Witch and Moan – A Midlife in Mosswood Short Story
Thank fuck he’d brought his own booze to the party. The whole damn thing had been a bust from start to finish, and the only thing that had saved it was his special-brewed moonshine burning the shit out of his throat as he swallowed mouthful after mouthful. He reckoned it was the only way to cauterize the infectious, sickly-sweet words he’d been forced to spew up throughout the evening, first to his wife, then to his girlfriend. By the time he’d been knocked on his ass by Jesus, he’d been glad to get the hell outta Dodge.
Well. A preacher masquerading in a Jesus costume. If that wasn’t sacrilegious as all get-out then he didn’t know what was!
He had stumbled down the steps of the Mosswood Town hall, his eye and nose smarting and his head swimming with mean thoughts that his even meaner hands had every intention of carrying out. He’d swiped three bottles of cheap light beer from the party as he’d exited, and now cradled them in one arm as he wandered up the street towards their precious Church. It sat high on its perch above the town, judging all and sundry while the untouchable Baptist folk in town got away with all manner of sins.
He oughta know. He used to be one of them.
But the tide had turned, it seemed. He wasn’t the sort to lick his wounds quietly—never had been. He muttered darkly to himself about witches and black magic and people being under the influence of spells as he staggered up the hill towards the Church. The moon hung low in the cloudy sky above, and leaves scattered across the path in front of him, whipped into a flurry by that persistent kind of breeze that seemed reserved for spooky nights. It brought with it the ghostly sound of children’s laughter, which was drowned out moments later by the creaking of the old oak trees bending on either side of the street before him.
He wasn’t sure if it was the moonshine or the shiner, but as he neared the Churchyard the air seemed to get thinner. By the time he’d reached the intricate, wrought-iron gates set into the brick wall that surrounded the Mosswood Cemetery, he was tired enough to stop walking and ready enough to cause some trouble. After rattling the lock on the gates, he could only see one way around it and stuffed a bottle of beer in each of the back pockets of his Levi’s and gripped the neck of the other in his teeth before lodging his boot between two of the bars in the gate.
Varsity football never seemed so far in his past as it did in that moment. With a grunt that denoted more effort than he’d made for anything since his last touchdown, he hoisted himself up into a standing position on the gates. A slosh of beer dribbled down the back of one of his legs and he scowled. He cussed under his breath as he climbed to the top, the gate swinging wildly beneath his considerable weight. More beer was sloshed. More swears were growled into the midnight air.
By the time he reached the top of the gate he wasn’t so sure this had been a great idea after all, but he’d be damned if he would give up now. He swung one thick leg over the top, carefully avoiding the pointed spikes atop the bars designed to keep out intruders just like him. He smirked, grabbing hold of the beer bottle he had in his mouth and tilting it back. He drained it with four large gulps, threw the bottle carelessly onto the grass below as he swallowed the last of it, and then let out a huge burp that echoed through the graveyard.
“That that, you fuckin’ hypocrites!” he slurred, reaching down to adjust his manhood away from a spike that was encroaching on his personal space. He barked a deep, menacing laugh, holding on to the top of the gate and swinging his other leg over the side. And that was where he met his maker—figuratively speaking.
A spike snagged the fabric of his jeans, slipping through the well-worn weave with ease. It disrupted the momentum of his leg swing, causing him to overbalance. He gripped the gate desperately, over-correcting. The spike got sick of the taste of denim, biting into the doughy flesh of his thigh instead. He yipped with pain, fumbled, and let go of the gate. There was a long, solid riiiiiiiip as his only good pair of jeans tore straight down the leg, but that was the least of his worries. The rest of him was soaked with cheap beer as he fell, and when he landed on the grass below, the two glass bottles in his back pockets broke his fall—in a manner of speaking.
“Aaaargh!” he cried out, pain coursing through his body from a variety of places. He didn’t know whether to be more concerned about the spasms in his back or the hot stinging of the broken glass in his ass cheeks, but in the end he settled for a combination of the two. He lay still for a moment before slowly rolling onto his belly, at which point he was able to use the remainder of his moonshine-addled brain to stand up gingerly. He pressed a hand to his butt, seeing his blood shining darkly in the moonlight when he lifted it to his face.
Enraged, he leaned down to retrieve the other glass beer bottle he’d thrown on the grass and pegged it straight at the nearest tombstone in a fit of rage.
“That fuckin’ bitch!” he yelled. “That fuckin’ weird-ass, no-good, meddlin’ witch bitch!”
The already thin air shimmered around him, and for a moment he wondered whether he was starting to feel woozy from the booze, a possible concussion, blood loss from his glassy ass—or a combination of all three. A fourth option presented itself as he watched a small white light rise up from the ground in front of the tombstone he had just thrown the bottle at; wispy tendrils of some kind of glowing ectoplasmic smoke unfurling until an elderly woman wearing a frilled cap and an apron was glaring at him.
