by Winnie Kay
Neighbors may not always be what they seem.
| “Halloween’s gonna be here before we know it, Molly. What do ya think I ought to be this year? A princess? No... I did that last year, and the scratchy petticoat made my legs itch. Maybe I‘ll be an ugly ole witch.” Jessica sat on the top of the steps that led to the big wrap-around porch as she smoothed Molly’s yarn-tangled hair. They had just moved to Creek Manor Drive two months ago and Jessica had to leave her old friends behind.
Molly’s button-eyes stared blankly at her companion as she silently rested atop Jessica‘s worn jeans. The seven-year-old tugged at the bill of her cap which corralled her long, brunette pig-tails and turned her gaze toward the old structure next door. The leafless branches of an oak tree hung over the house like skeletal fingers pointing at its roof. Jessica shivered and tightened her grip on Molly.
“Wonder what she’s doing in there, Molly.” She had heard the neighborhood kids teasing the lady and some called her a witch. They dared each other to cross the yard, step onto the porch, knock on her door and run. Johnny Gibson once bragged that he peeked into her front window and saw her leaning over a cauldron in the fireplace as a scrawny black cat perched upon the mantle. “Johnny Gibson’s full of dog doo-doo,” Jessica explained to Molly.
“Jessie!” Her mom called and Jessica jumped, hoping she hadn’t been caught saying a bad word. The threatened taste of soap was not appealing.
“I’m on the porch, Mama.”
Sue Ballard held the screen door ajar and stuck her head out. “What are you doing out here, Jessie?” She widened the door and stepped out onto the porch.
“I was just thinking ‘bout Halloween,” she answered, never shifting her attention from the house that loomed to the left of the yard. Her mother followed Jessica’s gaze as she sat down in the wicker rocker by the front door and brushed a brown curl out of her eyes.
“What are you looking at, sweetie?”
“What do you think she’s like, Mama?”
“Who? Oh, you mean the lady next door?”
“Yeah. The kids say she’s a witch.” Jessica looked over her shoulder at her mother, expecting enlightenment.
Sue rose from the rocker and came down to join her daughter on the porch step, patting Molly’s stuffed arm in the process. “What do you think, Jessie?”
“Huh? Me? Well, I’ve never seen her. She never comes out. I’ve seen her open the door for the grocery boy, but it’s dark inside and I can’t see her face.”
“Hmmm. You wait here, Jessie. I have an idea.” She rose, crossed the porch, and disappeared inside.
Just then, the family’s Ford Explorer eased into the driveway. Jessica gently laid Molly on her side and jumped into the yard from the top step to greet her father.
“Hey, Dad. You’re home.” Aaron Ballard slid out of the driver’s seat and retrieved his briefcase from the back.
“That I am, Pumpkin. How was your day?“ He set his briefcase down in the driveway and scooped Jessica off her feet.
“It was okay... I guess.”
“Where is your mother, Jess?”
“I dunno. She went into the house for something. We were talkin ‘bout—”
The banging screen door made them turn to see Sue coming down the steps carrying a glass plate covered with a clean dish towel. Her hair had been combed and she had applied some lipstick and added a pair of earrings. Aaron gently put his daughter down and stared at his wife.
“What are you doing, Sue?”
“Oh, hi, honey. Jessica and I are going over to see our next-door neighbor.”
Jessica’s eyes grew wide. Aaron picked up his briefcase and headed across the lawn as the aroma of fresh-baked cherry pie floated in his direction.
“Are you sure you want to do that, Sue? I mean, we don’t really know anything about her.”
“That’s exactly why we are going over there. Come on, Jessie.”
Jessica looked up at her dad with pleading eyes and wondered what had gotten into Mom. She had never visited the neighbors before. Everyone seemed to keep to themselves on Creek Manor Drive.
“We’ll be fine, honey. Dinner’s almost ready... uh... no dessert tonight. Go on in and wash up. We won’t be long.” She grabbed her daughter’s hand and crossed the yard to the house next door.
Jessica suddenly felt a cold panic settle over her. She knew she’d never see her dad or Molly again. Her tennis shoes crunched across the swirling fallen leaves and she watched their shadows loom up onto the front of the house as they approached in the gloom of autumn’s late afternoon. She resisted the tug of her mother’s hand and grasped the railing of the steps leading to her doom.
“For heaven’s sake, Jessie. Come on, now. We’re just going to say hello to her.” At the sound of her mother’s reassuring voice, Jessica released her grip on the railing and followed, obediently, to the dreaded door. She thought of Johnny Gibson’s report of what lay beyond. Her mother let go of her hand and knocked.
Jessica heard shuffling on the other side of the door, and she imagined a hideous creature approaching. She stepped behind her mother, praying for protection, just as the door knob rattled. The door partially opened and a frail voice asked, “Yes? Who is it?”
Jessica looked up at her mother’s warm smile and heard her cheerfully greet the stranger. “I’m Sue Ballard, your next-door neighbor, and this is Jessica. I hope we‘re not intruding. We just came by to say hello.”
As the door opened wider, Jessica held her breath and peeked around her shield to see the gentle face of an elderly woman in a simple house dress. She was wearing slippers and was clutching a walker. A confused look turned into a broad grin as she gazed down at Jessica.
“Oh my. Well just look at this pretty little girl. I’m Gladys Striker. Won’t you please come in,” she said as she moved back, allowing her guests entry. The two visitors stepped across the threshold, and Jessica was surprised to see a bright living room decorated in worn but neat furnishings. She noticed there was no cauldron in the fireplace. A fluffy, black tomcat was curled up on a flowered-print sofa purring as he eyed the intruders.
“I was wondering who moved into the old Jackson place.” Gladys gently closed the door, maneuvered her walker further into the warm room, and reached over to turn off Wheel of Fortune. Gesturing toward the sofa she said, “Please, have a seat. It’s so kind of you both to stop by.” She turned to her four-footed companion. “Get down, Sammie, and let these folks sit a spell.“ The cat glared at his owner, stretched, and obediently gave up his seat.
Jessica waited for her mother’s lead and remained standing as she watched her offer their pie to Gladys. “Would you like me to set this down for you, Mrs. Striker?” she asked noticing her neighbor’s hands were occupied with the walker.
“Is that for me? Well, Dear Gussie, I don‘t know what to say. Yes, just set it on the coffee table there, if you would. I don’t get many visitors since my Harvey died two years ago.“ Gladys wiped a tear from her plump cheek as Sue placed the glass dish gently on the polished table.
Jessica and her mom eased onto the sofa while Gladys settled in her recliner, and Sammie curled up in front of the fireplace. Jessica felt her fears vanish as she listened to Gladys talk about the neighborhood and its history.
“I used to know everyone on Creek Manor Drive, but so many new folks have moved in and they all seem so busy.”
Jessica let out a sigh and muttered, “That dumb ole Johnny Gibson.”
“What was that, sweetie?”
“Oh... I was just saying that now... you know us.” She looked up at her mother and they winked at each other.
“Well, that’s true, little lady. Why don’t we get some plates and have a piece of this pie. Come on, Jessie. You can help. Can I call you Jessie?”
“Yes ma’am,” Jessica answered with a grin. No one had ever asked her that before. She followed the Witch of Creek Manor Drive into the kitchen and thought, Wait til I tell Dad we had dessert before dinner at my new friend‘s house.
Winner of The Writer's Cramp Contest 10/26/09