The shopping mall was only a few blocks from Newt’s home, and it didn’t usually take very long for them to walk there. Dusty kept tripping on his long cloak until he learned to hold it up in one hand, much the same as Newt was holding up the hem of her dress with both hands, but otherwise they had no trouble along the way, until they tried to cut through the witch’s back yard.
Old Mrs. M wasn’t really a witch. Newt knew this, because there was really no such thing as witches.
Well, she knew there were people who called themselves witches, but if you were meaning the wicked, spell casting wicked-witch-of-the-west sort of witches, every one knew that they didn’t really exist. Of course, if you were casting the part for a movie, you wouldn’t ever find a better candidate for the role than Old Mrs. M.
For one thing, she always wore a long black dress. Widow’s weeds, Newt’s mother called it, although Newt didn’t quite understand why. As far as she knew, Old Mrs. M had never actually been married. There was no Old Mr. M., and she’d never seen or heard of any children.
Plus, Old Mrs. M lived in the spookiest house in town, a three story Victorian town home that had grayish-blue peeling paint, and was set well back in a garden that looked like it had been run over by a truck hauling weed seeds and spilling them out the back. The plants grew every which way, though Mrs. M didn’t seem to mind. She very rarely shopped at the grocery store, claiming that she grew all of her own vegetables in her garden and didn’t eat very much meat, but Newt couldn’t begin to guess how she could tell vegetables and herbs from the weeds.
Also, Old Mrs. M had a cat. Specifically, she had a very large, sleek cat that was midnight black in color, and even though the cat had been around as long as Newt could remember, and should be going grey with age by now, he stubbornly remained the deepest, darkest, most velvety black you could imagine. Sometimes Newt wondered if Old Mrs. M dyed the cat’s fur to keep him looking young, but she couldn’t imagine that the cat would sit still for that.
It was Dusty’s idea to cut through her yard, of course, because it would save them an eternity of walking clear down and around the end of the block to get to the shopping mall. The mall was straight through from Old Mrs. M’s yard. And of course, hers was the only unfenced yard in the block. None of the neighbors wanted people cutting through their yards to get to the mall. Despite the obvious temptation, no one ever went through Old Mrs. M’s yard, because she was a witch. Rumor had it that the tangle of weeds in her yard was enchanted, and they would pull you down and hold you for her. All nonsense, of course, because there was really no such thing as witches, or witchcraft, or enchanted plants that would attack you and hold you down until their owner arrived, but the general consensus was that it was still better to be on the safe than to eternally regret a little harmless trespass, so out of both custom and courtesy, no one ever quite dared to cut through the allegedly bewitched yard of Old Mrs. M, the alleged witch.
Naturally, it was Dusty who made the outrageous suggestion. He was usually the originator of the ideas that got them in to the most trouble.
“Let’s just cut through the witch’s yard,” he said in a desultory fashion, as though it was an idea that had just occurred to him on the spur of the moment.
“Let’s not do that,” answered Harold in his usual answer to Dusty’s usual suggestion, as though that would put a finish to the suggestion, as it usually did.
Newt continued down the sidewalk toward the corner, as they usually did.
Dusty broke their longstanding pattern by coming to a complete stop in front of Old Mrs. M’s dilapidated house. Newt stopped also and turned back to face him and hurry him along. The carnival was only going to be at the shopping mall until about noon.
“I’m going to cut through her yard,” Dusty announced, but before he could step over the invisible line marking the edge of her property, Harold caught at his arm.
“You can’t be serious,” he said in a low voice full of superstitious concern. “You want to cut through the witch’s yard, and rile her up, on Halloween? Are you crazy? Have you absolutely taken leave of what little senses you have?”
Dusty shook Harold’s hand off of his arm, so that he was free to do as he wished, but he turned to face his friend.
“No, I’m not crazy. Are you crazy? Why in the world would you want to go all the way down to the end of the block when we can cut through Old Mrs. M’s yard and be at the shopping mall getting candy from all the vendors that much earlier? It’s not like she’s a real witch. There is no such thing as a real witch, Halloween or no Halloween. What do you think she’s going to do to us, cast a spell on us?”
Newt stared at the old woman’s yard in what amounted to fascinated horror. Then she mentally shook herself. Dusty was right, there was nothing in the yard that could possibly hurt them, up to and including the old woman herself. She added her argument to Dusty’s.
“He’s right, you know, Harold,” she said softly. “She’s just a harmless old woman, and she can’t possibly do us any harm. Let’s cross through her yard and get safely to the shopping mall that much more quickly.”
Harold shook his head. “I have a bad feeling about this,” he said.
“What do you think’s going to happen?” Dusty asked with a sneer in his voice.
Harold shook his head. “I don’t know, but what ever it is, it will be a bad thing. I just simply know that this isn’t a thing we should be doing.”
Dusty settled the matter by simply turning his back on his friends and stalking off through the middle of Old Mrs. M’s yard. Newt shrugged at Harold and lifted her skirts high before following him. Harold, his reluctance obvious from his scowl and the set of his shoulders, followed his friends into what he clearly considered to be a bad and possibly dangerous situation. Newt privately felt that Harold had read far too many fantasies, where not only was magic possible, but an everyday occurrence.
The trio wended their way through the overgrown yard, following what appeared to be a very narrow and meandering path through the long front yard of the set back house. The trail wound its way through plants of ever increasing height, until the children couldn’t see either the street or the house, and had to rely entirely on staying on the path to keep from getting lost.
Newt thought they had come much further than the distance of the entire property, and she certainly hadn’t recalled seeing any vegetation of this size from the street; she was beginning to wonder if the yard was indeed enchanted, and whether or not Old Mrs. M really might be a witch after all. Newt didn’t dare speak aloud her concerns, because she didn’t want to alarm her companions, or to jinx them, just in case the enchantment was one that didn’t work unless you talked about it out loud. They were on the path, and they had no choice but to go forward, or else retrace their steps, and that was something she instinctively knew Dusty wouldn’t do. He didn’t often get in a stubborn mood such as this, but when he did, there was no dissuading him by any means from his intended course of action.
She resolutely followed in his footsteps, making certain to keep him in sight, as well as listening to the path behind her to be sure that Harold still remained at her heels. The further they went, the more certain she became that they had somehow wandered from the normal ordinary and somewhat boring world of Belly Button, Arizona, and entered some enchanted realm far distant in both time and place from their homes, family, friends, and most urgently, the shopping mall where the candy and carnival was free all morning, thanks to the generosity of the league of store owners in the shopping mall.
So intent was Newt on her private musings, that she failed to notice Dusty had come to a complete halt, and she ran smack into the back of him, overbalancing him and knocking him to the ground. She let go of her skirts and offered him a hand up, but as he rose to his feet, she froze in wonderment at the sight of the wide clearing they had just entered.