The three boys slowed as they neared the Witch’s House, and stopped talking. They paused on the sidewalk, at the very edge of the VanWyck’s property—not quite over the threshold to the Witch’s side.
The Witch lived in that Scary House At The End Of The Street. You know the one–the sprawling old Victorian with the dark purple paint peeling off its walls, the once-pink shutters that banged against the house even when it wasn’t windy. Gnarled old trees grew all around the house, leaving it in constant darkness. Even on the hottest, brightest summer day, the Witch’s garden path felt dark and chilly, overgrown with thorny bushes and ugly weeds. Children feared the house and the yard just as much as they feared the Witch herself.
“Why do I have to do it?” Desmond, the youngest and smallest of the three boys tried to make himself smaller; he leaned against an oak tree at the edge of the VanWyck’s yard and wished he could disappear into it.
“You’re the youngest, Des,” said the oldest, Desmond’s next door neighbor. “You have to do what we say.”
“You’re not scared, are you?” jeered the second oldest boy.
“No,” Desmond mumbled, looking down at the cracked sidewalk.
The concrete in front of the Witch’s House, for some reason, looked older and more cracked than the sidewalk in front of all the other houses.
“Come on,” said the oldest boy, and he and the other boy pushed Desmond forward.
A dilapidated picket fence surrounded the Witch’s property. The three boys ducked behind it so no one in the house could see them, and they crept to the opening. They peered through the gap in the fence—where the gate had once stood—to the dark, terrifying garden path that led to the darker and more terrifying front porch.
“She’ll never know it was you,” the second-oldest boy encouraged.
“Yeah, just ring the doorbell and make a run for it,” the oldest added.
Desmond didn’t feel too sure about the whole thing, but if he didn’t do it, they’d call him a baby. And they’d tell everyone. It was better to just swallow his fear and do it. Even if the Witch caught him and boiled him alive into some kind of potion, it would be much better than everyone in the neighborhood calling him a coward. They’d still be talking about it by autumn, when school started. Desmond did not want to start second grade with everyone calling him a scaredy-cat and a baby. He’d just have to ring the Witch’s doorbell and get it over with.
Desmond crossed the threshold into the Witch’s front yard. He felt like he was being watched, and he felt a cold breeze coming from somewhere. It was as if someone had just turned off the daylight.
“Well, ladies, the little one’s doing it,” Portia called from the window as she peeked out through the dark purple curtains.
“Humph,” said Mildred from the table.
“Ha! I told you!” Agnes cackled and crossed her arms triumphantly. “Pay up, girls.”
Mildred and Bianca grudgingly pulled some silver coins from the depths of their dark layered dresses and tossed them onto the table in Agnes’s direction.
The four friends gathered every Friday afternoon for a few games of Blackdeath (it was like Blackjack, but played with Tarot cards).
“Quick, deal another round, Bianca.” Portia scurried back to the table, her tangled black wig slipping a little bit down her forehead as she sat down. “We’ve a moment before he gets to the door.”
Bianca scratched her stubbly chin with long, dirty fingernails. She dealt two cards to each of her friends and two to herself, then considered her hand: the four of Pentacles and the Queen of Cups. Not bad. She drew another card for herself with a liver spot-covered hand. Ace of Pentacles.
“Mildred? Hit or stay?” she asked.
Mildred studied her hand with a frown that caused even more wrinkles to appear on her already-wrinkled forehead. She placed the cards back on the table, face down.
“I’ll stay,” she said.
“Portia?” Bianca asked.
Portia gave the others a sinister and somewhat toothless smile and said, “Hit me.”
“Very well,” said Bianca, and placed a card face down in front of Portia.
“Excellent,” said Portia, looking at all three of her cards. “I’ll stay.”
“Agnes?” Bianca turned to the oldest and most haggard of the four.
“Hit me,” said Agnes.
Bianca gave her a third card and Agnes examined her hand.
“Drat,” she rasped. “I’m out.”
She threw her cards down on the table—the seven of Cups, the Devil, and the three of Swords.
“Hard luck, dearie,” Portia sneered. “A nasty hand.”
The other three lay their cards down on the table, and Mildred let out a squeal.
“Ha!” she said, and scooped up all the gold and silver coins and assorted gemstones from the table.
“The World and the Star,” Bianca said. “You win again.”
“I think she’s cheating.” Agnes brushed a strand of snow-white hair out of her face.
“The boy is at the porch,” said Portia, sniffing the air.
They all fell silent and listened, and sure enough they heard the first tentative footstep onto the creaky porch steps. Mildred blew out the two candles on their card table, leaving Bianca’s living room in darkness.
“So who gets to do it?” Agnes hissed.
“You got the last one,” Mildred whispered. “I think it’s my turn.”
The porch stairs seemed to creak an awful lot. And really loudly, too. Desmond ascended the second and third stairs a bit faster, and then made the final journey to the door in two long strides, his finger outstretched towards the doorbell, his heart thumping faster and faster. He was nearly there. It was only a few inches away…
Suddenly, the Witch’s front door flew open and there, standing in the doorway, was a real, bona fide Witch. Her frizzy white hair looked almost as wild as her milky, pale green eyes, and her wide, sinister smile revealed long and jagged teeth. In her hand, she held a long and very sharp knife. Desmond stood frozen at the door.
“Nothing like a scared little boy for a delicious supper!” the Witch shrieked. “Come here, so I can cut out your kidneys!”
She lunged at him with her crooked hand and Desmond screamed, then turned and ran. He didn’t even notice that the other two boys had abandoned him; he just ran as fast as he could back down Deepdale Lane, and didn’t look back.
“Ha! That was a good one!” Mildred cackled as only a witch can cackle and returned to her friends, who had watched the whole scene from the living room window.
“Yes, I think the poor child nearly wet himself.” Bianca laughed and headed into the kitchen. “Anyone for some crackers and cheese? I made some dip as well.”
“Not that awful stuff with the newt’s eyes that you made last time, I hope,” said Portia.
“No, it’s just onion dip from a can,” Bianca replied.
“What color were his eyes?” asked Agnes.
“The newt’s?” Bianca called from the kitchen. “Green or brown, I think.”
“I was talking to Mildred, you ninny!”
“His eyes were dark brown,” Mildred told Agnes. “A lover’s eyes. That boy’s going to be trouble, you mark my words. We haven’t seen the last of him.”
Excerpted from "Underwood (Other Side of Real)" by A. M. Henry. Copyright © 0 by A. M. Henry. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.