Lord of the Towels

TWEET! “Okay, guys. Hit the showers.” Coach Felbrook circled a raised fist high then pointed to the locker room. Forty boys on East Junior High’s football team let out a yell, unsnapped helmet chinstraps, and headed off the grassy field.

Felbrook jogged behind them, shouting. “Dak, good work on those cuts. Yogi, keep working on power pulls … the defense is still playin’ off your blocks. And hey, Toby … grab the ball cart.” Felbrook caught the eye of the last boy still sitting on the bench and pointed far up the field.

Toby Eagleton jumped up. The hot sun and muscle sweat felt good as he dashed 80 yards to fetch the cart. He imagined running for a touchdown, threw himself across the goal, and rolled to his back, pumping his fists in the air. The new mown grass smelled delicious.

“Toby,” the coach shouted, motioning him to hurry.

Toby scooped up three loose footballs, tossed them into the wheeled cart and spun it back to the field house. Felbrook stood at the entrance. “Water bottles. Don’t forget the water bottles and the cooler.”

Toby swung wide up the sideline, snagged eight plastic bottles off the turf, tumbled them into the cooler, and slid the cooler under the ball cart. Reaching the field house, he pushed the cart into the storage closet. He clanged the metal door shut, dropped the latch, and snapped the padlock.

The blue and black tiled locker room reeked of boy sweat and grass stains, and the even stronger scents of chlorine and mildew from the pool next door. As Toby walked in, the last players were spinning off shower spigots and stepping past him to grab towels. Steam billowing from the showers filled the locker room.

“Good effort out there guys. Toby, lookin’ real good.” Felbrook patted his shoulder. “Damn! Hey, you guys, pick up those towels. You raised in a barn?” No one paid him any attention. “Toby, can you make sure all these towels get into the bin. Thanks.”

“But Coach, I didn’t play. I sat on the bench all practice.”

“You need to learn the system, Toby. Watch the other boys. Your chance will come.”

Toby looked straight up at the neon ceiling lights. “Coach, maybe I could walk through some drills, huh? Maybe run a few practice plays?”

“Great spirit, Toby. Love that attitude.” Felbrook checked his wristwatch. “Sorry, gotta split, teaching a hygiene class in two minutes.” He pulled a gray letter jacket with the bulldog team logo over his dress shirt, and ducked out into the hallway.

Toby untied his cleated shoes then stripped off his jersey and pants. Sun-sitting sweat had a fouler stink than clean workout sweat. His clothing bore no green streaks or clumps of brown. Toby dropped his uniform in his locker and padded barefoot across the wet floor to the showers. Only a few boys remained, combing their hair and tying shoes.

Toby passed a full-length mirror and paused to scowl at his skinny nakedness: five-foot-five, 116 pounds, and red hair hanging like a fruit bowl. His coat-hanger shoulders rounded onto his concave chest. His stick arms and knobby knees reminded him of chicken bones. Some football player. He remembered his Mom saying, “You’ll get your growth spurt, Toby … you’re just late blooming. Just wait. It’ll come.”

“Yah Mom, I’m waiting, still waiting.” He started to punch a locker door but thought better and stepped into the gang shower. He turned the spigot handle, felt the rush of hot water, and gathered liquid soap from the dispenser.

SLAM! Came the sound of a metal door. Someone had crashed into the locker area. Toby recognized the muffled laughter and whispers. No one else sounded like Dak Jackson and Yogi Grancourt. Then came a squeal and the clickety-click of casters as the towel bin accelerated across the tiled floor. The locker room door slammed again. Toby turned off the water and walked out to the towel shelf. Nothing.

“Hey, you guys take the last towel? Hey, I’m still here.” Toby glanced at his locker hanging open and empty. Spinning, he checked the room … no clothes … no towels … no towel bin. “Damn you guys … Yogi? Dak? That you?” He slumped, dropped his chin to his chest then went to gather paper from the toilet stalls to dry off.

Pausing, he looked up and thrust his arms toward the neon ceiling lights. “God of towels, where are you? Why have you forsaken me?”

SHHHHLIIIK! It was the sound of a towel snapping. Warmth wrapped Toby’s hips and tucked a fold at his waist. What? He dropped his hands to find a towel wrapped about him. Not a threadbare gym towel, but luxurious, the brightest white towel, the kind bikini babes rub on themselves in fancy resort movies.

