Behind the Curtain

Shannon Ainslie

 

Chapter 1

The Witch of West Hill

He watched absently as his grandmother crushed dried lilac and marjoram between her crooked fingers. The plants fluttered into the simmering water like purple-and-gray confetti. The old woman leaned into the steam, inhaling deeply through large nostrils. A smile flickered across the wizened, pinched face as she reached for another stem of marjoram.

Rowdy scowled behind her back. He thought his granny’s herbal concoctions were silly, and as far as he knew, they hadn’t been helpful to anyone.

As if reading his thoughts, Granny peeked over her shoulder at him and said, with her tiny eyes twinkling, “It’s a sleep aid.” She giggled to herself and stirred the mixture slowly with a large wooden spoon, humming a tune Rowdy didn’t recognize.

The kids at Rowdy’s school in the sleepy little town of Summerville had recently started calling his granny “The Witch of West Hill.” She was small and mostly solitary, inhabiting the lower floor of the same little house Rowdy’s father had grown up in. The town hadn’t changed much over the years, being nestled in a valley that was far from the major routes of British Columbia.

From time to time, Granny could be spotted trolling the hillside behind her house for the edible and medicinal plants that grew in the fir and pine forests of the valley. Her long white hair and red shawl would whip violently around her as she crept low, picking things off the ground with one hand and holding fast to her sturdy walking stick with the other.

Now, as Rowdy considered the rumors, he looked at his granny more closely than he ever had before; the hooked nose, the raised mole on her chin sprouting stubbly white hairs, the long, long braid that hung down her back like a silky white scarf, swaying as she shuffled around her kitchen.

The kids at school had been accruing a long list of items that were potentially hiding in the shut upper story of Granny’s house.

The window on the upstairs floor was always obscured by a heavy, faded curtain, but it was rumored that lights could be seen in the window on the nights of the new and full moons; multicolored hues from a bubbling cauldron.

“Here, love.” Granny placed a bowl of warm noodle soup before him on the heavy wooden table. He was hungry. Granny always knew when he was hungry.

He studied the soup suspiciously, raising an eyebrow at it.

“It’s okay, dear.” Granny giggled from the kitchen. “It just has beetles and worms in it.”

Rowdy looked at his granny, both brows furrowed now. Can she read my thoughts? he wondered with a mixture of fear and curiosity. His growling stomach helped him push his thoughts away, and he dove into the delicious, hot soup.

Granny watched him as she poured her sleep tonic into glass jars to be cooled and stored. “You’re so much like your father was at fifteen, Rowdy. He was such a serious young man.”

Rowdy nodded, having heard it all before, and scraped the bottom of his bowl, collecting exactly one last spoonful. It filled him up perfectly. Granny always served him just the right amount.

He felt satisfied and relaxed for the first time all day. He looked around the room. The house was very quaint, laid out so that the kitchen, dining room, and living room were all one open area.

The furnishings were few and basic. He saw a pottery wheel in one corner and an old-fashioned spinning wheel covered with silky threads in the other. A cuckoo clock hung on the wall. There were no mirrors and few windows. Dangling from the light that hung over the table were strings of white-and-pink quartz pieces that spun and cast shards of light upon the walls.

He brought his bowl to the kitchen sink and rinsed it. Hanging all around the kitchen window was a vast assortment of rocks with crystal formations in them. Granny had collected them from the surrounding lakes, creeks, and mountains. Bouquets of dried flowers and herbs hung from the ceiling, pottery pots filled with dried berries and seeds sat on the floor, and old dusty knickknacks covered the shelves.

When Rowdy was small, Granny used to show him her rocks and tell him what they were composed of and how they had been formed. But Rowdy hadn’t listened. In fact, he thought with some remorse, he hadn’t been altogether polite to his granny when he was a boy.

These days, she was becoming a refuge for him.

He thanked her and headed home to do his homework.

* * * *

“I saw your bike parked outside the witch’s house yesterday.”

Jordyn came up behind him the next day, snapping grape bubblegum. They were almost at the bus stop. Rowdy didn’t feel like talking. He never felt like talking in the mornings. He was tired and hungry.

“So?” he said, shifting his backpack and scowling at her. Early spring snowflakes dusted his dark hair and thick, dark lashes, and he gave his head a shake to dislodge them.

Jordyn blushed. She turned away, reaching into her pocket for an extra-long moment.

