By Michael Koby
John Fisher gave me the dead bat in a mason jar for Valentines. I had accepted it, trying to be cool, fully aware that my hands were trembling against the jar glass. I knew that boys were into these things so I tried to be cool. I puffed up my chest and crossed my arms, remembering that this is how my dad stood. Legs buckling, I was trying to keep the position right. I remember thinking, “this is what boys do for you when they love you.” I ran as far as I could, trying not to break the glass, knowing somehow that this dead nest of hair was meant for me, that I had always owned it. I wrapped it up in an old pillowcase, put it under my bed next to a couple of my dad’s Playboys.
Spotted by those old trees, the black two-story stood across the field from our house. You could see it when you got on the bus. We all said it was black, but it was more dark brown, paint peeling and flaking in that abandoned farmhouse way, exposing the gray wood beneath. All us kids knew not to walk cross the field and step on that lawn, but we had all tried. We knew that no matter how you tip-toed, she would see you, there all the time, her head stuck in the window. She lived in that window. Once, John camouflaged himself clumsily in his father’s hunting jacket, the kind that makes you invisible in the woods. Across the field he hid behind the trunk of an elm, painted white around the base. He peeked around the tree. We made bets if he would pee himself. I thought for sure he would pee. Right away that screen door opened, framing the lady with the long hair, hair my momma had said was “a bit strange, hanging down to her backend like a Baptist in the wilderness.’
It bugged us, drove us nuts. Hers was the only spot of deep woods we weren’t allowed to play in. No one ever got past that field without getting caught, not even Fisher. She held onto that oversize jacket of his daddy’s and kept it tight as she spoke, white spittle forming at the corners of her mouth, “children that disobey go to hell and sizzle like pork rinds in oil. Thou shall not…Thou shall not…Thou shall not,” she sputtered.
I thought about mamma clipping dozens of coupons to get that golden ten-commandments charm bracelet, how all ten had turned her wrist green. I didn’t know her sweet Jesus and I hated the idea of sizzling and popping like a piece of pigskin. Eventually she let Fisher loose and we all ran past the field and kept on till our tiny rib bones ached, our feet never touching the water. Fisher’s eyes watering, he looked older to me somehow as he stripped down to his white briefs, his underwear all yellow as he slid them off and threw them to the grass. As he pulled his feet back into his ruined pants, I wondered about Jesus. I was pretty sure he was just like the Easter Bunny or the Boogey Man or just a tool to frighten children who still believed in that stuff. I had feared that rabbit, red-eyed and laughing, laying plastic eggs on the grass. Fortunately my dad had told me early on, reclining in his chair and drinking a beer, that everything my mom said about Tooth Fairies and reindeer was utter bull. Still, I was kinda scared of dying, not all that certain whether I would fizzle in a fryer or not.
Once school started, we abandoned our longing to drive the old lady nuts. We settled on telling ghost stories, sneaking into unfinished houses for a subdivision that went belly up, and smashing pennies on the railroad track. On the third day of school, I waited for the bumblebee of a bus. Through my horribly thick glasses, I saw two girls climbing down the steps of the crazy lady’s house. We had never heard or seen children anywhere near that house. But out they stumbled in matching buttercup dresses, one as short as a technicolor munchkin, the other awkwardly tall. Up the black rubbery steps, swiftly plopping down, I pressed my face against the window. The glass was spotted with bugs, yet I could see their descent. I knew something had to be wrong with them. Maybe they were kept captive in the root cellar or were new arrivals to the house, freshly kidnapped from some nice lady down at the Moo and Oink’s meat counter who had carelessly turned her back to find a piece of meat with the least amount of whitish fat on it.
They entered; the tallest one smirking, mumbling to herself as she made her way to the back of the bus. All the cool kids were scared, I could tell because they didn’t say a peep. I looked around as she, unblinkingly, intruded on their inner sanctum of high-top sneakers, stone-washed jeans, and Aquanet hairspray bangs. Those were the kids my friends and I tried never to make eye contact with; live in the shopping mall, all big hair and hot pretzels. We were all too poor to do that. Following the tall girl was the shortest girl I had ever seen, who had somehow come to live in that horrible house. She stood right in the aisle, staring at me. Her mouth was moving, emitting a series of high-pitched bleeps. After I realized she was speaking English and asking if she could sit, I nodded.
