Perched precariously on the fence between childlike innocence and the realities of the world, the collective minds of a group of 11-year-olds are a curious thing. While they fight against all things childlike, considering their emergence into the world of middle school, it doesn’t take much to plant the seed of something being amiss with the adult world around them.
It was Jeanette who first broached the subject of Old Lady Weatherby being a witch. It was announced the summer between our fifth and sixth-grade years after riding our bikes past the old, broken down Victorian house, complete with a stone wall with columns end capping an intricate wrought iron gate that never seemed to open. Leading from the gate to the house was a brick drive, its bricks all bordered by weeds. Ivy inched its way skyward on the walls, hiding the color of the home. Tattered curtains hung in all the windows, always drawn. Regardless of the state of the home, we had laughed at her. Silly thing. There was no such thing as witches. But the accusation had taken root in the back of our minds and we found ourselves naturally moving to the other side of the street when riding past, especially if darkness had started closing in around us.
Steve was the next one to move to Jeanette’s side, but he came with more ammo than she had. According to him, he had heard it from adults. Now things got really confusing. If adults thought so, then maybe there was some truth to it after all. By autumn, when the leaves had started to drop from the large oak trees in the front yard in large piles, making the house appear even spookier than before, the first twinkling we were all now onboard with the witch theory came with a little game of Dare. The dare was to scale the wall, run up to the house, ring the doorbell and run away again. Ding, dong, ditch is what I had heard it called before. We all stood in a circle, our sun-kissed legs straddling our bikes, just out of view of the house. Steve had made the dare. No one volunteered to go at first.
“Fine,” I said, letting my bike drop to the concrete, my hands on my hips in defiance. “I’ll do it. This whole thing is stupid anyway.” Until then, I had held on to the notion I didn’t believe in witches. Turning sharply, I stepped up to the stone wall and using all of my 11 and half year-old agility, jumped up on the wall until my stomach was flat on its top. Swinging my legs over, I dropped easily to the other side and made my way to the drive. Behind me, I felt the eyes of my friends on my back.
I was doing fine until a sudden gust of wind picked the leaves up on either side of me, sent them in mini tornadoes in my direction and deposited the majority of them on my face. Then, I looked up at the house and saw the curtain move, an ancient face slide into view and all of my bravado drained out of me like tub water when the plug was pulled. How I got back to the wall and over I don’t really remember. All I remember was the laughter of my friends as we all sprinted back to our bikes and peddled home. It was the last time we dared each other near Old Lady Weatherby’s house. It wouldn’t be the last time I walked that brick path though.
Busy with school and activities and simply just surviving middle school, we didn’t think or talk much about Old Lady Weatherby through the rest of the school year. So when my mom handed me a package one Friday afternoon when I arrived home from school and told me to deliver it to Old Lady Weatherby, the sound of her name caught me by surprise.
“Why do I have to do it?” I asked.
Screwing up in the frown she wore often lately when I spoke, my mother crossed her arms and leveled her eyes at me. “Because I asked you to,” she said.
“Fine,” I huffed but waited until she turned her back to roll my eyes.
“Emily,” my mom said as I opened the door and I froze, figuring she had seen the eyeroll with those eyes mothers seem to have in the back of their head. “Take her some of this pie, too.”
Turning back around, she plopped a paper plate bearing a piece of her pecan pie wrapped neatly in saran wrap on top of the box and shooed me out the door. It closed behind me and I rolled my eyes again for good measure.
Walking the block to Old Lady Weatherby’s house, I was too busy being angry at my mother to fully consider my destination. It wasn’t until I stepped up to the old gate and pressed the broken call button memories of the time I had scaled the wall leaked back into my conscious. In reaction to the thoughts now swirling around my brain, my heart quickened a little in preparation for flight and the hairs stood up on my arms like supernatural radar. When the gate popped and squeaked open, I visibly jumped, almost dropping both the box and the pecan pie on the concrete.
Frozen for a moment, my gaze locked on the open path to the front door ahead of me, and I considered my options. Walk that path and possibly be eaten by a witch or face my mother when she found I didn’t complete the task I was given. After just a second of consideration, I took a step onto the brick.
Surprisingly, my nervousness started to wane as I approached the porch and stepped up on it. Reaching up to the doorbell, I started to push but the front door cracked open. At that moment, except for the occasional sightings in town, I realized I’d never seen Old Lady Weatherby up close. She was tiny, her height thanks to the bow in her back, barely exceeding my four feet, five inches. Her frail arms appeared to shake slightly at the exertion of opening the heavy door. Wrinkles folded over themselves on her thin face. Set inside them though were two bright emerald green eyes that twinkled at the presence of a visitor.
“Oh, my sweet child,” she said, her voice showing only a tiny amount of cracking one would expect to come from someone bearing her form. “Come in dear. Come in.”
Stepping back, she allowed me to enter and I couldn’t help but scan the large foyer, my eyes sweeping up the double staircase that circled around the walls to a second floor with two gorgeous, white, sitting chairs overlooking the foyer from a small circular balcony.
