The car engine is still running in the driveway. Through the window, my mom rests her head on the steering wheel. Her mouth is moving as though she’s in prayer, though neither of us have ever been particularly religious.
I drag my feet, letting my bag thump against each of the steps down the porch. When mom sees me, she pulls back the gearshift and straightens her back.
“Where are we going?” I say hoarsely, sliding into the car.
Mom doesn’t answer. As soon as I close the door behind me, the car moves in reverse, the rubber wheels groaning in protest.
We pull onto a highway. My fear melts into simple apprehension, and then just boredom. Through the glass, familiar landmarks disappear behind us, and before long, we’re nowhere I recognize.
The digital clock on the dashboard reads 3:56 when Mom pulls into a gas station. “Stay here,” she says, as she leaves me in the car and heads into the building. She comes back holding a bag of blue Doritos and a Sprite, and hands them to me without meeting my eye. “Here, we have a long drive ahead of us.”
Despite my nagging fear, I quickly polish both off. Yet, since Mom rarely let’s me eat anything she deems unhealthy, I can’t help but worry this is a ‘last meal’ of sorts.
We drive for many more hours. “Where are you taking me?” becomes- “Are we there yet?” -as the sky turns purple overhead. By the time we pull off the freeway and onto the gravel road, pinpricks of stars wink at me.
Mom maneuvers downhill at a snail’s pace. I fear if she lets go of the wheel, we would tumble down into the dark, twisting wilderness below us. It’s like clambering down a cliff face, just while carrying a-thousand-ton blue civic behind you.
We descend into the maw of a monster. I remember the swamp my class visited, but we are surely thousands of miles away by now.
As the ground evens out, Mom brings the car to a halt.
“Listen, Kim-“ she contorts herself to face me. Her eyes are red rimmed, and I realize, quite suddenly, she’d been crying, “-there’s quite a bit about your family you don’t know, but I’m really not the person to explain it all.”
“So you’re not sending me away?”
She shakes her head, and my heart plummets.
“Honey, I love you very much. And I promise it you won’t be here long. But home isn’t safe for you right now.”
My face burns, and I’m afraid my mom’s going to boot me from the car and leave me in the swamp to fend for myself. “You’re- you’re leaving me here?” I croak.
Moms eyes widen, “No, no.” She says quickly, “I’m taking you to your grandmas.”
Somehow, that’s worse. “You told me all my grandparents were dead.” I say slowly.
The guilt is written all over Moms face. With her mouth pressed into a thin line, she turns and starts the car again.
I can’t see out the window anymore. If I peer out windshield, the headlights barely illuminate anything at all; I don’t know how my Mom can drive like this, it’s as though we’re swimming through the deep sea.
We drive slowly for another twenty minutes. I can just make out the shapes of crowded thickets of trees, so close together, so close to me, I feel claustrophobic.
The car jumps and jitters, we might be off road now. I keep expecting us to slam straight into a tree, or slide into a pool of mud. The wet marsh slosh beneath our cars wheels.
“Are you trying to get us killed?” I murmur.
“That’s never worked here before.” My mom responds.
The trees part, but only slightly. Up ahead, there’s faint, flickering light, like a will-o-the-wisp. I pray my mom won’t drive for it, but of course, that’s where the car is heading.
We draw closer, and a witch’s hut comes into view. I can just barely make out the silhouette of a short and squat house with a billowing chimney. The glow from inside is warm, like it’s lit from a fireplace, but I’ve never seen a house that looks so cold.
The side of it is brick, with weeds and ivy crawling up the side of it. The plants weave back and forth in the nonexistent wind, and I wonder if ghosts haunt the gardens.
I think of the witch who must live here- tall and sharp with an unholy scowl. Surely, only the most wicked of people could call this place home.
My mom exhales a sigh as our car whimpers to a halt. Her arms fall limply beside her. “I know everything is super scary right now,” she says, “but your grandma is an amazing woman. I promise she’ll tell you everything.”
That’s the thing I’ve learned about grownups, they always lie.
We get out the car. My mom leads us to the front door, a single, green-tinged lamp illuminating it. I watch a moth flurry about the low hanging roof, wishing I too had wings to fly away.
I notice my mom hesitating before she knocks. Maybe if I ask really nicely, we could get back in the car and go home.
But then, she takes a breath and pounds on the door. Not a moment later, it swings open.
The woman standing there is much like the house itself, short and squat, yet terribly, terribly cold. Her skin, slightly darker than mine, is stretched thinly across her skull, as though she’s half dead. Her eyes are bloodshot orbs protruding from her head, though they’re entirely focused on Mom. Fear shivers up my spine, for this witch is death given flesh.
She doesn’t seem surprised to see my mom. Rather, her expression conveys something else entirely. Her withered hand quivers on the doorknob, and her voice shakes when she speaks.
“Amelia,” she says, “what do you want now?”
My mom’s eyebrows raise a fraction, “Beatrice, this is your granddaughter, Kimberly.”
She glances down at me, and I’m horrified to find a resemblance. We have the same rounded nose, the same uneven smile.
“Oh,” she says. Her nose wrinkles slightly, though more in confusion than anything. “I was starting to think I’d never get to meet you. Come on in.”
I wait for my mother to go first, but she doesn’t move.
“Mom,” I plead, gesturing inside.
She kneels down beside me, placing a hand on my arm, “I love you so very much, be good-“
“No!” I cry, “No, no, no! You can’t leave me here!” I hug her as tight as I can, sobbing, “Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare!”
“Kim!” My mom shakes me off her. Grandma is standing awkwardly at the door, as though she’s not sure if she should intervene. “This is what’s best for you. Now, you are going to behave yourself for your grandmother.” She rises to her feet and takes several steps back, clutching her purse tightly to her chest. “I’ll see you soon.”
With that, mom disappears into the darkness. I hear the car start and drive away. I move to run after her, but my grandma grabs me by the shoulder.
“She should’ve stayed the night. I wouldn’t recommend driving through the swamp when it’s so dark out.”
I hate how amused my grandma sounds. I whirl around to face her, but she isn’t smiling.
“Why don’t you come in?” She asks again. Her grip is too tight, and I want to fight against her, but I find I don’t have the strength. “You must be hungry. I’ll prepare dinner. Then, we will talk.”