Maxwell Augustus Teagarden III stood with his feet planted wide and his head hinged backward on his neck, and cast his gaze up the soaring height of the Victorian turret of Ms. Cider’s house. The round belly of the tower was scaled like a dragon’s hide with scalloped shingles and possessed three tall narrow windows, one on each floor, the uppermost window capped by an arch of red stained glass. That would be the dragon’s eye, mused Maxwell. Even the color of the house was dragon-like. It was mossy green with accents of brick red and buttery cream. Like dried blood and poisonous mushrooms, thought Maxwell, a glint of pleasurable disgust in his dark eyes. The Victorian’s new owner, Ms. Arabella Ciders, showed her own true nature in her choice of paint colors. In all his nine years upon the earth, every one of them spent in this same small town, Maxwell had never seen a creepier house, nor suspected a witchier presence than that of Ms. Ciders.
Maxwell had not actually seen Ms. Ciders yet, that was true. Still, he was sure that she must be a frightful old hag, probably dressed in musty black and sporting an assortment of warts. The facts as he knew them convinced him that he was on the trail of terrifying evil. First, it was October. Halloween was fast approaching, and everyone knew that was the time of greatest power for witches and monsters. That much was documented by all the horror movies that Maxwell was not allowed to see, but that he sneaked into the old Twilight Theatre to watch anyway. These movies were his canon of reference, and they gave him the idea to embark on his almost daily surveillance of the old house. It had stood empty for a long time, its lean height growing shabbier and hungrier-looking each year, and its garden growing wilder and more impenetrable. It had assumed a threatening, yet irresistible, primacy in the sinister landscape of Maxwell’s imagination.
The next point of fact against Ms. Ciders was her otherwise unaccountable purchase of the house. Who but a witch would be able to live in that haunted old wreck? Workmen had been busy at repairing and primping the place all through September, before Ms. Ciders had arrived in town. Maybe it didn’t look quite so horrible as it had, but it was still a predatory presence on its little hill at the end of College Row. Maxwell had heard that there were corpses in the basement, but the small windows set into the house’s stone foundation were so encrusted with grime and the mummified remains of spiders’ feasts that he had never been able to see more behind them than a dim cavern of shadowy shapes. He did know that the front porch groaned like a rising zombie. He had come close to screaming like a girl on the summer evening he had crept close enough to try the squeaky iron doorknob. The door was locked, but something, perhaps a gust of wind through the house’s drafty, high-ceilinged rooms, rattled the tall leaded-glass panel from the other side. A tittering whisper had rasped from the rough throat of the kitchen chimney. Maxwell remembered well the feeling of his hair standing on end, but he had retreated with dignity and made it home in time for curfew, just as the streetlights flickered on.
He knew that Ms. Ciders had a cat, a black cat, with a ferocious expression and a tattered ear. It wore a bell, but he had seen it creeping silently through the overgrown garden, and so the bell was useless as an alarm. The cat had a strange name. He had heard Ms. Ciders calling for it from the shadowy interior of the house. Her voice was not the hoarse, feeble croak he had expected. In fact, it sounded much like his own mother’s voice, low and musical – but a witch was a crafty creature. He was not fooled by such obvious tricks.
Ms. Ciders drove an old black car, really old, like an antique. Maxwell’s father said it was a 1951 Daimler Consort, and he said it with such admiration that Maxwell grew concerned that the car had cast some sort of spell over his normally vague parent. The house painters had draped the car with great care in an immense canvas tarp before they went to work with the green, red, and cream paint. After school each day, Maxwell lurked on the opposite side of the street, hidden beneath Mr. Ardry’s forsythia hedge, and watched the men go up and down the tall ladders. All during the days of painting, the black car sat quiet under the spotless canvas, and the black cat wound about the feet of the ladders, not ringing the bell around its neck. The Victorian, crouched on its slight hill, hung over the sidewalk in menacing perspective. Its numerous sharp-pointed gables, dark against the grey autumn sky, looked like so many devils’ horns. Maxwell did not get a single glimpse of Ms. Ciders, but he sometimes heard her unexpectedly nice voice float from open windows. I know what you are, Maxwell brooded, and I’m telling.
