No one Pays Us Much Mind
Some witches grow greedier with time. They want more power, more magic, more evil. Me, I've sort of mellowed out. My anger over the Dark Ages and Salem have dwindled, not deepened. Now, if I can keep body and soul together with a few spells, I'm pretty satisfied. Not happy. How many people can really claim to be happy? But life seems worthwhile. I have Ink, who's the most opinionated black cat a witch could have, and I have my ramshackle house in the middle of the inner city. Neighborhood kids don't climb my fence and invade my yard, because I zap them with an extra dose of conscience every time I see them. So I mostly live in peace, alone, unless some of my fellow sisters drop in for a visit.
October is always the month to be hospitable. But I'm fairly unprepared when an entire coven of sisters fly in for room and board.
"Sorry, sister," Selena says, "but our neighborhood association has fined us so many times for having too many cats that we need to get away for a while."
Good lord! What's the world coming to? In the Dark Ages, people feared witchcraft because women had power. Men hunted us down like dogs, burned at us at the stake, or tossed us in a lake with a stone tied to us. They killed every cat they could see and let rats multiply until fleas spread the Black Plague. And then the idiots died of disease rather than admit women were their equals. So be it. But these days, people are pummeled into submission by piles upon piles of petty rules and constant exposure to potential disasters. Have we progressed? Beats me.
"Make yourselves at home," I tell my friends. "This is a big, old house. There's room for everyone."
They settle in, some sharing bedrooms, some dragging bed cushions and blankets up to the monstrous, floored attic. And I have to admit that it's nice having people underfoot. Even Ink seems to enjoy having other cats to bat around. We're all having a good, old time until we hear the gunshot out on the street. I have a good-sized yard surrounded by a high hedge, so we can't see anything from the windows. Selena and I decide to go out to investigate.
"Don't go, sisters," Morgana warns. "Let mortals muddle through with their own problems."
I shake my head. "You know better than that. Someone always comes knocking on our door. Smarter to know what we're dealing with."
Ink follows me down the sidewalk to the front gate. Selena stays a safe distance behind. I unlock the latch and walk past the hedge. A young boy is lying on the pavement at the edge of the street. I recognize him. He's the same boy who bravely walks up my sidewalk every Halloween and knocks on the door for a treat. He doesn't run when he sees my black dress and pointed hat. My crooked teeth and the wart on my nose don't faze him. I like this kid. I bend closer. At first, I think he's dead, but he moans and puts a hand to his stomach.
He opens his eyes and looks at me. "It hurts." Blood is seeping from a hole near his side. His shirt is drenched. "Help me, old witch lady."
Ink goes to him and puts her paw on the small, round hole where the bullet entered, and the blood stops flowing. If Ink likes him, so do I. I motion for Selena to join me, and we clasp hands. The chant flows automatically from our lips, a healing spell, and the boy grows stronger.
"Summon a policeman," I tell Morgana when her head pops around the hedge. I knew her curiosity would get the better of her.
She looks to the moon and says the words, and soon a police car pulls to the curb. The cop calls for help and comes to examine the boy. He looks at the three of us and frowns. "Did one of you call me?"
Morgana raises her hand.
"How did you do it? Your voice came directly through my police radio."
He lets it pass to help the boy. "It's a good thing you found him when you did. He's in serious condition."
The boy shakes his head. "I'm going to be all right. They used their magic on me."
The cop smiles and looks at us. "You made quite an impression on him. I'll need to ask you some questions once we get him taken care of. Is that your house?"
"And your name is?"
"Hildie, Hildie Goulaff."
He scribbles it on a notepad. "If you want to go inside, I'll come to see you later."
We turn to go, but the boy calls, "Will you come to see me in the hospital, Hildie? Please?"
"You don't even know me, child."
"You're my neighborhood witch. You give me candy."
Ink gives me her yellow-eyed stare. The cat's drawn to this boy. I sigh. "Maybe just once. I don't leave the house often."
He smiles, and the EMS turns the corner, its sirens blaring. The three of us amble up the sidewalk and slide back into the house.
The rest of our coven flees to their rooms when the policeman comes to the door. Selena, Morgana, and I have a tea tray ready for him along with small, round, frostinged cakes. He seems surprised, but we've never entertained a cop before, and we want to do it right.
He settles into the old armchair by the fireplace and studies his notes. "Tyrone said that he was walking home after he got off work tonight…"
"He has a job?" I ask, interrupting. "How old is he?"
"Twelve. His uncle owns a small convenience store a few blocks away, and he pays Tyrone to stock the shelves and sweep up after closing."
"So he's a hard working boy," I say.
The cop nods. "He said he was walking home when a car drove by and someone pulled a gun and shot him."
Morgana says, "We heard the shot. That's why we went outside to investigate."
"And that's when you called me," he says. "Did you see a car? Anyone running?"
He looks around the house and frowns. "Odd, I didn't see any telephone wires coming to the house."
We look at each other. "I have a cell phone," I say, not sure exactly how they work. And we turn to him expectantly.
