down in its bones, the house was melancholy over the loss of the witch. Like a haunting, there were sounds and scents just on the edge of perception. Turning a corner, he would catch a whiff of the sea. He didn’t dare touch the walls, knowing they’d weep salt-dampness against his skin. An un-played note on a harpsichord sighed and shivered its way from the roof down to the basement where a black cat lay buried in the leftmost corner.
He needed to get the witch back.
Michael set out an hour before midnight with a measuring cup, his hands jammed in his pockets. Halloween stood on the other side of the clock’s tick, all gathered up with fallen leaves and bats’ wings and clouds across the moon. The snow had stopped, but the cold had deepened. The whole year waited to pivot on this point; the world was thin. It wasn’t just the house — this night needed a witch, too.
A black cat streaked across his path. It might have been Spencer, or a random stray, he couldn’t tell. The cat didn’t pause. Michael glanced furtively in either direction. When he was certain he was alone, he used the razor blade he’d tucked into his jacket to shave the frost from his neighbor’s pumpkin.
He felt like a fool. It was Devil’s Night. The cops would be on high alert. What would they think of a man with a razor — even if it was only a Bic disposable — lurking outside his neighbor’s houses, paying far too much attention to their pumpkins?
But he didn’t have a choice. He would make the potion, and drink it himself. He was the unwanted guest that needed banishing. Then the witch would come back home, and everything would be the way it was supposed to be. It wasn’t rational, but nothing about the witch was. Deep down in his bones, he knew the truth of it. He had to bring her back, because if he didn’t . . . Because if he didn’t, there wouldn’t be a witch here.
The logic was as faulty as the logic of witches in general. And so it stood to reason his plan would work. It had to.
He moved to the next house, the next pumpkin. When he reached the end of the block, the cup was a quarter full. By the time he’d gone another block, the measuring cup was half full.
His life had been normal and boring until the witch had shown up. Then she had to go smell like smoke, and the sea, and cinnamon, and make him see that life was terrible, and unfair. And it was beautiful, too.
Because the house settled around the witch, and the clomp-clomp of her footsteps over the floorboards comforted him. He slept better with her in the house, and Spencer curled on his chest kept the nightmares at bay. And because the witch kept coming back, no matter how horrible her deaths. The force of life itself, or her will to try again, to live on her own terms, wouldn’t let her give up. It was undeniable, and inexorable. Like moonrise, and spaghetti on Tuesdays. Like witches and black cats. And that was something. That was magic.
The cup was full. Michael held it up, watching frost melt in the moonlight. Maybe, just this once, life could play along and pretend to be fair after all. If witches were real, wasn’t anything possible?
On Halloween, Michael brewed the ingredients from the witch’s list like tea. He poured them into a jam jar, and let them cool. The resulting liquid was reddish gold, the color of museum amber.
Michael held the jar. He expected it to hum with power, but it only sloshed as he turned it from side to side. The contents left legs on the glass, like good alcohol. He wanted to say he was sorry. He wanted her to come back, and tell him her name. He wanted her to explain herself, and he wanted the chance to do the same. And he missed Spencer.
Michael sniffed the potion. After all the things the witch smelled of, smoke and the ocean, wet rope, and crashed cars, the liquid in the jam jar smelled of nothing. Not the candy corn, or the soft, half-rotten apples. He screwed the lid on, and slipped the jar into his pocket.
Even though it was just past noon, Michael Remmington decided it was high time he got well and totally drunk.
Sometime after sun down, it began to rain.
Would there be any trick-or-treaters in this downpour? Instead of Spider-Man, they’d all be dressed as kid-in-raincoat. He snickered, but really, it was depressing. He pulled out the jam jar, watching the way the light slid through the liquid as he turned it round and round. He needed to find the witch. She needed to see him drink the potion. She needed to know he was sorry.
He pushed the chair away from the table. The front door was miles away, but he made it somehow, and stepped out into the pouring rain.
A jack-o-lantern carved from a pumpkin he didn’t remember buying sat at the bottom of the porch steps. The lid had been knocked askew, and rain had drowned the candle. Along the street, other houses were similarly struggling.
“Crappy Halloween,” he said to no one.
He couldn’t even call the witch’s name. Liquid sloshed uncomfortably in his stomach and his pocket — the alcohol and the witch’s brew. A few brave parents with umbrellas ushered kids from house to house. No one looked happy.
Michael made his way toward the main road and the hum of cars. He could picture the witch walking past the library, and the grocery store; she’d come to the end of the sidewalk, but keep going. She wouldn’t be barefoot, but her suitcase would be clutched in her hand, and she wouldn’t have an umbrella. Spencer, wet and miserable, would be close at her heels.
