How did I end up here? Ah kid, it’s not that much of a story. And it was a long time ago. Besides, I’m tired. It’ll be morning soon, why don’t we just wait it out, huh?
Okay okay, pipe down. If you’ll shut up for a minute I’ll tell you about it.
No, I don’t know how long ago. You lose track of time here.
So it was late October, coming up on Halloween. I had heard a nice tidbit about some local work from a guy who knew a guy. Nah, kid, I didn’t know the guy, I knew the guy who knew the guy. No, a different guy, a second guy.
So this guy is like an internet guy, right? He does ebay, he does auction websites, antiques. Fancy stuff. One of those bums who goes to estate sales to rip off grieving widows. Piece of work, but good consistent info. So my guy that knows this guy, he calls me up one foggy day and tells me that Mr. Internet has found an absolute plum half an hour from me. It’s some lady who’s been buying gemstones for years, sapphires, emeralds, rubies, diamonds, the works. She has them shipped to her home and, see, this has been going on long enough and in large enough quantities that it has caught the attention of my unsavory friend’s unsavory friend. So, he does a little digging. Looks for any business under her name where she might be reselling the gems as jewelry or art or anything. Nothin. Okay, so, gets an associate to call around to the banks in town as said lady and say she lost her safety deposit box key and wants to arrange about getting another one. Not only does she have no safety deposit box, she has no accounts. Well, he’s starting to get a little excited now. There’s nothing like a miser who doesn’t trust banks to make a con man start drooling.
So now he hires out his digging to a specialist. Somebody who can turn a computer inside out. And this guy comes back with the info that she’s never had a bank account, she has no kind of modern home security, she’s unmarried with no dependents, and she lives a half mile from any neighbor.
He’s tied a little too close to the lady, because they do have documented contact on the internet, so he sells the information to my friend for a tidy price.
After looking over the whole prospect, my friend is about to come in his pants. Sorry, sorry, I mean he’s very excited. But because he is a cautious man, as well as being not inclined to do anything that might lead to a prison sentence, he calls me to scout it out. And it sounds pretty good to me, so a couple of days later I head down there to get the lay of the land.
It was perfect. It could not have been more perfect. Isolated, sides and back surrounded by pine trees, the front yard its own whole lot, and the windows just left open. Actually open. If there was a goddamn pie sitting on the sill I could have taken it.
Don’t get me wrong though, it was creepy. Big old victorian done in dark purples and greens, with all the plaster owls lined up along the widow’s walk. Definitely creepy. But I thought the creepy was on my side, you know? That I was the scary thing at that house.
I had parked my car about a mile back in a grown over drive way. Nobody had lived at that place in a long time. I was posted up in the scrub across the street with snacks and water and binoculars and my tool bag, just waiting. She came out of the house in the late afternoon, maybe four thirty or five. I almost laughed when I saw her. Thin little noodle arms and a haircut that made her look like a sheep, big long wool skirt and baggy tie dye muscle shirt. The sleeves on the shirt kept sliding off her shoulders (although calling them shoulders is a courtesy) and she kept hauling them back up without really noticing. She just looked vague. She looked like a person who would lose their keys. She looked just as perfect as the location, she looked like a housebreaker’s dream.
She came out with this big basket and walked around the huge front garden talking to herself and the plants. She was taking lumps of something out of the basket and crumbling it into the bases of the plants and then the wind came up and the plants started to move, but they weren’t moving with the wind, they were moving with her. She bent down to a thing like a rose but it wasn’t. I know roses, my dad used to grow em when I was a kid. The petal shape was all wrong and the thorns curved up, like fingernails. You know the one I’m talking about. That thing’ll take a bite out of you, kid, watch yourself with it.
So I’m spooked now but I know there’s a crop of gemstones in that house worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and I’m not leaving without my harvest. She wanders around with the plants for another fifteen minutes or so and then goes back inside.
It’s starting to get pretty dark now. I go through my tool bag, make sure I have everything. Tidy up the wrappers and junk from the day. A light goes on over on the side of the house and it throws a gold trapezoid on the grass. I know where she is. I shift my bag onto my back, jostle it to make sure everything that’s going to gets the clunk out of its system, and I head across the street.
