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Fiction Fantastic 2018 Winning Story: “The Witch of Warrensville” by Sander Moffitt

The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.

You can purchase this story in the 2018 Winners Anthology, Secret Keepers here.

“The Witch of Warrensville” by Sander Moffitt, South Eugene High School

First Place, High School Level, 2018


The Witch of Warrensville 

Sander Moffitt 

South Eugene High School

“My best friend was the bearded lady,” she said. Her eyes folded into crow’s feet at the corners, and she ran her hands through her tangled mane of silver hair. “I had other friends, too, of course—the strongman, the girl who flew on the trapeze—but Maura and I had a special bond.”

“Tell us again about your act,” Ellie asked, scooting closer. 

David rolled his eyes. Grandma Lissa’s mouth crooked with a smile, and she leaned in.

“Patrick was the man who could lift cars. Maura was the bearded lady. And I,” she said, her eyes lighting, “was the woman who could split from her own shadow.”

“Here we go again,” David muttered, pulling a video game from his pocket and firing up a match behind his twin sister’s back.

“I was the witch,” Grandma Lissa said, her hands flying up as she spoke. “I scared them. I made their shadows dance. And for my final act,” she spread her arms wide and tilted her head to the sky, “I let my shadow free.”

“And then the lions and hippos stood up and sang a cabaret alongside the man in the moon.” David got to his feet. “Ellie, come on, we told Mom and Dad we’d check in before dinner.”

“Fine,” Ellie grumbled. She turned to Grandma Lissa. “After we eat, I want to hear about the animals.” 

“Come on.” David grabbed his sister’s arm. They were too old for all that make-believe circus crap. His father had told them the truth years ago—how Grandma Lissa had run away when she was a teenager, and that she’d convinced herself she had been in the circus as a coping mechanism. 

“David,” Ellie hissed the second they were out of their grandmother’s earshot. “That was rude.”

“So is lying to us,” he countered. “You know as well as I do that she was never in the circus.” 

“At least I’m polite about it!” Ellie retorted. “I pretend to believe. You know what Mom said; you know that she’s sick. I’m sure it doesn’t make her feel better that her grandson accuses her of lying to her face.”

David felt a pang in his stomach. “You’re right. I’m sorry,” he said.

Ellie crossed her arms. “And you can bet that Mom and Dad wouldn’t be too happy if they heard that you harassed your dying grandmother.”

David let out a groan. Ellie was insufferable sometimes. “What’s it going to take?”

“My attic cleaning shift,” she replied, a smile settling across her face.

“Oh, come on! That’s not fair!” he protested. “That’s way too much! All I did was ignore her a little bit!”

“That’s not what Mom’s going to hear,” Ellie said, tilting her head. She pouted. “She’ll ground you for a month when she hears you cussed Grandma Lissa out.” 

David threw his hands up in the air. “You’re horrible.”

“So we have a deal?”

“Kids! How’s Lisbet doing? Does she need any help on the stairs coming down for dinner?” his mom asked, wiping her hands on her apron.

Ellie shot David a look. He did a quick skim of his options. He could try to tell Mom what had happened first, to make Ellie look like a liar, but Mom trusted Ellie more than she trusted him. He could do nothing, and let Ellie tell her that he swore at his grandmother, and deal with the consequences for that, or he could take the goddamn attic chore time.

“Deal,” David grumbled. His mom frowned.

“Deal for what? What deal?” 

“Deal… deal that I’ll help Grandma Lissa downstairs for dinner as long as you serve ice cream with the pie tonight,” David lied through his teeth. 

His mother nodded. “Sure. Els, can you come help me in the kitchen?”

“Of course, Mom,” Ellie said. She turned and stuck her tongue out at David as she entered the kitchen. He flipped her off. “Mom!” Ellie said, and David’s heart skipped a beat.

“What, honey?” his mom asked. 

Ellie gave David a sickly sweet smile. “Can we have the French vanilla?”

“Sure,” his mother said, bewildered. “David, go help Lisbet.”

David glared at Ellie. “Of course,” he said, teeth clenched. 

***

“I know you don’t believe me,” Grandma Lissa said as she made her way out of bed. 

David froze. “What do you mean?” 

“I know you think I’m crazy,” she said, reaching for her cane. It had an elephant carved along the stem. “That’s okay.”

“I don’t think you’re crazy,” David said, biting his tongue. He really should have been more careful what he said around her—Ellie had a point. She was old, and sick, and he should try to be nicer to her.

His grandmother smiled. “Yes, you do.” 

What was he supposed to say? No, Grandma Lissa, I completely believe that you ran away and joined the circus, and that your best friend was a bearded lady, and that you can control the shadows. Shadow controlling wasn’t even a real circus act! Her brain couldn’t even bother to come up with a real act!

