What began as a simple short story concept a few weeks ago morphed into MIssing. I’d hoped to have it finished by Halloween, but it had other ideas. Better late than never…
Brad McCallert didn’t believe the spook stories about Old Lady Klemchik. Sure, her place—the ramshackle Victorian out on Old Post Road—looked creepy, brooding there behind a thick, overgrown hedge, its clapboards peeling, its shutters hanging askew, its once-stately front porch slowly rotting away as the forest crept ever closer, reclaiming more and more of her overgrown yard each year. But only babies believed in spook stories, and Brad was no baby.
Still, he hesitated at the edge of Old Lady Klemchik’s yard, rake in hand, suddenly unsure of himself. What if the stories were true? What if she really had snatched his classmate, Cindy Glink, last fall? And the Vaschon kid the year before. And all the other kids who’d gone missing in the town of Faber, Illinois…
What if she really was a witch?
Faber was no stranger to tragedy. Nearly a year had passed since the latest disappearance, and the town was still plastered with the faded, weather-beaten “missing” signs Cindy’s family and friends had hung. Everywhere you looked, Cindy’s bright, twelve-year-old smile beamed back, as if to say, “You haven’t given up on me, have you? You haven’t forgotten?” But sometime before Christmas, the trail went cold. The police, thoroughly investigating every tip they received, scoured the town from top to bottom, but despite their best efforts, they found no trace of Cindy. Just like the kids before her, it was as if she’d vanished into thin air. That didn’t stop people from talking, though, from circulating rumor and suspicion. Everyone knew who was responsible, but the police’s hands were tied. They couldn’t arrest Old Lady Klemchik on rumor and suspicion.
Gradually, life went back to normal. People forgot. But now, standing here beneath the skeletal oaks and the gray October sky, staring at Old Lady Klemchik’s house, Brad remembered. A shiver crept down his spine, and he turned to walk away. There was no shame in admitting he was afraid.
“Excuse me, young man.” The voice froze him. He turned slowly back toward the house and there she was: Old Lady Klemchik, standing in the yawning maw of her front door, hunched over a knobby cane, hair tangled atop her head like a den of silver snakes. “Have you come to rake my yard?” she asked, motioning with the tip of her cane toward the sea of leaves circling her house.
Brad stood silent for a moment, clutching his rake, trying to think of some lie to tell, some excuse to get him out of this, but his mind went blank. Finally he nodded and croaked, “Yes ma’am.”
Old Lady Klemchik smiled, revealing toothless, glistening gums. “Splendid! I was beginning to worry no one would come this year, and I’m afraid I’ve grown too frail to do it myself. How much do you charge, Bradley? I wonder,” she said, fishing in the pocket of her dress, withdrawing a ten dollar bill, “will this cover it?”
I never told her my name…
For a split second, panic seized Brad, and his mind screamed, Run! But then a strange calm descend upon him. His misgivings seemed to fade away, and as they did, a remarkable transformation occurred. Suddenly Old Lady Klemchik’s house seemed to stand up straighter, its siding freshly-painted, its shutters hung true, its porch rebuilt with fresh, young lumber. And Old Lady Klemchik, she was no longer old. Her hunched back uncurled and her cane vanished. Her hair shone with black luster, and behind her smile gleamed clean, white teeth.
Brad smiled back automatically, enchanted by the transformation. “There’s no charge, Mrs. Klemchik,” he said, sticking his hand in his pocket, absently fingering the small wad of cash he’d already earned raking other yards today.
“Are you certain?” the young Mrs. Klemchik asked. “It’s an awfully big yard.”
“Positive. Glad to do it.” Without thinking, Brad stepped from the side of the road into Mrs. Klemchik’s yard.
Her smile widened as she slipped the ten dollar bill back into her pocket. “You’re a fine young man, Bradley. I’ll check on you in a bit, see how you’re making out.” She made to walk back into her house, then stopped and said, “Maybe I’ll bake up some cookies in the meantime. You like cookies?”
“Yes, ma’am.” His stomach rumbled at the thought.