Nope. Options one-through-three were a bust. He’d just straight up lost his damn mind.
She looked incredibly real aside from the fact that she was completely see-through and that she faded away to nothing right where her feet ought to be. His eyes grew as wide as saucers, and he gaped at her in surprise. It would be highly unlikely for the Church to hire projectors of ghosts for the Cemetery on Halloween, but it was the only logical explanation and he was gripping that explanation with both of his calloused hands. He’d just managed to convince himself that he must have tripped the projection sensor by stumbling too near it when the woman spoke to him.
“I’ll kindly be askin’ you to take that language elsewhere, young man!” she huffed, the edges of her voice colored with the hints of a soft Irish accent. “And clean up that glass! Immediately!”
He gaped at her, his mouth slightly open. His breath, blood pressure, and heart rate were all rising faster than he’d hit the deck after falling from the gate.
She levelled her gaze at him and shook her head. “How far do you have to fall before you pick your sorry ass up again, Terry Holt?” she asked, glancing over at the gate and then back to him. “Surely you done hit rock-bottom by now.”
“Wh-who are you?” Terry stammered, watching the woman nervously. “Ma’am,” he added with all due haste.
The woman gestured to the tombstone that Terry had flung his empty beer bottle at. Aside from a scrape where the glass had grazed the granite, the only other mark on it was the inscription:
Geraldine May Holt
Beloved wife, mother, and grandmother
Resting peacefully until God reunites us in the hereafter
“Great-Great-Great Grandma Holt?!” he asked incredulously, looking from the inscription to her and back again.
“That’s right,” she said, clasping her hands primly in front of her apron. “I didn’t survive a civil war, nigh-on starvation, and the Spanish Lady only to be roused from my sleep by one of my own ancestors actin’ a fool and desecratin’ a grave!” She tutted. “If you’re not already ashamed of yourself, you ought t’be, boy!”
All his pain was temporarily forgotten in the midst of this weird and wonderful exchange. Sure enough, the woman had the famous Holt brow (‘as wide as it was stubborn,’ his mother used to say). He offered her a gesture that was half of a shrug and half of an apology, his hands lifted in front of him.
“I’m sorry!” he told her, feeling his knees shake uncertainly. “I didn’t mean to! I—”
“—always have yourself an excuse. Yes, I know.” She stretched an arm out, tenderly placing a hand atop the grave of her husband beside her. “But I’m not just talkin’ ‘bout the bottle. Or the swearin’. Or the drinkin’,” she added, waving her other hand under her wrinkled nose to dispel the stench of second-hand moonshine and spilled beer. “I’m talkin’ ‘bout the unwholesome life you be livin’. Bein’ unfaithful to your beautiful wife.”
She shook her head sadly. “We watched you get married, you know. From right here, we watched the pair o’ you come outta that Church, and I said to the Good Lord then and there that you didn’t deserve her.” And then a gleam sparked in her ghostly eye, and a slow smile spread across her face. “Oh, but you’ll get yours, and no mistake. There’s a special place in Hell reserved for adulterers, my boy.”
“I’ve tried to repent!” he bleated, sounding like a sheep who had followed selfishness its whole life instead of its shepherd, only to be surprised to find itself heading for slaughter. “I’ve begged her to take me back, but she won’t! It’s that damn Rosemary Bell! She—”
“Has nothing to do with your wandering eye,” Grandma Holt cut him off, “—or your fickle affection. This is a mess entirely of your own making, and so must be the remedy. True redemption comes with a change for the better. And unless you offer yourself up in repentance, you’re a lost cause, I’m afraid.”
Terry fell to his knees, clasping his hands together and ignoring the searing pain across his ass. “But I don’t want to go to Hell! Please, help me!” he begged. “Please! I’ll do anything!”
His great-great-great-grandmother looked down her nose at him, seeming to consider his plea. At long last she sighed and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Very well,” she said. “I’ll help you. But only to stop you ruinin’ my Halloweens for all eternity just ‘cause you don’t like where you’re headed.” She smoothed her apron in a businesslike manner. “We all like to get together once a year and catch up on the latest happenings, and we don’t want anyone bringing down the mood!”
Terry blinked, looking around the graveyard. “But there’s no one else here.”
“Not right now there isn’t,” she griped. “I suspect you scared them off with your manners being just as foul as your breath. Now do you want my help, or are you gonna keep sharin’ that stench around ‘til I run off, too?”
“Sorry,” he apologised quickly. “Please! I don’t wanna go to Hell!”