“Toby, me lad. I oonderstand you haff need for a towel?” The Irish brogue was high and lilting. Before him on the dank tiles, stood a figure a head shorter then he. It was pale with pointed nose and ears, a scruff of unruly black hair, and laughing eyes over angular, high cheekbones.

“Who are you?” Toby asked, stepping back.

“For certain, I am the very god you beckoned, the god of towels, here to ease your pain.” The fellow danced two quick steps then bowed, thrusting one leg forward and dropping one arm low.

“I didn’t call you,” Toby objected, gesturing his hands out. “What kind of god is a god of towels anyway? What can you do?”

“Well, for starters, you might haff noticed, I can coover oop your privates.”

“Okay, that’s good … I appreciate that. Thank you. I gotta go, I have class in, ahhh, six minutes.” Toby ran to the door and peered into the hallway. No clothes no towel bin. Opposite the boy’s gym he saw Sheila Palo leaving the girl’s gym, her books clasped tightly against her white, junior varsity cheerleader sweater.

“Pssst, Sheila?” Toby slid out the door to the recess from the hallway. Sheila covered her chin-dropped mouth.

“Toby? How come—?”

Toby waved her quiet. “The boy’s towel cart, is it in the girl’s gym? Maybe some clothes and shoes are on it? Please.” He gestured to his condition.

Sheila set her books down in the hall and returned a second later with the cart piled high with the last of the fresh towels, a pair of blue jeans and undershorts, a sweatshirt, tennis shoes and socks, and his sweaty football uniform.

“Thank you, me love,” Toby let that slip. Damn. She can’t know how I feel about her. He’d never talked to Sheila, but right now he was beyond blushing. Avoiding her gaze, he grabbed the cart and pulled it back to the locker room.

Toby hustled into his pants and shirt.

The elfin figure reappeared. “Sooo, perhaps I’m thinkin’, we haff more business.”

“No thank you, little guy. The towel was great. That’s all I need.” Toby looked hard at his new acquaintance. “What’s your name? I mean in case I ever need another towel.”

“That’d be Sean at your service, Master Toby.” Sean bowed low again.

“Just Toby is fine. No need to be formal.” Sitting on a bench, Toby slid socks onto his feet still damp from the wet tiles and began twisting on his tennis shoes.

“Not formal a’tall, Master Toby. I’m here to serve you, in all your travails, all life long.”

“To serve ME? How did I get so lucky?” Toby tied his shoes.

“You invoked the gods for the first taim and specifically mentioned me. The god of towels, you said … that would be meself.” Another quick bow.

“Great … other people get guardian angels … I get the god of towels?”

“Don’t be so disparaging, Master Toby. I can be a great blessing to you.”

“I think I’d prefer a genie, a great and powerful genie, one like Aladdin had. You know … like the genie of the lamp.” Toby laced his fingers around one knee, pulled it toward his chest, and rocked back.

“Genie of what lamp?” Sean stared blankly.

The Arabian Nights … you know. Aladdin finds a lamp, there’s a genie inside, it gives him a whole bunch of wishes.”

“That woos a good story … made oop you know. But it didn’t happen.

“Who made it oop … up?”

“The girl who needed a good story every night so she wouldn’t be killed the next morning. Worked that trick a thousand taimes she did. Hard to blame her, but it woos all a lie. I guess she didn’t think a “god of carpets” story was exciting enoof.

“God of carpets? … Give me a break.”

“Oh, so your so smart … well, Master Toby, let me tell you the real story.” Sean jumped onto the bench and dropped to sit cross-legged. “Aladdin had a carpet … do you knoow that mooch?”

“A flying carpet, of course. I liked that. Do you have a flying towel?”

“Don’t be gettin’ cheeky, and don’t be gettin’ ahead of me story. Well … wouldn’t you know, this Aladdin fellow, he had a good head for business. When the god of carpets came to him, Aladdin used his powers to become the richest carpet merchant from Samarkand to Bukhara. That’s hoo he got the princess, the palace, caravans and fine horses, all that fancy stoof. There never woos any genie of any silly lamp.”

“And a flying carpet? Did he get a flying carpet?” Toby persisted.

“Carpets haff certain powers … towels haff powers, too.”

