"Horror stories show that the control we believe we have is merely an illusion." -Clive Barker *** Herb looked at the house and whistled as he got out of the car. "Are you sure this woman's not a real witch?" he said.
"Who else would live here?" Herb's wife shushed him. The old iron gate around the property's dying lawn creaked when he pushed on it, and a winding path of broken stones led up to the tall, dark house with Gothic turrets and staring windows. You'd basically have to be a witch to move into a place like this like this, he thought.
The realtor was probably even running some kind of witch special: "Extra large broom closets, new cauldron included with down payment." Herb's wife tsked as they approached the front door. "This looks so unhealthy," she said. "You don't think Willie caught anything while he was here? From flea bites or something?" Herb thought it was more likely that fleas would get sick from biting their son than the other way around, but said nothing.
When he pushed the doorbell he expected it to make a scream, like on an old TV show, but all he got was a perfectly normal ring. And when the door opened, he was surprised again: A pretty young woman with a figure and a big smile stood on the threshold, and she smelled like cinnamon.
Herb took off his hat. "Pardon me, Miss, we're looking for your…mother?" The woman's bangs bobbed when she shook her head. "No, you're looking for me. I'm Nancy Brookwood. And you must be Mr. and Mrs. Beaser. Come right in!" The house was all angles and wood paneling and as dark as pitch on the inside, but it wasn't dirty or rundown. In fact, it seemed warm and pleasant; cinnamon and other baking scents were everywhere, as well as smells like burning candles and incense.
It was immediately one of the most comfortable places Herb had ever been in. No wonder Willie is always trying to sneak over here, he thought. Herb's wife furrowed her brow. "I'm sorry, are we expected? We shouldn't be. Oh, that sounds rude, doesn't it?" The Brookwood woman shook her head again.
"Not at all. The only reason I knew you were coming is you're the third parents to stop by today. I'll probably get the whole neighborhood before the weekend is over." She brought Herb and his wife to a library of sorts, with big windows and thick carpet and a monstrous fireplace.
Herb recognized it from Willie's description of the house. A plate of cookies sat on the table, apparently baked just for their arrival. The Brookwood woman was small, the antique chair she sat in bigger than she was. Sitting showed off her dynamite legs; Herb couldn't take his eyes off them. "Have as much as you want," she said. Herb blinked. Then he realized she was talking about the cookies. Luckily, his wife hadn't noticed him staring. "Let me understand," said Herb's wife.
"You're the only Nancy Brookwood who lives here? I don't mean to be rude, but you're just—" "Not what you expected?" "You're not an old broad with a hump and a glass eye who smells like dead cats, so no, not what we expected," said Herb. His wife shot him a glare that could peel paint, but the Brookwood woman laughed—a high, completely unselfconscious sound.
"Not yet," she said. "There is another Ms. Brookwood, but she's not around at the moment. Mostly it's just me here. I know the assumptions people make; it comes of being a shut-in. But we're here to talk about Willie, aren't we? He's a very smart boy. And such a little cutie. He looks just like you, Mr.
Beaser." She smiled at Herb. He almost grinned, but caught himself. The Brookwood woman's smile thinned out to a knowing expression when she turned to Herb's wife.
"But you don't want Willie coming here after school anymore. That's why you came, isn't it?" Herb slouched. His wife sat up straighter. She said, "It's nothing personal, Miss Brookwood—" "Nancy." "It's just that I don't entirely understand what you're doing here with the children. I want to be sure that it's not anything…unwholesome." A stuffed owl decorated a nearby table, and the Brookwood woman touched its tail feathers in an absent way.
Herb expected it to move and turn out to have been real all along, but it didn't. He did spot movement underneath her chair, though, and realized that a cat was staring up at them.
His wife hated cats, but she didn't seem to have noticed it. "It's nothing sinister," said the Brookwood woman. "The neighborhood kids just come in after school and I bake them cookies, and they look around the house. It's an old place with lots of interesting rooms and old junk." She paused. "And I tell them stories." "What kind of stories?" Herb said.
This was the part that had gotten him out of bed early on a Saturday morning (his only day off from selling mattresses the rest of the week) to come over here. Willie had mentioned stories when Herb got after him for being late coming home so often. It seemed they made quite an impression on the kid. But when Herb asked what kind of stories they were, Willie clammed up. The Brookwood woman shrugged.
