“Ten points if you can touch the door.”
“You think I’m stupid? No way I’m getting that close.”
“Well, you touch it if you’re so brave.”
“No way. She prefers boys. She’d smell me for sure if I got that close.”
“It’s true! Everyone says so. She’ll take a girl if she’s hungry enough but it’s the boys she really wants. More meat on their bones, I guess.”
“You’re lying. You’re just too scared.”
“Whatever; believe what you want. I ain’t touching that door.”
“Well, neither am I.”
The children both shifted position, as much to mask their mounting nerves as to ease the pins and needles snaking up their legs. Half an hour is a long time for a pair of eight-year-olds to have been crouching in the undergrowth, after all, but such is the power of the rumour mill when its spoils reach the malleable minds of young boys and girls with hot summer days to fill.
The object of their fascination? A single house on the outskirts of town, built to shun the bustle of the streets beyond and cloak itself in the dappled shade of towering oak trees. More specifically, they hoped (and feared) that they would catch a glimpse of its supposed inhabitant; the old hag said to snatch wayward children and make a meal of the naughtiest amongst them. Some towns have the Bogeyman; others the Chupacabra; some have been touched by enough real-world tragedy to not have need of fairy tales. This town, however, has the wicked witch in her run-down cabin in the woods.
There are those who say she is wholly fictional, nothing but the product of a sleepy village mentality in a place with little else to occupy the starring role in its campfire tales; others who claim to have seen her as she pulled back the curtain to peek out at the world, throwing open the door to give chase to any curious children who dared to venture close enough, her hair frazzled and her shrieks piercing; others still who shrug off the rumours as malicious slander, certain they have served this so-called witch in the local shop when she wandered in to town to buy bread, milk and raspberry bonbons; just a regular old woman who prefers a slower pace of life.
“Find some more stones,” said the boy. “Bigger ones this time. We gotta make sure she hears us.”
The girl turned away from the house and began gathering the stones she could find without leaving easy eye-shot of her brother. Once her puppy-fat arms were full, she resumed her position and shared out the plunder.
“Okay,” said the boy, “remember to aim for the window. It’ll be louder, and if she comes to check out the noise we’ll get a good look at her.”
“I still don’t think this is such a good idea.”
“Come on, just imagine how much everyone at school will freak if we can say we saw her with our own eyes.”
“That’s if they even believe us.”
“Don’t be such a spoil sport. We can’t back out now, chicken.”
The girl pulled her arm back and launched a stone in an arc that ended with a smack against the window, splinters of glass raining to the ground and a spider’s web of cracks fanning out from the centre towards the worm-eaten frame.
“Stop calling me that,” she said, face flushed blood-red.
“Jeez, I didn’t mean you to hit it that hard.”
“You shouldn’t have made me angry.”
“You’re angry? How do you think the witch is gonna feel when she sees that?”
There was a pause.
“Maybe we should get out of here,” said the girl, dragging her hands down her dress to wipe away the film of mud and sweat that ran along the pathways of her palms.
“… Well, Dad will be wondering where we are by now.”
“Exactly. We’re not giving up…”
“Yeah, we just don’t wanna get in trouble. I mean, we can’t come back tomorrow if we’re grounded.”
The children scrambled to their feet, discarded stones tumbling down the banking towards the house. Both stole hurried glances at the broken window as they hurried home, each careful not to let the other see the furrows that wrinkled their brow.
“Are we really gonna come back tomorrow?” asked the girl.
“I dunno. I think I might be bored of the house now.”
“Yeah, me too. Let’s do something else tomorrow.”
The whistle of the breeze through the trees at their back swallowed up the sound of their sighs, thick with candy-sweet relief.
Nestled amongst the wool of a cushion torn open in curiosity, a mouse prepares to welcome her first litter. The sound of fragmented glass settling upon the floor like scattered stardust worried her. After all, she chose this place for its stillness, all previous semblance of life having fled the confines of these four walls long ago. Shredded newspaper clippings foraged from the cabin made ideal insulation for her new home; her babies soon to be cradled by crisp slivers adorned with whispers of a story long forgotten in a town left many miles and many years ago: ‘FIRE’… ‘CHILDREN’… ‘DEATH’… ‘MOTHER’… ‘HEARTBREAK’.
She luxuriates in this fragile sanctuary, her heartbeat slowing as peace resettles like a downy blanket once more; a near silence broken only by the creak of old rope and the brush of tiptoes against cold, hard floor.
About Callum McLaughlin
Callum McLaughlin is a passionate bookworm, crazy-cat-person in training, and freelance writer based in Scotland. If he isn’t writing his own works of fiction and poetry, he will most likely be found reading someone else’s.