I go up along the right hand edge of the garden. There’s barely a path there, between the flower beds and where the trees press in. There’s a breeze going straight up my neck. My calf is cramping. I have to pee. The usual.
I’m about halfway down that barely there path when I see movement. I stop and watch. Nothing, so I think it’s just clouds letting the moon out, but when I go forward again, it happens again. I start to walk a little faster and then the moon does come out and I see that all those freaky ass plaster owls, the bird scarers, are turning their heads. All together, like they’re pulled on a string, watching me. And I know they’re not real birds because I can see the lines of cheap paint on them, see that their lumpy talons are glued onto blocks of cement that keep them upright. But they’re still turning their heads to follow me as I run, cursing my friend, cursing the internet, wishing I never came.
I make it to the lighted window and she’s in there, the kitchen it is, humming and mumbling and going back and forth between a table and the counter with bowls of things. I’m breathing hard and I look in at her and hate her and her house and her garden for making me scared. So I go in the side door hard (it’s unlocked, like every door here), because I’m scared and I’m hating and I want her to be scared. But when I burst into the kitchen she just looks up at me and smiles like some moron and says, “Did you need a cure?” The she sees the bag, and the balaclava sitting on my head that I didn’t pull down because let’s face it, I’m probably going to kill her now for the things I had to feel tonight, and her smile goes sideways. She looks even dumber, cloudy and confused. I’m so mad I can’t think.
“Oh. You’re a robber.” She sighs and sets down the little paring knife on the table, pulls out a chair and flops into it. “What were you thinking of stealing?”
My heart is beating so hard that I start to choke on my own pulse. I gag on my heartbeat. I feel insane. She sticks her tongue out at me and draws a shape in the air, then spits at my feet. As soon as the spit lands on my shoes (nice shoes, too) I can breathe again.
“I’m sorry, I always wonder if my security is too much. I don’t like to hurt anybody, but it is correlated with the degree of evil intent and you look like you’re about to bust, so you must have pretty bad intentions?” She cocks her head at the end. I want to cry, in a way I haven’t since the third grade when Margo Rooney said stuff about my mom in front of the class, and I hated her and my mom both in a brand new way.
The witch sniffs. It sounds like a motorcycle is stuck in her sinuses. She sighs again.
“Please tell me what you were going to steal and why.”
“Gemstones. For – for money, to get rich. To be rich. I don’t know.” It feels like a really stupid thing to say in this house, in this moment.
“Oh honey. The gems are all gone, I finished up with them weeks ago.”
“But, but you didn’t sell them or anything, we checked.”
“I grind them up. They’re very important for fertilizing certain plants. And certain wishes. If you want something just for pretty, I think amethyst is much nicer. I’ve never understood why diamonds are so expensive.” I feel numb.
“Artificial shortages,” I mumble.
“Oh!” she exclaims and smiles like we’re friends. “Smart boy, of course!”
“What are you going to do with me?” I’m still scared but I’m not mad. The mad just washed away like a wave and now I’m tired.
“I’m going to make you part of my security detail. You have all the expertise already and you’ll be especially good if your friends come looking, because you already know what they look like and everything if they pretend to be vacuum salesman or something.”
“You’re…you’re going to make me part of the thing in the air that makes you scared?”
“No, silly. I’m going to make you one of the owls. You’ll have, let’s see, Sundays and Thursdays off, room and board, medical of course (hah, the best medical you can get!), dental although owls don’t have a lot of dental needs.”
“The owls on the railing upstairs? But-“
“I know, it may seem unfair, but you did try to rob me and I think you were going to kill me, because the Defense Spell has only ever gone off like that on one other person and he was definitely trying to kill me. So I think it’s perfectly just, actually.”
And then, kid, you know what happened next, because you’re up here too. And I’m here to tell you, it’s not so bad. We have some good times, and she makes really nice pies in the fall. And it’s not forever. I don’t know how long it is, but there’s guys who’ve left. They come back and visit too, bring her presents. That’s where the goat came from, one of the old guys brought it. You just gotta settle in, live your life, do the time. Hey, I hear her coming up the stairs. Aww, you smell that? Sugar cookies. Hell yeah.