That year in school, it became more and more acceptable to talk about girls. In one conversation, somebody asked, “Who’s the prettiest girl you’ve ever seen?” When it was my turn, I said, “the witch’s daughter.” The group erupted.
“You’ve seen her?”
“How come you never told us about this?”
I told them the whole story, leaving out the part about my mom talking to her, and they chattered non-stop. I had mostly forgotten what she looked like, but I made up details because I kind of liked the attention.
Mark came up with a new theory: “maybe the witch kills anyone who sees her daughter.” But he quickly reconsidered. “No. Maybe the witch kills anyone who touches her daughter.”
Everyone looked at him like he was crazy. Adam said, “So we’ve got to put together a recon mission to see her.” They all leaned in.
The “recon mission” became our new topic of conversation throughout the remainder of winter and into spring, though we never actually acted on it. I guess beautiful women are scarier than witches. As the sole witness of the witch’s daughter, I was the expert. By April, I was starting to enjoy sixth grade.
One day, shortly after Easter, I came home from school and nobody was there. It wasn’t unusual for Mom to be gone after school, but that day the house felt eerily quiet. When Dad came home minutes later, I knew something was wrong.
He knelt in front of me and hugged me hard, like he was clinging to a tree dangling over a cliff. He started sobbing, which I’d never seen him do. “Mom’s left us,” he said. “She’s flown away.”
It was hard to believe any of it was happening. Dad crying in front of me, delivering this impossible message. It was disorienting. For some reason, I said, “she can’t fly.” And he hugged me and started sobbing again.
She was out for a jog through the neighborhood when she fell. A couple of high school students discovered her when they almost ran over her in the street. They called 9-1-1, but by the time she got to the hospital, she was dead.
In the weeks after her death, everything reminded me of her: a pillow knocked off the couch, the clothes folded in my dresser, the musty smell of the basement. Dad cut his hours at work so he could be home when I wasn’t in school. He said it “prevented us both from wallowing in self-pity.”
Still, every once in a while I’d sneak away to feel sorry for myself. I took walks through the neighborhood and looked through the windows at normal families. I imagined Mom running beside me. Sometimes I even talked to her. One day, I happened to pass the witch house and I stopped in front. “See that house?” I said to no one. “A witch lives there.” I could see my Mom jogging up to the door, talking with Mrs. Morton’s daughter. But then my daydream took a turn, and I pictured her falling in the dead yard.
They told me she died of cardiac arrhythmia, but it didn’t make any sense to me. “Heart attacks happen to fat cigar-smoking men,” I thought, “not to my mom.” I needed someone to blame; I needed to destroy something, to connect a punch. I knew it was wrong as I was doing it. I knew Mom would scold me for it. I knew it wouldn’t help. But as the rock was leaving my hand, I was also hoping that maybe after I got scolded and shamed, she would be back in my bedroom, rubbing my back and telling me she loved me.
It landed with a disappointing thud a foot shy of a window. I was looking around for another rock and as soon as I found one, the porch light came on. The door opened. It was the daughter. It was a cool May evening, not fully dark yet. The air was thick and misty. Around the porch light I could see a foggy halo.