It had worked. My room was dark, silent
The corner was filled with the absence of Stitch Mouth or Balloon Girl. I missed them. I wanted them. No regrets. I held my tears. They would be no use to me that night.
When I went to the window, I wondered briefly what the witch would think of me. Did she imagine me cowering in the corner of my room, maybe tucked away miserably under my sheets? Did she think I’d be running ahead of her as fast as I could, with no more protectors to aid me?
She would find me doing neither.
Hatred had found its way into my blood. It was warm.
Outside, my neighborhood had been replaced by the woods and a world which had consumed my home and brought my world into the witch’s, her world into mine. My heartrate rose as I unlatched the window, opening it fully. The gray air from the other side sucked life from my room and provided its own presence. I climbed through into the coldness. I had to hurry. The race had begun.
Pale trees stood naked and gangly, glowing weakly in the feeble moon. The air was gray, and so was I, along with everything around me, as though color couldn’t live there, the evidence of lifelessness all around. Ahead of me was a path which had been trampled down by the recurring visits of the witch these past months. Without meaning to, the witch would lead me to her house.
I walked into the ghostly forest, staying to the side of the path, close enough to see it, but not be seen. I touched at the trees as I passed them, like blind guides, using them as a covering before dashing my way between the gaps to ensure I stayed hidden. Deeper in, I stopped dead, sidling behind a tree. I heard her.
I peeked around the curve of a tree and saw the witch walking along the path. She was almost strolling. A wicked grin of victory on her face. Her long hair trailed her. Further down the path she went, passing in and out of my vision between the trees. She had no idea she was being watched or of what I was doing. She’d know soon enough.
When she could no longer be heard, I worked my way further. The trees tightened around me. Bark brushed my body. Low branches attempted to snag at my hair and face, causing me to hunch as I traveled faster. I had to hurry. The maze of trees thickened even more, as though greedy to fill the air. I had to work to keep the path in sight, and at times I had to edge my way or backtrack to regain a view of it. I became afraid of not finding the house, or of being lost in the woods forever. Then I came upon a clearing. Her house was there.
It was smaller than I imagined – almost too small compared to the hideous sights I had witnessed inside. The front door would open to smells and tastes and flies that should never be allowed. And children. There would be children locked away in a room, children who had helped the witch for years and had been responsible for the deaths of my friends.
My breath tightened. I told my lungs to breathe. My arms trembled. I told them to be calm, I needed them to be steady. I went to the house, crossing the open space, feeling as though a spotlight was on me.
I opened the door. The flies came at me. Stepping through the mass of winged bodies, I shut the door silently behind me. Dodging the gore at my feet, I rummaged through splintered drawers and soon found what I hoped to find more than anything. If the witch had a furnace, then she had to have – matches. They were there. Another help the witch had given me. I went towards the stairs, sifting through piles of clothing and cloth along the way to collect the driest scraps until gathering up what I thought would be enough. Just to be sure, I grabbed a teddy bear, one with long fur, wondering strangely if the child would mind.
My heartrate thumped faster and faster. I took a step, eyeing the door above me. The next step creaked with my weight. I winced.
“Mother? Are you back already?” a child called from behind the door.
I took a hurried step. Then another.
“Did you bring that girl? I want to punish her for what they did to my eyes.”
“I want you to cook her tonight.”
I continued to climb.
“Who’s there? Mother? Mother, is that you?”
The door knob rattled.
I set the driest articles of clothing to the base of the door and ripped at a sleeve with my teeth to gain strands of thinner thread. My pile grew. I struck a match. The orange flame sputtered at the tip of a single thread. Then it caught. The flame rose, climbing the clothes until a ball of heat formed. I continued placing more items, all of which burned eagerly. The teddy bear was last. The fire became too much, hot and scalding, but my hand stayed to its task until I was certain the blaze could not be stopped.
The children began yelling. “Mother! Mother!”
They banged on the door, shaking at the knob. But it was too late. Black smoke had congregated at the ceiling, spreading and making its way through the crevices. Smoke seeped beneath the door and into their room. The children began coughing. “Let us out!”