Blackfern Elementary nestled in the friendly, sun-laced shadows of a park of colossal sycamores. It was a two-story brick cube encumbered with rather ornate architectural excesses for a building of its modest size. Fat white pillars and a deep arch framed its entrance, and peaked dormers made less severe by fanciful brackets of stonework soared above like surprised eyebrows. Inside, the cool, pale corridors ran along past small, stuffy classrooms where a thin haze of chalk dust seemed always to hang in the air, and where Maxwell drooped over his desk and watched the clock. Tick, tick, tick went the hands of the clock. Scratch, scratch, scratch went the labored pencils of his fellow students. The sun cascaded through the gold and green of the sycamore leaves and struck the bricks of the school. The classroom warmed like an oven, and only the promise of recess, now mere minutes away, prevented Maxwell from falling into a coma.
The bell rang. The teacher shouted for order as chairs screeched across the worn wooden floor and the class stampeded for the coat hooks at the back of the room. A flurry of colorful fabric rippled and danced, and then they formed their double line to march out to the park. Maxwell hopped from foot to foot in excitement. Today, he would reveal the truth of Ms. Ciders’ identity to his classmates, and save Halloween from her wicked plans. He would be a hero! In the theatre of his imagination, he re-played the film in which he led a group of brave trick-or-treaters through the gusty, leaf-strewn streets of the town to the witch’s door. There, he would ring the bell and, when Ms. Ciders opened the door expecting to snatch them up for her cauldron, or whatever, he would cast holy water in her face and they would all -
“Maxwell! Please pay attention.” Mrs. Rumson clapped her hands in exasperation. “You may lead your line into the hallway.”
He had to wait while two other classes shuffled past, and then they were moving. At the first touch of the brisk autumn air, Maxwell broke ranks and pelted out into the slow swirling fall of leaves, kicking his way through deep, crispy drifts of them and leaping over the white sycamore roots that snaked along the surface of the ground. He was on fire with an uncomfortable mixture of righteous outrage and glee, and raced over the wiry grass to the orange dome of the monkey bars. He climbed to the top and waved his arms.
“Joey! Sara! Chris!” He shouted for his classmates, and they trudged or galloped toward him, depending on their mood. Soon the monkey bars were riotous with roosting fourth-graders. Maxwell, at the pinnacle, called for silence.
“I have something important to tell you,” he began. “It’s something that’s going to make this Halloween really dangerous.” He looked around at the upturned faces. A few of them watched him with wide, credulous eyes, but others looked impatient.
Maxwell did not have any close friends. He snooped and told tales, and he often played mean pranks. His classmates were wary. Chris, a tall, serious boy to whom the others often looked for leadership, said, “What is it this time, Teacup? Terrorists? Axe murderers?”
Maxwell felt a throb of indignant anger. He hated the nickname that poked fun at his small stature. “Shows what you know! There’s a witch living in the old Carver place on College Row. I’ve seen her, and if you go trick-or-treating up there, she’ll get every one of you.” He did not feel the slightest guilt at lying about seeing Ms. Ciders.
Chris rolled his eyes and snorted. More of the upturned faces grew skeptical, and even mocking. “My mom knows the real estate guy who sold that house,” the taller boy said. “Some lady from out of state bought it. Her name’s Ms. Ciders, and she’s not a witch. She’s an interior decorator.”
There was a spate of good-natured laughter. His classmates’ brief interest flickered out like the interior flames of jack-o-lanterns, and Maxwell’s big news fell flat before he had a chance to deliver the exciting details of his plan. Several children slipped away to join a kickball game, and others began to climb and swing on the cold bars.
Maxwell was furious. He leaned close to Chris and hissed, “You mean, Ms. Spiders. She has a black cat. It’s probably a demon in disguise. She drives a hearse, and has dead people in her cellar. If you go trick-or-treating there, you’ll get a lot more than candy!”
Chris laughed. “Okay, Teacup. If you’re so afraid of her, just stay home on Halloween. I’ll tell you what, I’ll go up there tonight and toilet paper her trees for you.” He chuckled and gave Maxwell a comradely punch on the shoulder, then hopped down to scuff through the leaves, pulling a dog-eared comic book from his back pocket.
