He lived in a house next to a witch; it wasn’t so bad.
But his stupid parents didn’t care when they made him move to that stupid neighborhood with the stupid houses. They had all the colors sucked out of them. You can clearly see the houses’ age with cracks trapping them in their claws, or molds, or stains of something long forgotten, splintering, and chipping, here and there. They were built so close together that you were forced to admire the details, look into the window of another person’s home and see exactly what they were doing. That’s why most of the houses had their blinds down or curtains shut. And the house his parents had to pick, the only house they’d liked and the only house that was on sale was the one on the dead end street - right next to the witch’s shack. They say she’d cast magic smoke, lure in unexpected kids and devour them; there was no escaping for him.
The boy hated it, but there was something he hated more.
“No one needs you in this world.”
“Why are you here?”
Going to the same school with the monsters who tossed him around like a ragdoll, the same ones that spread the rumors of that old hag, was the worst.
* * *
It wasn’t so bad when the spring sun shined down on the houses. It made the houses look like they were huddled in a cozy group. It gave off the feeling that all was right in the world. And on this fine day, the kid tossed a Frisbee he’d found on his front yard, probably left behind by the previous owner, for a stray dog. There were a lot of lost wanderers around these parts and, as it came, the dog left the boy.
He flung the Frisbee in frustration. It clattered at the claws of demons. Sunday didn’t let them roam the school halls, so they’d practice for the coming school day by bringing misfortune to each neighborhood they visited or crawled around in the shade away from sunlight.
One of them snatched the disc, saying, “Go fetch it, mutt!” It threw the Frisbee far away and sauntered off laughing with its friends, finding interest in chasing after the stray dog. The disc made its home on the boy’s balcony. It wasn’t really a balcony though; it was more like a small roof with a simple iron railing. The platform touched a similar one across from it: the witch’s.
They had been ignoring each other ever since he was forced to move, and like the other houses they kept their windows shut. The kid didn’t think he’d meet the witch. He climbed out onto the roof to get the Frisbee. Before he could reach for it, he was bombarded by the words, “Cut that out, kid; it’s not a jungle gym.”
The boy recoiled. He looked up into the scarred face of the witch. He hadn’t noticed that she had her window open. Her scraggly hair framed a ghostly-like halo around her face. Her figure was hunched, making her look smaller than him, but she stared him down, like all the others, through dark eyes and one angry scar. But the boy was tired of being picked on and, desperate to prove that not even a witch can tell him what to do, he decided to show off a bit. He clambered to the side of the railing and hung from there.
“Kid, that’s dangerous.” The kid ignored her and hung rung to rung, using them like monkey bars. He was on the last rung and chose to continue on with the witch’s rungs.
But his hand missed. As the ground rushed toward him, something clicked in his mind; he wasn’t sure what it was. It flickered away when the old woman caught his arm and, with surprising strength, pulled him upward again.
* * *
It wasn’t so bad afterwards. Sometimes they left the windows open and the kid would show off the pictures he drew to escape the outside world, asked for help with things he didn’t understand, or talked about the things he was going through, while the old woman told him about her days in the army, ranted about what she liked or disliked or gave the boy advice. Sometimes they’d visit each other properly. This was when the old lady found out he tried a bit too much of his parents’ liquor once, but didn’t rat him out (not that his parents would’ve cared anyway). The kid came over and didn’t tell that the “magic smoke” was actually cigarettes she snuck out of her daughter’s bag. And when it was nice out, the boy would sneak over and leave seashells on her windowsill, because the old woman said once she missed the sea, but she couldn’t travel like she used to. In return, she opened up to the little boy, telling him how she was marked.
“When I was about your age, I wanted to help or change someone for the better. I even put ‘change at least one person’ on a list, but then I realized that that wasn’t something you check off and forget once it’s done; it’s something you keep doing countless of times throughout your life.
“But,” the old woman took a deep breath. “I couldn’t help my son. He grew up to be a great man, so I didn’t…I never knew what he was going through. He was diagnosed with depression. Family matters and work pushed him to his limit. One day he just snapped, went on a blind rage, tried to hurt his sister. I stepped in before it got any worse: This was the result. I did everything I could to help him recover, but he ended up taking his own life instead.
“Don’t feel bad about it,” she said, noticing the boy’s distress. “It happened long ago. To me, this scar is a badge of honor. It’s the only scar and pain I’ve got that’s not from fighting, but from protecting someone. This scar keeps me going. I’m waiting for something, but I’m not quite sure what it is yet.”
