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Thursday’s Child — Excerpt:

Halloween, 1948

Father rushed into our living room and said, “Elainie, don’t go near the witch’s house!” His stern blue eyes and taut jaw compelled obedience.

All the children in our neighborhood called old Mrs. Horton a witch because she dressed in shapeless navy colored sack dresses, had a long nose with an ugly wart on the tip, and had straggly thin gray hair sticking out in all directions. She made scary noises, shook her walking stick at us when we walked across her unmowed lawn, and had a dilapidated Victorian house like the one I had seen in a horror movie.

Dark clouds and a moon on the wane, a perfect Halloween night. Owls hooted in tall gnarled old oak, cedar, and red maple trees. Dry red, yellow, orange, and brown leaves crackled underfoot. Salty sea breezes from the Atlantic Ocean blew in. I had been especially eager to be on my way because 1948 became the first year American families did not have to use ration coupons. I’d heard the mothers on our block talk about how they could now buy sugar, chocolate, butter and all of the good things they needed to make the treats they’d be handing out. Best of all, this would be the first Halloween without Father coming with us.

“Yes, Daddy.” Impatient to go trick or treating, I shifted from foot to foot, knowing the rest of his lecture would come.

“Take good care of your sister.” “Do I have to take Rose? None of the other kids are dragging their baby sisters with them.” I prayed he’d let me leave her at home. Daddy handed both of us cloth shopping bags.

“Elainie, you’re a big girl. I’m trusting you to watch Rose.”

I was eight, my sister three and a half.

“Hold your dresses up, so you won’t trip on the sidewalk.”

Dressed as Indians in our parents miles too big old clothes, makeup completed the look. World War II had ended. The government no longer rationed shoes and clothes, but most of our mothers still conserved pennies and took pride in making our costumes. We were super impressed when one of our friends showed up in a store-bought outfit.

On the sidewalk, I ran into my friend Gail. Dressed as the Wicked Queen from Snow White, her mother’s long sleeve blouse dangled over her fingers. To keep from tripping, she held up the long black robe she wore. A gold cardboard crown kept slipping down over her bright green eyes.

“Where’s Paula?”

“Mom took the pest. She said Paula is too little to walk to all the houses.” Gail looked disgusted, and shoved the crown back up on top of her little brown sausage curls.

“Lucky. Look who I’m stuck with.” I squinched up my nose in disgust, nodding in Rose’s direction.

Her head rested on her chest, eyes wide with delight as she counted all the home-made candy bars, caramel apples, popcorn, pieces of cake and slices of pie wrapped in waxed paper she had received.

Rose, Gail, and I continued trick or treating. We rushed past huge unadorned brick apartment buildings with their rusty wrought iron railings, stopping where glowing skulls, mummy cases, and other scary decorations lit up the big turn-of- the-century frame houses. Only the well-lit houses enticed us, calling us to come and collect our treats. The home-made treats made our bags so heavy they began to sag and drag along the ground.

Eager to get to the next house, I didn’t notice Rose had slipped away. She darted up the stone path to the witch’s house.

“Rose, come back! Daddy said we can’t go there!”

My sister climbed the sagging wooden porch steps on stubby little legs. Mrs. Horton had done a great job of decorating her already scary Victorian house. Rose pushed the nose of the dragon-head doorbell. The monster’s glass eyes blazed fiery red. It belched a horrible sound.

“Rose, stop! We’ll get in trouble.” I dropped my treat bag on the broken sidewalk, and raced up the stairs after her.

The weathered front door creaked open slowly. In the dimly lit hallway a silver-framed black and white picture of a little girl surrounded by a black wreath sat on top of a small dark wood table with brass handles. A gray-haired woman with a round cherry face, laughing blue eyes, dressed in a store-bought witch’s costume, and long padded black gloves slinked out. She carried a large black metal caldron filled to the brim with shiny, new 1948 copper pennies sloshing around in liquid.