Maxwell stayed at the top of the monkey bars for the duration of recess, and never felt the chill air as it reddened his cheeks. His brows drew together and his lips turned down. His classmates, recognizing the signs of roused temper, avoided him. He didn’t care. There was less than a week left until Halloween. He would have to work fast, but he could still be a hero.
It seemed there was no one home at the Ciders residence. The house was dark inside, and no sounds betrayed movement. Ms. Ciders’ old black car was nowhere in sight. Maxwell’s stomach gurgled in the sleepy, after-supper silence. He had wolfed his food so fast that his mother, thinking him especially hungry, had dished up seconds. After his speedy pedal up the hill to College Row with the lasagna he’d all but swallowed whole wallowing in his gut, Maxwell felt a little unwell. His bicycle lay by the low retaining wall at the foot of the driveway, its front wheel still turning, and he crouched in the weedy garden above it, surveying the quiet house. When he was sure there was no one about, he crept forward. The tall grass and wild garden plants grabbed and plucked at him. His bald sneakers skated over half-buried stepping stones as slick as toad’s skin. He thought he heard a stealthy rustle and froze. From the corner of his eye, he saw a long, low shadow flit behind the cover of a stack of pumpkins near the porch steps. He waited, counting to twenty under his breath, but nothing more stirred. Maxwell pulled his sweatshirt sleeve over his hand and mopped the cold sweat from his face. He could see an upturned rain barrel, emptied and ready for winter storage, beside the Victorian’s turret. Again, he crept forward.
The house now stood in a wide circle of mown grass. Boney Musser’s Lawn Mechanics had been out to the house while Maxwell was in school, and had begun the work of taming the landscape. Maxwell set his foot in the clipped circle and heard a soft flapping sound from the porch. His stomach clenched around the lump of lasagna in a sudden spasm, and he emitted a thunderous belch. Horrified, he clapped his hands over his mouth and looked wildly around. He expected a light to blaze out at him, but the house only settled deeper into silence. Maxwell looked up at the sky, where the pale lemon rift of the sunset divided the night from the last of the day. Already, one tiny star glimmered icily. Soon the streetlights would start to glow. He only had a few minutes if he was going to look, and he scuttled forward and dragged the rain barrel under the sill of the first of the turret’s ascending windows.
The barrel made a low gonging sound that couldn’t be helped as he wrestled it into place, and Maxwell kicked against its grumbling sides a few times as he clambered atop it. Damn, damn, damn, he panted in an enraged whisper. On his knees on the upturned and rocking barrel, he flopped against the windowpane with his hands cupped around his eyes. The glass was colder than the waters of Icehouse Lake and fogged over as he exhaled. The cold of it bit into the fleshy pads of his hands, and he jerked them away and rubbed them on his jeans. Steadying himself with one hand on the window frame, he climbed to his feet and leaned forward more carefully. This time, he held his breath.
Inside was a dim parlor so swathed in shadows that Maxwell could barely make out the shapes of the furniture. Across the room, a wide archway gleamed a lighter shade of grey, and he could see the tall boxy figure of a case clock just inside it. As his eyes adjusted, he made out the sketchy forms of a few chairs and a tea table that seemed knit to the surrounding darkness. Just inside the window, a black hump loomed, and Maxwell saw that it was the back of an antique sofa. He was looking at it when a bit of the interior gloom seethed to life with a yowl and two green sparks burned out at him with malevolent interest. The cat! Maxwell gave a muffled shout of alarm and flailed backward. The rain barrel tilted and flung him to the ground, and what was left of the fading light went out.
Maxwell…Maxwell…Maxwell, chimes rang in silvery tones that became a voice. “Maxwell, can you hear me? That’s it, sit up slowly.”
A woman bent over him. Her long auburn hair was pulled into a low ponytail that hung forward over her shoulder and tickled his face with its foxy tip. Her face was pleasant and open, her deep blue eyes clouded with concern. She was older than his mother, Maxwell saw, but somehow looked younger. Her creamy skin flushed prettily in the cold twilight, and although there were tiny laugh lines at the corners of her eyes, her face was otherwise unlined and lovely. Before he could stop himself, Maxwell smiled at her.