“Thanks, I’ll call when I need you.”

Toby jumped up and ran for the door. By the hall clock he was fifteen minutes late. He broke into a run. Two corridors later, he slowed at the door to Miss Brown’s English class and, breathing hard, slinked in and around the side to the back.

The room went silent as all heads followed him. Miss Brown made a note in her grade book, took a sip from a red and white plastic Coca-Cola cup then continued. “What makes Leaves of Grass so compelling for me is that it was self published. Whitman spent all his money to get this collection out.” She gestured with the English book, and it struck and overturned the cup. Coke and ice spilled across her desk, papers, and grade book. “My! Oh, my!” She jumped aside startled by the spreading damage.

SHHHHLIIIK! It was the sound of a towel snapping.

A white, luxurious towel shot from the back of the room and up along the ceiling, to drop and neatly cover the spill, staunching the flow. Class chatter died. Miss Brown stared at her desk

Toby strode sheepishly to the front. Lifting the towel revealed a bone-dry desk and paperwork unblemished by caramel-colored stain.

“I’m sorry I was late Miss Brown,” he said. “I take care of the gym towels. I guess I forgot to leave this one behind.”

“That’s fine, Toby.” She whispered, eyes still wide. “Thank you. I-I’ll mark you present.” Miss Brown lifted a corner of the towel, noting its size and feeling its plush texture.

Walking home after school, towel in hand, Toby found Sean matching his stride. “Thank you for your help today,” he said and turned to Sean. “I’d like to reconsider your offer. I think we can do business.”

“That’d be excellent, Master Toby. And you are perfectly welcome. For sure we will haff many adventures.

Next morning before school, Toby rummaged through his brother’s fantasy game tokens and pulled out the Broach of Enchantment. The cardboard stapled to the cellophane wrapper showed it fastening the cape of a fantasy hero.

Toby’s cape that morning was a plush white towel of unusual quality and brightness. On the way to school he thought of Dak and Yogi … and of course, Sheila.

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The Boy and The Wizard

Once long ago in a far-away land, a wizard came to live on a mountaintop. In a single night, he conjured a fabulous palace and, to conceal his great age and ugliness, he made himself to look like a handsome young prince.

From the beginning, some people in the village below the mountain saw the dark wizard’s twisted smile and malevolent eyes behind the Princely charm. But most villagers welcomed the Prince. Their sons wanted to become knights. Their daughters dreamed of becoming princesses.

But when they sent their happy children to visit the Prince’s palace, the children all returned in fear. It was as if the Prince had stolen all the love and joy from their lives.

So instead of sending children, the villagers sent offerings: sacks of gold and silver from whatever they could sell, food from their gardens, fresh game, fine horses, and the best of their crafts. For years they worked in his vineyards, plowed his fields, prepared his food, did whatever the wizard requested.

Then one day, the wizard demanded that all the young daughters and sons be sent to him. The villagers overcame their fear and angrily stormed the mountain.

To their great surprise, the Prince, the palace and guards, walls, weapons, and sinister beasts withered before them, rising and blowing away like the morning mist. Where once the palace stood, they found only a low altar and a small box of black wood carved with magical symbols. They found no sign of the gold or gifts they’d given.

Slide1The villagers destroyed the altar and took the box, not daring to open it. For it was said the long-dead wizard lived only in his illusion, bound to the dry, taut-skinned skeleton folded within the box.

They appointed a watchman to keep the box. Years passed. The wizard was lost in legend and the box misplaced.

 

Many years later, a poor woman and her son came to live in a run-down cottage at the foot of the mountain. The boy’s father, a woodcutter, had died years earlier and left them penniless. The woman worked, sewing and mending clothes for the village and caring for her son. The boy tended their small garden and patched the roof of their cottage. Times were hard, food ran short, and the woman grew too sick to keep up with her mending.

The boy was clever and ambitious but feared to leave his sick mother alone. One day, he went to the garden and found only two radishes and a turnip. Not wanting to see his mother cry, he went in search of food.

 

A stream flowed from the mountain and ran past their village down into a dark wood. Villagers took water from the stream but never fished or lingered, for it was said to have an ancient curse. Those who tarried along its banks heard voices in the splashing water, and several said they’d seen a handsome Prince bathing.

