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Mother May I
Author: Joshilyn Jackson

Part I

Mothers

 

 

1

 


I woke up to see a witch peering in my bedroom window.

She was little more than a dark shape with a predator’s hungry eyes, razor-wire skinny but somehow female, staring in through the partly open drapes. Sunrise lit up the thin, silvery hair that straggled out from under her hat. I should have leaped up screaming. I should have run at her with any weapon I could find.

Instead I thought, I hope she’s not standing on my basil plants, hazy and unworried. Even half asleep, I knew that there was no such thing as witches. I’d long forgotten the most important thing the theatre had ever taught me—that the human body can hold two truths at once. Even truths that seem to rule each other out: There’s no such things as witches, true. And I was looking at one.

I didn’t understand she might be a real person until our eyes met. Hers widened in surprise. She lurched sideways and was gone, leaving me with the impression of a craggy old-lady face with a sour, turned-down mouth.

I bolted upright, heart rate jacking, letting out a strangled sound that wasn’t quite a scream. Too soft to disturb the kids, but it woke up my husband.

“Bree?” Trey’s voice was thick with sleep.

“I thought I saw someone. Looking through the window at us.”

That got his eyes open.

“A person? In the backyard?” He was already climbing out of bed.

There was a careless six-inch gap between the edges of the drapes. Even as he pushed one all the way aside, my rational brain was catching up, trying to dismiss it.

I said, “It was a witch. I mean, I thought I saw a witch. So . . . grain of salt.”

Trey was peering out, forehead pressed against the glass, but that turned him back to me, a smile starting. “Big pointy hat?”

The memory was dream-soaked, but when he said it, my brain made it so, snapping my hazy mental picture into focus. Not a cardigan. A tatty robe. Not a knit cap. A pointy witch hat. It made the whole thing ridiculous. Of course there was no witch in our backyard, staring in with hungry, haunted eyes.

“I think so,” I admitted. “Her mouth was sunken in, and she was all in black.”

I must have been dreaming, I decided. I was prone to postpartum nightmares, though not usually about anything so concrete as witches. My bad dreams after each of the girls had been almost Victorian, all footsteps and fog.

“The gate is closed and locked. Unless your witch looked spry enough to bounce over an eight-foot privacy fence . . .”

That made me laugh, though it was more of a relieved puff of air. “Nope.”

Trey let go of the drapes. “Want me to go outside and check?”

“Do I want you to sashay around the backyard in your boxers looking for a witch?” I asked. “No. No, I do not.”

He grinned, and I smiled back, even though the animal at the base of my brain was saying that yes, actually, I did want him to He-Man out there and stomp the perimeter, preferably with a golf club cocked up over his shoulder. It was a primal thing, physical and irrational.

There was no witch, obviously, and even if I had seen someone, a flesh-and-blood little old lady was the least threatening type of person on the planet. Only in stories did crones offer poisoned fruit to princesses or snatch up tasty children. But I couldn’t think of an innocent reason for anyone to watch us as we slept. And her flat, greedy gaze! Not confused or blank, like someone’s sweet lost granny. Her hunger was the clearest thing in my memory.

Trey read my doubt. “Seriously. I’ll grab some pants and go check. Just to put your mind at ease.”

I shook my head. I’d been raised on Grimms’ fairy tales by a mother who saw the world as something huge and wild—carnivorous. Her world was full of witches. She’d have already called the cops by now, or even snatched one of Trey’s hunting rifles out of the gun safe and loaded it. She’d be in the backyard already, making the world safer by accidentally shooting our neighbor’s nice old Labradoodle. Or worse, shooting our nice old neighbor.

I wasn’t like her. I didn’t want to be like her, so I pushed away that small, wise voice in my head that kept insisting, You saw something. You saw someone.

I told my husband, “No. Come back to bed.”

Trey tumbled in, and I rolled toward him, running my hand under his T-shirt to feel his heartbeat. It was slow and steady, same as always. Wearing a shirt to bed was new, though. Trey had turned fifty this year. He’d always been built thick, but now he had a bit of a belly, and his chest hair was going gray.

“I hate this stupid shirt,” I told him. I wanted the comfort of tucking in close to his bare skin, wrapping my arms around the warm, strong bulk of him.

He pulled me closer. Close enough for me to know he wasn’t thinking about witches. “I could ditch the shirt. We are up early.”

I glanced back at the clock. “The alarm goes off in twenty minutes. You think you can make it worth my while?” I said it flirty, like a challenge, cocking my eyebrow at him.

His teeth flashed in the dimness. “I can damn sure try.”

He kissed my neck, my shoulder. To my surprise I felt a twinge of something good starting. My sex drive had flatlined in my third trimester. I’d assumed it would resurrect in a few months, when Robert started solid food. That’s how it had worked after the girls. But here was our familiar magic, already sparking up between us.

Maybe it was the dream. That witch had genuinely spooked me, dumping a ton of adrenaline into my blood. As my husband kissed me, my body arched into him, electric, as if to say, We could all die! Quick, make more people! It apparently hadn’t gotten the memo about Trey’s vasectomy. I kissed him back, serious about it.

“Yeah?” Trey said, surprised.

“Yeah,” I said, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the window. Of course there was not a witch in the yard. Or anyone. But I added, “Close the drapes all the way and you’re on, mister.”

He hurried to yank them shut while I started peeling my nightgown off over my head.

That, of course, was the exact moment a soft gurgle came through the baby monitor.

We both froze, our eyes meeting.

“Oh, Bumper, no!” Trey said.

“Oh, Robert, no,” I corrected automatically. I wasn’t going to bend on this. When I was pregnant, we’d all called him Bumper, as in “the bumper crop.” That had been cute back when it meant my swelling belly. Trey, who’d grown up in Buckhead with Scooters and Biffs and Muffys, still thought it was cute.

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