“Well, that’s the ticket,” she said with a laugh. She stood and held out her hands to him, and pulled him to his feet. She was tall and very slim, but strong. “Do you feel dizzy?”
He did, a little. Struck suddenly shy, he nodded.
“Come inside and sit down for a minute, then. I’ll get you something to drink.” She turned toward the wide front porch and led him along like a docile lamb. “You know, I‘m very cross with you, Maxwell. It isn’t polite to spy in people’s windows, and you could have been hurt.”
The fog was clearing from Maxwell’s brain, and red alarm lights were firing along his nerves. He had fallen into Ms. Ciders’ clutches, literally, and she was about to drag him into the awful house of his nightmares.
“Um, I can’t…I have to get home, uh, very sorry…I’d better go,” he babbled.
“Don’t be silly. You had quite a tumble, and I want to be sure you’re okay. Now, in you go.” The tall front door yawned open and Ms. Ciders thrust him through it with gentle insistence. As the door shut behind him, Maxwell again heard the soft flapping sound. There was a cat flap set into the door’s lower panel, and it swung now as though something had just darted through it.
Inside, the house glowed with warm candlelight from a thousand points. Hundreds of tiny fairy lights twinkled from above, strung through a gnarled grapevine border that twisted along the ornate crown moldings as though it grew there naturally. Ms. Ciders guided Maxwell to the kitchen, a cozy room with a huge dark fireplace and a brick hearth. She eased him into a hickory rocker by the hearth, and busied herself at the gleaming red range.
“How about a cup of cocoa? A little sugar and chocolate should set you to rights.”
Maxwell’s tongue was a stiff scrap of leather in his mouth. He was mortified to have been caught peeping in her window, and confused by the incongruities between what he had imagined her to be and what he saw before him. Where was the pointed nose and clouded eye? Where were the warts and the scraggly white hair? The house itself was a riddle. It was neat as a pin and homey with the scents of cinnamon and cloves. If it was old, it was not decrepit. If it was mysterious, it only added to its charm. Maxwell closed his eyes and rolled his head from side to side in consternation. When he opened his eyes, he saw the ancient, blackened timber of the fireplace mantle, atop which lounged the long wiry form of the cat. Its hot green gaze was like a slap. Maxwell became aware of a creeping chill that emanated from the fireplace bricks, and the cold smell of centuries of wood smoke. He sat up straighter, his eyes falling to the hearth where he saw the dull polish of some small pearly object lying on the bricks. A button?
The cat gave a low growl and reached a lazy paw down to rake his hair. Maxwell gasped.
“Widdershins! Behave yourself. Maxwell is a guest.” Ms. Ciders stood before him, a steaming cup in her hands. “Here, dear. Drink this. Are you feeling better?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Maxwell gulped at the cocoa, burning his tongue. He looked back at the hearth, but the button or whatever it was had vanished. Ms. Ciders’ slim boot rested where it had been, the toe tapping a slow rhythm in time with the lash of Widdershins’ tail.
“Good. I think you’d better go home, now.” She bent to look him in the eye. “Maxwell, spying is not acceptable behavior for a young gentleman. If I catch you at it again -”
Ms. Ciders paused and smiled at him. Maxwell felt a sick faintness come over him. “I’ll have to tell your parents,” she finished. “I hope you understand me.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he repeated.
As he pedaled furiously toward home, it occurred to him that he had never told Ms. Ciders his name, and yet she knew it. Worse, he realized that what he had seen glimmering whitely on Ms. Ciders’ hearth had not been a button. It was a tooth.
The next day, Maxwell felt nervous and a bit feverish. He wanted to tell someone about his encounter with Ms. Ciders, and especially about the tooth, the thought of which gave him a feeling of horror so visceral he was nauseated. His aspirations to heroism had flown. For the first time, he felt the icy touch of real fear. It skittered up and down his spine. It strangled him when he tried to talk. At breakfast, he tested the subject of Ms. Ciders on his mother. She was enthusiastic in her praise of the older woman, who had already joined the Blackfern County Literacy Council. Maxwell’s mother was a librarian, and no endeavor was closer to her heart than furthering literacy in their rural county. There would be no help there, and he was reluctant to admit his misdeeds, in any case.
