The cashier leaned over the conveyor belt. Two of his bottom teeth were missing. “That neighbor of yours is a witch, or I’m a bull toad.”
Izzy leaned forward, too. She wanted to make certain she didn't miss a single word.
Her mom put on a polite smile and zipped up her purse. “I beg your pardon?”
The cashier narrowed his eyes. “You wanna know what she came in here and bought last week?”
“I can’t ima – “
“Beef tongue. Now I ask you, what kind of person buys that? Put it in a potion or something, I bet.
Izzy’s mom started lifting the sacks into the cart. “I’m afraid we haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Malloy yet.”
“Oh it ain’t Mrs. You think anyone would marry her? Shoot, no. Marian Malloy would sooner put a curse on a man than say hello. Mind, I’m only tellin’ you this ‘cause you’re new to Everton.”
Izzy slid over to where her younger sister eyed the candy. “Hen, tell Mom you need to go to the bathroom,” she whispered.
“But I don’t,” Hen said.
“I know that! It’s just a stalling tactic.”
“So why don’t you do it?”
“Because I’m listening! I want to hear more about the witch.”
This was without a doubt the most interesting thing that had happened since they moved to Everton. The possibility of having a witch for a neighbor just might be enough to make up for living in a town with no movie theater, no swimming pools, and – worst of all – no library.
But Izzy’s mom didn’t share her interest, and hurried them out of the store to the parking lot. “Can you believe that nonsense?” she said as they helped load the bags into the car. “I don’t know why this has to be the only grocery store in town!”
Izzy stood next to the open car door, and looked over her shoulder at the faded Piggly Wiggly sign. From the amount of groceries her mom bought, she could tell they wouldn’t be coming back for at least a week.
“Hey mom, I think I left something in there…” She started to jog back across the parking lot toward the store.
“What? Sweetie, what did you leave?”
“Um – my lucky bookmark! I’ll be right back!”
The sliding doors whooshed open, and Izzy trotted up to the cash register. The cashier’s face was hidden behind a cheap tabloid newspaper with a cover that read, Elvis spotted at Tullahoma Waffle House.
Izzy tapped on the counter. “Excuse me?”
“Whatcha need, sugar?” he replied, without putting his paper down.
“Was everything you said really true? About our neighbor being a witch, I mean.”
The cashier crumpled the tabloid and leaned towards her. “Oh it’s the truth, all right. And you little girls need to watch yourselves out there.”
Izzy bristled. At twelve, she was hardly a little girl. She rose up on her tiptoes. “Why? What could happen to us?”
The cashier’s voice dropped to a whisper, and his eyes scanned side to side. “Anything goes near her house, it disappears. Dogs. Pigs. Anything. She says the fairies take ‘em, but I’ll bet you they all end up in a big, black kettle.”
The front doors of the store slid open. “Izzy, did you find it?” asked her mom, her hands on her hips. “We need to get going before the ice cream melts.”
Izzy shuffled her feet as she followed her mom back out to the car. She took one last look at the rundown store, and then they started the long, pot-hole-riddled drive out to their new, old house.
Three drizzly, cooped-up days passed that left Izzy and Hen with nothing to do but help unpack boxes. The worst part was that all but five of Izzy’s precious books were travelling by flat-rate post, and wouldn’t arrive for at least another week. She read and reread those five until she had memorized every sentence. Just when her boredom reached a level that made her think she’d rather go to school than spend another day with nothing happening – something happened.
“It’s her, Izzy! It’s the witch!” Hen pressed her freckled nose against the window that looked down onto the driveway, and bounced on her toes.
Izzy squeezed in beside her so she could see out the window. She couldn’t believe their good luck.
But when the old woman climbed out of her pickup truck, Hen’s face fell in disappointment. “She doesn’t really look like a witch to me...”
The woman walking up their porch steps looked more like a farmer than anything else. Her work clothes were stained with mud, and her short, white hair peeked out from under a crumpled men’s hat. The only thing remotely witchy about her was that even though her wrinkles meant she must be at least seventy, she walked fast and didn’t stoop the way most old people did.
“You can’t tell anything about her just by looking,” said Izzy. She tried to sound hopeful, but so far things didn’t seem very promising.
The old woman didn’t have any of the standard witch traits. And Izzy should know. It was safe to say that she had read every fairy or folktale concerning witches. In fact, she was almost sure she had read every fairytale in existence, and the nine boxes of books in route to their house were proof. She knew that witches came in one of two varieties: hunchbacked hag, or cruelly beautiful sorceress. That’s just the way things were.
“Izzy! Hen!” their mother called from downstairs. “Girls, come down here, please. We have a visitor!”
The sisters exchanged quick looks, and then hurried out of their room and down the stairs. The old woman stood at the front door, dripping muddy water onto the rug.
“Marian, these are my girls, Isabella and Henrietta,” their mom said brightly.
Marian kept her hands in her pockets and nodded at them.
“Won’t you come sit down?” said their mom, leading the way toward the kitchen. “I’ve just made a pot of tea. My husband works late at his new job with the county, and I’m not used to living so far from any other neighbors. It will be nice to have another adult to talk to.”
“Humph,” said Marian, sitting down at the table. “Far as I’m concerned, the best thing about living way out here is not having folks to talk to.”
Izzy’s mom laughed as if Marian had made a joke. “And you are certainly welcome to join us for dinner, if you like.”
Hen’s eyes grew wide as pancakes.
One corner of Marian’s mouth turned up a little before returning to a scowl. “No, I’ve got to get home to my own supper. I only came over because I was driving past your house, which I normally don’t do. I think it’s best that neighbors meet face to face. Prevents problems later on.”
Izzy and Hen pulled out chairs for themselves on the opposite side of the table. Izzy looked at the old woman’s fingernails and wondered if they were stained green from pulling weeds or making potions.
Her mom came to the table carrying a teapot and two cups. “I didn’t realize it rained so much here. The girls start school next week, and I’m sure they’ll be glad to get out of the house.”
Marian drummed her fingers on the tabletop. “Everton Elementary is run by a bunch of incompetent gossips,” she grumbled.
“Really?” said their mom, sliding a teacup across the table. “I thought it seemed like a very good school.”
“What’s ‘incontinent’ mean?” Hen asked loudly.
“Actually, I won’t be at the Elementary school,” said Izzy, sitting up a little straighter. “I’m in sixth grade.”
The old woman scanned Izzy up and down. “Sixth grade? You’re no bigger than a chipmunk.”