He spotted her up ahead.
Michael stopped, blinking water out of his eyes. The witch looked just as he’d pictured her, which made him suspect wishful thinking. Or maybe the alcohol had gotten the better of him. He broke into a run.
A sudden gust of wind pulled leaves from the trees, and slicked them over the sidewalk. Water blew sideways. Michael slipped, nearly turning his ankle.
“Hey!” The downpour stole his voice.
The witch didn’t turn. Even over the rain, he could hear the steady clunk of her heels. She clutched her suitcase in both hands, and her black skirt clung to her legs, ink bleeding into her skin, bleeding into the sidewalk, bleeding into the dark.
If she reached the end of the sidewalk, she would be lost. Michael felt it as down-in-his-bones-true. Whatever rules governed witches made it so; those rules governed him now, too.
He kept going, half running and half limping. He reached for her shoulder. The witch whirled on him and shouted something, but it was torn away by the wind.
Tendrils of wet hair clung to the witch’s cheeks. She swung the suitcase like a weapon, and Michael ducked. He slipped again, scraping his palm.
The witch stepped off the sidewalk.
His heart lurched.
A black shape streaked past him. Spencer.
Headlights swept around a curve in the road, bearing down on the witch. Michael shot up, rain-blind, drunk.
He might have shouted as he plunged off the sidewalk, chasing the witch, chasing the cat. The witch turned, mouth open, but he couldn’t hear her. Headlights washed her out, and made her eyes the same color as the storm.
They collided in midair.
She pushed him out of the way, or he pushed her. Or they pushed each other. Brakes squealed, and over the noise, a sound like wings and all of October taking flight filled the air. Against all reason, he heard the jam jar as it slipped from his pocket and became tiny splinters of glass and a magic potion washed away by the rain.
A slew of water hit him in the face. Michael threw up an arm to shield his eyes, and the bumper of an ancient ’67 Oldsmobile stopped inches from his leg.
“Jesus, are you okay?” The woman, soaked the instant she stepped from the car, left the Olds askew in the center of the road, door hanging open.
Something nudged Michael’s leg. He looked down. Spencer twined around his ankles, dragging his sodden tail over Michael’s pant leg. The witch was nowhere to be seen.
“My cat,” Michael said.
He bent and scooped Spencer into his arms. The wet bundle of fur purred louder than he’d ever heard her purr before.
“She’s okay,” he said.
The woman stared. After a moment she nodded, looking more frightened than concerned. She climbed back into her car and shut the door. Michael held the cat, listening to her purr, listening to the woman’s engine purr. The rain slackened, still slanting through the headlights cutting the night. He realized he was standing in the middle of the road and limped back to the sidewalk. The woman, ghosted behind the car’s windows, shook her head in confusion as she pulled away.
A shape lay on the far side of the road, which might be the witch’s suitcase. He couldn’t be sure. But he didn’t see the witch. The car hadn’t hit her, or him, or Spencer. He squeezed the cat harder until she squirmed in protest; he unburied his face from her fur.
“Come on, let’s go home.”
The witch would be waiting for them with a cup of tea. Or she wouldn’t. But it was possible. And she hadn’t died. Just this once, life had decided to be fair. The witch could go on living on her own terms. Anything was possible on Halloween.
“Thank you,” Michael said to the night and the turning year.
Behind the rain and the dense clouds, he could sense the sliver of a crescent moon, waiting to break free. It felt like a smile.
About the Author
A.C. Wise’s short fiction has appeared in publications such as Clarkesworld, Tor.com, and the Best Horror of the Year Volume 10, among other places. She has two collections published with Lethe Press, and a weird fiction novella forthcoming from Broken Eye Books. Her work has been a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, and winner of the Sunburst Award. In addition to her fiction, she contributes a monthly review column to Apex Magazine, and the Women to Read and Non-Binary Authors to Read series to The Book Smugglers.
About the Narrator
Dave Thompson aka the Easter Werewolf aka the California King is still uncomfortable with the notion of pumpkin beer, but don’t hold that against him. He lives outside Los Angeles with his wife and three children. Together with co-editor Anna Schwind, he ran PodCastle for five years, stepping down to focus on his own writing in 2015. You can find two of his audiobook narrations on Amazon: Norse Code by Greg Van Eekhout and Briarpatch by Tim Pratt. Dave is an Escape Artists’ Worldwalker and Storyteller, having been published in, and narrated for, all four EA podcasts.