At school, he looked for Chris. For once, he was willing to ask advice. Chris was absent, and Mrs. Rumson would only say that he was unwell. At recess, Maxwell kicked through the dry sycamore leaves to the seesaws by the low stone wall that surrounded the park, and sat on one all alone. He considered telling the other kids what had happened, and had nearly made up his mind to do so, when he saw Widdershins stalking along the wall. He knew the cat by its silent bell and torn ear. Widdershins pretended to focus on the antics of a fat grey squirrel, but Maxwell felt the sly, sidelong stab of the green eyes. The cat was watching him. In a fit of pique, he picked up a pebble and chucked it at the beast. Widdershins flattened along the top of the wall with a hiss. The pebble sailed harmlessly out of sight. When the school bell rang, Maxwell was glad to return to the classroom.
Mrs. Rumson trained her laser-like gaze on him as he slid wearily into his seat.
“Maxwell, are you sick,” she asked. “You look pale, and I haven’t heard a peep from you all day. I hope you’re not coming down with what Chris has.”
Before he could assure her he was fine, she marched up to him in her stout, sensible shoes and clamped a man-sized hand over his forehead. Her sausage-like fingers obscured his sight. His head was forced back against the tweedy jiggle of her belly and a fog of perfume surrounded him. He squirmed to no avail; it was like trying to escape the clutch of a Valkyrie. His classmates giggled.
“I’m fine,” he managed to squeak.
In that burning instant of humiliation, all his fear turned to shame. He had been a coward, and had come close to making things worse by admitting it to everyone. The monster hunters in the movies would not cower under the glare of a scruffy cat. They would not shirk their duties just because they thought they saw a tooth on the floor. It was important to remember that he had been in an anxious state when he saw it. Cripes, he had only just recovered from knocking himself out! He had been likely to see anything. He would not allow his imagination to get the best of him. He would go back tonight, and show Ms. Ciders that she couldn’t scare him off.
Mrs. Rumson released him. “No fever. Well, get a thorough rest tonight, young man. You don’t want to be sick and miss Halloween.”
She stumped back to the blackboard and began erasing the day’s spelling lesson. When the dismissal bell rang, Maxwell flew home with the hot ghost of her handprint emblazoned on his forehead.
The moon was a full white disk in a cloudless blue sky. Weak late-afternoon sunlight fell through the trees along Maxwell’s street and lit the remaining leaves in a ruddy glaze of warm colors. Maxwell sat cross-legged on his bed in the kaleidoscopic shift of reds and golds cast by the maple outside his window, and took an inventory of his tricking kit. There was a small paper sack of candy corn for tick-tacking, the time-honored tradition of throwing rattling handfuls against the siding and windows of houses under cover of darkness. Real corn would have been better, but he had found the candy corn conveniently to hand in the big bowl by the front door, ready to be dispensed to trick-or-treaters on Saturday night. He took only enough for his purposes, and not enough to alert his mother to its disappearance. He only needed ammunition for one house, anyway.
There was a fully-loaded water pistol, filled at great peril from the font inside the doors of St. John the Baptist. If Father Colin had caught him…well, he hadn’t, and Maxwell was happy to abandon that distressing line of thought. The pistol was one of his prized possessions. His father had given it to him on his last birthday, and it looked exactly like James Bond’s Walther PPK. It was made of aluminum rather than plastic, and cast in explicit detail. Its action was smooth and never sticky, and it blasted forth a steady, needle sharp stream that traveled almost ten feet. Best of all, it had a fancy letter M on its grip. It stood for the manufacturer of the toy, but no one needed to know that. Maxwell was quite proficient in its use, and could shoot acorns off the back fence with accuracy.
