In September I entered the WritersWeekly Fall 2014 24-Hour Short Story Contest. I just received word that my entry, “Come and Sit a Spell,” received honorable mention. That means out of hundreds of entries, I placed in the top 25! At the start of the contest, all of the contestants received the same prompt and had just 24 hours to write a short story of no more than 950 words that “must deal with the topic in some way to qualify.” The judges stressed that originality and surprise endings would be the most well-received, so I tried to give them both. Here’s the prompt, followed by my entry. Enjoy, and please let me know what you think!
The cold wind battered the fortune teller’s wagon, threatening an early frost. The girls climbed down, simultaneously giggling and shivering about the message the old witch had delivered. As their feet pushed through the red and orange leaves, a shadow emerged from the gnarled maple trees. A bent man in tattered layers stepped in front of the girls, leaned over, and put his crooked finger to his lips…
COME AND SIT A SPELL
The weathered greenhouse at the back of the property nearly melted into the ancient woods that served as its backdrop, and even the path worn into the grass was hidden by the swirl of leaves deposited by autumn’s first cold snap.
The door creaked open on rusty hinges, and two young girls emerged. The sisters instinctively hugged their coats and bowed their heads against the wind to begin their walk home, not seeing the disheveled elderly man until he was right in front of them.
Emily began to speak, but the man silenced her with a finger to his lips.
“Not here,” he said softly. “We can talk in the house where it’s warm.”
The girls looked at each other with apprehension.
“But mom said we should come right home from school,” Jessica said. “She doesn’t even know we’re here.”
The man smiled.
“Your mom doesn’t need to know. And you don’t want to walk home on a cold day like this without some hot chocolate to warm you up, do you?”
That was all the convincing it took, and all three crunched across the long back yard and in the door without another word.
“Take off your coats. I’ll get the tea kettle going and see if I can find some cookies,” the old man said.
Emily and Jessica obeyed while taking in the surroundings.
The room was nothing like the bright and shiny kitchen at home. This was the dingy, creepy kitchen of an old man, one that hadn’t known a woman’s touch in a long time.
A single dim light in the ceiling revealed faded, curling wallpaper hung decades before. A rusty pan sat in a dish rack next to the sink, and as they sat down at the Formica table cluttered with newspapers and junk mail, the girls crinkled their noses in unison at both the “old people” smell and the grimy film that seemed to cover everything they touched.
The old man returned from the pantry with hot chocolate mix and a package of Lorna Dunes (“old man cookies,” the girls thought), got three mugs from the cabinet, and joined the girls at the kitchen table.
“So, what prediction did the fortune teller have for you today?” he asked with a smirk, leaning in toward the girls as if to tell them a secret. “Anything about dining with a handsome stranger?”
Emily and Jessica looked at each other, and broke into uncontrollable giggles.
“Oh, Grandpa, you’re so funny!” Emily squealed, dissolving into more giggles.
“Hey!” Grandpa responded, with mock indignation. “There was a time that your grandmother thought I was handsome.”
The smile disappeared. “And now, to her I’m a stranger.”
An awkward silence fell on the room, thankfully broken a moment later by the whistling tea kettle. Grandpa got up, and the girls scrambled to say something to lighten the mood.
“Grandma seemed, like, really happy today,” Jessica offered.
“Yeah,” Emily joined in. “I remember when she was just here in the house, and she’d just stare off into space and not know anybody. She still doesn’t know us, but she seems, you know, happy to see us.”
“It was really smart of you to make the old greenhouse into her fortune telling place,” Jessica added. “She, like, loves it there.”
Grandpa brought the tea kettle to the table.
“One day we were sitting in front of the television, and a gypsy movie came on. She was just staring like always – I didn’t even know if she was here.
“All of sudden, she starts imitating the gypsy. ‘I am a witch,’ she says. ‘I will tell your fortune! Take me to my parlor!’ Over and over. So I thought, if that’s what she wants, why not?”
The girls had heard this story a hundred times, but they always let Grandpa tell it again. It seemed to make him feel better. That, plus a few minutes of cookie dunking and hot chocolate, and Grandpa seemed his old self again.
“Hey, you never told me,” he asked. “What was your fortune today?”
“It was, like, really weird, Grandpa,” Jessica said, frowning slightly. “Usually Grandma tells us something about school…”
“…or boys,” Emily interjected, giggling.
“Yeah,” Jessica continued, “but today she just kept saying this poem over and over:
“The witch’s power will take hold, as now at last the truth is told.
“Like, over and over again, Grandpa. What do you think that means?”
“Don’t you worry about it Sweetie. You know how it is with the Alzheimer’s. Sometimes Grandma just isn’t herself.”
Grandpa looked out the back window.
“Well, you girls better finish up and get home, or it’ll be your mother I have to worry about! And I need to get Grandma into the house before dark.”
“Okay, Grandpa,” they said in unison, draining their cups and getting their coats.
They each kissed a stubbly cheek.
“Love you, Grandpa,” they said, bounding out the back door for home.
“Love you, too, girls,” he hollered after them, grabbing his coat.
As he neared the door to the greenhouse, Grandpa heard his wife shouting the chant with a power in her voice he had never heard before:
“THE WITCH’S POWER WILL TAKE HOLD, AS NOW AT LAST THE TRUTH IS TOLD!”
“Emma dear,” he said calmly as he opened the door, “it’s time to go in…”
“Emma is gone!” the witch screamed at him, her eyes as red as fire! “And now you will join her!”
The witch pointed her wand at Grandpa, and a brilliant flash shot from it, striking him square in the heart.
And in that instant, the old man realized that was where his Emma had really been all along.