Before the Fire
We were still young enough to trick-or-treat, even if just barely. And this was back in the day when kids could roam about on our own, on bicycles or on foot, darting through backyards and other places where we didn't belong.
The day I'm thinking of was the day of the fire.
This time it was me and Mike and Dave. It was always me and Mike and Dave, at least the times we let Dave tag along. Witch-lady's house as different from the others on the block. For one thing, her grass was different. You notice that. Most people's grass was, well.. grass. Green blades, cut to an even height. The way it's supposed to be. Witch-lady had a fine covering of clover, interspersed with islands of moss. When we were younger we'd crawl about her yard searching for four-leafed clovers, and even found one once. I still have it, pressed between pages of a book.
Anyway, back to Halloween. Like I said, it was me and Dave and Mike. After school we'd slip into her backyard and peek through that basement window all the houses around here have. You know the kind.
Witch-lady's basement wasn't like anyone else's. Where our dads had workbenches and tablesaws and piles of scrap wood, witch-lady had a tall, bright room with a single table in the center. On this was a great platform like the kind that people built model train sets on, all fake grass and little roads and stuff. It was Dave who found it the first time, showed me and Mike like it was a secret. So now we were looking.
"What's it like this year?" Dave whispered. Last year dinosaurs walked the tiny streets, between model suburban houses. The year before that I think it was clowns.
"It looks like witches," Mike whispered. It should be. After all, she was the witch-lady.
The rows of suburban houses were gone this year. In their place - laid out on the same rough grid as our suburban streets - were neat rows of tiny tipis, made of sheafs of wheat and what looked like scraps of leather. The tipis weren't the thing we noticed though. Like Mike said, it was witches. Lots of witches.
"This is SO lame," I whispered, "The Indians who lived hear were Algonquins. They didn't even live in tipis"
"You aren't supposed to say 'Indians'", Dave whispered at me, "now let me see."
But I didn't. I was still looking at the witches.
Witches suspended in the air above them. Witches on the ground between. Mostly cardboard-cutouts, witches in silhouette. I didn't think then, but I've wondered since - why were they all facing to give a perfect view from the window? Why weren't any crosswise to us? It's a question that haunted me.
Anyway, here was this tipi city beset by witches. Hanging from the carved pumpkin in the town center. And on her gown.
I'll admit, we panicked when we saw her walk into the room. At least Mike and I did. Dave hadn't gotten a good look yet, with Mike and me crowding the window. He wanted to look.
Like I said, it was the day of the fire. We heard sirens, smelled smoke. Numb, we watched it all burn. Nobody ever was able to explain how it started in four different houses at once, blocks away from eachother. Just that it did. And it spread.
Her block was untouched.
We didn't think much of it at the time, but when Dave caught up to us he was looking up towards the sky while we watched fire engines and ladder trucks and men in rubber armor wielding great hoses. His eyes were on the sky, tears running down his cheeks.
Much later - after the embers cooled and after weeks in hotels while our parents fought with insurance companies and builders and some of us stayed and some left - he told us what we'd missed, when we ran.
"She saw me. I know she did. She looked right at the window. Then she struck a match, and lit the whole thing on fire. ANd then... you know."
I shook my head., "You must be imagining it. One of them fake memories,"
He looked to the sky again. It had become a habit with him. "I just wonder - I wonder when the witches will come."