"You know: ghost stories. The kind children like. Mostly ones my grandmother told me, when this was her home. I could tell you one, if you like?
So you'll see that they're not so bad." Herb almost agreed, but when opened his mouth all the spit dried up. Nice as she seemed, he had a feeling that Nancy Brookwood had a talent for ghost stories that he might be better off not sampling. To cover himself, he reached for a cookie. "But why are you doing all of this?" Herb's wife said. "I live alone, Mrs. Beaser. I have a condition that makes it so that I can hardly bear to leave the house, and I get lonely. When the kids started showing up, I found I rather liked having them around." "Willie says you're a witch." Herb had not really meant to speak up.
Words were just flying out of his mouth today, and even his wife's Medusa glare couldn't shut him up. The Brookwood woman nodded, almost enthusiastically. "Oh, I know. Isn't it funny? That's why they came in the first place.
You know, daring each other to knock on my door. The first time I answered I think I about scared poor Willie to death. Scared the life right OUT of him." She laughed again, a much higher, more uncomfortable sound this time. "But I'm not so bad. Kids like being scared." "Dr. Wertham says your stories aren't good for Willie," Herb's wife added. "He's a very respected child psychologist who spoke at the soroptomists last week.
He says stories like yours lead to juvenile delinquency and all sorts of problems." "Why Mrs. Beaser. How do you know what my stories are like if you've never heard one?" Herb's wife frowned. That shut her up, Herb thought. "Won't you have a cookie?" said the Brookwood woman. "They're snickderdoodles. Willie's favorite." She pushed the plate forward again, but Herb's wife looked at it like it was a plate full of dead mice. "We're sorry to bother you, ma'am," Herb said, standing up with hat in hand.
"Please call me Nancy," she said again, walking them to the door. "I understand why you're so protective of Willie. He's a darling boy.
You're both welcome to come over anytime when the children are here, so that you can see that nothing strange is going on." "I'm afraid I can't," said Herb's wife. "I can tell you have cats in here. I'm deathly allergic." "That's just Trullibub. She's harmless." The cat peered at them with round yellow eyes from the library, eventually joining the Brookwood woman to stare from the front door as they made their way back down the walk. Herb's wife slammed the car door when she got in.
"That woman IS a witch," she said. "I think what you really want to call her is a word that rhymes. Anyways, she seems harmless enough to me." "You would say that. Don't think I didn't catch you peeping at her legs.
Willie won't be associating with that woman anymore, mark my words. Her stories are giving him nightmares." That part was true. Or at least, it was true that the kid was having trouble sleeping the last three weeks. But he never talked about it; whenever they brought it up, Willie froze, like an animal in a spotlight.
Herb wasn't really sure if it was the Brookwood woman's stories to blame…but what else could it be? Herb looked back at the house as he started the engine. From the outside, it was a looming heap. You'd never guess how nice it really was. "Are you going to hang onto that old thing the entire way home?" Herb's wife said. He realized he still had one of the snickerdoodles in his hand.
The icing was a bunch of lines in a six-pointed shape. A hex mark, they were called. For some reason, he nearly threw it out the window, but after a second of reconsideration he ate the whole thing in two bites. The taste of butter filled his mouth, and he felt gratified when he swallowed it, a feeling that lasted all the way home.
*** For the next week, Herb couldn't sleep. It was ruining him on the job. He'd stay up for hours looking at nothing, and when he couldn't get a wink he'd go downstairs and try to read. But this didn't work, because he hadn't read anything except a newspaper since he was ten years old. He wasn't even sure where the books in the living room came from; had they come with the house? Tonight, like most nights, he couldn't get concentrate on the page. He kept reading the same sentence over and over: "'A witch is born out of the true hungers of her time,' she said.
'I was born out of New York. The things that are most wrong here summoned me.'" What in the hell did that even mean? He sighed and put the book down. His wife was upstairs, snoring away. It seemed like the worse he slept, the heavier she did. He swore she did it on purpose. He glanced toward Willie's door; the kid was sleeping again, at least, ever since they made him swear off seeing the Brookwood woman.