“Mom made pie for dessert,” he said, following her over to the staircase, “with French vanilla ice cream.” 

“Delightful,” his grandmother said. “Could you help me here?” 

“Yeah,” David said, slipping his arm around her waist to stabilize her. “I got you.”

They made their way down the stairs, him supporting her. He could feel her ribs beneath her nightgown, and every vein on her exposed skin popped like they were water-colored onto her body. 

“Thank you,” Grandma Lissa said when they reached the bottom of the stairs. David let go. “Which of you is taking a turn cleaning the attic tomorrow?”

David cleared his throat. “I am, Grandma.”

“I thought it was Ellie,” she said, walking forward. He noticed the shadow she cast along the hardwood floor of the room. The way the light hit her made her cane look almost like a third leg.

“Me, too,” David said. 

***

The pull-down ladder let out a grinding creak as it yawned down from the ceiling trapdoor. David coughed, waving the dust away, and wrenched it the rest of the way to the ground. He was so going to get Ellie back for this. 

The stairs were sketchy at best. Each step groaned with his weight as he ascended. He said a silent thanks when he reached the top in one piece. 

David flicked on his flashlight and set the garbage bags he’d brought with him on the floor. The attic wasn’t very large in terms of square footage, but the leaning piles of junk crammed into every corner turned small into claustrophobic. 

Dark beams of wood stretched across the ceiling at seemingly random intervals and David had to keep his head bowed to avoid smacking into them. Light streamed from the square cut in the floor of the attic, fading out after a few feet so the corners of the attic were still draped in shadow and cobweb. He had to watch his step as he moved through the space. Lone nails and uneven boards stuck up wherever they pleased. 

There was supposedly a chain to turn on the light hanging somewhere from the ceiling. He felt around for a while, then found it and tugged. Nothing. 

“Great,” David muttered, giving the string another yank. “Just great.”

The instructions from his parents were pretty clear. Anything that seemed like it might be valuable, or that might have sentimental value to Grandma Lissa, would be kept up in the attic. Everything else would be trashed. David thought it was morbid—they were essentially starting the postmortem cleaning while she was still living in the house. But he didn’t have any other choice, and so he picked a corner at random and sat down.

Most of what was in the attic turned out to be utter garbage. Soggy cardboard boxes. Old fabrics laden with mothballs. A gumball machine with a spider web crack stretching the height of the glass, still half-filled with little colorful spheres. David pocketed one before he bagged the machine. Maybe he’d give it to Ellie as payback.

He reached a little wooden box with a rusty lock. It was probably trash, but his parents would want him to check and make sure it didn’t have jewelry inside. David brushed the lock and it crumbled off in his hand. 

The box opened to reveal letters, penned in large looping cursive on yellowed paper. He pulled one out and shone the flashlight over its surface, trying to make out the words. Almost everything was indecipherable, and some of the words looked like they weren’t even in English. He scanned down to the signature at the bottom of the page: Maura Kofflor.

His grandmother’s voice echoed through his mind. Maura was the bearded lady. He shook his head. She had to know more than one Maura. It was just a coincidence. And even if it wasn’t a coincidence, the doctor had said that she might weave details from her life into her story, in order to convince herself it was real. It could be the two Mauras were the same woman, but not a bearded one, and certainly not one in a circus. 

David tucked the letterbox to the side and continued with his cleaning. 

***

“Els,” David whispered that night, turning over to face her. They lay on the living room floor, camped out in sleeping bags. 

“What?” Ellie asked. “Bad dream? You want me to turn on the lights?”

“No,” David said. He turned the words over in his mouth. “Do you ever wonder if Grandma Lissa is telling the truth?”

“What?” Ellie asked again, propping herself up on her elbows. “What do you mean?”

“About being in the circus.”

Ellie shook her head. “The doctor said she manufactured the memories, David. It didn’t happen.” 

“But she ran away,” he said. “How do they know where she was and wasn’t?”

“They know horrible things happened to her,” Ellie said, her voice quiet. “They know where she was eventually found. Dad saw her struggle while he grew up. He thinks we should just be happy that she has a fantasy now.” 

David was quiet for a minute. “But what if,” he said. “What if she’s telling the truth? I mean, not about the shadows or anything, but about the circus? Or at least about some of the people?”

“David, that’s crazy,” Ellie said. “Being around her this much is wigging you out. Don’t worry, Mom said we’re leaving tomorrow before lunchtime.” 

“But—”

“Just try to get some sleep, okay?” Ellie said, snuggling back into her sleeping bag. “Good night.”