She raised a spectral eyebrow in his direction, but otherwise maintained her excellent composure. “Very well. Stop thinking of yourself before you think of others,” she began, ticking off a finger, “stop acting like the world owes you somethin’, because it most certainly doesn’t,” she ticked off another finger. “And last but definitely not least—stop drinking!” Third finger ticked off and hands now clasped, she smirked at her descendent. “That ought to about do it!”
Terry blinked. “Is that it?” he asked ungratefully.
She shrugged a shoulder, and then rolled her eyes. “Very well—a bonus, then. You had better see the town surgeon for some stitches in those buttocks.”
“Fat lot of good that‘ll do me!” Terry blustered, his fear dimming only to be replaced with the anger that was never far beneath his surface. He gestured towards the entrance of the Cemetery. “Can’t you at least magic open the damned gate?”
“No,” she shook her head. “I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
“Why not?” he asked her. “Aren’t you an all-knowing spirit from beyond? If you can appear here on Halloween,” Terry sassed, “why can’t you just open a lock on a gate?”
“Oh I didn’t say I couldn’t,” Grandmother Holt told him, and then smirked wickedly. “But it was far too much fun watching you climb over it in the first place to deprive myself of the joy of seeing you navigate it a second time. It’s no more or less than you deserve.”
He was so shocked by this revelation that he didn’t really know what to say. Eventually he muttered a gruff “Thanks for nothing, then!” as he carried himself over to the gate. It had already been a night to forget in a hurry, and the sooner he managed to stop his butt from bleeding, the better. Without ceremony and fueled by embarrassment and that stubbornness his whole family was known for, Terry hoisted himself up onto the gate once more. The contraction of muscles around shards of glass made him howl with pain, and he took a few quick breaths before turning back to say something absolutely rotten to his long-dead ancestor.
But the graveyard was empty.
With his dignity as shredded as his jeans and his hide, Terry navigated the gate and landed on the other side after a gate-spike had stabbed a hole in the sleeve of his shirt for good measure. As he limped off down the hill back into downtown Mosswood, a gentle whooshing sound filled the Cemetery. Slivers of ectoplasmic smoke began to curl up from each of the graves, growing and taking shape until all of Mosswood’s former residents from across the ages were present and accounted for.
“Do you think he’ll take his lumps and learn from ‘em?” Samuel, Terry’s great-great-great Grandfather asked, holding the crook of his arm out for his wife.
“No,” she replied, slipping her arm into her husband’s. She turned to a plump woman who was fussing with the collar of a young boy, smoothing it down as though they needed to look their best. “I’m sorry, Violet,” Geraldine said to her. “It must be terribly upsetting.”
Violet smiled a tight little smile, not looking up from her attention to the boy’s collar. “Oh, don’t you worry about my Tammy,” she said. “That’s a girl who can look out for her own self.”
Excerpt – Jealousy’s a Witch
The sounds of the hot summer afternoon seemed dulled by the arrival of Tammy. She looked sheepishly between Declan and Rosie, her knuckles tight around the laundry bag of clothes she held like Santa Claus’ sack over one pudgy shoulder.
“I hope I’m not imposin’,” she said softly, even though it was clear that she knew she was. “Only that...well!” Unshed tears suddenly welled in her eyes, and she tried a combination of blinking and fanning her wedding-ring devoid hand in front of her face to stop them from falling.
Declan looked from Rosie to Tammy and then back again, as though trying to weigh up how useful he might be in a situation like this versus how much damage he might cause by way of a poorly timed and probably inappropriate joke. “I think I better check on the painting crew,” he murmured, rubbing the back of his neck as he took off for less emotional turf.
Rosie crossed over to the table, set down the potato salad she had been carrying. “Why don’t you have a seat and I’ll pour us some lemonade,” she suggested. Tammy nodded mutely, swiping at the tears now streaking down her face. Two sips of lemonade seemed to give her the confidence she needed to carry through with the story.
“I’m so sorry to barge in on y’all like this,” she sniffled, “but I didn’t know where else to go.”
Rosie thought back to the day Tammy had rolled up to the cottage as part of Prissy’s entourage. She had seemed like the only genuine woman out of the three. Rosie had felt terrible when Tammy had seen her husband Terry making a pass at her the day he’d come out to the cottage to ‘offer his services’ as a handyman. She hadn’t seen her since that day, but it didn’t look like things had improved for her any.
“You don’t need to apologize,” Rosie told her, “so let’s get that out of the way right-quick. We’re havin’ a cook-out, and you’re officially invited.”
Tammy offered a weak smile in return, sipping her lemonade. “Thank you.”
Rosie smiled back. “You’re welcome. Now,” she added, glancing up at the cottage. “I feel duty-bound to tell you that at any minute we’re likely to be infiltrated by a rush of starving teenage boys, an Irishman with a huge appetite, a girl who can put away three hotdogs in one sitting, and a turtle that—”
“Long story,” Rosie grinned.
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