“What kind of snack do you want?” Claire asked her 4-year-old son Henry. It was 10:00 AM on a Tuesday. Henry ran into the kitchen at the mention of a snack.
“Cookies?” he asked excitedly.
“No, something healthy. You can have cookies if you eat all your lunch.”
“Okay,” Henry said, defeated. “Apples?”
“Apples it is.”
Claire cut up an apple, turned on the Octonauts, and reached for her phone. Her husband Leonard was at work and their 9-month-old baby Merry was taking a much-needed nap. Snack time would be the only 20 minutes that morning she would get to herself.
It was an overcast and windy fall day. Claire stood next to the kitchen window and lit a cigarette. The sounds of a giggling Henry echoed through their quiet home. Claire scrolled through her social media pages and continued smoking her cigarette.
The sound of tiny feet against the hardwood floor signaled the end of snack time. Henry walked through the dining room, pausing at the window to their backyard.
“Mommy?” Henry’s small voice asked.
“Yes, dear?” Claire replied absentmindedly. She tapped ‘like’ on a photo of a cat with a piece of bread over its face.
“Who’s in our backyard?”
“No one is in our backyard Henry.”
Henry stared out the window, then back at Claire. He pointed with his index finger. A cold chill shot up Claire’s spine. She dropped her phone and walked to the window, gently pushing Henry behind her. Through the open window, she saw a shape moving towards the back of the yard. A shape in dark gray clothing was slowly walking away from the house. Its hair was long and unkempt. Claire couldn’t make out the actual color of its hair or skin from this distance.
“Hey!” Claire shouted, “Get the fuck out of my yard!”
Whoever it was did not turn around or quicken their pace. They continued to walk towards the end of the yard, then disappeared into the woods behind Clarie’s property. Not just disappear, Claire thought, they seemed to completely evaporate.
Henry’s eyes were wide when he turned to Claire and said, “That was a witch.”
“Don’t tell me to calm down Leo, you didn’t see it!” Claire spoke angrily into the phone. Henry was happy to be watching a second episode of the Octonauts but became increasingly distracted by his mother’s rising tone.
“Yes, I took my medicine today you fucking asshole!” Claire whispered. She peeked into the room to see Henry staring right back at her. She quieted down. “No… I’m not calling the police yet, but our system is armed … Okay … I will … See you when you get home.” Claire hung up the phone, sighed, and ran her hands through her long brown hair, tying it into a ponytail. She walked into the living room and sat next to Henry.
“Is daddy coming home to find the witch?” Henry asked.
“No, he’ll be home at the normal time unless we see that person again. What makes you think it was a witch?”
Henry shrugged. “She wore gray, and her hair was gross.”
“That’s all it takes, huh? Then I sure have met a lot of witches at the grocery store.”
Claire laughed. Henry did not.
“So I can’t play outside today?”
“Tell you what, when your dad gets home we’ll go on a walk. How does that sound?”
Above their heads, the baby began to cry.
“To be continued,” Claire said standing up. “I’m going to get Merry and we can all play together okay?”
Hours later Leo came home from work. After greeting Henry and making sure Claire was feeling okay he searched their backyard and the small section of woods on their property.
“Did you find anything?” Claire asked when he walked back into the house.
“No, nothing,” Leo said, stomping grass and dirt from his feet on the doormat.
“Did you search the woods?”
“I searched the portion on our property, yes, I’m not searching the whole damn forest, Claire. It was probably just some junkie searching for something to steal. Remember when they stole our fire pit?”
Claire remembered. Two men had entered their yard, picked up their fire pit, and walked down the street with it.
“Yes, maybe we should have reported it, you know?”
“Right, the cops are going to spend our tax money running down leads on a stolen fire pit.”
Claire tapped her hands on her legs, anxious for something to do while growing increasingly agitated with her husband. Henry’s small face appeared around the corner. He walked into the kitchen carrying two velcro, light-up shoes.
“Are we going on a walk now?” he asked.
Leo picked up Henry and placed him on his shoulders.
“You got it champ, let me change out of my work clothes and we’ll head out.”
A breeze filtered through the cracked window in their kitchen. Claire stared passed the yard and into the woods. She saw a shape standing just beyond the tree line, staring back at her.
“Okay, you go get ready, I’m going to walk into the woods just a bit, to see if I hear anything strange.”
Leo stared at Claire. “Are you sure about that?” She stared back out the window to see the shape had once again evaporated.
“Yes, I won’t feel comfortable until I take a look myself.”
“Okay then, just hold on one second.” Leo walked into their basement and returned holding a baseball bat. “Take this at least, you never know.”
Henry stared at the bat, then met Claire’s gaze.
“It will be okay dear, stay here with your dad, in fact, go check on Merry and let her know about the walk we’ll be going on.”
At the mention of his baby sister, Henry smiled and ran upstairs shouting, “Okay mom!” along the way.
The woods were wet and darker than usual. It was only 5 pm but the cloudy sky prevented light from penetrating the canopy. Claire looked up at the different colors of leaves, some already beginning to reveal signs of autumn. Her gray cardigan now felt too thin, and the baseball bat in her left hand felt too heavy. She walked forward slowly.
“Hello?” Claire called. She listened to the faint rustling of leaves. No one answered her. “I saw you, walking through our yard…and just now standing here… where I am.” She took a deep breath of cool air and sighed. “What do you want?” The woods remained dark and silent. Claire took a few more steps, called out a few more times, then turned to leave.
The path she had walked on into the woods had completely disappeared. Instead of seeing a few lines of trees before her yard, Claire saw them stretch out indefinitely. She turned around several times and saw nothing but forest in every direction.
