In the room at the end of the hallway lives a witch. She moved in during the gray days of early January and she does not talk to any of the people who live around her. No one knows her name.
She wears a black patch over one eye and walks with a lone cane of shiny black wood. Every evening at precisely seven o’clock she leaves her room, taking deliberate heavy steps down the hall; every evening at precisely eight o’clock she returns. Her expression is always sour, as if a piece of lemon has been permanently wedged against her tongue. Lacey is afraid of her, but her older brother, who is fifteen and very loud in the way boys often are, tells her she was a scaredy-cat, and that is the reason why the witch had come in the first place.
“They can sense fear, you know. So it’s your fault she’s here.”
Lacey’s brother is also both tall and strong, which Lacey is not: he is good at sports and reads comic books even when their mother scolds him about his schoolwork. Sometimes Lacey hears her parents arguing about her brother and sometimes her brother is there with her, and he just shrugs whenever it happens and he says that it’s not his fault if they’re old-fashioned. Besides, it isn’t _his_ fault a witch moved into their building and on their floor, that’s all Lacey’s doing. Then he pulls her hair until she cries and their parents have to stop fighting long enough to pull them apart, and then their parents shout at her brother instead, enough to make Lacey’s ears ring.
In the evening, when the witch leaves for wherever it was she went every night, Lacey’s brother cracks the door open to watch her go. Lacey watches him in turn from where she sits on the couch, with her knees hugged to her chest and her chin on them. When the sound of the tapping cane fades, her brother always lets out a huge breath and says,
“That’s it. I’m safe for another night. But Lacey’s gonna get eaten if she’s not careful, ’cause she didn’t hold her breath!”
Sometimes he leaves it at that. Sometimes he keeps going until Lacey cries and their mother yells, but even when he’s slinking off to his room, he mutters to her from the corner of his mouth, “Be careful of what’s under your bed.”
Whenever he says that, Lacey has nightmares of the witch down the hallway coming into their living room with her blonde hair writhing around her head like a living thing and pulling the eyepatch off to reveal nothing but rows of teeth. She dreams that the witch points a finger at her and says that she is a naughty girl who does things like leave her towels on the floor and her breadcrusts on the table, and so she must be punished! And then she pulls Lacey to her and eats her whole, with the sharp teeth that are in her eye.
Then there is a night where Lacey wakes up to the sound of her brother’s voice. His bedroom is next to hers and sometimes she can hear him snoring, or talking to his friends, or singing along with his music. Tonight he is doing none of those things: instead he is gasping for breath. It sounds a little like he is crying. It sounds a little like he’s choking. Lacey wraps her blanket around herself. She’s scared and wants to go back to sleep, but it’s too late: her eyes are wide open and her throat is dry, and the only sounds are her brother’s voice and her own heartbeat.
She gets up and scoots to the edge of her bed. She slides down and walks, trailing the blanket behind her.
Lacey goes into the hallway of the apartment. It is a place where she lives with her mother and her father and her older brother and it is very, very dark. Everything looks unfamiliar in the short distance between her room and her brother’s. She pulls the blanket over her head in a makeshift hood and tiptoes to her brother’s door. It swings open at a brush from her fingers.
In her brother’s bedroom is the witch that lives at the end of the hallway. Her cane lies on the floor by Lacy’s brother’s bed, and she is kneeling on the bed. There is a pale green light in her face and her one eye is completely white, completely without iris or pupil. She has her mouth open like she’s screaming, but the only sound are the hiccuping noises that Lacey’s brother makes from the bed. Lacey curls her fingers into her blanket and watches as something soft and white rises up from her brother’s face, streaming from eyes and ears and nose and mouth until it’s solid enough to form the image of his face. The witch inhales loudly, and the white cloud drifts closer to her mouth. She does it again, then again–then her mouth snaps shut and she begins to chew.
On the bed, Lacey’s brother gurgles and goes quiet. The witch straightens and looks at the door. She is actually very pretty, despite the eyepatch and the sour expression–and that fades away when she smiles, showing even sharp white teeth. Lacey shrinks away. The witch puts a finger to her lips and purses them, whispering, “Shhhhhh.”
Lacey blinks and then the witch is gone. Even her cane has been swept away. Lacey thinks about going to look at her brother, then shakes her head and closes the door gently. She goes back to bed.
The next morning at breakfast her brother comes down exactly on time. His face is pale and gray and he doesn’t say anything to anyone as he sits. Their mother fusses over him, touching his hair and his forehead, and he simply sits there, allowing her to prod him as she likes. Only once does he meet Lacey’s eyes–the only time he looks at anyone directly the whole time–and his lips move. Lacey doesn’t know how to read lips, she she can see exactly what her brother is saying, and repeats them without thinking: “The witch down at the hall did it.”
Their mother clucks her tongue. “Lacey, there is no such thing as witches. Don’t be foolish.” Then she makes Lacey’s brother get up from the table and go back to bed, fussing over him the whole time. He doesn’t look back and he remains quietly docile the whole time. Something about him looks reduced and tired, smaller than he ever was before.
That evening, at precisely seven o’clock, Lacey opens the front door. The witch is walking past, her cane making the same measured tap-tap-tap noises as always, but she pauses briefly to look at Lacey. She smiles and Lacey watches her lips move.
“Wise children are clever enough to know to be afraid.”
The witch walks away. Lacey watches until she’s completely out of sight, then closes the door and goes to turn on the TV. She wraps herself up in a blanket and listens: to the clanking of the heater-pipes, to the heavy clumping of footsteps overhead, to the dogs barking in the street, and the fast uneasy beating of her own heart.