Finally, there was a knapsack containing a flashlight, a handful of shooter marbles, and a slingshot. Maxwell felt uneasy about these last two items. He wasn’t a killer. But Ms. Ciders’ cat might prove dangerous, and he didn’t think a blast of holy water would deter it. It was better to be prepared. If nothing else, he could use the slingshot to strafe the witch’s jack-o-lanterns. He packed all of his gear carefully in the knapsack, and looked at the calendar clock on his nightstand. It was Thursday. Tomorrow, he had to be the ghost in his class’s Halloween play. If he were going to face the witch, it would have to be tonight. The maple tree scratched at the window, and he turned to look out at the thinning sunlight. A black triangular face looked back at him. Widdershins! Maxwell’s heart galloped. The cat’s eyes seemed to grow into enormous green caves, and a hot pink tongue stole from its narrow jaws and swabbed its quivering whiskers. It was an insolent taunt. Widdershins stood on the swaying maple branch and stretched, lengthening like a baleful shadow and showing its claws. It yawned in Maxwell’s face as he stared from the window, transfixed by the endless red gullet and sharp teeth. The little brass bell bobbed against its chest, but made no sound. In fact, he could not hear anything at all. It was as though the world had stopped.
“Maxwell! Dinner’s ready.” His mother’s voice broke the spell, and sound and motion rushed back upon him. In the instant that he looked away, Widdershins vanished like smoke. Maxwell stuffed his bulging knapsack under his bed and went downstairs to dinner.
“Chris’s mother came into the library today to get some books for him.” Maxwell’s mother chatted amiably as she dished up tomato soup and sliced a grilled cheese sandwich into triangles for him. “She said Chris was sick this morning, and looked white as a sheet. When she went to take his temperature, she saw he’d lost one of his baby teeth. He must have swallowed it. It made me think about your little teeth, honey. Are any loose?”
Maxwell didn’t answer. He was thinking of a roundish, dully gleaming ivory object lying on a brick hearth. He didn’t feel very hungry, and pushed the corner of his sandwich around in the red sea of his soup.
“Eat up, now.” His mother ruffled his hair, and turned to load the dishwasher. “I don’t want you to come down with whatever Chris has.”
That evening, Maxwell waited in an agony of impatience until he could escape to his bedroom without arousing suspicion. He could not concentrate on his favorite TV programs, and went several times to the family room doorway to listen for his parents’ voices coming from his father’s den. They were in there untangling long strings of tiny orange lights and putting the final touches on the props they were responsible for constructing for tomorrow night’s play. They giggled and joked like teenagers, wrapping each other in the lights and getting all mushy. Soon, the door to the den closed. Maxwell could hardly believe his luck. He raced up the stairs to his room, where he shrugged into a light hooded jacket. He dragged the knapsack from under the bed and wriggled into its straps, and then crept down the stairs and past the den. He eased open the front door, and slipped out into the chilly night. The sun was down, and everything was a deep blue striated with tree shadows. Darker puddles of gloom pooled behind hedges and along the sides of the houses. Windows blazed yellow, and carved pumpkins sported fiery grins. The air was wild with the scent of fallen leaves and bonfire smoke, and an undefinable tang that made the blood bubble and race – an olfactory call to mischief that Maxwell heeded. With a laugh, he ran through the dark backyards, unseen in the shadows and feeling powerful in his invisibility. He ran toward College Row.
The pumpkins that had been piled by Ms. Ciders’ front steps were gone, and a mob of kindled jack-o-lanterns leered from her porch. The house was mostly dark, but undulating candlelight flowed from behind the lace of her kitchen curtains with the cossetting warmth of melted butter. Muzzy shadows passed by the window, crossing and recrossing the room – first Ms. Ciders’ tall figure, and then the lanky silhouette of Widdershins as the cat slunk across the wide windowsill. Maxwell squatted in the bushy cover of the old garden, and pulled his knapsack from his back. His teeth chattered, not from the cold but from a fearful excitement. Above him, in the skeletal branches of Ms. Ciders’ trees, ghostly banners of toilet paper fluttered and drooped. Chris had been here, for sure. Maxwell shivered as he thought of his fallen classmate. From a small, dim room in his brain, a voice that sounded a lot like his mother’s tried to tell him that he should go home, Go home right now!, and give up this very bad idea. He squashed his momentary indecision, and thought of the monster hunters in his favorite movie. Tonight, he would join their brave ranks. His hands trembled as he drew out the paper sack of candy corn, but his jaw was set in rigid determination.