After a while, she changed the subject. “What are you drawing?” she asked. The kid held up his sketchbook. They were on a beach, the two of them holding hands, walking away from the viewer, and staring into the eye of the sunset. The boy went back to coloring.
“You really like drawing the backs of people, huh?” The pencil stopped moving. “Do you mind telling me why?”
“It’s…because…” the boy trailed off. He hadn’t really thought about it, not that he’d noticed it either, but for a while he sat there lost in thought as the old woman waited patiently for his response. She waited as the boy picked up his pencil and continued drawing. She waited as the sun made its journey across the sky. She waited as colors welcomed the sun home and the sky released the stars. And by the time the boy found an answer, he had to gather his strength to say it.
“It’s because I’m used to seeing people turn away from me.”
* * *
It wasn’t so bad when the weather was too harsh to open the windows; they’d tape silly pictures or notes on the glass for the other to see. The kid made sure his handwriting was extra big so the old woman didn’t have to admit her eyesight wasn’t what it used to be.
You haven’t been visiting for weeks now.
Is something wrong?
how do u know
Old folks know a lot of things.
i don’t remember
anyone who’s ever been desperate for me to return
most people want me to leave
and the ones that don’t are indifferent
i wished u had never caught me that day
knows when they will die but
no life is worth so little
as to give up and think
"I wished I’d never lived."
you have to move on,
find and grasp the remains of happiness,
and look forward with your head held high
as to what's coming next.
* * *
It wasn’t so bad when he went home crying.
“Haha! He has no friends so he became the witch’s minion!”
“Gross. I didn’t know you were into that kind of relationship.”
“Things would be better if I didn’t get to see your disgusting face every day!”
“Just kill yourself already.”
The kid sat on his little balcony and bawled his eyes out; it drew the attention of the old woman. She came out, sat there and listened. The old lady didn’t offer comfort; her presence was enough for the boy.
“I keep telling myself that I’m used to this, but I cry every time,” he sobbed. “What’s wrong with me? Everyone always wants to leave me behind!” The old woman held out a hand to him. He looked up at her, confused. She just smiled.
It was a small gesture, but he needed it. He didn’t take her hand, however, and he slowly pushed himself up. The woman, still smiling, let her hand fall to her side.
Over the course of the next few weeks, the boy found poster paper in his attic and began his work on measuring and cutting it to the right size of the window. Then he let his real talent flow as his pencil glide across the paper. And though he’d carefully painted in the details, he seemed to have created an explosion of colors on himself. And when he was all finished, the boy snuck onto the old woman’s balcony at night and taped it to her window. He flopped back into bed when he was done and drifted off.
There was a tapping on his window the next morning. The boy went over to see the old lady using a cane as an extension to rap the window.
“Thank you,” she said when he opened it. The old woman’s eyes brimmed with tears, but she didn’t let any of them fall. The drawing was sparkling water under a gradient sky; silhouettes of islands are seen in the distance: a calm ocean with a sailboat cutting through the water. Two people are seen on the boat; a kid pointing at something excitedly while the lady gazed on.
“What you’ve been waiting for. You were waiting for a reply.”
“Thank you. Thank you for everything you have done.”
* * *
It wasn’t so bad until that day. That day he peeked into her window and saw her lying on the floor, still and unmoving. The little boy’s fingers trembled as he dialed 9-1-1. The old woman had a stroke, and nobody would’ve cared to save the witch otherwise.
And the only word that resounded in his mind as the red lights and screeching noises grew smaller and smaller into the distance was: Live. Live. Live.
* * *
The little boy, who wasn’t so little any more, sat on his roof and thought about all the different ways people leave each other in this world: saying their goodbyes to some and despite knowing that they'd never see each other again, they hope that they would; leaving others with or without a word, regretting it or forgetting them; the last good-byes of someone passing away when death is at your door, when death or some other force takes them without letting them have any last words, or when you summon death yourself. He understood now that the last one would never be an option, not anymore.
The boy turned something over and over again in his hand as he gazed into the sun on the horizon. Then he stood up and walked to the side of his house. He dropped down onto his balcony. He climbed over the old woman’s balcony and was reminded again of when they first met. The boy bit his lip. He carefully placed the object in his hand on the ground. Clink! It was a small, white seashell, the smallest compared to the others strewed along the windowsill and platform. The structure of the houses usually blocked the sun from view, but this time it glowed at the right angle. It casted its magic, and made the colorful seashells glitter in the dying (Or was it rising? the boy thought.) sunlight. Except for that little one. That one seemed to shine all on its own.
He lived in a house next to an old woman; it wasn’t so bad.