A Witch In Time
It was the summer of 1974 and I was ten years old. My mom had just remarried after a tumultuous and abusive marriage, and I was thrust into an entirely new world. My mom had married into a Mexican family that was rather extensive.
After school had let out for the summer I was told that my new great grandmother, Mary, would be watching me during the days. I was of course nervous and upset about staying with someone I didn’t know. My mom reassured me and told me that it would be fun and that I would get to meet some of my new cousins.
On the way to Mary’s house, which was in the older part of town, we had passed a dark and foreboding run down house with a large gnarled tree in the yard, it gave me an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I didn’t know why. I remember pulling up to the smallish, one level, house and hearing kids playing in the back yard as we got out of the car.
As we walked up to the house I could hear a loud television blaring out some program in Spanish through the screen door. The smell of candles mixed with tortillas filled my nose. My mom knocked on the door and and old, but still seemingly spry, woman opened the door, I remembered seeing her at my mom’s wedding. There was an uncomfortable moment of silence as Mary looked me up and down and then ushered into the house. The women were attempting to communicate which each other as my mom spoke very little Spanish, and Mary spoke very little English. I looked around in wonder at the house. There were candles with pictures of religious figures burning everywhere. There was a small television in the corner of the living room that was blasting out commercials in Spanish. The living room had two stuffed chairs and a small couch for furniture. I was turning around looking at the pictures of Jesus that were hanging on the wall when I heard something growling at me. I looked and saw two small dogs, chihuahuas, looking and growling at me. I would learn that they were named “Chico” and “Chiquita”, and they never did warm up to me.
My mom and Mary finished up their discussion and I saw my mom hand her some money. She came over hugged me and told me she would pick me up late this afternoon and to behave. I was alone in a strange house with a woman I barely new.
Mary looked at me and beckoned me to come with her. She led me to the back door and told me to “Go play in the yard”. I went out back and saw three boys and two girls that seemed to be about my age playing in the yard. I recognized them from the wedding and remembered they were introduced to me as cousins. There was Gloria 11, Maria 9, Roberto 7, Petrolino 8, and Luis “Chango” 10. I went out back and stood against the wall watching them play. They eventually stopped and looked at me.
“I remember you.” Chango said, “Your mom married Uncle Johnny.”
“Yeah, that’s right.” I said looking down and kicking a rock around with my foot.
“Well, welcome to the yard. It’s not too bad here.”
“Thanks a lot.” I smiled.
I got to know my cousins and eventually started to fit in that summer. We spent the days roughhousing and doing typical boy things, the girls would shake their heads at us stupid boys. If we got too noisy Mary would slam the door open and point at us silencing us with a look. She spent the day in the house watching her loud TV or listening to Spanish music on an equally loud radio.
I learned a lot about Mexican culture that summer as Mary was from Mexico as were the kid’s parents. I grew to feel as if I finally fit in somewhere.
Mary used to feed us in assembly line fashion. She used to make us cheese tacos, which were delicious. We were told to line up behind her, she would fry a tortilla, fill it with cheese, roll it up and hand it to the first person in line, you would then move to the back with your burning hot deliciousness in your hand and repeat. This was similar for hot dogs, and other good things to eat. While Mary was top notch at making tasty food she did not understand the sugar ratio of Kool-Aid in one bit. There was always a pitcher of 50% less sugar for us to drink. It was always room temperature and served in one beat up old plastic cup for us to share.
I became really close to Chango and considered him my brother. One afternoon we snuck a knife out of the kitchen and became blood brothers by poking the tips of our fingers and pressed them together. “Los Hermanos Locos” we called ourselves. A few days later I gave Chango a white ball cap with a bright yellow smiley face (you know the one, from the 70’s). He never went anywhere without it.
All in all it had turned out to be a better summer than I thought it would be. And then everything changed.
We were always fascinated by the old abandoned house down the block. We always asked about it and were always shushed. One day there was a thunderstorm that drove us into the house to sit quietly on the floor. Eventually lightning knocked the power out sending the house into silence. We sat in silence for a bit looking at Mary looking at us. We eventually coaxed her into telling us a story. We asked about the house again hoping for something. She closed her eyes and told us a tale right out of a horror movie.
She said that there was a family that lived there long ago that was very religious. They had a daughter who grew up to become a nun. When the parents became old and sick she returned to take care of them. One night several men who had escaped from prison broke into the house. They apparently tortured the old people to death and “Had their way” with the nun over and over. The police tracked the men to the house and caught them, although too late. The woman became pregnant from the ordeal and stayed at the house out of shame. When it became time for her to have the baby some women from the church began to check up on her periodically. The woman gave birth to a little girl at the house by herself. When the ladies came to check on her they found a horrible sight. The woman had killed the baby and eaten its heart and then hung herself from the tree in the yard. Mary said that the woman still haunted the house looking to grab children.
At this point in the story the power came back on scaring us all as the the TV blared. We shook ourselves out of the horror of the story and went back out into the fresh rain cleaned air. We spoke about the story as just a fairy tale to keep us out of the house, we were wrong.
I didn’t know but Chango was intrigued by the story, almost obsessed with it. He had begun to plan an excursion to the house.
