The Terrible Old Woman

They said around town she was a witch, but that was a load of crap. Witch with a B was more like it. They said she was maybe one of those spell-casting hoodoos and all sorts of shit, but Jack’s sister told him and Dick and Petey that the woman was nothing more than a retired teacher, soured because she didn’t have any more students to torture. But old bitch teachers didn’t wear a small fortune in Navajo jewelry or drive one of those electric hybrids. Or take up living in a house big enough for six.

She had money, all right. Dick’s mother said the old bat inherited the house and probably money too and maybe she was a bit senile. That would explain why she was all alone, and nobody knew if she’d been married or not, since she called herself doctor so-and-so, though Dick’s mother said it wasn’t a medical degree. It was Petey who said they could help her out with that, not knowing what to do with all the money.

The three of them started driving by regularly in Jack’s truck, blasting Dick’s favorite tunes for cover, just three guys out cruising. They mapped out where she slept from the last light still on, and she never closed the downstairs curtains so sometimes they saw her eating there at a big table. It was weird, like she was in a restaurant with no waitress. She sat there eating from a full plate and drinking wine. The lamplight glinted off the bracelets and rings she wore even then.

They knew her name was Berta Hachette, perfect for a bitter old whatever. They knew she bought imported wine and paid cash (liquor store guy) and organic produce (bagger) and foreign DVDs for the really smart TV she had bought locally too. They heard she’d been a professor of folklore, whatever that was. Dick said it was just old lies that got told over and over. Best of all, they knew she made regular withdrawals of cash, and how much (Jack’s second cousin, a teller), as well as having a houseful of paintings and sculptures and silver, some of which had belonged to her uncle who lived there before.

They knew she had a computer and got all the premium streaming (Jack’s first cousin, an installer) and also got a lot of UPS deliveries, which gave Dick an idea. What if he pretended to have a box for her? But then Jack said there’s be a big brown van out front, stupid. So Petey said, forget pretending antyhing. We just walk in there one night and take what there is to take. How’s she going to stop us, kung fu? Jack wasn’t sure. He thought maybe they should take Petey’s brother up on the meth deal instead. Dick said Petey’s brother had cooked one too many batches.

So they picked a night, just at dusk, and drew lots for who went in and who sat in the car. Jack lost. He pulled the truck around the far end of the block, behind the house from the street, and turned around so he faced away from the dead end on that side. He kept the motor running at first, but the lights off and the stereo too. It was quiet back there. He rolled down the window and listened. Nothing but his own panting engine. No breeze stirring, no birds, no nothing. He rolled the window back up and realized how much darker it had gotten. He popped open his cell phone: fifteen minutes gone. By now they should have her tied up and blabbing. By now they should be sacking up the jewelry and cash and anything else valuable.

Jack turned off the ignition, got out, and leaned against the passenger door. The house was dark. The whole area was like, hushed. He walked slowly across the damp grass in his flip-flops. This side of the house had small windows and he couldn’t see anything. He walked around back, dialing Dick’s number. Not turned on, and that was crap. Dick always had his cell on. The back patio was deserted, chairs this way and that. A patio torch burned, casting shadows on the back of the wall. There were things painted on the wall. Some of them made swirls and circles. Some of them were crooked and pointed. All of them wiggled in the light. Jack crossed the patio, stopping himself from putting the chairs right. He saw more squiggles and slashes painted on the concrete too, that his feet passed over. The lattice over the patio made scritching sounds and all along its edge things hung from string and chains and leather thongs. They swayed gently without enough breeze. He didn’t want to look at them.

On the other side of the house a flagstone walk went from back to front, flanked by a border of plants against the house. Above him the white metal gutter lay like a huge snake. Jack felt it pacing him, crawling up there. He hurried along and then he saw her. She stepped off the front porch, but she didn’t step down. She floated toward him impossibly tall, a foot or more off the ground, arms open, white hair in a wacked-out halo. Jack stared, open-mouthed. She said, Bubba shoot the jukebox. What? Had she even said it aloud? She said, Step on a pop-top. She said some other things Jack didn’t understand at all, and then she held up one hand and very distinctly said, Booty-scoot boogie time.

To this day Jack doesn’t remember driving all night to Texas, and exactly why he moved to Houston is a puzzle he can’t solve. When he’s had a few too many, he vaguely remembers a couple of friends and wonders whatever happened to them. There’s a little tattoo of a black star high up on his left shoulder that he can only see in the mirror and he doesn’t know how he got it, but every time he hears “Margaritaville” on the radio it sounds like an old lie being told again, and it gives him a very bad feeling.

This story originally appeared in Dark Valentine. It’s a close adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Terrible Old Man” (link to it under My Writing).

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