Willie was sullen about it, mind you, but Herb figured he'd get over it. At first he and his wife had fought, but eventually he decided she was right. (Not that he'd be caught dead saying so.) It wasn't good for a kid to spend so much time around some spooky woman with nuts in her head.
And she WAS a spooky woman. A peach, but spooky all the same. The clock struck three. The witching hour, he told himself, and laughed. He went to the fridge. The same three cans of Coors had been in there since Labor Day, when his wife had insisted he quit drinking. She didn't think he had a problem, she just didn't like buying it at the store. "It makes me look like a bum" was the only explanation she gave. He cracked the can and drank almost the entire thing while standing in his underwear in the yellow fridge light.
Life was so much better with a good beer in your hand. The word "brew" stood out on the label. That made him think of witches again, but now it seemed funny. Strange how Willie always insisted that Brookwood woman was a witch, but he never seemed afraid.
He even seemed to like it. Weird damn kid. The wife was starting to make a fuss about those comic books he reads, and maybe she was right about those too.
Maybe he'd pitch them all out in the morning. Had to do something to make the kid act normal for a change.
Herb finished off the beer, grabbed another, and closed the fridge. The kitchen went pitch black, and it was a second before he realized why this was surprising: He'd left a light on in the living room, and now it was out. Maybe the bulb had gone bad. This almost cheered him up. Changing it would give him something to do for a minute. Then he heard a voice: "Herb…" He froze, but nothing else happened.
It hadn't been his wife's voice. Had he imagined it? Herb's bare feet sank an inch into the shag carpet as he made his way back to his chair. He gave the lamp a rattle and turned the switch, and it flickered back on right away. Nobody in the room. No one hiding in the corner or behind the coat rack. His imagination, then. He chuckled, but it was a worn out sound. Damn, he was tired. "Herb…" A hand touched his shoulder. He nearly jumped out of his skin.
No less a surprise when he saw who it was: Nancy Brookwood had snuck up behind him. Now she was looking at him like the cat that ate every canary in the store.
"Hello, Herb," she said. He actually grabbed his chest, like a guy having a heart attack on TV. No heart attack actually came, and he was almost disappointed. "Holy cripes, woman!" he said. "Are you trying to kill me?" "I'm sorry. Should I kiss it and make it better?" Herb stammered. "I'm not—what the hell are you doing here?" He looked her up and down.
"And what in the name of Mike are you wearing?" She had on something that looked like a ladies' sleeping gown, maybe one of those Japanese numbers, but it didn't tie up in the front, and it had a hood that covered her face down to the eyes.
Underneath it she was naked as a jaybird. "I came to see you. I was hoping you'd stop by again, but since I haven't seen you or Willie I decided to visit." Holy Pete, thought Herb, this broad really is nuts.
He squirmed on his feet. "Miss Brookwood—" "Nancy." "Nancy, I don't know if you're, you know, healthy. Upstairs. Did you take anything tonight, or drink anything? Do you know where you are?" "I'm right here. Can't you feel me?" She put her hand on his chest and then, before he could react, she put his hand on hers too. Her skin felt red hot. Herb dropped his beer. He didn't notice. "My, uh, wife's in the other room," he said.
Nancy shook her head. "I made sure she won't hear anything. And Willie is asleep too. Nobody will bother us. I've got a story to tell you, Herb." "A, uh, ghost story?" "A story about me and you." She took off her robe.
Herb couldn't take his eyes off of her. No, scratch that: He could, but why the hell would he want to? She pushed him down into his chair and climbed onto his lap. When she put her face next to his, her hair hung around him like a curling curtain. "I thought you never left the house?" he said. The feeling of her round ass rubbing through his shorts immediately gave him the most urgent hard-on he'd had since he was 22.
He touched her bare legs tentatively at first, like he was checking to see if a stovetop had been left on. "I don't," she said. "Stop asking questions and kiss me." She kissed him first instead.
Bizarrely, he was expecting it to be like biting into one of her cookies, but of course it wasn't. Her kiss was warm and wet, and as he eased into it she turned on his lap and straddled him with her thighs open. Herb's hard-on bulged against the flap of his boxers, like it was trying to get up and go for a walk without him. He put his arms around her and she wriggled, a hot little bundle that could keep both of his hands full. How long had it been since Herb had a real woman like this?