There was two weeks left in our summer vacation when it happened. Mary used to take a nap at 1:00 pm everyday. We were supposed to nap as well, but not that day. Chango managed to stay awake and shook me when everyone else was asleep. He pulled me into the corner of the yard and told me his plan. We were gonna climb over the backyard fence and go check out the house. I was scared but didn’t want to wimp out on him. We climbed the fence and headed towards fate.
The house seemed larger and darker that day as we walked towards it. I was walking behind Chango in silence while he was babbling on about what we might see there. We eventually made it to the house and stood on the sidewalk staring into the darkness of it.
What happened next is burned into my memory like a photograph. Chango grabbed my hand and said “Come on hermano! Let’s check it out!” We stepped off of the sidewalk into the dead yard. I saw something move in the doorway and told Chango to stop. We did and my heart sank as I saw a shadowy figure looking at us. I felt my bladder let go as I screamed to Chango “It’s the lady, run!” And in an instant she covered the distance between the house and the yard, was there and grabbed our arms. The smell of burning leaves filled my nose, acrid and choking. My arm was burning where she had hold of it. I was screaming wildly and yet no was coming. I turned my head and saw the woman whisper something into Chango’s ear. She then turned towards me and whispered in my ear, “I’ll see you in 40 years.” Her face was evil personified and her breath was like the smell of dead things. I was still screaming when I realized Chango and I were alone in the yard again. We looked at each other and raced back to Mary’s house.
We sat in the corner of the yard not believing what had just happened, an not wanting to believe. There were discolored marks on our arms from where she grabbed us and it burned. I asked Chango what she had whispered to him and he said “See you soon.” I told him what she had told me and we held each other and cried for a while. We promised that day to never speak of it again.
We behaved the rest of the summer and eventually school started again. Chango and I went to different schools but still remained close. We would see each other on the weekends sometimes and on family gatherings. I was eventually able to put the events of that day in a corner of my mind. The occasional nightmare would pop up during the night and I got quite good at washing my own sheets.
When spring break rolled around I was excited to learn that Chango and I would be staying the week together at his house as my parents were going away. It was gonna be fun.
The first couple days were fun and we were just stupid kids enjoying life. The third night we went to bed as usual and quickly fell asleep. I awoke sometime later in the dark and knew something was wrong. The smell of burning leaves immediately filled my nose choking me and burning my eyes. I heard a rustling and like a coward I hid under my covers. I heard Chango whimper and I sneaked a look and wished that I had not. She was there standing with Chango’s hand in hers, he was crying. She looked at me and put a finger to her lips and whispered “Shhhhh…” and they were gone.
I sat up in bed in the morning light thinking it another dream until I caught a whiff of burning leaves and Chango was not in his bed. I screamed and screamed until I could scream no more.
The search for Chango went on for several weeks. The only thing missing besides him was the hat I gave him. The pajamas he went to bed in were still in his bed. I told everyone about the house, and the woman but nobody listened. They did search the house I told them about but found it as abandoned as it had been for years. Chango had disappeared and only I knew what had happened. It took several years of therapy before I gained some sense of normality. To this day I have to sleep with a blanket and can let no part of my body hang off of my bed.
Eventually I grew up, married, had kids and moved on from what happened. I became a photographer and was working on a book of photos of abandoned buildings. It had been 39 years since the events from my childhood.
I set out one morning to shoot several houses in the rural area where I moved to. It was a fairly uneventful day of shooting with nothing out of the ordinary. I was settling in to the tedious task of editing the photos when my wife came into my study to talk about my upcoming 50th birthday party. We talked a bit about it and then I returned to my work. I was several photos in when I saw it. In the doorway of one of the houses was a shadowy image of a boy in his underwear wearing a hat with a smiley face on it. I rubbed my eyes and looked again, it was faint but there. I looked through the other photos and nothing. It was only in the one. My heart raced in my chest and I heard the words “I’ll see you in 40 years.” echoed in my mind. I thought I caught the faint trace of burning leaves in my study.
I went to bed and had a fitful night. I had plans to travel to a nearby town the next day to shoot a series of abandoned houses for the project. Again, it was an uneventful shoot and I came home tired from my previous lack of sleep. I went to bed early leaving the editing for the next day.
I woke up made my wife breakfast and lunch and kissed her goodbye as she left for work. I was many hours in editing when again there was an anomaly in the doorway of one of the houses. She was in the doorway holding the hand of Chango staring at me with a finger to her lips. I must have passed out because I woke hours later lying on the floor of my study. I got up put on a happy face and made dinner. I kept what I saw in my photos to myself not wanting to involve my family.
The evening before my birthday:
My wife was spending the night at our daughters to babysit our granddaughter. I was gonna spend the night alone working. It was the wee hours of my birthday when I drug my tired ass to bed. I don’t know how long I slept before something woke me. Like all of those years before the choking smell of burning leaves filled my nose. I knew I had wet myself and my heart was knocking in my chest when I heard something moving in the room. I saw a shadowy figure move from the corner and heard a faint voice, “Los Hermanos Locos.” It was Chango only the happy boy I remembered looked haggard and tortured and was crying. I moved to get out of bed and go to him when something behind me grabbed my arm and I knew. “It’s been 40 years.” a voice whispered in my ear as my bedroom faded around me.