Maxwell crawled a little further around the side of the house to where the rhododendron bushes offered deeper shadows in which to hide. There was a second kitchen window overlooking his new cover, but the darkness that lay on the strip of lawn between the rhodies and the house was profound. Perfect. Maxwell scooted to the front of the shrub bed and stood on shaky legs, his hand closing around a fistful of candy corn. He took a deep breath, and before he could succumb to nerves, he drew his arm back and brought the handful of candy forward in a catapulting arc. The orange and yellow bits flew through the night like darts. His aim was unimpeachable, and they struck the window and the side of the house with a sound like hailstones. Thrilled and shocked at the rattling volume of his missiles, Maxwell pitched another volley against the house, almost without pausing. The candy corn peppered the kitchen window and fell clattering to the porch. The lace curtain twitched aside, and a face appeared at the window. It was not Ms. Ciders, but Widdershins, whose glare seemed to pin Maxwell to the darkness with terrifying precision. He fell back into the embrace of the rhododendrons and cowered among their roots, his heart banging against his ribs.
The back door opened, and a long rectangle of light fell on the grass, illuminating the mossy rim of an abandoned well. In the center of the blazing patch was the spidery thin shadow of Ms. Ciders. The shadow stood erect for a moment, unmoving, then twisted and shrank. When it sprang back to its full length, it had grown a squat appendage from each hand. Curious, Maxwell crept out from his hiding place, scampered across the lightless strip of the side lawn, and flattened himself against the house. In full stalking mode, he drew the water pistol from his knapsack and let the pack slide to the ground. Ms. Ciders’ shadow swayed and moved across the lawn to slip over the edge of the well. Her boot heels clicked across the porch and down the back steps, and then made soft whispering sounds on the grass. As she approached the well, Maxwell brought the pistol up to his ear in a two-handed grip and, holding his breath, sidled along the house to get within firing range. Only a small, trapezoidal mat of gloomy black lay between him and his quarry, and he could see that she carried two heavy buckets. Sweat trickled into his eyes, and he blinked away the salty sting of it. The pistol’s pebbled grip felt slick in his hands, and he stealthily took one away to wipe it against his jeans.
Ms. Ciders upended one of the buckets into the well. Maxwell could not see the contents, but whatever they were, they went over the stone lip with a sickening slither. Ms. Ciders bent to pick up the second bucket, and Maxwell heard the distant splat of the first one’s contents striking stagnant water at the bottom of the well. The bucket shifted as Ms. Ciders lifted it, and two items tumbled from it to the grass – something heavy that hit the ground with a dull thud, and something made of paper that flapped and rustled. Over the side went the contents of the second bucket with the same wet, gloppy sound. Ms. Ciders scooped the fallen objects off the lawn. As she tossed the first into the well, Maxwell saw with horror that it was a weighty knob of bone from which shreds of flesh stuck out. Ms. Ciders glanced briefly at the paper object before she flung it away, too. There was no mistaking the dog-eared, glossy cover. It was Chris’s comic book.
The water pistol hung from nerveless fingers at Maxwell’s side. He pressed himself into the side of the house and felt a prickling of tears start up in his eyes. Fear bloomed in him like a noxious weed, and its thorny vines scratched along his joints, firing them for flight. Ms. Ciders went back into the house and closed the door, and Maxwell squeezed his eyes shut against the tears and hitched a quiet, sobbing gulp of air. When he opened them again, Widdershins sat in the moonlight beside the well, and stared at him with jeering malice. The cat gave a yowl like a maddened devil, and Maxwell turned and sprinted for the street. The sloping front lawn and garden lengthened ahead of him like the landscape of a nightmare. Maxwell pumped his short legs and pounded across the mown strip of lawn and into the tangle of the garden. The tripwires of some pungent groundcover ensnared his feet, and he fell forward into the herbal jungle with bone-jarring impact. At the same instant, the enormous orb of the full moon sailed above the trees and rooftops, spotlighting him as he wallowed in the grip of the garden’s tentacles. It sent his shadow stretching backward to collide with the black-booted toes of Ms. Ciders.
