Hazel arrived just before shift change, wind-blown and disheveled. She tossed her broom into the corner, startling Nicodemus, who meowed as she entered the powder room. “I really hate my hair,” she sighed to Esmeralda as she plucked leaves and crispy bug carcasses from her black tresses.
“Tell me about it, girl,” Esmeralda shrugged, darkening in a mole. “My cream rinse is doing nothing. They say that it’s the altitude we’re flying at these days -the air is very dry up there, you know- but if you ask me, it’s pollution. Last week I saw Mortimer jetting around on his XB5000, sputtering fumes behind him for a mile, and don’t think that it was all to scare the villagers. He hasn’t taken that thing to emissions in years.”
“Warlocks,” Hazel spat. “What is it with those guys? Look at me and my bitchin’ hot rod.” She leaned forward in the mirror to inspect a new wart the slightest shade of yellow-green, but even that didn’t give her pleasure.
“You know what they say. The bigger the broomstick…” Esmeralda cackled, but Hazel only grinned weakly and sighed, slumping against the counter. Esmeralda reached into the kinky mass of Hazel’s coiffure and plucked out a red lollipop, still sticky and warm. “Say, are you okay, pumpkin?”
Hazel trembled, looking up at Esmeralda with wet eyes. “I just… I don’t know what I’m doing with my life! Each day, the same thing: lurk around school, lure kids with this damned candy,” she cursed, tossing a handful of Dum Dums across the counter, “and make mincemeat pies all afternoon… But where am I going? There has to be more out there!”
“Well, everyone loves mincemeat pie… You know what they say, the way to a warlock’s heart is—”
“Lorenzo and I broke up.” Hazel’s lip quivered as she said this, picturing the silky red underside of his cape billowing as he flew away for the last time. Though it was meant for a vampire, but she couldn’t resist buying it for him on their vacation to Transylvania. It went perfectly with his eyes, perpetually bloodshot with worry.
“Ah,” Esmeralda nodded gravely. “I’m sorry honey.”
“And look at this!” Hazel lifted the layers of her dusty robes to reveal a muffin top folding over the edges of her black spiderweb leggings. She wrapped her fingers around the fleshy edges of her sallow middle. Gathered in a lumpy mass, her belly resembled the drooping buttery crusts of the pies they stuffed with school children each afternoon. “Who’s going to want me now?”
“Well, sweetie, you did just turn forty… Believe me, there’s worse to come. Just when you think you can grow thick chin hairs or brittle fingernails, it all starts to fade!” Hazel wilted under the truth, so Esmeralda changed tack. “The best thing you can do is move on! Forget Lorenzo. You’re smart, funny and downright frightening when you want to be – there’s better out there for you. You deserve someone strong enough to scare the daylights out of you every day.”
Hazel sniffed, rubbing her mascara until the clumps smeared into proper dark circles beneath her eyes. “I suppose you’re right. I never told you, but he was on the run from his coven in Philadelphia. They found out that Lorenzo had reversed a curse for a peasant woman and gave food scraps to the orphans in his dungeon. They said he lost his edge.”
“Piffle! You’re better off without him,” Esmeralda scoffed. She drew her arm around Hazel as they went to clock in, stirring the yowling wrath of Nicodemus, who bloodied her ankle then darted after a mouse.
“How about we go out after work? We’ll have a bottle of newt brew and fried spider legs at the shanty around the corner and brainstorm your new career. What about broom enforcement? You’d be helping your local covens, and maybe you could pull over your husband-to-be on his flashy new ride! Plus, their crimson caftans are to die for – very flattering in the mid-section.”
“You’re the best friend a witch could have,” Hazel gushed, hugging her as Zelda and Brownie came in with a wriggling toddler caught between them.
“Come on, girls, this one’s fresh off the playground!” Zelda called as they disapparated to the kitchen in a puff of smoke.
The steam whistle cried, indicating the start of the work day, but Hazel hung on to Esmeralda for another minute, warming every cockle of her carbuncled heart.
On any normal day, any gloomy afternoon like this one, Bryn might not have minded the humid weight of his hand on her shoulder. It fell there like the fog, heavy and alive. She stared out at the children chasing each other in the park, hopping on broomsticks as if they could fly, pretending that the mist made the world magical. She wished she saw it that way, too.
