Arthur Splack was convinced his neighbour was a witch.
He knew it wasn't something he should say out loud – not at his age, and certainly not to that loose-lipped Judy who delivered his meds every other Friday (usually half an hour late) – but he thought it, just the same.
For eighty-two years Arthur had lived by three golden rules. They held pride of place in his kitchen, printed and framed by a once-thoughtful grandson who didn't visit anymore.
- Know thy neighbour.
- Tea should be served sweet and strong or not at all.
- Cats are evil.
And, as per the first rule, he'd been watching the occupant of number 29 Battersby Court through his curtain cracks for quite some time.
He watched her in the mornings as she sashayed along her splintered front porch with fistfuls of burning sage. Her hips undulating as she poked white smoke into clean suburban air. Swaying from side to side in rhythmic barefoot steps, hypnotic as a cobra.
He watched her in the afternoons as she sprinkled water over pots filled with wormwood and thyme and Solomon's seal. He wondered if she made some sort of poultice from the herbs. A remedy for melancholy. A cure for tuberculosis. Or a witch's curse blackened and bear-toothed and ready to strike.
And when she entertained her many visitors – an endless parade of patchouli-stained vixens, mostly shoeless but always with those same sashaying snake-hips – oh he watched then too.
"Lucinda!" they'd squeal, kissing plump cheeks and squeezing ample breasts together.
He imagined them shedding their skin as soon as they stepped inside. Revealing their true hideous forms as they danced around the cauldron. Cackling and yipping, and casting spells through the music they played 'til all hours of the morning.
Battersby Court was once a quiet street. The kind of street a man could keep an eye on, no threat so great that a good fist-shaking couldn't sort it. There was Bob and Laurel over at number 15 - decent god-fearing folk, and brilliant bridge players. His old buddy Lou, not ten paces across the road. Mrs Peele in number 19, who made a wicked peach cobbler for the annual street party. And speaking of street parties, there was Wendy and David at number 25 - Wendy was the quintessential organiser, a perfect wife and mother. Her husband David was a lucky man. And their boy, Toby – so polite, such a diligent student.
For many years, it was an idyllic street. A safe community. Then the new tenant moved into number 29, and everything changed.
She was not even a week unpacked when Lou went missing.
Arthur remembered the day vividly. It was a Tuesday, which meant checkers and pretzels with his old pal. Perhaps a sneaky glass of red if Lou was feeling generous with the Lambrusco, otherwise it would be a nice almond tea in a fine bone china cup. Strong and sweet, just how he liked it. If there was one thing Lou was good for, it was a decent brew.
Arthur locked his house up at ten past six, same as always. Crossed the street and knocked on Lou's front door right on quarter past...they both appreciated punctuality. But Lou didn't answer. Not then, or ever again.
The police said he'd vanished without a trace.
Arthur wasn't so easily fooled. Golden rule number one – know thy neighbour. He knew and trusted all the residents of Battersby Court. All except the woman in number 29.
He started watching her from then on. Peeking through the curtains and blinds of several rooms to achieve varying views of her house. She was always outside, flaunting herself. Planting, digging, burying seeds. Raven hair falling against dirt-smeared skin. One time, she turned and looked right at him. He held his breath, certain he'd been seen but she simply returned to her garden and he crept back into the safety of shadows, undetected.
At night he would watch her house 'til the lights went out. Sometimes, burning candles would flicker long into the witching hour. She was cunning, though, keeping her secrets well shrouded behind the walls of number 29, giving him nothing concrete.
It was loose-lips Judy who discovered the cat.
She was making her usual fortnightly delivery, late as always and in a hurry. The cat was sunning its ginger coat on Arthur's front porch and she tripped right over the wretched thing. Twisted her ankle in the process. Arthur thought it was a stray at first, shooing it away with a prodding toe. The cat didn't budge. Just looked at him with cold yellow eyes. Yawned.
"I am so sorry - I don't even know how he got out," said an unfamiliar voice. And then there she was, Number 29, hurrying onto his lawn to collect the orange beast. The cat belonged to her.
And just like that, his suspicions were confirmed. Evil. As per the third golden rule.
In line with Arthur's newfound convictions, Mrs Peele vanished from number 19 the following day.
The police said there was no hint of foul play. One moment she was in her bakelite kitchen, slicing peaches and humming along to Bing Crosby, and the next she was simply gone. No sign of a struggle. Just gone. Knife still stuck in the fruit, record playing on a loop. Her daughter came to pack her crocheted blankets and ceramic ducks, and soon her house was empty too.
They all gathered, sombre, watching as the last of her things left Battersby Court in the back of a U-haul.
"What in the world is happening?" cried Wendy. "First Lou, and now Mrs Peele?"
"Now, honey, don't get hysterical - I'm sure there's a logical explanation for all of this." David placed a comforting arm around her.
Bob was less rational. "I hate to say it - but I think we've got a serial killer on our hands."