“Good. It’s a deal, then. You rake, I’ll bake.” Then, with a wave, Mrs. Klemchik disappeared into her house and Brad, oblivious to the fear he’d felt only a few moments before, got to work.
The sun sank closer and closer to the horizon as Brad raked Mrs. Klemchik’s yard, piling the dead, twisted leaves into huge mountains, but he didn’t notice. Nor did he realize when the blister that’d been forming in the crook of his right hand burst, releasing a gooey smear of blood on the rake handle. He just kept on raking, ignoring the pain in his hand and cold, wet kiss of his sweat-soaked shirt on his back. None of that mattered. All he could think about now was biting into one of Mrs. Klemchik’s cookies. He hoped they were oatmeal raisin. Oatmeal raisin were his favorite.
From time to time he glanced up at the house, its first floor windows ablaze with warm yellow light, and smiled to himself. When the wind blew the right direction, he could smell cookies baking. His stomach rumbled again, and he raked faster, mouth watering as he thought about those warm, fresh cookies.
It was twilight when he finished, the last of the leaves pushed into the underbrush at the edge of Mrs. Klemchik’s yard. Shadows grew thick around him, and for the first time since Mrs. Klemchik stepped out onto her porch to greet him, he felt a tinge of fear. His hand stung where the blister popped and he shivered, finally aware of the cold. What was he doing here, he wondered, standing at the woods’ edge in Mrs. Klemchik’s back yard. Had he gone crazy?
You haven’t forgotten about me, have you?
Cindy Glink’s face flashed through his mind, and suddenly Brad didn’t care about Mrs. Klemchik’s cookies. Not even if they were oatmeal raisin. All that mattered was getting out of here, fleeing before it was too late.
He turned from the woods, ready to run, and gasped when he saw Old Lady Klemchik’s house. All the lights were out and the windows stared at him like blank black eyes. The shutters hung askew and the clapboards were once again peeling and cracked, the whole place sagging as if ready to collapse. The warm, inviting smell of cookies was replaced by the cold, musty scent of decay. A gust of wind stirred the trees, their bare branches clacking overhead like dry, hollow laughter.
Brad dropped his rake and dashed across Old Lady Klemchik’s back yard, panic nipping at his heels. He rounded the house at full speed, heart hammering in his chest, the road barely visible through the gathering gloom. Fifty more paces, he told himself. Forty. Thirty. Twenty…
“Bradley,” came the voice, soft and powerful, like a whisper in his ear. He stopped in his tracks, lassoed by its sound, no more than a dozen paces from the road, from safety. He wanted desperately to keep running, to leave this nightmare behind, but his feet wouldn’t listen. Instead he turned slowly back toward the house, knowing he shouldn’t, but powerless to stop himself. Old Lady Klemchik stood on the dark porch, hunched over her cane, holding a plate of cookies. “Where are you running off to? You’ve done such a lovely job with the leaves. Won’t you stay and have a cookie?”
Just then the warm, sweet smell of fresh-baked cookies reached his nose, and he was overcome by hunger. Still, he resisted, dread pooling in his belly. “I…I have to get home, Mrs. Klemchik. It’s past dinnertime and my parents will be worried.”
“Surely you have time for one little cookie,” she said, shambling forward to the edge of her porch. “Surely your folks will understand.”
No, he thought. I have to go. But in a voice that wasn’t quite his, he said “Yeah, okay. Just one,” then began slowly walking back towards Old Lady Klemchik.
The porch steps wobbled unsteadily as he climbed them one by one, the wood squishy beneath his feet, rotten to its core. When he reached the top, Old Lady Klemchik grinned and held out the plate. “Oatmeal raisin. Your favorite.”
His hand drifted up from his side, as though attached to a puppeteer’s string, and lifted a cookie from the pile. It was still warm, and his mouth watered as he brought it to his lips. He took a small bite, half-expecting to gag on some vile, rancid taste, but the cookie was just a cookie, soft and buttery and delicious. As he chewed, savoring every moment, his fear melted away once again.
“Is it good? Do you like it?” Old Lady Klemchik asked as he swallowed and took another bite.
“Mmmm,” he managed around a mouthful of cookie. “Delicious.”
Her eyes flickered with pale green light as she watched him intently. “Good. I’m glad.”