But the stream was also known to have many fish, and boy and his mother had not eaten a full meal for many days. The boy took a pole, and worms and grubs he’d dug from the garden, and went to the stream. No sooner had he sat on the bank than he heard a call.

“Greetings.” The pleasant male voice flowed from an eddy swirling behind a smooth stone. “You look tired, my son. Perhaps a drink might refresh you, and a bath cool your feet.”

“Thank you, Sir,” said the boy, looking warily for anyone lurking along the bank. “But I must hurry along after I’ve taken a few fish, if that is permitted.” While they spoke, the boy pulled up one good-sized trout after another.

“You are welcome, my son. I am generous and have many fish to share.” A splash curled back into the flow. “But if you must go so soon, let me give you something to go with your fish.”

The grass beside the boy grew tall and weaved a basket. Round stones became loaves of warm brown bread, red apples and tomatoes, and pebbles turned into scallions.

The boy put the four fish he’d caught along with the bread and vegetables into the basket and quickly headed home. As he walked away, the stream crashed its banks. “Come tomorrow,” it said. “You’ll see I have much more for you.”

By the time the boy reached home, the sun had gone down and the cottage was dark. He put the fish in a bucket of water, set the basket of food on the table, and fetched wood for the stove. His mother had gone to bed early, so he decided to wait to surprise her with a meal.

The following morning the boy found his four fish ready to clean and cook, but the basket had become a mat of dead grass piled with stones. The boy prepared the fish for breakfast and decided not to tell his mother about his strange encounter. That afternoon he went back.

The stream called warmly as he approached, “How did you and your mother enjoy the food?” The boy cast his fishing rod and instantly felt a fish on his line. When he removed it, he felt another then another, as fast as he could cast.

“Those were fine gifts,” the boy answered, “and my mother thanks you.”

As they spoke, a young girl walked to the stream with two jugs slung on a pole across her shoulders. The boy watched as she filled the jugs but did not speak. She was the mayor’s beautiful daughter, a delight to his eyes in her bright blue dress tied with a braided, red cord. As she filled each jug at the stream, she held back the red cord to keep it from getting wet. On rising, she flashed the boy a smile that outshone sunshine.

“She can be yours, my son,” gurgled the stream. “You deserve her. I can make her come to you and anything else you want. See the glitter in my banks?”

A gold coin shone in the silt and beside it another. Scooping his hand, the boy came up with several coins, gold and silver, bearing images from a kingdom long ago. Forgetting his fear, he followed the coin path down toward the water and filled his pockets.

The boy heard a splash further out and, looking up, saw the mayor’s daughter wadding in the stream. She held her polka dot dress high, keeping it from the rushing water and revealing her long-tapered legs. The boy noticed the water flowing past her legs had no wake or eddy, and her steps made no splash.

He stumbled back onto the bank, collected his fish, and ran for home.

“Come again tomorrow,” called the stream with a gurgled laugh. “I have much more to give you.”

When he got home, he showed the coins to his mother. She turned them over in her hands. Then she told him the legend of the treasure that had never been found, and how a wizard used illusions and false promises to lure his young victims. She forbade him ever to go back.

Next morning, he slipped out early before dawn. He found the stream surging violently when he arrived. “Are you angry, Sir?” he asked. “Perhaps I should not have come.”

“Not at all, my dear boy,” said the stream, its waters becoming suddenly still.

“With your approval then, I’ve come to fish once more.”

“Please do take some of my fish. I am feeling much better now that you have come. I want to give you riches and favors beyond anything you can imagine. Want more gold … see here on my bank.” The boy again filled his pockets, but this time was careful not to enter the water.

“Your gifts are very fine, Sir,” the boy said, willing calm into his voice. “But what more could I wish from your generosity?”

The stream quickened but remained unruffled. “To the one I choose I can give wealth and power, glory and fame. You will live in a palace. All men will envy you, and every girl you see will wish to be in your company. But I cannot do these things here in this place in this form. I must first be restored to my real self.”

The boy cocked his head, eyes wide. “Alas, I am a only a simple country boy with no great powers.”

“Do not worry,” my son. “If you release me, I will give you everything and all power. You can remake the world as you wish. But first you must release me.” As it spoke, a wave swept across the bank revealing the corner of a small black box carved with symbols. The box was covered with silt and water-stained, but when boy lifted it from the bank, it glowed as if newly lacquered and polished.