He didn’t notice her hesitation, not yet, or he might have peeled his palm away. Instead, it lay on her like the rest of him, a shadow overlooking everything: the view from her creaky old house, the couch she bought from an estate sale, and her, especially her. Their inescapable life was all around—the breakfast dishes still scaly with egg in the sink, cupboards full of water-spotted glasses and his hand on her shoulder, directing her to stay with him, at home, alone, just as he pleased.
Once a lighthouse amidst the clouds in her mind, the insistent patience of his hand lent a weight of loving suffocation. Her heart couldn’t expand to breathe. He was no more real than any of the men who had come before him, yet the heft of his eclipsing form darkened her doorways and the corners of her memory like the moon atop the sun at mid-day.
Awake or asleep, there was no escaping the reach of his shade.
From summer clouds burst scarecrows and bowlfuls of knobby squash. It’s that season, boys and girls, when one hour becomes two, when we bend time to our will, not to undo actions of the past but to shape the uncertain future. We fall back into a cushion of sixty minutes like a pile of leaves, sure that they’ll support us.
It is the time of tricks and treats, of goblins and ghouls and the dark that falls before we’re ready, transforming ferries into leviathans, city buses into grinding mammoths, and shimmering snail trails into proof of pixie magic. A walk through the park triggers the cascade of a thousand falling stars, a pagan wedding shower of brittle reds and golds, marking the beginning of the ending of the year.
We cannot trust our eyes, not in the shadows nor the twilight that dims each afternoon. Autumn clouds our perception with pumpkin spice and everything nice, the cream-clotted aroma of cloves and eggnog that causes our left ventricles to slam closed for the season… though not before we taste the gravy, laced with tryptophan.
Fueled by windstorms and damp, the impish abandon of fall draws gloves on our chilled fingertips and humid haloes from our lips. Down comforters emerge from closets like drowsy bears. Roasted things festoon our tables, clothed in fine linen and served on good china. Our evenings are filled with candlelight and crackling fires, our days with tart cider and crinkled bags of warm chestnuts.
When but now, on the edge of winter, can we relish the way that a creaking floorboard goads each hair to stand on end? The tickling lights of will-o’-the-wisp jangle our sixth senses until the most banal daddy longlegs grows into a bloodthirsty, plotting beast. The shadows come alive with our worst nightmares, ghastly creatures hungry for our tender human flesh.
What could be more delicious than to tuck ourselves into bed for a grisly yarn, one told in hushed tones by someone’s head floating above a flashlight — a tale about twelve-year-old Natalie, a headstrong girl who snuck out to meet friends in a graveyard for a seance on All Souls Eve.
Flushed with the illicit success of escape, we can picture her walking up the leaf-scattered path in the moonlight, her red coat hanging defiantly open. Natalie is surprised to find a darkened house when she returns, as the lamplights burned only an hour before. She pauses beneath the whistling pines, straining to discern sounds from inside.
Are mummy and daddy asleep? Have they discovered her treachery, a bed stuffed with pillows rather than her sleeping body? She edges closer, step by sneakered step, careful not to disturb the gravel lest she give herself away. Something moves just outside her field of vision, but when she whips around, there’s nothing there. It’s only the wind, Natalie assures herself, it’s only the wind, but her instinct whispers that she is no safer inside than out.
Her icy fingers fumble for the key, warmed from her body heat. She creeps closer to discover that the door isn’t locked, the way she left it — or had she? Maybe she had left it unsecured in the haste of her exit. Perhaps her parents had discovered her misstep when they checked the locks before bed. She imagined them crouched near the door in the dark, waiting for her to tip-toe inside only to scare the living daylights out of her in the hopes that she would never sneak out again. The rear door was her only salvation.
And so, our heroine slinks to the back yard, the brush of sappy limbs scraping her tender cheeks as she creeps through the hole in the old wooden fence. She pauses at the edge of the trees, trembling and damp, waiting to see the shadowy figures of her parents moving across the dark kitchen window. Her cheek is bleeding, but she is determined to wait them out. Five minutes becomes ten. The house is still.
She is cold and disconsolate, her limbs achy but alert, ready to make a break for it. Just as she edges forward, a howling comes from behind — could it be timber wolves? Natalie looks this way and that, trembling at their straining cries that echo through the forest. Heart racing, she scampers to the back door only to find that it is unlocked, too. Something rustles through the trees —They’re coming! she thinks– and dashes inside.
Deep in the belly of the woods, a bloodcurdling scream rises from Natalie’s house: the sound of a terrified girl taken down by something hairy and hungry and patient. And then, silence.