"That explains it." He closes his note pad and finishes his tea. "Thanks for the cakes. They're delicious. And thanks for being good citizens. The boy would have died if you hadn't helped him."
I lean forward. "Why did someone shoot him? He seems like a good boy."
"There's a new gang in this area. They're claiming their territory. Tyrone was in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's all it amounts to."
"They'd shoot a complete stranger just because he was on the sidewalk?" I ask.
"They'd shoot you for wearing the wrong hat," he says. "Be careful when you leave your house. They'd be happy to knock you over the head to steal your purse."
I grin. They'd be in for a surprise when they opened it.
We wait until he's gone, then the others come to join us. They fuss while I sit thinking.
"What's the world coming to?" Wilhelmina complains. "Maybe we should pack our things and leave this continent, go some place far away."
"How far?" Morgana asks.
"On a mountain in South America," Willi suggests, "somewhere with no people."
I shake my head. "These old knees aren't hugging my broomstick that long. I wouldn't be able to walk for a week."
"Then where?" Morgana asks.
"I like it right where we are. This is our house, our neighborhood. I'm not running. I'm fighting back."
Selena blinks her surprise. "How? We're thirteen, old witches."
"Exactly. We have magic and spells. They have guns. We're stronger."
"Not until we rejuvenate on Hallow's Eve."
She has a point. Every year, while children dress in costumes and trick or treat, we join hands around our cauldron. Under the moon and stars, new power surges through us. Hallow's Eve is our renewal, but those powers dwindle as the year progresses. We're at our weakest during the last days of October.
"Sister, think. We don't want to call attention to ourselves," Morgana frets. "We want to live in peace."
"What better place than this?" I motion to the aging homes surrounding my yard. "No one pays us any mind. They have problems of their own."
Selena looks hopeful. "You keep saying 'us' and 'we.' Does that mean you want us to stay?"
"Why not?" I ask. "Unless you miss your farmhouse and the open fields."
Selena shakes her head. "The fields are gone. The woods too. We used to be off by ourselves, out in the country, but subdivisions have sprung up all around us."
"With all sorts of rules and regulations," Morgana adds.
"We can't even boil an elixir in our backyard. Someone called the fire department when they saw the steam rising from our cauldron," Selena says.
Ridiculous! How silly! "Pack your things and come here," I say. "This house and neighborhood will be our home."
The others break into smiles. Morgana leans forward excitedly. "What do we do first?"
"We find this gang and stop them, even before you move in." Ink jumps onto my lap and meows, glaring at me. "But even before we do that, we visit Tyrone in the hospital."
Ink curls into a ball and lets me hold her. It's a rare privilege with such an opinionated cat.
When Selena and I walk down the hospital hallways, people shrink out of our way, but when we enter Tyrone's room, he looks up and smiles.
"Mom, these are the old witches who helped me."
His mother looks embarrassed. "Tyrone, haven't I taught you better manners than that?" She looks at us. "I'm sorry. He has an active imagination. Just because you wear black and carry brooms…." Her words trail off as she looks at our broomsticks.
I smile. "I love being called a witch. I consider it a great compliment."
She's not sure how to respond. "I want to thank you…"
But Selena cuts her off. She turns to Tyrone and says, "The policeman told us that you were shot because a new gang is in the neighborhood. Is that true?"
Tyrone nods. "I see them drive up and down the streets every night when I walk home from work."
"Do they drive past our house?" I ask.
He nods. "That's part of their route."
"How would we recognize their car?"
His eyes go wide. He knows why we're asking. "It's an older model, black car with tinted windows. The back end's jacked up. They're always playing loud music."
"Why did they shoot you last night when they've passed you before?" I ask.
"They've been trying to make people pay them for protection, but a lot of people won't. I think they shot me to let everyone know that if they don't pay, they might die."
Selena looks offended. "No one came to our house to ask us for money."
Tyrone grins. "Most people are afraid of you."
"They should be," I say. I look down at Ink.
It's the first time Tyrone's mother has noticed her. Her eyes go wide. "You brought a cat in here?"
"Ink's fond of your son."
"But there are rules, regulations."
I wave a hand. "For other people." I turn to Tyrone. "Do you know how big this gang is, how many people are in it?"
He shakes his head. All he says is, "Enough to cause trouble."
I look out the window at the city landscape below us. The neighborhood is better here, but the expensive hospitals have moved to the edge of town, into the suburbs. They've followed the money. I reach into my pocket. I take out a bright, red apple and hand it to Tyrone. "From the tree in my yard. It's extra good."
The mother stares. She looks like I'm the wicked stepmother who offered Snow White the poisoned apple. Tyrone takes a big bite out of it before she can claim it. He immediately looks better.
I wink. "Eat it all. Apples are good for you."
He smiles. "Every bite. Thanks, witch."
I chuckle, and Selena and I start to leave.
"Will you come again?" he calls after us.
"No, we're homebodies, but you won't have to worry any more. Everything's going to get better."