Brad finished the cookie in two more bites, punctuated with ‘mmmm’s’ and ‘hmmm’s’ of approval. He licked his lips, not wanting to miss a single crumb, then looked at Old Lady Klemchik and said, “Okay if I have another?”
“Of course,” she said, extending the plate toward him again. “Eat up. Have as many as you like.”
Brad ate three more cookies and with each one, his hunger seemed to grow. He would have kept eating were it not for his manners. He didn’t want to seem greedy.
“Full?” Old Lady Klemchik asked.
Staring at the remaining cookies, using every ounce of will power he possessed, Brad nodded.
She smiled. “If you wait a minute, I’ll bag the rest of these up so you take them home.” She turned toward the darkened doorway of her house.
“Oh, no, that’s okay, Mrs. Klemchik. You finish them. I mean, they’re amazing, but I wouldn’t want to take them all.”
Old Lady Klemchik stopped and turned to face him, eyes now burning with green fire. “But I baked them just for you, Bradley.”
Brad knew he should be afraid, but he wasn’t. His mouth watering, his stomach growling, all he could think about was eating another cookie. “O-okay Mrs. Klemchik. I mean, if you insist.” Then, almost bashfully, “Maybe I’ll have one more before you wrap them up.” He picked another cookie off the plate—this one overflowing with plump, juicy raisins—and started in on it. Old Lady Klemchik smiled and disappeared inside.
Best cookies I’ve ever had, Brad thought, forgetting those terrible green eyes with each bite. He was licking his fingers when Old Lady Klemchik reappeared, the remaining eight cookies wrapped in a clear plastic bag.
“Now hurry home. We don’t want your parents to worry.” Her eyes no longer shone green, and she held the bag out to him.
“Thanks, Mrs. Klemchik,” Brad said, taking the cookies.
“Thank you, Bradley. Yard looks great. You come back any time. My house is your house.” Her eyes flickered once more, then went dark.
“Okay, Mrs. Klemchik. I’ll remember that. Thanks again for the cookies,” he said, turning and loping down the stairs. “Have a nice night!” Before he reached the hedge that bordered Old Lady Klemchik’s yard, his hand found its way into the bag. He couldn’t help himself. His hunger was just too strong.
Mouth full of cookie, he looked over his shoulder in time to see Old Lady Klemchik step inside her house and close the door. Once again a shiver ran down his spine, but he shrugged it off and started the walk home.
The cookies were gone by the time he got there.
* * *
Halloween came and went. Brad, dressed up as a zombie, earned himself two big paper bags filled with candy. He hit every house on Old Post Road except Old Lady Klemchik’s.
Thanksgiving arrived, then Christmas. Then for two long months, the town of Faber was held in winter’s cold, dark grip.
By the time the spring thaw began in mid-March, the last of Cindy Glink’s “missing” signs had fallen from their posts, swept away by winter’s winds. Brad hadn’t thought about her in months. Not since the night he raked Old Lady Klemchik’s yard.
He didn’t think about Old Lady Klemchik, either, though every once in a while he remembered those oatmeal raisin cookies she’d baked. When he did, his mouth watered and his stomach growled, and it was all he could do to keep from running back to her house to ask for more. Maybe he could trim her hedge or mow her lawn or do some other odd job around her house in exchange for another plate of cookies. Even if it was just one—one perfect, delicious cookie—it’d be worth it…
But Brad had no intention of going back there. Ever. He’d escaped once; next time he might not be so lucky.
The last week of April was unseasonably warm, and Brad slept with his windows open, the soft breeze blowing in with promises of baseball and swimming and long, lazy summer afternoons. Soon it would be time to start counting the days till the school year ended. Brad could hardly wait.
Thus he was lying in bed one night, watching his curtains dance as he dozed off, when suddenly his eyes snapped open and he was wide awake. He propped himself up on his elbow and inhaled deeply, at first uncertain if he was imagining things. But then another breath of wind blew in, and there it was, sweet and tempting and unmistakable: the smell of fresh-baked cookies.