I had prepared myself for that. Prepared myself for any wavering of my will. I remembered the clothes that fed the fire and the unknown children who had worn them. I remembered also all the clothes I couldn’t even use because of how blood-soaked and stained they had been. The innocence that had been taken. Balloon Girl. Stitch Mouth. Stitch Mouth’s brother. Countless others.
The flame had taken to the wooden walls and the door. It spread and rose. The fierce heat forced me down a few steps. I returned downstairs as the blaze roared and popped behind me. Flies followed me outside, escaping into the night sky.
I stood near the home, watching, waiting. Pops and falling things could be heard from inside. The blaze made its way to the roof, consuming the home. Billowing smoke darkened the black sky. Then I heard her. The witch burst from the woods and came to a sudden halt. For a dark moment, she stared at the blaze as it colored her in orange waves.
“You!” she screamed.
I took a step towards the woods. The witch mirrored my slow step and then the next. I dashed into the woods. Skipping over roots and rocks, I paralleled the path again, running back towards my home. The witch was behind me, gaining. I took a sharp turn, heading for a heavier congestion of trees. Low branches lashed at my face. Tree trunks gashed my arms and thudded against me. I traveled deeper, the relentless steps of the witch not far behind. Closer. I side-stepped, cutting behind a tree and then another, zig-zagging back and forth which caused my body to disappear from her sight. She stumbled and cursed her way after me, losing me once, until she saw me again, running ahead. She took chase. My lip split open with the whip of a branch. Another cut across my forehead, causing blood to drip into my eyes. My arms were raw. I dashed behind a tree again, but this time, I stayed, controlling as best I could the rampant efforts of my lungs to pull in deeper breaths. I listened.
The witch came fast. Her fevered hatred blinded her. She came closer, thinking I was further ahead. Closer. She was about to pass me completely. I jumped onto a bough and yanked on it with all my weight. The branch bounced low and snagged the witch by the hair. Her feet flew out from beneath her as her head was ripped back by the unmoving tree. I circled behind her as fast as I could and began wrapping her hair into tangled knots through the spindly branches, tightening my trap.
The witch had been caught.
She wrenched around, shrieking and screaming, kicking at the air, clawing for me. I secured one last clump of hair and circled in front of her. She lunged for me, but I was out of reach. Suddenly, the witch relaxed. She began laughing, as though it was all very amusing.
I revealed no emotion. Said nothing.
The witch stopped laughing, then considered me carefully. “You have me. Sarah. Smart. Cunning. Here I am. What you wanted. What will you do?”
The removing of a match was my answer.
Panic flashed across her face. “Sarah. Don’t. You can’t. Couldn’t live with yourself. I should know. Would know. Hate yourself. Don’t.”
I wanted to say so many things. Ask questions about my friends. About the other children. Scream at her. I wanted to fling judgments until they covered her. But I didn’t want her to see me cry, and I knew I would. I took a step closer.
“Sarah. Don’t. Regret. I never wanted to be like this. No one cared. My babies. No one cared!”
I wanted to ask how she could blame anyone but herself for the death of her own two children. I wanted to ask how she could beg so casually after all she had done. I pinched the match between two fingers and lowered it to the box. I struck it. The flame came to life.
“Names. I’ll tell you their names.”
It was the last thing I expected her to say. The match dropped cold to the leaves. The witch had a thousand confessions to offer, and I wanted to hear them all. I wanted her to beg for forgiveness and prove she still had some shred of humanity left to her. And yes, I wanted to know the true names of my two friends.
The witch tried to take advantage of my hesitation. “Sarah. Yes. Tell you everything. You’ve only heard one side to the story. Their side. They were tricky. Very tricky. Your two friends. You don’t know. They treated me terribly.”
I struck another match. She shrieked again, clinging to her earlier promise, “I’ll tell you their names!”
I bent to the ground to avoid her desperate attempts to reach for me. She kicked me in the face. My vision was ruined by pain. I bled and spit blood. But I didn’t care. I walked behind the witch to avoid her reach. She shrieked everything she could, every possible promise and every threat. I touched the new flame to her dress. The blaze crackled, rising faster than I ever imagined. The witch became a torch, a flame that rose with her screams. I wanted to walk home, or to at least turn away. But I forced myself to watch. I wanted to make sure she died this time. And it was something I had to do.