“Take the box home and open it,” the stream said sternly. “Then I will keep my promise, and you will live happily forever after.”

The boy nodded, tucked the box under his arm, and headed home.

As he neared the cottage, he heard his mother singing and smelled stew boiling on the stove.

Inside he found the mayor’s beautiful daughter standing on a small stool, her arm raised while his mother fit her in a new dress. The girl smiled and lowered her eyes. His heart melted. He touched her arm to see if she was real. She returned his touch and handed him the braided, red cord she’d kept from her old dress.

“Keep still,” said his mother through teeth clamped tightly on straight pins.

The boy looked at the black box in his hands then at the boiling stew pot on the roaring wood stove.

Two frail, boney hands reached out, grabbing at his wrists. The boy quickly slid the box into the mouth of the stove. As he pushed the box back with a poker, the boy saw an ancient face scream silently, and watched tongues of fire hungrily claim it.

He turned back to the room, fearful of what might be missing. His mother, the mayor’s beautiful daughter, the gold, and the fish he had caught remained in sight.

With the strange voices and images no more, the villagers soon returned to fish the stream and picnic along its shore. The boy’s mother recovered her health. He and the mayor’s daughter married and lived happily. Perhaps they still do.

Forgetting The Dream

Lucan paused to catch a breath. The mountain path was more arduous than he recalled—steeper, overgrown with roots and tangles, and blocked with fallen branches.

“It is no more difficult than when we walked it the first time.” The voice came from the same twisted brown little fellow who had led Lucan to the holy man three decades ago. The elf hadn’t aged and wore the same hooded buff pullover tied about the waist with a brown rope.

Lucan sat on a mossy log and cast his eyes skyward. “Well, maybe I’m older,” he said.

“Or maybe your heart is no longer in the journey,” the little man said, stroking his pointed beard. “You were only fourteen, but you knew then you had a destiny.”

“Things changed.”

“You changed. You gave up.” The elf’s gaze dropped to the sword across Lucan’s lap.excalibur-fantasy-weapons-4278339-800-600

“Not really,” Lucan said, using the sword like a cane to stand. “I don’t need a sword anymore. Not for the life I’m leading. I thought it proper to return it.”

“Very well.” The elf shook his head. “The hilt shows no wear and the blade remains polished. My guess is that you and the sword remain untested.”

Without responding, Lucan returned to his climb, leaning heavily on the sword as he went. The elf followed. Upon reaching a clearing at the top, Lucan took a long deep breath and looked about. Arched boughs of towering oaks sheltered the space. Splintered light dappled the patchwork leafy forest floor with dancing yellow-green light. The fresh autumn air smelled of pine and rich humus. A bird dipped and, seeing Lucan, stopped in mid-air, gave a warning chirp, and flitted out of sight.

Here three decades before, Glinick the holy man had beckoned the earth with a thump of his staff. A shudder and quake had followed, then a crevice and a tongue of fire bearing the sword Lucan now carried.

This time no holy man greeted him, and there were no miraculous events. Lucan shrugged and drove the sword point into the ground. The sword sank easily, like cleaving soft butter, but on reaching the straight cross-guard, it refused to go further. After several attempts, Lucan placed a hollow broken section of a branch over the exposed grip and pommel. Then he backed away to sit beside the elf on a stone shelf.

“I’ll tell Glinick where to find his sword,” the elf finally said.

“I didn’t want to give up,” Lucan said, “but I never learned how to draw on the sword’s magic.”

“Glinick said you must persevere until the magic finds you then follow the path it points to you.”

“The magic never found me, and now Jill has left me, too. She thought I was a fool for lugging a sword around.”

“Is that why you gave up … your girl didn’t believe in your mission? So you chose to follow her instead?”

“She’s smart, beautiful, sophisticated, everything I want,” Lucan glared at the elf, “and she knows me … knows who I truly am.”

“She knows the version of you that fears to use his gifts.” The elf leaned forward with his hands on his knees. “All talents and skills are magic—gifts from God to help you fulfill your mission, to help you become what you are meant to be. When others tell you not to believe, they are telling you not to believe in yourself and in your gifts.”

The elf stroked his bearded chin then continued. “I suspect if you became what you were meant to be, Jill would not be with you. But your perfect partner would be.”

