Traps were prepared. We stood at our stations. Balloon Girl was in the kitchen, bent behind a cabinet. Two other balloon girls stood near. Stitch Mouth stood where the door would open. I was tucked into a corner, cradling an axe in my hands. Our anticipation filled the room. The longer we waited, the heavier the axe became in my shaky hands.
Then we heard her. The front door gave a creak. Pale fingers wrapped the edge of the door. A foot touched the floor. Dangles of black hair drifted inside. A body followed.
Rushing feet and a holler of rage. Balloon Girl and the other girls collided into the witch, grabbing at her and tugging her to the center of the room. Stitch Mouth ran at the witch’s back while she was occupied with the other two girls and slammed against her. I stepped from the corner, watching, waiting for my moment. The witch was hissing and swinging, swatting at the girls. Her back was to me. I took another step. Lifted the axe. I swung. The axe struck the witch in the side of the head, but only knocked her to the floor. I had hit her with the flat side of the axe, not the blade. The girls scurried over the witch’s body. Stitch Mouth held a leg. The balloon girls secured arms. Balloon Girl remained at the head of the witch, wrenching at her long black hair to expose her neck and face. The witch was woozy from my blow, uncertain, laying there. Traces of blood trickled from her head, making a thin trail along the floor.
I stood over the witch and raised the axe to the ceiling. I imagined the witch’s house. All the death. My friends. Stitch Mouth’s brother.
The eyes of the witch met mine. “Please, don’t.”
Her plea caused the axe to feel like it weighed a hundred pounds over my head. The witch wouldn’t look away, just held me with a pitiful gaze that transformed her into something human.
The axe wobbled.
“Do it!” Stitch Mouth screamed.
Do it, Sarah! Hurry!
In a sudden burst of violence, the witch ripped herself free. I swung the axe at her retreat. But it split into a floorboard, causing my arms to hurt with the reverberation. The door flew open. The witch escaped.
I looked around at everyone. Their heads hung low. They wouldn’t look at me. I had failed them. I had failed all of us. We stood together in the aftermath of what could have been.
“It’s okay,” Stitch Mouth finally said.
“No, it’s not.”
It’s okay, Sarah. We’ll get her next time.
Sounds from the woods interrupted us. Crunching leaves and the noise of feet.
“The witch is not alone,” Stitch Mouth stated in confusion, eyeing the windows around us.
A bang jolted the door, startling us. A face appeared in the nearest window, dark and disfigured. It disappeared again. Fists banged on the walls like hail. We were surrounded. Stitch Mouth ran to the center of the floor. The rest of us went to her, huddling together. Squeals of victory erupted outside. The axe was in my hands again, but it felt like a hindrance.
Balloon Girl sidled closer to my side, looking from window to window to door. Be ready, Sarah.
A crash came from Stitch Mouth’s bedroom. The window had been shattered. Shoes on broken glass. Someone was climbing through. I thought it was the witch. But then her hair drifted past the window across from us.
“Return the girls,” Stitch Mouth commanded to Balloon Girl.
Balloon Girl did as she was told, and the two girls became balloons again.
Stitch Mouth bent to the floor, holding a piece of chalk made of sparking glitter. She tapped the tip to the floor and began to spiraled outward. She circled the chalk faster and faster. Winds arose at our feet. Glitter brushed the floor. The circling gusts rose, touching at our ankles, continuing to expand, as it rose until it whipped my hair about my face. A miniature tornado had formed, growing more and more violent in purple-streaks. A chair crashed against the wall. The table flipped. Clothes tossed along the floor before scuttling to the fireplace where they flew up into the night. Balloon Girl’s remaining balloons fought against her grip.
Stitch Mouth stood again in the heart of her storm. She was smiling.
The walls began to shake. Boards wobbled, loosening, and one flew off into the night. Another peeled away. The winds ripped and swirled. Stitch Mouth called out, “We need to go.”
With the same glittering chalk, Stitch Mouth sketched a door. Balloon Girl and I jumped down, landing on top of my mattress. I stared up and watched. Stitch Mouth blew a kiss to her home. Then she dropped down as well. The door on my ceiling disappeared. The winds as well.
My hair was tangled around my head like a bird’s nest. My clothes were ruffled. “Wow,” I said.
Balloon Girl touched my arm and shook her head.
Stitch Mouth sat up and closed her purse. She reset the bow in her hair and flattened out her skirt. Stitch Mouth was about to stand from us, but Balloon Girl reached over and pulled Stitch Mouth into a hug. Stitch Mouth dropped her head to Balloon Girl’s shoulder. “It’s okay.”
“We can’t go back to your home, can we?” I asked.
Her home. The place we spent most of our nights. A place of safety and enjoyment for me. A home filled with memories for Stitch Mouth who was able to talk about her family as though they might return, destroyed by Stitch Mouth’s own hand. And of course, she had done so for me. Always for me. It made me sick. I was sick of all the loss. Sick of the witch. But most of all, I was sick of me.
“Your home is gone.”
“I had no choice.”
I was getting hysterical, “You’ve lost your home! Again! And those girls! The balloon girls! They die for me! It’s all I can imagine, them being ripped apart! Dying!”
What do you want, Sarah? Everything has a cost.
“But I’m so tired of being the one who never has to pay!” I broke down crying. “If I had done something earlier, then none of this would have happened. Stitch Mouth would still have her home. Those other balloon girls never would have died. I never wanted anyone to get hurt. Not for me. Not for me.”
Enough, Sarah. Wipe your tears. Save your anger for the witch.
Stitch Mouth stood and came over to me. She had tears in her eyes. She hugged me. “It’s okay, Sarah.”
“But you loved going to your home.”
“And you’re okay?”
“With all my heart.”
I think it was the only time she ever really lied to me.