“‘Night,” he replied, but his words felt hollow. 

***

The next morning, he was at work in the attic again right after breakfast. Ellie was helping Grandma Lissa sort through the bags he’d already brought down. They were set to leave at noon, and he was supposed to sort through the junk right up until they left. 

David went through the boxes slower than he had the day before, keeping an eye out for anything like the letter box, anything that could tell him more about his grandmother’s past. Maybe if he could find some more letters, or a picture, he could weave together a better picture of Grandma Lissa’s life.

Even when looking carefully and sorting in a more lenient manner, ninety percent of the stuff in the attic was trash. He found a stretch of weathered fabric along the back wall that he tucked aside, but other than that, the boxes contained mostly clothing and rotting garbage. 

The musky beam from his flashlight traveled across the attic as he searched and cleaned. David thought back to the conversation with his sister from the night before. The doctor said she manufactured the memories. They know horrible things happened to her. We should just be happy that she has a fantasy now. 

He knew it was the truth, and he knew he should believe it. The name Maura on the letter was a coincidence. And his grandmother’s health and mental state had been faltering since before he was born. 

Still, that one question bothered him. What if?

“David, wheels up in five minutes!” his dad called up through the open trapdoor. “Make sure you bring the new bags down!” 

Something gleamed red under the light from his flashlight. David took a step closer. It was a wooden chest, tucked into the very back corner of the room. His brow furrowed and he strode over. How had he missed that before?

The lock on the chest was much stronger than that of the letter box and it took a few hits from his hammer to crack it open. 

His hands drifted over the rough wood of the lid. Chips of red paint floated down at his touch. He slid his fingers under the top and pushed the lid open.

The very first thing on top was a flyer, striped, with block-letter text splayed across the top: Witch of Warrensville. Beneath the text, there was a picture of a woman in black and white, her shoulders and hair wreathed with dark smudges.

David’s hands shook as he removed the flyer from the chest. Beneath it rested ticket stubs, peanut shells, even a few crumpled dollar bills. Below those, he could see a costume, just like the one the woman wore in the picture.

What if?

He held the poster out in front of him, focusing the flashlight on the performer’s face. He’d never seen a picture of his grandmother when she was young, but when he unfocused his eyes, the resemblance was there.

“David, time to go!” his mother shouted from below. “Bring the bags down!”

“Two minutes!” David shouted back.

“Now!” she barked. “We’re running late!” 

He looked desperately to the pile of evidence in the trunk. David brought the flyer to his chest and grabbed as much of the rest as he could, peanut shells and ticket stubs, everything he could hold. He whirled around toward the staircase, racing down—

Crack! The first stair splintered under his weight and he slammed into the ground. 

“David!” his mother cried, rushing to his side. “Are you all right? I knew that ladder wasn’t solid…”

“I’m fine,” he managed, pushing himself to his knees. The poster was gone. Everything from his hands was gone. 

He glanced up and saw just the corner of the flyer over the trapdoor square in the ceiling. “I need—up there—”

“We have to go,” his mother said, helping him to his feet. “We’ll get the bags next time. And we’ll bring a real ladder.” Before he could say anything, she pulled down on the spring release and the pull-down ladder shot back up into the ceiling, folding like a broken accordion. 

“But—” David tried, and his mother steered him toward the car. “Mom, in the attic—I—I found a chest, with—”

“That’s nice, honey. We’ll check it out next visit. Come on, Ellie!” she shouted into the house, shepherding David out the front door. His sister sprinted out the door and toward the car.

“Ellie, wait—last night I found something—” David started. 

“Get in the car, dork! We have to go!” Ellie hissed. “Mom’s mad because Dad did email instead of cleaning the kitchen, and Grandma Lissa only got through like three boxes. The last thing we want to do is push it right now.” 

“But,” David tried, and Ellie pulled him into the car, shutting the door behind him. “Els, I found something in the attic, a poster of Grandma—”

“Time to go!” his mother slid into the front seat and started the car. “Mark! Come on!” 

His dad slipped into the passenger seat, hefting a backpack in after him. “Sorry, guys,” he made a face at the backseat. “I know how much you like spending time with your grandmother. But we’ll be back soon.” 

“It’s fine,” Ellie said before David could say anything. “We’re all good back here.” 

David opened his mouth to say something, but the car’s tires squealed on the driveway. He turned back, looking to the house. Grandma Lissa stepped out onto the porch, the wind whipping her hair into a silver frenzy around her face. As they pulled away, David swore he saw a dark form rise next to her. Grandma Lissa started back toward the door. The figure stayed. As David watched, it waved, then turned and entered the house alongside his grandmother.