I tell our sisters the news when we get home. "Their car drives past our house every night. That's where we'll start."
We sit in the big, drafty living room and make plans, then we all go to our beds for a nap. We're going to be busy tonight. When we wake, we have a simple supper of soup and bread. Cauldrons aren't used just for spells.
By the time the sun sets, we're ready. I take a lawn chair out to the sidewalk and sit under a streetlamp. Ink curls at my feet. I hear the car turn the corner before I can see it. It's some kind of old-model sports car, and music blasts from its speakers. It slows as it nears me.
A window rolls down, and a boy in his late teens sticks his head out. "Old lady, isn't it past your bed time?"
"I keep late hours," I tell him.
"Then keep them indoors. This is our street. If you don't want to get hurt, stay in your yard."
"I've come to do you a favor, young man, to give you a warning. If you don't want trouble heaped on your head, get out of my neighborhood."
The boy is shocked into silence, then he and his friends roar with laughter. "Go in your house, grandma. We don't want to hurt you."
I push myself to my feet, but I don't turn toward my house. Instead, I raise my arms to the moon and begin my chant.
"That's it, you crazy old woman!" The boy pushes a gun out the window. Selena steps out of the shadows of the hedge, and the gun flies to her. The window for the backseat rolls down, but before another gun can be aimed, thirteen cats rush into the car. Hisses and growls, screams and cursing fill the air. The car doors fly open and four teens jump out to the street. Morgana and Selena come forward, one on each side of me, and the three of us raise our arms. The boys cuss as the tires on the car swell to balloon size and pop. The car bumps to the pavement. We raise our arms higher, and the glass blows out of the windows.
"You wicked, old hags!" The boy in back raises his gun, but I wave it away. The cats spring on their heads and shoulders, clawing and biting. The boys start to run. We give them a head start before we call the cats and summon our broomsticks. The boys glance over their shoulders and look side to side as they race away, but no one looks up. Mortals don't expect to see witches flying above them.
They go to a deserted brick building with a Condemned sign taped in its front window. They run down an alley and go in its back door. We land and prop our brooms outside. "Cats, wait here," I tell Ink. "Keep guard." Then we magic the door open and step inside. We stop when we hear voices.
"You expect me to believe that three, old women destroyed your car?" someone snarls from a room off the narrow hallway. A loud slap follows his words.
We don't dally. We hurry into a backroom that was once used for storage. A tall, older teen has a tight grip on the boy. He's pressing a knife to his ribs. When he hears us enter the room, he turns and glares. "Idiots! You led them right to us." He makes a quick movement, meaning to stab his friend, but Selena freezes his hand.
"We don't like violence," I tell him. "We've had our fill of it."
His lips curl down. "I don't care what you like. You're pretty stupid walking into our headquarters when we're all here."
I sigh, relieved, and look around. "Ten of you? That's all?"
"It's a start. When everyone figures out how strong we are, more will join."
"Wrong," I say. "Tonight, you're finished."
He starts to laugh, but the boy from the car shakes his head. He's covered with scratches, and his cheek is bleeding.
"We're happy here," the leader says. "Why would we leave?"
"Because we're happy here," I say. "And we don't want you."
The leader gives a small nod, and the boys in the room fan out, trying to circle us. I sigh, and Selena and Morgana clasp my hands. Green light shoots out from us and knocks the boys against the walls. Only three of them get back up.
"We don't want to hurt you," I tell them. "We just want you to leave."
The leader stares. "How did you do that?"
I ignore him and call for Ink. She circles the room. She lays a paw on each boy and sniffs them.
"She's taken your scent," I tell them. "If you come anywhere near here again, she'll know. We'll know. Now leave."
"We'll get more men, come back for you!" he shouts.
It's late October. I don't have the patience for his jibberish. I lift him off the ground and hold him there. "There are more of us," I say. "I wouldn't."
His eyes bulge. When I let him drop, his friends hurry to pick him off the ground. We don't wait to see what they do next. We leave the building and fly home. When we visit two nights later, no one's there. No car drives past our house or up and down any other streets.
Morgana sips her hemlock tea and frets. "What if they come back? What if he tries to learn dark magic and comes for us?"
I nibble an anise cookie. "We've practiced our craft for centuries. He'd be a beginner."
"What if he finds a warlock? What if….?"
I interrupt her. "He won't remember us. He'll only remember that he should never return here."
"But how?" Selena asks.
I nod at Ink's milk bowl. "I put a powder in the milk she drank that night, a forgetting spell. When she laid her paw on each boy, it started to work."
Morgana smiles and relaxes. "Tomorrow night's Hallow's Eve. We need to get the cauldron out."
"This year, we should do a special celebration, go all out." I'm feeling pretty perky. At the lowest ebb of our powers, we old witches did a decent job. It's been ages since we've practiced much. It felt good. Not that I'd want to make a habit of it, but it was fun to flex our muscles for a change. And who knows? In this neighborhood, we might be able to try it again sometime. No one pays us much mind here.