“I told you, Jill knows me.”

“It would be better if you knew yourself. But perhaps you do.” The elf pointed to the branch section hiding the sword’s grip and pommel. “The earth has not accepted the sword, and the holy man has not come to receive your resignation.”

Lucan pursed his lips nodding then locked onto the elf’s gaze and smiled.

The Tale of Lady Evangeline

Formed in the trunk of a gnarly old tree, the cottage gave the impression of a troll’s face. Its doorway twisted like a disfigured mouth, its windows malevolent glowing eyes. Knotted roots reached out like back-broken snakes half-buried in the swampy forest floor.

Lady Evangeline felt a sudden change of heart. She lifted her white linen gown to clear the mud and turned away.

“My lady,” called a frail sweet voice. “Have you come to pay an old woman a visit? Please come in.” A bent figure stood unsteady in the doorway. Her stained four-toothed smile and near-bald, brown-splotched head reminded Evangeline of the skull Friar Joskin kept on his scribe’s desk. The crone waved and pleaded again, and Lady Evangeline felt too ashamed to refuse. This forest was on her father’s land after all, and this old woman was under his care.

stoopcrone

The musty one-room cottage had a stone hearth with a boiling kettle opposite the door. To one side was a rough-framed bed with a worn, hair-patched deerskin mattress. To the other was a simple wooden table with two chairs. Peg-mounted shelves above the table held ceramic jars and variously colored glass bottles. A straw broom stood in one corner and earthen flagons in others.

The crone pointed to one of the chairs. A black cat clung to it until she shooed it away. The crone apologized, stepped to the hearth, and lifted the kettle. “Some toadwort tea,” she offered. When Evangeline started, the crone added, “Toadwort is an herb native to this forest, it makes a fine tea.” Evangeline nodded agreement, and the crone filled two tea-stained, wooden cups.

“How nice of you to visit me. I was told you might come by.” Evangeline knew her handmaids had often visited this cottage. “Tell me, my Lady, what might this old woman do for a beautiful young girl?”

Evangeline broke into bitter tears. “I think I shall never love again,” she said. Her voice shook too much to say more. Evangeline brushed her black silken hair behind her shoulder then brought her sensitive milk-white hands to her lap.

“A broken heart is it?” the crone said, unable to conceal the curl at the corner of her mouth. Evangeline nodded, dropping her chin and eyes slowly down. The crone sipped her tea and darted one eye to Evangeline’s untouched cup. “The tea will help, dear child.”

Evangeline buried her face in her quivering hands. Tears slipped through her fingers and flowed down her wrists. The crone reached a jagged claw to Evangeline’s hand then touched the top of her head. “Now, now, my dear, I know it hurts. What is it you wish from me?”

“I never want to feel this again,” Evangeline wailed, looking up. “It hurts so much, and I know,” she swallowed, “I know it will never go away.”

“There, there. Is that what you want, dear child, for your pain to go away? Here, drink some tea.” She slid the cup closer. Evangeline lifted the cup to sip but seeing her hands moist with tears, set it down and pulled a lace-trimmed handkerchief from her small quivering bosom. She patted her eyes and hands then tucked the handkerchief away. When she finally drank, the old crone seemed to relax.

“Can you truly take my pain away?” Evangeline asked.

The crone’s once sullen eyes burned like glowing coals in their dark sockets. “Is it just the pain you want to go away, or is it the memory also? Or perhaps something more?” Her lipless mouth flashed a gap-toothed sneer.

Evangeline took a deep sniffling breath. “I must keep the memory so I know never to do this again. But I would like the pain to go.” She cleared her throat and brushed the last tear from her cheek. “Last night Reginald told me he must return to Andalusia to be with his betrothed. All summer he insisted he loved me. He says he still does, but I know his passion has cooled.”

Yes, dear child,” the crone said. “I know how it is. I was young and beautiful once. Men loved and desired me, but I made the mistake of loving one back.” Evangeline tried to imagine this dung-colored, stick figure as a young girl.

“I was given the choice,” the old crone said, “to be loved without having to love in return.”

“That is a choice I would willingly make,” the young princess said, swallowing again then brightening. “What must I do?”

The crone’s gapped smile grew wider. She lifted a small black bottle from the shelf above and cradled it in her boney claw fingers. “A drop of this to your tongue will make you eternally beautiful to all men and make you forget ever having loved.”

