Barrel of Monkeys

It’s possible to die from embarrassment. This is true. His mom said it wasn’t, but she lied, like, a lot–about the crusts on bread being the healthiest part, about the monster not being under the bed, about his face getting stuck like that, and more things than he cared to count.

Wait. Did this mean… Santa Claus…?

No. Adults would never lie about that. Santa Claus and God and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. These were too important. Such falsehoods would be blasphemy.

Trevor shook his head. Focus. He needed his full attention on the task ahead if he wanted to see another Christmas. He darted across the lawn and flattened himself against a wall on the side of the tiny house. Moments later, his sister joined him. He whispered harshly, “What are you doing here?”

“Helping you!” she whispered back.

“I don’t need help!”

“Mommy will kill me if you don’t come home today.”

“Anna,” he explained, “if she catches us, she’ll eat us both!”

“Mommy?”

“No, you dummy!”

Anna gasped. Maybe, now that he used a forbidden word, she’d appreciate the gravity of the situation.

“The witch,” he explained. “She’ll eat us both.”

“You’re bigger,” she reminded him. “She’ll be too full, and I’ll get away.”

“You’re slower,” he retorted.”

“What if you get scared to death?”

He’d considered this already, when he’d made the decision to come here. It was no contest. If he died of fright, he’d just fall over, his hair standing on end. If he died of humiliation, all the blood rushing to his head would make it explode, necessitating a closed-coffin funeral. His parents would be extra sad then. It was bad enough he was risking everything just being here.

“If you think you’re going to die,” Anna asked, “then why are you here?”

“You’re too little to get it,” Trevor explained. “Scott double-dared me to do this.”

“So?”

“It was a double. Dare. If I don’t do this, my life is over. Or worse, I’ll be embarrassed to death.” He concluded, “Anna, we both don’t have to die here.”

Across the street, Scott impatiently shrugged and tapped his digital watch. Trevor’s dad wouldn’t let him get a watch of his own because he wasn’t old enough, so he didn’t know how long he had before he had to get to school. Probably not long. His logic was simple: if he investigated the witch in the morning, she’d probably be asleep. Still, this didn’t give him long to talk himself into it.

He sighed. It was now or never. With Anna behind him, he rounded the corner, between the flower bed and the front of the house. The one thing he didn’t get was the garden. Why would a witch grow plants? Maybe it was a disguise. It was pointless, though. Everybody knew a witch lived here, and if everybody knew it, it must be true.

It took about fourteen excruciating steps to reach the front door, and from there, another two to the poster window he figured belonged to the living room. He scooted over so that Anna could peek inside too. And what they saw was… disappointing. There was a TV, a sofa, a bookshelf, some paintings, and, in the background, a kitchen. Where was the cauldron? The broom? The jars full of nightmarish items for spells? The cat? How was he supposed to tell Scott that everything was so normal? Maybe it was another disguise. Just in case, he pressed his ear against the glass, and Anna followed suit.

Her eyes widened in fear. “Did you hear that?”

He didn’t reply. It was so awful, he had to keep listening. From deep inside the house came a low groan.

“What was that?” Anna whispered.

Trevor put his finger to his lips.

The groan repeated, more clearly this time. It didn’t seem to be getting closer–just louder. By the third time, he realized it belonged to a man. A man in pain.

Anna figured it out at the same time. “We should go!”

He again put his finger to his lips. Was someone being tortured? He turned to Scott, who was mouthing something urgently. Trevor shrugged and pointed to the window.

Anna gasped. “There’s someone else in there!”

“What?” He listened again to the sound of a high-pitched moan. It was a woman. There were two people being tortured! The man groaned and the woman moaned, over and over, faster and faster.

And then the woman yelped, “Oh, God!”

Anna grabbed Trevor’s arm. “We have to do something!”

“We can’t!” he hissed. “We’re just kids!”

“Oh, God!” cried the woman.

“We have to call someone!” Anna squealed. “The police!”

“Oh! God!”

Trevor could barely hear himself think. “We don’t have a phone!”

Oh! God!

“Trevor!” Anna scolded.

“Oh, God, I’m coming!”

The couple inside were on their own. The witch was coming, and Trevor and Anna weren’t sticking around. Squealing, they fled for their lives.

Trevor risked a look back, and behind them, Scott was hunched over, cracking up. However, when the door to the witch’s house began to open, his hysterical laughter became hysterical fear.

***

With her left hand, Rafaela clutched her robe closed, and with her right, she pushed her chaotic, black-and-graying curls out of her face. Three children, whom she assumed were the ones screaming a second ago, were running down the street, much faster than she thought their little legs could carry them.

From the bedroom, her boyfriend asked, “What the hell was that about?”

She frowned and closed the door. “Damned if I know.”

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