“No groceries yet, huh?” She pressed a granola bar into his hand and then looked away, busying herself with the zippers on her backpack pockets. The fact that Rowdy’s home life was a complete disaster made both of them uncomfortable.

“Thanks.” Rowdy was too hungry to feel awkward. He unwrapped the bar and debated saving some of it for later, then shoved the whole thing into his mouth at once.

“Gross,” Jordyn said, chewing her gum like a cow.

Rowdy raised a thick eyebrow at her, unable to stop his smile.

“Right,” he said, then turned toward the approaching school bus. Theirs was the final stop on the bus route. This meant they got to be the last ones on and the first ones off, which Rowdy appreciated. The stop was just a bit of flattened dirt on the side of a seldom-used lane. It was kind of pretty, backed with thickets that housed brown birds in the winter and bloomed with flowers and bright red berries in the summer.

Rowdy remembered the year before when an orange house cat had been hit by a car in the night; its body had been caught in the thickets. He had come across it the following morning, its legs stiff and its eyes bugged out. He shuddered at the memory of it.

Jordyn shrugged. “Just thought you might be interested to know there’s a full moon tomorrow night, so if you want, I could come with you to see if the rumors about your weird granny are true.”

The last few words were drowned in the screeching wheels of the bus, but Rowdy understood. As she followed him up the steps into the crowded, noisy bus, he glanced back over his shoulder at her and gave her a short, quick nod.

They separated then, he to the first available seat and her to the popular girls at the back. They didn’t want to be called out as girlfriend and boyfriend.

The plastic seats were cramped and smelled like stink. Rowdy hated them. He scrunched his knees up against the seat in front of him, feeling the back of whoever was sitting in it.

“Knock it off, loser!” he heard the kid yell back to him.

He sighed and put his feet on the floor. He sat uncomfortably on the way to the school, where he remained quiet and as invisible as he could make himself until the final bell rang.

Rowdy didn’t get his next meal until he was back at Granny’s. He didn’t bother stopping at his house other than to grab his bike. Jordyn had gotten off the bus several stops earlier to go to her friend Jessica’s house, but an agreement had been made in the form of a note Jordyn had snuck into his hand as they passed each other in the hallway.

They were going to sneak out tomorrow night after bedtime to spy on the upstairs window of Granny’s house. This would be a tougher task for Jordyn and would come with more severe consequences for her if they were caught. It meant a lot to him that she was taking the risk. He wondered if she was doing it for him or for herself or maybe for the rumors she would be able to spread later.

He leaned his bike against the wall of Granny’s little house. The dusting of snow that had fallen that morning had long since melted. Rowdy saw small bright sprouts of grass pushing up from the dirt. He inhaled deeply, searching for their scent as he approached the door.

As he reached up to knock, the door swung open a second before his knuckles found the wood. He was suddenly awash in the soothing smells of lavender and baking bread. He felt the warm air hug his cheeks, pulling him into the house.

“Rowdy! You must be hungry, dear.” Granny greeted him and shooed him in with her usual pinched smile as though she was holding many delicious secrets.

A steaming bowl of bean chili was waiting for him. He minded his manners despite his hunger, removing his coat and washing his hands at the sink.

Granny hummed joyfully to herself. Her long braid swayed back and forth as she cut a thick slab of fresh bread and topped it with a generous layer of butter. Rowdy saw the butter melting, and by the time he dipped his spoon into the chili, he was drooling.

The first mouthful was so savory he closed his eyes. As the food worked its way down to his stomach, he felt his whole body fill with warmth. His eyes felt heavy. He observed sleepily the odd assortment of items on the shelf beside him. Mostly there were skulls. He tried to guess what animal each skull had belonged to as he scooped food into his mouth: rat, squirrel, mouse, rabbit, and some kind of bird.

He couldn’t remember what happened between dipping the buttery bread into the savory chili and waking up to spring light on his face, poking through the window in Granny’s living room.

His first thought was immediate and anxious: will Mom be wondering where I am? His second thought brought a slamming pain as reality started filtering into his sleepy mind. Nope, she won’t be. Neither will Dad.

Rowdy was lying on Granny’s tiny couch, his ankles and feet sticking out over the end. There was a homemade quilt on him spun from the colored silk on the spinning wheel. He felt warm and more rested than he had been in a long time. He dozed off again.

His nose woke him up the second time. He smelled breakfast. The light coming in the window was brighter now and flickered here and there with the shadows of spring birds.