“Wow,” I said, unable to contain the impressed child that was itching to climb the stairs and look down over the railing.
“Beautiful isn’t it?” she said with a smile. Her eyes landed on the pecan pie and she clapped her hands excitedly. “Is that your mother’s pecan pie? Such a sweet woman.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said, remembering my manners. How did she know about my mother’s pecan pie? I didn’t know my mother knew Old Lady Weatherby. It suddenly dawned on me, I had no idea what my mother did while I was at school. Who she visited. Where she went. It was odd realizing my mother had an entire life outside of me. “Also, they delivered this box to our house by mistake.”
“Oh yes, yes. I was wondering where that had gotten off to,” she dropped her voice to a whisper. “It’s my arthritis cream. Special made.” With that, she gave a laugh and pointed to a small table under a gold-encased mirror. “Put them down over there child.”
I did as instructed then turned around to look at the house again.
“Would you like a tour my dear?” she asked.
Before I could even consider the possibility that tour could end with me in a cauldron, I nodded quickly, and she smiled. The tour lasted nearly an hour as she walked me through each room and told me the history of the items that decorated them. Absorbing every word, by the time we returned to the foyer, I felt like I knew more about history than I’d ever learned sitting in the stuffy classroom at school.
“It’s too bad I’m getting too old to keep up with it.” For the first time since I’d arrived, a touch of sadness crept into her face. “Just getting too much for these old bones and joints.” Discarding her self-pity, she smiled again.
I looked around the house and then imagined the front yard as I had walked up. “I could help you if you want after school,” I said, surprising myself with my offer.
Her smile spread wider and her eyes sparkled again. “Well now, that would be something. I’d pay you of course. I always pay my way. But, yes. Yes, I think that would be nice.”
A sudden surge of pride filled my body. My first job. My very own money. I could buy things without having to ask my mother. “Oh, you don’t have to pay me,” I said, knowing I would have been expected to offer to help someone in need without pay but hoping she would reject my offer.
“Don’t be silly dear. Of course, I’ll pay you,” she said, and a feeling of relief swept through my body. “You run home and talk to your momma. If she is okay with it, come back tomorrow.”
Walking to the door, I turned and took one last look at the house then smiled at my new employer. “Enjoy your pie,” I had to pause to remember not to call her old. “Ms. Weatherby.”
“Pshwaa child. You call me Maggie,” she said, then sensed my uncomfortableness with addressing an elder by their first name. “Ms. Maggie then is perfectly fine.”
With that, I walked out of the door and it closed behind me. This time when I traversed the brick, I did so with confidence and maybe just a little bit of a skip. At home, I told my mother about the conversation. She was as surprised as I had been at my offer. I also was sure to tell her I had offered to do it without pay and smiled at her declaration of proudness. She agreed it would be good for me and for Old Lady Weatherby…Ms. Maggie, I corrected myself. My friends were in awe when I told them the next day at school. Not only did I solidify myself in the group as the bravest, but I also squashed the notion that Ms. Maggie was a witch.
From that point on, every day after school, I would drop off my bookbag, change out of my school clothes and walk the block to Ms. Maggie’s. For several hours, I would help her with whatever tasks she had for me. Weeding the front, raking leaves, polishing, mopping, dusting, scrubbing. In return, Ms. Maggie would continue to tell me stories, following me around the house and sitting in the nearest chair while I worked. She also wanted to hear about me – how my day went, my friends, my teachers. At the end of each day, she handed me a few dollars and usually a sweet snack of some kind. As months went by and I caught up on the years of neglect at the house, my task list grew shorter and shorter. I would start out my visit with just a few things she needed to be done and then we would spend the next hour or so just talking.
On my 12th birthday, she met me at the door, visibly buzzing from excitement. “Oh good, good. I was afraid you wouldn’t come today being it’s your birthday. Come in, come in. I have something for you!”
“Of course, I came,” I said, giving her gentle hug. The hug had started not long ago. A sign that our relationship had transcended just employer and employee.
“Come to the sitting room. Come on,” she said as she shuffled away. I followed and sat in the big armchair while she retrieved a small white box with a pink bow from the side table and handed it to me. Shuffling to the other armchair, she slowly lowered herself down then stared at me. “Well, open it, child!”
“You didn’t have to do this Ms. Maggie,” I said, as I opened the box, trying to contain the childlike excitement of a surprise gift and retain my composure. As I peeled away the tissue paper inside, I found a small silver bracelet waiting on me. Pulling it gently from the box, I couldn’t contain the sharp intake of my breath at its beauty. Made of tiny links of silver circles, a tiny disc heart was its centerpiece. Upon closer inspection, I saw a small circle engraved with lines running perpendicular inside. Other words I could not see and symbols were etched into the circle. “This is beautiful Ms. Maggie.”
She grinned. “That was mine as a young child. It was given to me by an old woman I used to help,” she said with a wink. “She said it would bring me good luck, so I never took it off as a young woman. I believe it did just that.”