She had an old lunchbox, the kind my dad took to work, a red and green plaid design rusted all around. She kept it on her lap. Her feet didn’t touch the floor, they just dangled as she sat there quiet, her head barely touching the middle of the green leathery seat. Trying not to stare directly, I kept glancing left to right. She looked too normal to have come from that place. Tight red curls and hundreds of freckles.
“I’m Shelley,” she said. I dumbly smiled, knowing I would stumble over my own name. Knowing freckles meant Shelley was good no matter where she came from. Momma said so, that freckles were a sign of wholesomeness. I relaxed a little. I didn’t have freckles. I never had any. She didn’t seem to mind.
After, we became friends, creating worlds while the other kids played hopscotch during recess… we understood one another; we led similar lives built upon that hopeful hopelessness of daydreams. Around Halloween, Shelley got sick. Mrs. Eldridge, our teacher, who left red lipstick kisses on your cheeks after paddling you, asked me to take the ill Shelley her homework after school. I didn’t like the idea, going to that house, but I agreed, making my pinched and pulled cheeks form a smile.
Counting the power lines from my space by the window, knowing I was close to home, I imagined what it would be like to have to cross that yard choked with weeds. It took the bus driver, Mrs. Knight, her shiny perm and white teeth, three times to get my attention. I stepped out, hurrying a little, knowing if you stayed in one spot of the field for a second too long, your shoes would sink and flood with water.
I felt like I was dying, I heard my mother’s voice in my head, she reassured me that I wouldn’t. When I got to the ripped screen door and knuckles white knocked, faint sounds of shoes scraping floorboards and then nothing. Then there she was, the Witch, Shelley’s mother, staring straight down at me. I tried to speak, but I couldn’t, I just looked up at her, unable to move. Behind her I saw Shelley. She was sprawled out on the couch, a washcloth on her forehead, red hair flat with sweat, raising a weak hello.
The Witch spoke. “I saw you coming up that lawn. Shelley told me you invited her to your heathen party. Well, she can’t go Haloweenin’. She’s sick, but even if she wasn’t, she couldn’t go. You believe me, only devil worshipers believe in trick or treatin’… Those her books? Leave em right there on the stoop.” And I did. I hopped off the porch and ran. A few yards away I looked back. She was still looking at me with those big black eyes. Quickening my steps, crossing the field without a chance of getting my shoes wet, I found my way safe to our door. I turned around. She was still staring from behind that screen, her face like a headstone.
The next day, Shelley’s sister, Margot, got on the bus, same buttercup dress, and her head almost hitting the ceiling. She sat down by me, her knees pushing against mine. Fisher, two seats behind me, was calling my name. I pretended not to notice. He shot a rubber band at my head. It hurt, but I let it bounce to the floor.
“Don’t feel too bad about walking cross the lawn,” she said. “I don’t like prayin’. Last night, momma caught me watching TV at our cousin’s house again. There was this movie about a young girl forced to work in a gentlemen’s club. They took dirty pictures of this girl, made her drink orange soda with pills in it.”
Margot taught me how to dance like a stripper that day on the playground swing set. Using the poles supporting the metal roped swings, we each took turns showing the curious boys our routine. She was better at it than me, but I was a boy so I figured that was okay. We practiced for what seemed like forever, making full arcs under the sun and the squint of their eyes. I started speaking to John again, deciding it was okay if he loved me, as long as he never told anybody.
Eventually, the town condemned that house across the field as a danger, something about mold. I watched the family pack from our kitchen window, all of them in the same old dresses, hurrying around and stirring up dust. I was told they moved across town and that the girls were at a different school. The day they tore the house down, the dishes shook in the kitchen. I ran out to see what the racket was. Bulldozers dozing the house, the Witch’s patchwork curtains fell as the roof caved in. My feet sinking in the mud, the leveled house standing there, wood planks jutting out like a shipwreck, abandoned socks scattering the lawn.
My ma phoned everybody on the block to spread the good news. For years the field stood bare, a black square where the house had stood. The neighbor kids took over this spot each Halloween, erecting a scarecrow dressed like the Wicked Witch. At night, if the wind was right, looking out your window, you could see it moving, slow and deliberate. Once on a dare, feet aching from trick or treating, I crossed that field. I stumbled and dropped my plastic fangs in the mud. Brushing them off as best as I could, drooling a little, I put them back in my mouth. I went up to that scarecrow and stole her pointy polyester hat and crossed the field back to my house. I hid the hat under my bed, next to the ashy bat, not quite knowing what they meant.