Ten-year-old Billy Winthrop and his sister, Sally, were tossing horseshoes at a rusty stake in their sand pit when a girl in her early twenties stepped out of the neighbour’s woodlot and strolled across the patch of fallow ground, to the cedar fence delineating the property line. The black-haired girl, tall and lanky, bearing a crooked smile, leaned heavily against the rail and said, “Hi! I’m your new neighbour. What are your names?”
Billy, being the older of the two, answered first. “I’m Billy, and this is Sally. She’s eight.”
“How nice,” replied the girl. Arching her eyebrows, she studied them with her dark sloe-eyes. “My name is Veronica Lakehurst, but my friends call me Nicki.”
“Nicki’s a silly name,” blurted Sally.
“Stop that,” said Billy, looking crossly at the tousle-haired girl in saggy jeans and a tattered T-shirt. “It’s rude to make fun of a person’s name.” Turning to Nicki, he said, “Sally’s what you call a tomboy. She can’t help what she does.”
“That’s okay,” said Nicki pulling a keychain out of her pocket with a fob shaped like a black cat’s head dangling from it. “I guess I can’t help what I do either.”
Placing two fingers in the eye holes of the cat’s head, she depressed a thumb stud, releasing a trigger action blade—the cat’s claw. Grinning, she nicked a piece of wood out of one of the cedar pickets. “For me, nicking things is like chewing bubble gum,” she explained. “It keeps me calm. The way I see it, the world’s cutting itself to pieces anyhow, so a nick here and there makes little difference.”
Laughing, she turned and walked off into the woods, the sharp sound of the cat’s claw nicking trees echoing into the distance.
“She’s weird,” whispered Sally.
“Yah,” said Billy, his eyes filled with curiosity. “Let’s keep an eye on her.”
Billy and Sally got up early the next morning and filled a bag with snacks and their father’s high-powered binoculars. After breakfast, they headed out the door and down the street that wound around their neighbour’s woodlot. It was a pleasant spring morning, the usual line of trucks rumbling past in the sun, filled with skids, waste, and recyclable materials. Nearing the entrance of the plant, they left the road and crossed the field to the old oak with the abandoned treehouse. Climbing the makeshift ladder, they entered the empty structure.
The two children didn’t need the binoculars to read the big new sign hanging over the entrance gate: LWM — LAKEHURST WASTE MANAGEMENT.A new fleet of trucks, some parked, some in motion, had the big green letters LWM painted on their sides. Coveralled employees ran around attending to the long line of public vehicles snaking into the plant. The stately Lakehurst estate stood in the distance, the woodlot extending behind it. Far beyond the woodlot, the high roof ridge of the siblings’ home could be seen peeking above the trees.
As usual, the 44-foot-long, 96,000-pound, 6400XT WOOD HOG HORIZONTAL WOOD GRINDER was busy chewing up piles of skids into wood chips.
“Hey, someone painted out the word HOG on the big chipper!” exclaimed Billy, peering through the binoculars. “And changed it to the word WITCH. Now it’s a WOOD WITCH!”
Billy turned the focusing thumb-wheel on the binoculars to bring the image in closer.
“I can make out some smaller words too… The WOOD WITCH… and her most familiar friend: Cleave Wilson.“
Sally grabbed the binoculars away from her brother.
“Brrr… and look at the creep running the machine,” she exclaimed, thrusting back the binoculars. “That must be Cleave Wilson. Mr. Werewolf himself!”
Billy looked, and his mouth fell open. The man’s lantern-like head had a broken, twisted nose, and a pair of wild, feral eyes under bushy, beetling eyebrows. Big knife-shaped earrings hung from his pointed ears. A wide-brimmed hat perched awkwardly on a thick mane of waist-length hair. A long, tapered beard hid his chin. His overalls, black and sleeveless, ran down to his square-toed boots. Cleave Wilson, the familiar friend, short, muscular, and squat, had sinewy arms covered in patches of bushy fur-like hair, and tattooed hands with knotty, abnormally long fingers.
Sally leaned back quietly into the shadows of the rotting treehouse and whispered, “What’s a familiar friend, Billy?”
Sally lay in the dark in her little pup tent with the flap pulled back, eyeing the garden patch that Nicki had started on the far side of the fence. Billy lay in the larger tent next to hers, snoring. The children had gotten permission that morning from Mom to “camp” in the backyard. By coincidence, they had seen Nicki strolling in the garden that afternoon with a red-haired boy dressed in bright red clothes, kissing and hugging him.
A crescent moon was rising over the horizon when the flames of a fire suddenly illuminated the darkness. In the light of the burning wood, Sally could see Nicki and Cleave Wilson turning over the garden soil with shovels. Long sticks protruded from the garden, with different paraphernalia affixed to them: a cauldron, a dagger, a mask, and poppets.