My heart swelled with pride that she would entrust to me something that obviously meant a great deal to her. The story she told was not lost on me either. Placing the bracelet on my leg, I expertly put my wrist on top of it, wrapped the two ends around and clasped them together. Holding up my arm, I was excited to find it fit perfectly. Ms. Maggie clapped her hands with excitement. Standing up, I walked across the room and wrapped my arms around her again. “Thank you so much. I’ll wear it always,” I said.
She gave me a squeeze back. “It’s my pleasure sweet child. Do that. It will make this old woman’s heart happy.”
And I did. All through the next four years, the bracelet never left my wrist. It held up amazingly. Never seemed to tarnish. Never got in the way. To the point, it almost became a part of me. As the years passed, I began to get more involved in school activities. Not much of a sports person, I stuck mostly to things like drama, choir and I joined the debate club. It turned out I was really good at debate. My mother said she wasn’t surprised. But I found time every day to still stop by and spend time with Ms. Maggie. Then came the right of passage. My driver’s license was secured, and I was now even freer than before.
It happened one evening as I was driving home from a movie with friends. Traveling down the curvy rural road that connected the main town from our little town, I was watching the sides closely for deer. It was that time of year when they were on the move. My vigilance, however, didn’t help when the large buck darted in front of my car, its massive frame filling my windshield. Slamming on my brakes, I instinctively jerked to the right and immediately realized my mistake, hearing my father’s voice screaming at me in my head to not react that way. But it was too late. The tree was barreling toward me so fast, I didn’t have time to scream. All I could do was grip the wheel, frozen as I heard the crunch of metal against wood.
Then a bright light flashed from my wrist and everything slowed down. The light traveled around me, solidifying into a bubble-like substance just inches from my face. Time moved forward in slow motion. I watched the metal of the front of my car wrap itself around the tree, the window crack in spindly lines then explode, its fragments slowly flying through the air all around me. The steering wheel move toward my chest then met the protective casing, pressed against it and came to a halt. Then the white light disappeared, and I was sitting unharmed inside the mangled mess of metal, broken glass and the strewn contents of my car.
In shock, I don’t know how long I sat there like that before flashing lights and the sound of panicked voices brought me back to reality. The rest was a blur as emergency workers extracted me from the car, loaded me into an ambulance and flew to the hospital. My parents rushed into the room where I was being examined, panicked, tears flooding down their faces from terror, then from relief when it was announced I was fine.
For two days, my mother refused to let me out of her sight. She couldn’t walk past me without crying and then hugging me. My father didn’t even scold me for my reaction to the deer. He would just simply pull me into an embrace as he walked by, too. Finally, Monday rolled around and I was permitted to go to school, though I could tell my mother was seriously considering keeping me home. Over and over, I had to tell the same story I had told my parents, the doctors, and the police. I was truthful about the deer and my reaction but as for the rest of the incident, everyone believed I couldn’t remember what happened.
My mother was waiting to pick me up outside of the school, still fearful of letting me take any mode of transportation she was not in control of. When we reached the house, I deposited my bookbag in my room and changed my clothes. As I came down the stairs, I walked into the kitchen where she was searching the cabinets for something to make for dinner. “I’m going to Ms. Maggie’s,” I said quietly. I could tell by the tense of her shoulders she considered telling me I couldn’t leave but then I saw her shoulders slump in defeat by the realities of life.
“Okay,” she said. Then crossed the kitchen and hugged me again before I walked out the door.
At the gate, I pressed the call button and watched the gates open. The brick drive was no longer overgrown with weeds and the curtains hanging on the windows were no longer tattered, but a familiar fear leapt up in my throat anyway as I forced my feet forward to the front door.
When I knocked, I had to force myself not to run. Then the door opened, and Ms. Maggie was standing there, large tears running down her face. She walked out and wrapped her arms around me, squeezing me harder than her frail arms should have allowed. “Oh, dear sweet child. I am so glad you are okay.”
Stiffly, I returned her hug and allowed her to lead me inside the foyer. The sound of the heavy door closing behind me made me jump. The moment she moved in front of me, the words I had been holding in since the accident exploded from my lips. “You ARE a witch!”
She simply smiled. “Dear child, best we take this conversation to the sitting room.” With that, she turned and shuffled toward the other room. The room I had spent so much time sitting in with her over the last five years. The room where we laughed and told stories. Now, my inner 11-year-old was screaming at me not to follow. All the images I had seen of evil witches began popping up from my memory. Cackling laughter. Boiling cauldrons. My 16-year-old brain, however, could not reconcile those images with the woman who had become my friend; the woman who had apparently been protecting me all these years.
I looked behind me at the door that led to the outside world, back to my house, back to my parents. Just three days prior, that door would have meant automatic safety. But now, I knew, nowhere was truly safe. Bad things can happen at any time, anywhere.
I looked back and forth between the opening that led to the sitting room and the front door. Finally, I took a step toward the opening. Then another. And then I walked freely toward the sitting room. I didn’t know what fate awaited me through that opening, but I realized the terror I had felt that summer day long ago was now replaced with something else. Excitement, maybe? I didn’t know. But I was ready to find out.