Rowdy threw his fists above his head for a full-body stretch. He yawned. He heard Granny humming.

He walked the short distance to the kitchen, squinting against the light.

“Good morning, dear. Sleep well?” Granny said without turning around. Rowdy sat sleepily at the table. His stomach grumbled.

“Mmm hmm.”

Granny placed a steaming cup of tea in front of him in one of her handmade clay mugs. The mug was misshapen with a strange handle. She had painted insects all over it in bright red. Rowdy studied it. It was so silly looking it made him feel happy. He studied the swirls and designs in the wood surface of the table, trying to make pictures out of them.

Granny patted his messy hair, pressing down the springy cowlick at his crown. “You look so much like your dad,” she mused.

He reacted without thinking. “I’m nothing like him,” he snapped irritably. He felt heat rising into his face and instantly regretted the tone in his voice. It was a disrespectful way to talk to his granny, especially when she was being so kind to him.

Granny went back to her stove, then flipped some tiny fried eggs onto a plate. She added a piece of toast and a big bowl of applesauce to the meal.

“Look at what the spring birds brought us, Rowdy.” She showed him the little eggs with their dark yellow yolks. She touched his hair again and looked into his eyes. Her voice took on a lower, confidential tone.

“The loss of your mother has been devastating for all of us. Your father is suffering too.” She brushed his hair away from his eyes. “It will take far longer than three months for this family to figure out how to move forward without her. I know how you can help him. For now, eat. You will need your strength. I will be busy doing Spring Preparations tonight, but come back tomorrow.”

She winked at him, then shuffled back into the kitchen to wash dishes.

Rowdy was dumbfounded. Spring Preparations? What if the rumors about his granny’s full-moon activities were true? And she had never spoken to him so directly before. He had never seen her face so up close before. His granny had soft, powdery skin and smelled like wildflowers. But the most shocking thing was her eyes. Tiny though they were, they were the color of crystal, clear and sparkling.

The rumors from the kids at school played out in his mind. He considered each one seriously now, shaken suddenly by the depth of his granny’s eyes. They were like bottomless wells of clear water.

Rowdy’s adrenaline started to pick, and his skin prickled. He was confused and suspicious of his granny. She had some kind of power deep in her eyes that he couldn’t understand. Something powerful was alive under the guise of a harmless old woman.

He started eating faster with his gaze lowered, now wondering if she was reading his thoughts.

Granny had resumed her humming and was drying plates with her apron. If she was reading her grandson’s thoughts, she was not letting on.

“You are going to be late for school today. I decided a good sleep and a big breakfast were far more important.”

Rowdy shoved the last spoonful of applesauce into his mouth and hopped up nervously from his chair. He threw on his jacket.

“Thanks, Granny!” he called out, reaching for the door, half expecting it to freeze shut or burst into flames.

“Have a good day!” he heard her call as he shut the door and hustled into the cold air. The sun was shining, and the birds were singing. He hopped on his bike, suddenly aware that his backpack was still in the house.

He glanced at the house with curiosity. Granny’s little face was peeking out of the window at him.

He shrugged and continued on. He would have to go back tomorrow. His calculator and library books were in the pack.

He muddled through school without his books that day, his mind on the witch and the spying he and Jordyn were planning to do that night. She cast him several knowing looks that day as they passed one another in the hallways between classes. He wondered what Granny meant by “Spring Preparations.”

* * * *

He picked up Jordyn right before midnight, and they crept through the streets under the light of a full moon toward Granny’s house. They found a place to sit with a good view of the second-story window. Black trees stood tall behind them, blocking the wind and the full moon’s light. There were patches of old snow around them. It was quiet.

“I’m glad I brought a blanket. It is darn cold out here.” Jordyn was fidgeting with a blanket, speaking in a loud, strained whisper.

“Why are you whispering? She can’t hear us from here.” Even as his words came out, he was questioning their validity. He was lying in the cold, wet grass on his tummy, peering at the upstairs window of his granny’s house through binoculars. So far, no movement.

“How many minutes until midnight?” he asked her, putting a rice crispy square in his mouth. Jordyn had brought a bag of snacks and some binoculars and a thermos of hot chocolate. Her phone was at the ready to take pictures or record any strange activity.

They were located below the house at the far back of a long, dark field.

“Eight,” Jordyn replied, tossing her long brown hair over her shoulder and pulling the blanket tighter around her. “I’m cold.”