“Maxwell, what on earth are you doing?” Ms. Ciders did not approach him. Her face had the frustrated look that Mrs. Rumson’s sometimes wore right before suspending someone from recess. She held a broom in her hands, as though she had come outside to do battle, but it was not any kind of broom Maxwell had ever seen before. Its shaft was a long and twisted branch, still wearing the bark but worn satiny smooth. Its brush was a twiggy explosion that did not lie flat like the golden straws of his mother’s broom.
“Was that you who threw the candy corn against the house a little bit ago?” Ms. Ciders’ toe tapped on the moonlit grass, and her expression wavered toward the angry end of the spectrum. “I believe I warned you what would happen if you persisted in your bad behavior, Maxwell. Bad things happen to bad boys.”
Maxwell shot to his feet. “Please don’t tell my parents, Ms. Ciders,” he pleaded. “It was just a Halloween prank. I didn’t see anything.” Maxwell jammed the knuckles of his right hand into his traitorous mouth. What had he said?
“Oh, you didn’t, did you?” Ms. Ciders’ pretty mouth quirked upward in a smile that was not very nice. “I don’t know what you think you saw, young man, but you are quite enough of a menace without adding tale-telling to your repertoire. Still, I do admire your pluck.”
Maxwell thought of running, and the thought telegraphed itself across his face. Ms. Ciders moved her booted toe and rested it on the edge of Maxwell’s moon shadow. Maxwell found himself unable to move, or even to blink. He stared through smarting bug-eyes at Ms. Ciders as she twirled the weird broom in her hands until its shaft pointed at the ground like a lance.
“Don’t worry, my boy. I am not unfair, nor unsympathetic to the mischief of childhood. In fact, I rather admire it.”
Widdershins materialized out of the darkness to rub against her ankles, and Ms. Ciders cast a fond look at the cat before raising the broom and spearing it downward toward Maxwell’s shadow.
“Noooo!” Maxwell’s wail of distress went unheeded by the night. His shadow, pierced by the shaft of the broom, contracted swiftly and dragged him close to Ms. Ciders.
Reversing the broom, she calmly swept the scrunched boy shadow away with a sweep to the left. As the scraggly brush swung back to the right, a new shape lay on the grass. It had pointed ears and a long slender tail. Before he could draw breath for another shriek, the little shadow climbed Maxwell’s leg and battened on his heart. It expanded until it covered him head to toe, squeezing as it went. Maxwell opened his mouth, but what came out was a thin mewling sound. He fell to the ground and wrestled with his altered and tightening shadow for a few seconds, then lay still. He was a black, quivering lump on the frosty grass, as insensible as a nub of coal.
As the moon hid behind a rag of clouds, he began to feel again, and what he felt was astonishing. The air was a cool, stroking river of tantalizing scents. He opened his eyes and saw…everything! The shadows hid no secrets, and he was dazzled by the incandescent auras of the objects around him. Even the smallest things were limned in brilliance. They spoke in voices of light, imparting a wealth of information of which he had been ignorant before. He heard the soft scuffle of tiny feet in the walls of the house, and the quick drums of a hundred racing hearts. He stretched luxuriously and licked his whiskers with a hot, pink tongue. Looking down, he saw that he was the color of his shadow, which now lay docile on the ground. Its four-footed shape was an ideal fit, and no longer pinched him.
He looked up at Ms. Ciders, who stooped to scoop him in her arms. Her long fingers tickled under his chin in a way that made him rumble with pleasure.
“Well, my fine friend, aren’t you handsome,” she exclaimed. “Let’s go in and have some of the nice roast I made. We have a lot of work to do before Saturday. We want to be ready for all the little trick-or-treaters, don’t we?”
She carried him toward the house, and Widdershins ran along behind them. Maxwell was surprised to find that he could hear the other cat’s bell just fine.
Read stories by Elizabeth Yon in Wilderness: A Collection of Dark Tales, available in paperback and for Kindle through Amazon.com. Happy Halloween!