“Eternally young and beautiful?” Evangeline squinched her face.

“Only to desirable young men,” the crone said. “Others will see you as you truly are. Every young man who gazes upon you will yearn for you. He will give his heart instantly and completely, will want only you forever. And having given his heart, he will never be able to love another.”

“And I will feel nothing,” Evangeline said, concerned but excited.

“For a single night, you will feel as he does, but only in your lips, your breasts, and your loins. Never in your heart for that is where there is pain. You will share his flaming passion, but come morning, he will only disgust you. Your disgust will take away all your pain.”

“Can I never love again … truly love?”

“Have you not tasted true love? You said you didn’t want it ever again.”

“Yes, the cost is too high.”

Suddenly, a deep voice came from the open doorway. “My Lady. Excuse me, my beloved, I see you are busy, perhaps another time would be a better.”

Evangeline turned to see Sir Geoffrey in his belted, sky blue tunic, his hands clasped submissively at his waist. Geoffrey had pursued her all last year pleading for her hand. He was handsome, tall, brave, and proud, but had ideas contrary to hers, and so she had sent him away.

Seeing Sir Geoffrey again angered Evangeline, but before she could protest, he rushed to kneel before the crone. “My Lady, you are the fairest, most desirable woman I have ever seen. Please might I hear a kind word, perhaps savor your delicate flower once more? I curse myself for whatever I did to lose your favor.”

The crone smiled tilting her head to Evangeline then placed her claw hand on the knight’s bowed head. “If you wish to please me, Sir Geoffrey, some venison would be welcome or a wild pig for the roasting spit. Would you do that for your beloved?”

“Yes, fair Lady. I will hunt for you and will soon return.” With that he rose and quickly left, not giving Evangeline a glance.

“You see, my child, how the magic works.” The crone kneaded her claws together and peered over them at Evangeline. “If you visit your love Reginald one more time, his passion will rekindle. You may enjoy him once again then be rid of him, and he will suffer forever.”

“He will feel the pain he made me feel,” Evangeline said. She sipped her tea then smiled and rested her chin on her delicately folded hands. “My handmaids did not tell me you were a witch.”

“Oh, I am not a witch,” the crone said, “I am a demon … as you soon shall be.”

Jack

Six-year-old Cory tucked her flannel nightgown tight around her bare legs. The old farmhouse was cold. Cory sat on the top step staring down the dark stairway. She listened for any creak of the pine boards that would tell her that her mother was coming. A naked light bulb with a drawstring rocked back and forth in the draft and cast barred shadows of the stair rails along the cracked plaster walls. She licked her lips.

“Mommy, when are you coming up?” she called softly. The bare walls swallowed the sound of her voice.

“Get into bed, Cory,” her mother said. “I’ll be up as soon as I get these pies in the oven.”

Cory didn’t want to go into her bedroom alone. Bad things would get her. That’s what Billy Farkin had said on the playground. Bad things like little girls. Tonight they’ll come for you, Cory. It’s Halloween night. They’ll come for sure. He’d hissed when he said it. She looked back at the dark doorway to her bedroom. A full moon shining through the window silhouetted a leafless tree, casting ghosts of boney branches across her bed cover.

Why was Billy mean to her? She remembered him pulling her swing seat away then squatting in the dirt hollow beneath the swing. Bad things happen on Halloween. Oh yes, they do … and bad things happen to little girls. He’d rubbed his nose on his wrist then pointed that finger straight at her. And they’ll be coming for you, tonight. He’d squinted his piggy eyes and flexed his fingers like claws as if to grab her.

“Mommy, come tuck me in!” Cory shouted, this time hearing her voice echo. No reply came. She wished her daddy was there, but she knew he was at the garage trying to get the car fixed. She wiped her wet cheek and blinked away tears.

Tonight bad things will get little girls.

CREAK, THUMP, she heard something in her bedroom. Cory snapped her head around and pulled her heels close beneath her to jump. A shadow moved. She looked harder. The twisting light bulb lit a corner of her bed. The dust ruffle waved. Behind her bed, a single candle flickered soft and golden from the jack-o’-lantern her daddy had set on the steamer trunk.

“Mommy! Come tuck me in!” Again, there was no answer. Cory stood and edged toward the doorway.