"Bob!" Laurel was not impressed by her husband's theory.
"People don't just disappear, my love," he kept on. "Sergeant Rhodes told me both Lou and Mrs Peele received a package on the day they disappeared. They checked with the postal service - there was no record of a delivery to either of them."
"Who sent the packages then?" asked Wendy, wide-eyed.
Bob arched his brow. "You tell me."
Arthur stood by quietly, listening to them exchange suppositions of how a mystery package might have played a part in the disappearance of their neighbours - none of them even close.
"If I were you," he said, "I'd be keeping an eye on number 29."
His neighbours disagreed in unison. Lucinda was lovely, they all said. A breath of fresh air. And what she'd done with the garden in such a short amount of time - incredible! He didn't say anything further, certainly not anything about witches and black magic. He knew he shouldn't, especially at his age. So he shuffled home for a nice strong cup of tea, and the conversation returned to mystery boxes and serial killers.
And Bob and Laurel vanished from their beds that very evening.
Arthur sat by the attic window as dusk approached. The porch lights that once warmed the neighbourhood were mostly gone; the houses all empty - save for his own and number 29.
Her garden was thriving now, and he was sure it contained the blood and bones of his missing neighbours. Perhaps she was boiling tongue of Bob and eye of Lou in her cauldron to sprinkle over all those witch's herbs. He watched the black of night creep across her rooftop, reaching like fingers towards his house, and wondered when she would come to claim him too.
As he closed the blinds for the last time, something caught his eye.
A box – a simple cardboard box – was sitting on his front porch.
At first, Arthur wondered if there was pecan pie inside - Wendy had baked him the most delicious pecan pie for his eighty-first birthday. She delivered it to him in a box much the same, still wearing her polka-dot apron, her hair swept back into a perfect bun. It wasn't his birthday again, was it? He couldn't recall.
He ventured to the front door. Opened it.
"Hello?" There was nobody around. Just him and the box. He bent down to examine it. It was glued together like a craft project, dried adhesive running from the joins. No address label.
Bob's words played in his head, stiff and scratchy like an old record. Something about a mystery box. He'd been too busy focusing on number 29 to connect the two at the time, but now a box appearing out of thin air seemed like a very witchy thing indeed.
"Is this your doing?" he shouted across the road. Her curtains parted and he knew she could hear him. "Well, the joke's on you! I'm not going to open your wretched box."
He slammed the door closed and headed to the kitchen to make himself a tea, strong and sweet as per rule number two.
He filled the kettle, gathered tea leaves with shaking fingers. Did his best to forget about the box on his doorstep. He dropped sugar into the teacup - one, two, three lumps...
Suddenly there was a knock at the door.
He stopped. Put the sugar down. It wasn't Friday week yet, was it? Was Judy here to deliver his meds already? He shuffled to the front door and looked through the peephole.
It was young Toby. Arthur gasped, hopeful. He hadn't seen anyone from number 25 in days.
He opened the door. The boy seemed well enough, his hair combed and his uniform pressed (such a good student). He was carrying some sort of remote.
"Hello, Arthur," Toby said. "Why didn't you open my box?"
Arthur was confused. "You sent the box?"
"I used my drone to drop it off - I'm getting really good at it these days. I'm getting good at a lot of things." He smiled. Picked up the box. "It's my school project. Do you want to see? Everybody's been helping with it."
Arthur sighed, relieved. The boy's mother had obviously sent him over – dear Wendy always thinking of her neighbours. "Of course," he said. "I'm just making some tea. Come on in."
"I'm not allowed to drink tea," replied Toby, following him through the door. "But I sure could use some help with this diorama."
Toby won first prize at the diorama fair. He named his project Battersby Court, and the school principal said it was the most impressive diorama she had ever seen.
"The likeness is uncanny," she exclaimed, exchanging looks of astonishment with the teachers. "How did he do it?"
He would never tell them, of course. The truth would make them shriek and scream and turn to dust. He had tried to make the diorama the traditional way - he really had. He'd cut out paper people and folded straws to prop them up. He even drew faces with felt pens like all the other kids his age.
But he wasn't like other kids his age.
So when it didn't work, he made it the other way - the way that made his mind feel like black sludge. The way his mom made him promise never to use again. With the help of his drone, he had sent that box to all of them and one by one they had peered inside...
"I'm just surprised his mother isn't here to support him," quipped one of the meaner parents, as they milled around his diorama for a closer look.
But his mother was there. She was serving pecan pie to his father while he read the morning paper. They were all, in fact, there. Mrs Peele and her peach cobbler, Bob and Laurel playing bridge. There was a garden full of herbs and a dark-haired woman with an orange cat. And in his kitchen, Arthur sipped almond tea with Lou beneath three golden rules, printed and framed and hanging on the wall.
And if someone was to look close enough they'd see that behind their painted smiles, they were all screaming.
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