Sally reached into Billy’s tent and patted him on the head. “All right,” murmured Billy, as he turned over and looked out his tent.
“We read about those things hanging on the sticks when we looked up what a ‘familiar friend’ was,” whispered Billy after a long moment. “The cauldron is for holding potions and elixirs. The Traveler’s Mask is used for teleportation. The poppets… they’re used to cast spells on people.”
“Nicki’s a witch, then!” declared Sally. “The Wood Witch!”
“And Cleave is her familiar,” replied Billy. “So I wonder what they’re doing digging in the garden at night?”
“What will you children come up with next?” said Evi Winthrop, clapping her hand over her mouth to keep herself from laughing out loud. “Our new neighbour a witch with a familiar, working in her dad’s waste management plant. Now, really!”
Five-foot-two Evi, feeling tall with her fine brown hair piled up in a beehive, leaned precariously against the creaking fence, staring at the garden next door with its equal-sized sections of bright red and blue flowers.
“So the garden looks like a triangle bent in the shape of a cat’s claw,” she continued in a gently mocking voice. “It doesn’t mean it’s a witch’s garden. And you say the red flowers are a red-haired boy and the blue flowers are a boy you saw several weeks ago with this Nicki Lakehurst. He had blue eyes, and he was dressed in blue jeans and a blue shirt. C’mon…”
“I told you Mom wouldn’t believe us,” Sally said to her brother.
“But Circe turned men into animals…” pleaded Billy.
“That doesn’t mean our neighbour has been transforming boys into flowers with the power of dark magic. Circe, as you know, was a sorceress and a goddess. Ms. Lakehurst is just a neighbourhood girl. And now you say you saw another boy with her. A blond boy wearing yellow clothes.”
“That’s right, Mom,” said Sally. “That means the last section in the witch garden will be filled with yellow flowers.”
“All right, then,” said Evi, drawing herself away from the fence. “We’ll see. I agree the garden is a little odd. But the girl is probably growing different-colored flowers simply to remember all her boyfriends by. That’s the only reasonable explanation.”
“I called right away, Detective Thorndike, when I heard the request on the news for information about those three missing boys,” said Evi to the tall policeman standing next to her on the edge of the roped-off garden. “My children had told me they’d seen the boys. Of course, I didn’t believe any of that nonsense about witches and familiars.”
“We’re glad you called,” replied the detective, bending down to examine the overturned earth where the flowers had been. “Your children’s testimony was invaluable,” he continued. “In fact, it helped us break the case of the missing boys.”
Evi smiled effusively at the policeman’s stolid face.
Detective Thorndike stood and looked toward the portable police laboratory parked on the nearby street. Evincing a wry smile, he said, “Of course, we didn’t believe the children’s tales of witches either, Mrs. Winthrop. LWM never had an employee by the name or description of Cleave Wilson. We did find some graffiti in impermanent paints on the big Wood Hog machine; the name Wood Witch and the word cleave. The sun and the rain had erased the rest…”
“That’s what the press are calling Nicki Lakehurst,” interjected Evi. “The Wood Witch.”
“The Case of the Wood Witch, I believe,” Detective Thorndike muttered dryly.
“The lab found DNA traces of the three boys in the Wood Hog,” continued Thorndike, his face darkening visibly. “And here in the soil of the garden, right at our feet. The Wood Witch, as they call her, had evidently… ground up the boys in the big chipper and, well, buried them here. She won’t admit to having had an accomplice, and we can’t prove she did, even though it’s highly probable. She went completely hysterical when we put her in the jail cell, at least until the prison psychiatrist gave her a piece of wood to whittle with her little cat’s claw.”
“My goodness!” exclaimed Evi.
“No, we couldn’t find evidence of this Cleave fellow, or any of the so-called witch paraphernalia your children told us about. To us it’s just another murder case—no matter how sensational and weird the press makes it out as.”
Billy and Sally dashed across the field to the old oak with the abandoned tree fort to get another look at the WOOD HOG HORIZONTAL WOOD GRINDER where they had seen Nicki’s familiar friend. They were in such a hurry they failed to notice the three pairs of tiny hands protruding from the soft, freshly overturned earth. Three pairs of poppet hands: one pair red, one blue, one yellow. Three pairs of hands reaching up toward the tree house, as if pleading for help, for love, for hope.
Thomas Koperwas is a retired teacher living in Windsor, Ontario, Canada who writes short stories of horror, crime, fantasy, and science fiction. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in:Anotherealm; Jakob’s Horror Box; Literally Stories; The Literary Hatchet; Literary Veganism; Bombfire;Pulp Modern Flash; Savage Planets; Dark Fire Fiction; Blood Moon Rising Magazine; Corner Bar Magazine; Free Bundle Magazine.