Her skin was soft and smooth as a peach. Touching her made him feel like he had big, clumsy hands, too stupid to do anything right, but she seemed to like everything he did, gasping and sighing and cooing whenever he touched and squeezed and stroked her. Her tongue danced across Herb's as her kisses came faster and more eager.
Her mouth devoured his in a long, open embrace, while his hands reached around to squeeze her round, white backside. She moved her hips in a tight circle, rubbing around and around on him.
Jesus, a body like hers ought to be criminal, Herb thought. I ought to be able to lock her up and throw away the key. His cocked throbbed to beat the band. Herb caught his breath when Nancy slithered down the front of him like a snake and reached into the flap on the front of his shorts. When she cooed, the air tickled the hard, hot shaft of his naked cock.
He scarcely had time to shiver, though, before she slid the entire thing into her mouth in one gulp. Herb groaned and very nearly let it all go right there.
He kicked back in the chair, slid his fingers through Nancy's silky hair, and relished the long, slow, gratifying attention of her mouth expertly working on him.
This took Herb all the way back to his college days. Whatever happened to those years? (Oh, that's right, he thought, you got married…) When Nancy finished with him down there she reached up and grabbed him by his undershirt, pulling him down with her as she fell back onto the living room floor.
He landed on top, seemingly crushing her smaller body against his, but she didn't object or try to escape.
Her little frame was strong and tightly wound. He pressed her into the floor with a hard kiss while one of his hands fumbled around down below, trying to find the proper place. Nancy guided him in slowly. Her thighs were wet and inviting. Herb savored the clash of feelings: first the immediate, cold shock of touching wetness with the sensitive tip of his cock, followed right on its heels by its heat. He wanted to do it all at once, really drive it home and show her he knew how to treat a gal, but she coaxed him along instead, letting out a perfectly formed little "Oh, oh, oh!" every time he sank in a little deeper.
She wriggled her hips when he finally got it all the way in. What a woman, he thought again, as she leaned up to kiss him over and over, small, girlish kisses on his mouth, chin, neck, and collar bone. She rocked back and forth on the smooth lines of her ass as he banged away on top of her. Inside she was smooth and tight, as good as he'd have imagined.
He cupped her small breasts in his big hands as she arched her back, bending like a bow as he fucked her into the carpet. "Ohhh, yes," she said, drawing the letters out between her teeth. He wanted to hiss at her to keep it down, but on second thought, what did it matter? It would serve his wife right if she walked in on the two of them right now.
That would teach her a lesson, that's for sure. Herb squeezed her tits harder and Nancy's whole body shuddered. She squeezed his cock tight between her thighs and squirmed, crying out as he pressed against the inside of her every time he pulled out. He was driving up a good head of steam now, sweating as he exerted himself. In another minute or two he could have given her the big finish and sent her home happy, but all of a sudden she tensed up, and Herb froze.
Was something wrong? She was looking at him funny now, her pupils shrunken down to pinpricks. The look made all the hairs on him stand straight up. All of a sudden he remembered how spooky this dame really was. And the fact that she'd broken into his house naked. Not that he minded either of those things as much now as he had just a little while ago, but they were still worth considering… Just as he was about to ask what she was doing, she scratched him.
Not on the back or the arms, like a hot ticket will do sometimes when you've got her really turned on. Instead she raked her fingernails across his chest, suddenly and violently, like an animal tearing into its prey.
What the fuck? Before he could even react, she did it again the other way, slashing a bloody X across his heart. He screamed, and then he recognized the look in her eyes: killer instinct. She went for his throat next, and Herb couldn't help but cover his face as he fell backwards onto the floor… But nothing happen.
Herb opened his eyes. He was in the chair again. A book was open on his lap, and the clock said a quarter to four. Holy Toledo, it was a dream. He mopped the sweat off of his face with the sleeve of his undershirt and then laughed. A crazy dream. The craziest dream he'd had in a long time. Maybe ever. At least I got some sleep, he thought, standing.
But at this rate, I don't mind if I never sleep again… It wasn't until he tried to stretch that he noticed the pain in his chest. Oh no, he thought, it can't be. But as much as he might close his eyes and wish it away, the feeling was still there. And he knew what he'd see before he even looked down; the scratches on his chest were still bleeding, turning his shirt into a red crisscross.
