Welcome to the twelfth installment of Poor Valley Witch! This is a serial short story I’m writing as I go along, with minimal editing. I have to admit, it’s gotten a little creepier than I had expected. If you’re just tuning in, click here to go back to the beginning. Feel free to leave your comments below!
Read on, reader!
Landon and his mother trudged down the faded, cracked, asphalt road to hell. They passed the house trailer where Landon had run over the corpse of a dog, and two boys (heathens. minions. lost boys.) had drug it out from under the car by its leg. The old woman stood near the canted cement steps to her front door, watching silently as they went past.
Out of some sense of ironic fatalism, Landon raised a hand in greeting. She shook her head and he thought that was all she’d do, but she hesitated and then waved in return before turning and walking around the back of the trailer house. The boys were nowhere to be seen.
“Friend of yours?” his mother asked.
“Yeah,” he answered. “We go way back. I ran over her dog.” She looked over at him, perplexed by his glibness.
“It was already dead,” he said, as though this explained the whole story. They walked along a few more steps, heading into the woods. The light dimmed immediately, as though they’d crossed a substantial border. It felt nice under the trees, though; the morning sun was starting to get hot back there, baking up at them from the old blacktop.
Landon was about to open his mouth to say so, when a resounding CRACK sounded in the air, causing his heart to jump into his throat. This time it was he who put the “Mom-belt” in front of his mother, pushing her back in time to miss being hit by a falling tree by mere inches. They both fell back on their asses, breathing hard, studying the slim oak over the road in front of them. Slim by tree standards, but still substantial enough to have knocked them out, or worse.
“She’s trying to kill us!” Landon’s words came out in a high-pitched wheeze.
“No,” said his mom, struggling to get up. Shaking with adrenaline, Landon pushed himself up off the road and extended a hand to help her out. “No, if she wanted us dead, we’d be dead. Trust me. It’s cat and mouse.”
“Nice,” he answered. They flinched as more trees fell over the road beyond, one after the other like dominoes, except out of sequence. Their road had become vastly more difficult. The woods echoed with crackling limbs and the ground shivered beneath their feet with each impact.
“Nice,” said his mother, wryly. They looked at each other, still breathing heavily, then broke out into matching grins.
“So,” said Landon. “Are we being blocked, or herded?” The last trip he’d taken down this way—what, two days ago?—he had lost memory of this part of things. He’d ended up just outside the witch’s house, about to open the makeshift plywood door. But he’d chickened out, and she’d made fun of him, and he’d been spit out by the valley back in town, at the old gas station. So what was she doing with them now? More cat and mouse, but he had a gut feeling that she didn’t want to drive them away, just freak them out on their way to her.
Landon took his mother’s hand and started back the way they’d come, back toward the trailer house, toward the sunny part of the road.
“What are you doing?” she asked. She didn’t resist him, though; she sensed he was working an angle. She was just genuinely curious about his motive.
“Not sure yet. Trying to flush it out.”
“Flush what out?”
“That.” Landon stopped and nodded his head toward the two boys he’d seen at the trailer house a couple days earlier. They were around, after all, and they were peering out at them from up in a couple trees, just up the bank from where Landon and his mother stood on the road. “Them. I think we just found our guides to the path we’re supposed to take.”
The two travelers scrambled to climb the bank even as the two boys jumped down from their perches in the trees. They were shirtless, and dirty in the way that boys who play in the woods always are. They didn’t say anything, just turned and started walking away from the asphalt, up a path that wouldn’t have been visible from any vehicle down below.
Landon and his mother followed.
They hadn’t gone far when Landon realized he was alone with the boys. He stopped short, looking around wildly for his mother. She was gone. Gone. Disappeared, with no word, no sigh, no rustle of undergrowth. He opened his mouth to call out for her when one of the boys was suddenly by his side, taking his hand. Landon looked down, bewildered, and the boy shook his head, bringing one finger to his lips. Landon looked around again, hoping that his mom had only stepped off the path to pee, or something, but the boy tugged his hand insistently. He scooped air with his free hand toward the path, in the universal sign that meant “Come on! Get going!”
Landon followed, his spirits plummeting. They’d said he’d have to sacrifice himself. Mamaw had mentioned it, first, and then his mom had said it outright. She’d said he’d have to give himself to the witch. It was the only way, she’d said. He had hoped, up until this moment, that she had a plan, some master, secret way to defeat the witch in the valley. He kept waiting for her to reveal it to him, on their walk. But she’d turned tail and run. Left him. That was it, after all.
The boys led him around the bend in the path. It was totally silent in the woods. Not even a bird trilled, or frog croaked. Nothing made noise except him, walking along the path. There was a building of some kind up ahead. An old outhouse, maybe, or a hunting shack. The boys trooped up to it and stopped, turning around and crossing their arms, standing sentry at either side of the doorway. He was supposed to go in.
Sighing, feeling strangely like he was on a conveyor belt—he certainly wasn’t directing his own feet, anymore—Landon went to the shack and peered into the deep gloom. There, on the floor, was a gleaming, white mint tin. The very one that held the nubbins. Landon instinctively felt the ring on his finger, making sure it was still there, that it hadn’t disappeared like his mother had. He shuffled through the doorway and bent to pick up the tin, but before he could get a grip on it he fell—and kept falling.
“Here, hold this,” his mother’s voice whispered in his ear. “No, don’t look around, you won’t see me. But hold this, it helps with the vertigo.” Landon groped around until he found a stick and gripped it, hard. True to his mother’s words, his sensation of falling eased and he felt the solid dirt beneath his back. He couldn’t see a thing, not one photon of light. His eyes kept trying, kept sending little phantom shapes to his brain. He’d read that that happens, when people go into deep caves where there is no light at all. Their brains kept trying to create things to see.
“This is a safe place,” his mother said. “We made it safe from the witch. She controls all the roads in the valley, but other creatures have laid claim to the old paths in the woods. And this place, this old shack, is a very special place indeed.”
“Who … who’s we?” Now that Landon no longer felt like he was falling, he felt a bit nauseated. Carsick.
“I’m here, too, son,” his father’s voice spoke in the blackness. “I had to wait on the sidelines. Your mother and I, we’ve found the way to beat the witch. At least, we think so. But it’s all you. We tried. We looked for every solution, read every book, spoke to any weirdo who might have a better answer, but this is the only way.”
The relief and pleasure Landon felt at the sound of his dad’s voice ran out of him. “I have to sacrifice myself.” His parents’ silence was answer enough.
“And you have to …” his father began, but Landon had the distinct feeling his mother had shushed him up. She put the mint tin firmly into the hand Landon wasn’t using to clutch the stick.
“Take the nubbins,” she said. “Go to the witch. You’re almost there. Tell her you’re ready to give yourself up. Landon—and this is very important—you must hide the nubbins. Put them down in your underpants, if you have to. And go in to the house. You have to go in. All the way in.”
“I love you, son,” said his father’s voice in the dark. And with that, Landon was alone.