“Hello?!” she screamed. “Leo?! Leo!! Where are you?” In a panic, Claire began to run. Without a clear path the entire forest looked exactly the same no matter where she turned. Branches scratched and tore at her arms and legs as she ran through the underbrush. She ran in a crazed state, crying and screaming for help. Her foot found a protruding root and she crashed onto the leaf-covered ground.
When Claire stood up she was standing in her backyard. The forest stood in front of her, dark and silent once again.
“You seriously didn’t hear me screaming for help?” Claire sat in a chair on their back patio while Leo cleaned her injured knees and elbows.
“I’m sorry, but we didn’t hear a thing,” Leo said. He was wearing their daughter Merry in a child carrier. “Did we champ?” Henry shook his head. He stood close by holding the bottle of hydrogen peroxide and a bag of cotton balls. Leo reached for another cotton ball and patted Claire’s left knee. She winced in pain. “Are you sure you still wanna go on a walk?”
“Yes, I’m sure, I’ll be fine. Walk it off, right?” Claire winked at Henry. He smiled in return. “Henry, can you put those back in the house buddy, I want to talk to your dad for second.” Henry walked slowly backward into the house, hoping to catch some piece of information he wasn’t privy to. He stopped to pick up the baseball bat too.
“Just put that by the door buddy, I don’t want you walking down the stairs with it,” Leo called after him.
“Leo, something very strange happened out there,” Claire said, after Henry was inside the house.
“Yeah? Sounds like you got lost, what else happened, did you see someone?”
“No, I didn’t see anyone, but it wasn’t just a patch of woods like it is now, it was like it became an entire forest.”
Leo bit his lip. Claire recognized this as a sign that he had something to say, but by saying it, it would probably make her mad. Years of marriage had clued them both into these small, silent signals they each unknowingly exhibited.
“Forget it, we can talk about it later if you want, let’s just go on a walk.”
Henry reappeared and they made their way to the front of the house. The sun was beginning to crack its way through the clouds. “Wow, this weather is great,” Leo said. Merry cooed in the baby carrier and Henry stopped to closely examine every insect and bug they came across.
They had only made it one block when Henry began to whine: “I forgot my backpack!” Leo made a noise that was a combination of a laugh and a sigh.
“Okay, I’ll get it buddy,” Leo said. “Be right back!” Claire watched them go. Leo held Merry’s head so it wouldn’t bounce as he jogged slowly back down the street. She even heard the baby laugh as Leo would occasionally lean down to blow raspberries on her cheek. Henry occupied himself by inspecting a praying mantis while Claire tried to piece things together in her mind but failed to come up with an explanation to what she experienced.
As her mind wandered she noticed the sky begin to flicker between the grayish orange view she expected and a bright baby blue. It reminded her of watching a damaged VHS tape. The tracking filtered between two views that took up the same amount of space but were obviously not meant to simultaneously coexist. She looked at her house and saw it fading in and out of existence. One second it was the world she knew, and the next she was in the wilderness.
“Henry,” Claire asked, “Are you seeing this too?”
“Yes, I see her,” Henry said.
“What? See who?”
“Look Mommy, the witch, she’s right there!”
The shape stood in the street, staring at them. Its hair was matted and dark. Its clothes were coated in dirt and grime. Claire couldn’t make out any facial expressions as the long dark hair covered most of its face. The shape turned and began running in the direction of their house.
“Hey!” Claire shouted. She began to run then heard Henry’s soft cries. “Run to the neighbor’s house Henry, I’ll be right back.” She watched Henry run further down the street before taking off towards their home. “Leo!” she shouted, “Leo!!”
The front door to their house was wide open when Claire arrived. She ran inside, shouting for Leo. The house was silent inside. She ran into the living room, the dining room, the kitchen-
The basement door was open. Claire saw their backpacks hanging on the wall just inside the stairwell leading to the basement. At the bottom of the stairs Leo lay crumpled on the floor in a pool of blood. Claire ran down the stairs. Leo’s skull was smashed. He wasn’t breathing as she turned him over. Merry was nowhere to be found. A shadow fell across the basement. At the top of the stairs, the shape, now clearly a woman stood staring down at Claire, with Merry in her arms.
“Give me my daughter,” Claire said.
The woman shook her head while patting Merry’s back. Then turned and walked away.
Claire ran up the stairs to see the woman entering the woods with Merry.
Claire ran. She ran harder and faster than she thought possible. Occasionally tripping over a root, rock, or branch. Her clothes were completely covered in mud but she continued to run until she reached the end of the woods, and her legs gave out. A train track separated the woods from a small abandoned canal. Beyond that, the noise of the highway echoed against the trees.
Defeated, without a single sign of the woman or Merry, Claire began the long walk back home.
She walked for what felt like hours, eventually arriving at their home.
As she entered the kitchen, she noticed the basement door was now closed. She opened it, and saw Leo’s body no longer lay crumpled on the floor. There was no blood.
A hand grabbed her from behind.
“Who are you?” a voice said. Claire now saw Merry. She scratched at the hand and reached for her daughter. “Ow, hey stop it!” Merry cried out as her body was pulled from the baby carrier. “What the fuck-” Claire punched and scratched and pushed against the person restraining her. She grabbed the baseball bat by the door and swung hard. She heard the body fall down the basement stairs. She looked down to see Leo, once again lying in a pool of blood.
Claire carried Merry into the living room. She placed her daughter into her playpen and walked outside. In a daze she walked down the street toward their neighbor’s house, looking for Henry. She watched as her son stared at her horrified. Then he raised a finger to point and said, “Look Mommy, the witch, she’s right there!”