Painting, oil on canvas, Tompkins Matteson (1853) “Examination of a Witch”
A bang-smack, the punch of the airbag and a sizzle of hot fluid pissing from the undercarriage. In the cinder darkness, the hood of my mother-in-law’s car has crumpled like a wet napkin.
When something like this happens, I tell myself it’s a dream. I am asleep next to Katie, not standing in a frozen cornfield, not about to call Derek for a tow, who will rag on me for wrecking yet another car.
Outside, the air stinks of dying radiator. Headlights aim uselessly into the field.
“Not again, you drunk piece of shit.” This is my mother-in-law, Marsha, whose voice plays in my head when she’s not there to yell at me in the flesh. This is me, apologizing, out loud, into the black. “I didn’t have that much, I swear. It’s just bad luck.”
“Good luck, I say!”
Not Marsha, but a man’s voice, shiny as silver. The tree I’ve slammed into shudders and something round and hard drops on the hood and lays between two peaks of cracked steel. It’s a pear, pale green like when you’re about to be sick, like I might be, at the idea I could have killed whoever is talking to me from within the branches.
“Is there someone up there? You need help getting down?”
“You hit the nail on the head.” A chuckle like this is a magnificent joke. “All you have to do is say, ‘Release Satan from the pear tree.’”
I’m not a religious man, but something about this feels off, not to mention corny.
“Ah,” the voice says. “Pardon me, I’m a bit rusty. You’ll be wanting something in return.”
So many things. “Happen to have a tow truck?”
“I can do you one better, sir.” A flare of light and Marsha’s busted car is no longer hugging a tree. It’s running, the radiator intact, hood and fender smooth as the sea, the engine humming like a chorus.
The pear rolls off the hood.
“I can’t thank you enough,” he says. The man with the voice bows to me, his toe pointed. He looks like a movie star and smells like mulled wine. Dressed like a historical reenactor at Old Bedford Village but like one of the villains, like a preacher who would have hung some witches back in the day.
“Care to make an exchange?” he asks.
“Yes. First, I grant your deepest desire, and then –”
Now that the car is fixed, I have one remaining desire: that Marsha won’t ride my ass for how late I get in.
He smiles. “I can get rid of her for you.”
Sounds nice, but Katie wouldn’t appreciate that. “I just wish she’d stop talking.”
He’s very formal, this dude, so we shake on it. He adjusts the fingers on his satin gloves and says, “Now. I’ll need the man that ran the blacksmith shop here, right beside this tree. Do you know him? He is very arrogant and very clever. A magician with metals.”
“I don’t know any blacksmiths,” I tell him, and he gives himself a shake so his cape falls evenly across his shoulders, a gesture that says this is the wrong answer. I tell him he must mean Derek. Yoked and tattooed, been around town forever, got a gift with cars. Probably could have fixed Marsha’s in only a few more minutes than it took this man, but he is a real son of a bitch to deal with.
A half an hour later, I am tucked in beside Katie. She rolls into me, lifts her face to mine, and slips her hand into my boxers, and I feel like a man who has won the lottery.
Across the breakfast table, Marsha is giving me the stink eye. I’m staring at her over the rim of my coffee as Katie runs in with her phone in her hand, pale as last night’s pear.
“That was Cynthia. Derek is dead. They found him this morning in his shop. He was covered in blood, she said.” Katie moans and pushes into my lap. Stroking her back through the soft terry cloth of her robe, I hear the man’s radio voice, solving my problems with a nod, the word he lobbed at me like a gnarled pear.
Exchange. “Isn’t it awful, Mom?” Katie says, but Marsha, who should be hollering about poor Derek, taken from us too soon, can’t say a word.
Joanna Theiss (she/her) is a writer living in Washington, DC. Her short stories and flash fiction have appeared in journals such as Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, Bending Genres, Anti-Heroin Chic, Fictive Dream, and Best Microfiction 2022. Links to her writing are available at www.joannatheiss.com.
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