“Take as many as you like,” she said sweetly.

The week before Halloween Daddy had taken Rose and me to see the Wizard of Oz musical at the movie theater. Margaret Hamilton, the lady who played the wicked witch, cackled, “Hey, hey, my pretty. Tonight you can choose your treat.” Mrs. Horton disappointed me because she dressed like her, but didn’t act like her.

Archie Miller jumped up on the porch, yanked my long braids, and elbowed me aside. Wearing a store-bought Lone Ranger costume bursting at the seams, he pulled a silver cap gun out of his leather holster and pretended to shoot me.

Bang! Bang!

He turned to Mrs. Horton. Pointing his six-shooter at the caldron he asked, “Why do we have to bob for the pennies?”

“Ever hear of bobbing for apples?” she cooed questioningly.

Archie looked at her out of the corner of his beady little hazel eyes. “What’s with the yellow water?”

Her eyelashes fluttered. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

Rose stuck her hand out, as the caldron came closer and closer to her. Her big brown eyes shone in excitement.

Archie squinched up his eyes. “Why’s white stuff coming from the bowl?” A cloudy mist spiraled up into the black night air.

“It’s fog, like you see in the ghost movies at the picture show.”

Archie scratched his head. His felt cowboy hat slipped off, dangled by a string around his thick neck. “Hum….”

“Help yourself to a handful.” Mrs. Horton smiled sweetly.

“Great. I’ll be able to get lots of penny candy.”

Something in the witch’s pretty blue eyes terrified me. I heard Daddy’s warning, “Don’t go near the witch’s house.”

As they passed, costumed children on the sidewalk chanted, “Trick or treat. We want something good to eat. Happy Halloween.” I grabbed my baby sister’s arm, and dragged her across the creaking porch and down the rickety creaking steps, away from the big house.

“Elainie, I want penny,” Rose blubbered as I pushed her down the dark walkway.

“You can’t have it.”

“I’m gonna tell Mommy on you.” Tears rolled down her cheeks causing rivers of black mascara to streak her pudgy face.

“Go ahead, tattletale. I’ll tell Daddy you went to the witch’s house after he told us not to.”

She stuck her tongue out at me.

Rose, Gail, and I stood on the corner waiting for Archie. We could see the beach from where we stood. Damp winds rolling in from the sea beat against the shore, washing away sand and rocks. Surrounding us, they blew up under our costumes and made us shiver. We had to hold on tight to our treat bags to keep from losing them. In spite of the bone-chilling cold and our eagerness to get to the next house, we stood there. Because we knew Archie would come to school tomorrow and brag about getting more stuff than the rest of us, we wanted to see how many coins he had collected, but he ran past us blubbering, “I’m gonna tell on her.”

Gail shrugged. “Guess she didn’t give him the pennies.”

The following night my father snapped at my mother as they sat in boxy, nubby fabric chairs listening to the big Emerson floor-model radio.

“Dora, turn off the radio.”

“But Jack, don’t you want to hear the news?”

“Don’t have to. I heard the neighbors talking about it. It’s too frightening for the children to hear.”

My ears perked up every time my parents said they didn’t want me to hear something. After we were in bed they would talk about it, so after Mom tucked Rose and me in, I pretended to go to sleep.

I tiptoed up to the living room, hid behind the doorframe, and watched and listened.

“That crazy old witch,” Dad said in a stage whisper. “I hope they lock her up in a loony bin and throw away the key.”

“Shush.” Mother put a finger across her ruby lips. “The girls will hear you. It’s a good thing you told Elaine not to go there,” she reminded him.

“If she did, she’d be in the hospital just like all the other kids. Can you believe that stupid old woman put hot oil in the bowl?”

Father slammed a fist into the palm of his hand. His face turned purple.

The veins on his neck stuck out.

Feeling the hero, I beamed with pride.

I had saved my baby sister from the witch.


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