Tonight, Cory . . . bad things will come.

Cory leaned into the dark bedroom, careful to keep her feet in the triangular patch of light beside the door. The wind whistled. CREAK, THUMP, a frosty gust slapped one of the tree’s skeletal branches against the loose-fit single-pane window. SCRATCH, SCRATCH, sharp branch sticks like tiny claws scraped the glass, sending shivers up Cory’s neck.

They’re trying to get in . . . the bad things are coming.

“Cory, go to bed,” her mother called. Cory ran back to the top of the stairs.

“Grandma wants to make pies for Mrs. Jones, too, and daddy’s still in town, so don’t wait up. Crawl into bed. I’ll be up as soon as I roll out the extra pie dough.” Mommy doesn’t know about the bad things, Cory thought, hearing no fear in her mother’s voice.

“Mommy! I’m scared. Billy said . . .”

“CORY! Get into bed. If you’re scared—talk to Jack.” Her voice trailed off to murmurs with grandmother in the kitchen.

Cory tiptoed back to the light triangle in the doorway. The jack-o’-lantern’s candle flickered orange shadows and wafted smells of hot wax and pumpkin. Cory kneeled and looked under the bed. The dust ruffle swayed like an unseen monster, breathing and waiting.

Bad things are there, watching for little feet to come close.

“JACK!” Cory whispered loudly. “Are your there?”

“I’m here, Cory!” The jack-o’-lantern’s flame danced. “Come to bed. I’ll watch for you.”

“Jack, you better help me.”

Cory pulled herself upright, widened her eyes, and took a deep breath. The jack-o’-lantern flared a bright smile that shifted the moon shadows. Cory bolted forward, jumped, and grabbed the smooth comforter. Feet, she thought, feeling the dust ruffle brush her ankles. She curled her legs up behind her before any swift-closing claws could catch them. The comforter pulled loose and began sliding. Cory felt herself slip. Exhaling hard and pulling, she wriggled her way up.

The candle sparked. “Good work, Pumpkin! You made it!”

“Ha! Jack!” Cory turned the edge of the bedcovers back then rolled and squeezed her legs between the cool tight sheets. She pulled her nightie close about her, tucked the covers so nothing could creep under, then propped her head with the pillow.

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“Don’t call me Pumpkin, Jack.”

“Don’t call me Pumpkin, Jack,” she said with a sigh. “I’m a little girl. You’re the pumpkin.” She pointed a bent finger at Jack’s dancing eyes. “I know you are, because I went with Daddy to get you from the pumpkin patch. You were a big orange pumpkin on a curly vine.” She rocked her head as she spoke. “We brought you to the house, and Daddy gave you that big smiley face—just like I told him to.”

“Yes! He did, Cory.” Jack’s candle glowed. “And he put me right here at the foot of your bed to keep the bad things away.”

“Bad things like little girls,” Cory whispered. “That’s what Billy Farkin said.” She looked at Jack beaming beyond the foot of her bed. “How can you help me, Jack? You are little like me—and monsters are big,” Cory swept her arms wide, “this big.”

“Because I’m magic.” Jack’s flame snapped bright.

“Magic? How?”

“Your daddy put magic in me. Remember when he carved my face? He loved his little girl with every stroke. Love is magic.”

“YES!” Cory sat up, raised her arms, and put her hands on top of her head. “And Daddy was laughing, and he said when he was away, Jack would watch over me.’”

“Yes, your daddy was laughing … laughing is magic too, Cory.” Jack’s flame twinkled. “And it doesn’t matter how little you are, not when you have loving and laughing magic.”

A new tear glinted in Cory’s eye. “I wish my Daddy was here. But, I’m real glad he made you for me, Jack.”

“Cory?” her mother said from the doorway. “You still talking to Jack?” Her mother smoothed the quilted bedcover. Leaning close, she framed and kissed her little girl’s face. Cory smelled cinnamon and cloves. “Good night, Sweetheart.”

“I love you, Mommy.”

“Sleep tight! Do you want me to leave the light on in the hall?”

“No, I’m not scared any more.” Her mother left. Cory looked toward the glowing face just beyond her bed. “Good night, Jack.”

“Good night, Pumpkin!” Jack’s candle twinkled.

“You’re the pumpkin, silly Jack. I’m a little girl.”