Herb's heart rate accelerated, and for a panicked second he expected to see the blood coming out faster, like a water balloon with a leak. He ran to the bathroom and splashed water on his face, but all this did was leave him with a wet face. Wincing, he washed the cuts, then snarled as he swabbed them with alcohol from the medicine cabinet.
That crazy dame, he thought, she really did it, she was really here! Was she still in the house? He should call the police. He should— Herb paused. It was impossible. She couldn't have been here one minute and just gone the next. It didn't make any sense. He looked at the bloody water in the bathroom sink, pink on the faded white porcelain. "No sense," he said, out loud. Then he looked at the mirror. "Hell with this." He went to the garage and pulled an old shirt and some pants out of the laundry, so that he didn't have to go to the closet and risk waking his wife.
Then he started the car and drove the twelve blocks to the Brookwood place at double the speed limit. No spooky dame was making a fool out of him, no sir. He was getting to the bottom of this. The house looked worse at night. Unlike last time, the gate swung open easily. The faded lawn crunched under his shoes as he went up to the tumbledown porch.
He had half a mind to skip the knock and just barge right in. Serve her right, wouldn't it? But the door was open when he got there. Not all the way open; just a crack. Through that crack he saw a dark hallway and a glimpse of movement. He realized someone was watching him, but it wasn't the Brookwood woman.
He blinked and rubbed his eyes when he recognized the face. "Willie?" Herb's son turned and ran. Without thinking, Herb barged in, hand already reaching out to grab the kid's retreating shirt collar.
But by the time Herb stepped over the threshold, Willie was gone. There was nothing in his place but the long black shadows of an empty house.
"Willie!" Herb yelled. "What in the hell are you doing? Get your butt out here!" He heard a laugh. Then: "Come find me." Herb seethed. He was going to wear his belt out on that kid. "I don't have time for this, god damn it. Get home right now." Willie's voice again: "Come find me, Daddy. Come find me." Herb stumbled in the dark, feeling his way along the walls.
Aging wallpaper flecked off on his fingertips. The only illumination came from a bend behind the central stairs. He crept toward it as carefully as he could, stubbing his toes and swearing every color of the rainbow along the way. Murder him, that's what Herb was going to do when he caught up to Willie.
Him and the dame both. The orange light was coming from the kitchen. There, Herb found Willie sitting at the table, the round back of his head silhouetted against the red and white checked tablecloth. Herb seized the entire chair and hauled it around for his son to face him. "Now listen here—" he said. But… There was nothing in the chair but a fat black cat with round yellow eyes.
It peered up at him, as if expecting something. Then it showed its teeth and hopped down onto the linoleum floor. Herb stared at the empty seat. Willie was just here. Herb couldn't have been wrong. He'd seen the kid with his own eyes. "Not right," was all he could say. "Not right at all." "Come, Trullibub," said a voice. The cat scampered over to the stove.
Nancy Brookwood sat in a rocking chair, watching the flames. "Hello, Herb," she said. "Nan—Miss Brookwood? Where's Willie?" "Home, I should think. It's a school night, after all. Is that really why you're here? Did you leave your house where your son's fast asleep to come find him somewhere else?" Her back was turned, and she seemed to be wearing that thing with the hood again, which meant all he could really see of her was the hand petting the cat.
Herb swallowed. "I came to see you. I came…look, were you in my house?" "I never leave my own house. You know that." "It's just that I…" "I did tell you a story, though, about me and you. I don't think you liked the ending." Suddenly Herb didn't know what to say. "We fucked like polecats half an hour ago, then you cut me up like a rib eye and I don't appreciate it," didn't sound quite right.
Even thinking it made him want to laugh, and if he laughed he knew he'd lose his mind, so he shut his trap as tight as he could. "Willie's not here," said Nancy. "He hasn't been all week. I miss him so. I need the children." Herb backed up a step. "I don't know what you're up to, but Willie's never coming here again.
You're nuts, lady. You need help. You—will you turn around so I can stop talking to the back of your head?" "I'm baking something. I can't let it burn." "I don't give a good god damn. I want to know you're listening when I give you a piece of my mind." "All right. If you insist." The chair turned slowly, so that the fire's glow illuminated every inch of her face a little bit at a time. When she'd finished, Herb backed away again.