Brad peeled back his covers and slipped out of bed. He felt his legs moving beneath him, but like that night at Old Lady Klemchik’s, they seemed to work all on their own. They were carrying him. And just now, they were carrying him toward the open window. He didn’t think to be afraid. He just kept imagining eating one of Old Lady Klemchik’s cookies, then another, and another, until he’d stuffed himself and couldn’t eat one more.
At the window, he bent and brushed the curtains aside. Outside, the night was moonless, black. The trees at the edge of his back yard swayed in the wind, whispering and sighing. And there was something else, too, something at the very edge of his hearing, something so faint he might have missed it had his senses not already been awoken by the tantalizing smell of cookies: a voice, soft and sweet.
Brad looked quickly to his left left, then right, but there was no one there. No one whispering in his ear.
“Bradley,” came the voice again. “Out here.”
Brad looked out his window again and there, where the lawn ended and the woods began, stood a figure, too slight to be an adult—a girl, from the looks of it—holding something round and flat out in front of her. Even through the darkness Brad knew what it was.
A plate. A plate heaped with cookies…
“For you,” the girl said, setting the hairs on the back of Brad’s neck on end. Her voice seemed to be coming from inside his own head. “All for you.”
Then the smell hit him again, and before he could stop himself, Brad was drifting across his room and down the stairs, through the living room to the kitchen, where he unlocked the back slider and stepped out into the night. He trembled as he crossed the dew-soaked lawn, partly because the grass was cold, partly because now, he really was scared. Still his legs carried him forward toward the woods, toward the girl and her offering.
He stopped a few paces in front of her, but even here, this close, he couldn’t make out her features. Her hair, tossed by the breeze, formed a blonde veil across her face. Mustering his courage he said, “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to give you these.” From behind her curtain of hair, she lifted the plate toward him.
Brad eyed the cookies, resisting with all his might, knowing even as he did that it was useless. He’d cave, he knew. He’d eat the cookies, just like he was supposed to. Still, without understanding why, he fought. A part of him—the raw, instinctive part—knew this was a trap, but like an animal lured toward a set of iron jaws by a scrap of meat, hunger trumped uncertainty, and after a long moment of debate, he reached out and took a cookie from the plate. He studied it, looking it over as best he could in the midnight gloom. It was still warm, and as he held it beneath his nose and sniffed it, inhaling she smell of raisins and sugar and cinnamon, the last of his will power crumbled beneath him. Mouth watering, he took a huge, happy bite.
Just as delicious as he remembered.
He chewed, swallowed, and took another bite, and then the cookie was gone. He reached for another, chewing, swallowing, then another and another and another, so fast now he was barely chewing, just wolfing down big chunks like he hadn’t eaten in weeks. The more he ate, the hungrier he became.
Soon the cookies were gone, but still he wanted more. He looked at the girl, imploringly, and said, “Is that it? Are there any more?”
The girl laughed, softly at first, barely a giggle.
After a moment, Brad chuckled, too, uncertain what was funny, infected nonetheless. But as the girl laughed harder, her whole body wracked with convulsions, Brad’s own laughter tapered off. Fear slithered through him, cold and black, coiling round his stomach, tightening, constricting, squeezing. He groaned and clutched at himself, suddenly wishing he hadn’t eaten all those cookies.
“Yes,” the girl said, still laughing. “All the cookies you can eat.” From behind her veil of hair, her eyes smoldered with pale green fire. Then she flipped her hair from her face, and Brad screamed.
“Come with me. I’ll show you,” said Cindy Glink.
* * *
The town of Faber, Illinois, no stranger to tragedy, was once again plastered with “missing” signs. People went about their business in hushed silence, exchanging sympathetic nods, sharing glances that said ‘Isn’t it awful’ or ‘Such a shame’ or ‘It’ll just keep happening until…’
After a while, people forgot, like they always did. Bradley McCallert’s face faded with time, his weather-beaten likenesses borne off by the wind. And when, that autumn, Justin Lamonte uncovered a rusty rake in Old Lady Klemchik’s back yard, he thought nothing of it. Fine young man that he was, he propped it against Old Lady Klemchik’s shed and went on raking.
Already he could smell the cookies baking, and oh, did they smell good.