Rowdy was distracted for a moment by the scents of coconut and pineapple coming from Jordyn’s hair. She smelled like the beach. He loved it.

“You’re always cold,” he said, reaching for another snack.

“Not my fault. How come you aren’t?”

Rowdy slowly devoured every snack Jordyn had swiped from her pantry earlier. She’d told him she couldn’t take too much or she might be discovered sneaking food to him and, worse, now sneaking out to actually be with him.

“I’m tough. And you’re kind of a princess.” Rowdy shrugged. He thought he saw the heavy curtains move. Just barely. He felt his heart lurch. He repositioned the binoculars and held his breath.

Jordyn was indignant. “I am not a princess! Take that back, Rowdy! I’m sitting out here on wet grass in the cold, in case you haven’t noticed!”

There was nothing Rowdy could say without touching on that awkward topic of how wealthy she was. She was rich and beautiful with a picture-perfect family and a white picket fence. To him, that made her a princess.

“Sorry…I didn’t mean to…” he began. The curtain in the window was moved to the side. A hand pushed the window open. Rowdy froze.

“I saw it too,” Jordyn said in a barely audible whisper.

Rowdy handed the binoculars over, and she raised them to her wide-open eyes. His stomach was hurting from the patch of snow he was lying on. He heard wind rustling the trees behind them.

They sat frozen like that for what felt like forever.

Finally, Jordyn passed the binoculars back and checked her phone.

“Eleven fifty-eight,” she said. The two remained quiet and fixated on the window. Rowdy found himself counting out the seconds to midnight.

Suddenly there was a big cracking sound in the trees behind them, and a black bird whipped low between them, carrying something shiny in its beak.

Jordyn screamed. Loudly.

The bird flew low across the field and darted into the open window.

“Shoot!” Rowdy said, jumping to his feet. He felt around in the grass, jamming everything he could find into Jordyn’s pack. “She had to have heard that!” he whispered anxiously.

“Sorry!” Jordyn whined. The two fled on foot across the slippery field and down a foot trail to where their bikes were leaning against a tree in the darkness.

They stopped there, breathing hard, their hearts beating violently.

“Sorry,” Jordyn said again. “That scared the crap out of me!”

Rowdy nodded in the dark. “Scared me too.”

They walked back to their sleeping neighborhood together, pushing their bikes.

“What if she just has a pet bird?” Jordyn reasoned. “I mean, it would be odd, but it wouldn’t make her a witch.”

They were following a preplanned route to Jordyn’s house that allowed them to keep in the shadows for the most part. Tonight it was difficult. The big full moon was hanging low, fat, and bright.

Rowdy was quiet and thoughtful. He was trying to find reasonable explanations for his granny’s strange ways.

Jordyn went to the backside of her house and pried her bedroom window open. Rowdy reached beside her to help, inhaling more beachy hair scent.

He boosted her in, feeling the cold, gritty sole of her shoe in his hands. She reached out, and he gave her the pack.

He snuck back home as she slowly and quietly closed the window.

Rowdy’s father was snoring loudly from his awkward, sprawled-out position on the love seat.

The television was on, noisily rotating through midnight infomercials. An almost empty bottle of whiskey was on the floor beside his father’s dangling hand.

Rowdy sighed and rolled his eyes. He removed his shoes and turned off the television. It was suddenly very quiet, and his dad gave an extra snort in his snore.

When Rowdy bent down to pick up the whiskey bottle and put its cap on, his dad reached out and touched his arm in the darkness. “Son? That you?”

“Mmm hmm,” he answered, sealing the bottle and reaching behind himself to pull a blanket from the chair, the only other piece of furniture in the tiny living room of their duplex.

“Where have you been?” his father whispered drowsily.

“Oh, nowhere special,” Rowdy replied in a whisper, draping the blanket over his dad. “Just to a creepy dark field with a girl to watch a witch and her evil crow cast spells.”

Rowdy’s dad patted his arm. “That’s good, son,” he said, then resumed his snoring almost instantly.

Rowdy went down the hall to his bedroom and flopped onto his bed. He buried his face into the cold pillow. He knew he should go to sleep, but his mind was swimming with questions: How was Granny going to help him save his dad? What would happen when he went to retrieve his pack the next day? What had happened in the upstairs window of Granny’s that night?

He fell into a restless sleep filled with visions of cauldrons, black crows, and long brown hair that smelled of coconuts.