In fact, he almost fell. "Is that better?" she said. "I—I—" She walked toward him. At her feet, the cat hissed. "Well?" she said. Her voice sounded like a croaking toad. "Didn't you want to give me a piece of your mind? Or should I just take a piece myself?" One of her eyes was enormous, like a softball, and the other was round, milky, blind. Her face was a spider web of wrinkles that writhed when she talked. Her bony fingers reached out for him. Herb backed up until he hit the wall.
The back of his skull stung. "Mistake," he said. There was probably supposed to be more, but that was all he ended up with. He also probably meant to run away, but by that time she'd grabbed him, both of her hand closing on his wrists. Her arms looked scrawny, like chicken meat hanging off the bone, but her fingers cinched as tight as manacles.
"G-get away from me!" he said. "I need the children," the witch said again. "I need them to be scared, and they like being scared, so just butt out of it Herb, or else!" Herb thrashed and struggled, but she dragged him across the kitchen floor anyway. The oven door snapped open and the flames roared inside of it, like the open mouth of a dragon. Sweat broke out on his face. "What are you doing?" he said. "Making cookies.
Get in there." "What? No!" He tried to pull away, but the old hag dragged him to within a foot of the oven door and then shoved him to his knees. The heat scorched his eyebrows. He thrashed his head from side to side as she gnarled her old fingers in his hair and tried to force his head into the flames.
"Don't struggle. It's embarrassing for both of us." "Leggo, leggo!" The oven yawned wider. It was like the opening to Hell, and he was heading straight for it. The flames seemed to reach out. The witch stuck her horrible old face right next to his. "Are you scared?" she said. "Yes!" "That's good. I need for people to get scared. It helps me keep my ghoulish figure. Now, are you going to keep telling Willie and the other kids to stay away from my house?" "No!" "What about that cold fish wife of yours, and her doctor friend?
You're not going to let them spoil my fun either?" "I swear, I swear!" The hairs on his face were starting to smolder. "You'd better swear. Because the next time you're in my kitchen it's right in the oven you go, and I'll be baking cookies out of your bones until the New Year. Do you hear me?" "I hear you, I hear you!
Anything you want!" The witch snapped her bony fingers and the flames dwindled. The sudden drop in temperature almost made Herb pass out. She let him go and he half stumbled, half crawled away, until he ended up sprawled on his back like a helpless turtle in the hallway. The black cat rubbed against him and purred. In the kitchen, Nancy bent over in front of the oven.
When she turned around she looked like her usual self again. She was even wearing a housedress and a yellow apron. Although she held a steaming tray from straight from the oven fire, she didn't bother wearing oven mitts. "Look at that! They came out just perfect." She winked. Herb ran. He thought he could still hear her laughing all the way home. *** Willie Beaser ran up the steps of the Brookwood house two of the time and pounded on the door. Miss Brookwood answered in less than a second.
"Hi, Miss Brookwood!" he said. "My dad said I could come back!" "Did he? What lovely news. Come right in." The library was full of kids. Willie shucked off his backpack and added it to a pile by the door. "Are the cookies still hot?" "You know they are," said Miss Brookwood.
She fed him one by hand, breaking it into bites with her fingers. The buttery goodness was bliss in his mouth. "Your father even helped me make them." "He did?" said Willie, perplexed. But Miss Brookwood did not explain. He jostled for room to sit with the others. It looked like the whole neighborhood was here, even kids whose parents had said before they had to stay away. "Yes, almost everyone's Mum and Dad told them they could come and see me again," said Miss Brookwood, as if reading Willie's mind.
"Isn't that nice? It's so good having a house full of children again. So…delicious." She sighed and smiled in kind of a dreamy way. Then, seeming to come to, she said, "Who wants a ghost story?" Every kid in the room hushed. Prematurely, Willie's hair began to stand on end, and his heart picked up its pace as he prepared for the delicious feeling of ear.
Miss Brookwood sat on her three-legged stool and opened a big black book. "This one's called: 'The Night it Rained,'" she said. Outside, droplets from the sky began pelting the windowpanes.