A large black cat curled itself around the corner of the newly-opened bakery and came to a stop by the back door, where it sat, still and straight, waiting. The door opened, and an old woman stepped out with a bowl of milk in her hands.
“You be careful tonight,” she said. “No trouble, no tricks, and no stealing souls.”
The old woman winked.
The cat blinked once.
“Stay out of sight,” the woman added, and smiled, and patted the cat’s soft head right between its ears. “And be good.”
She turned and closed the door, and the cat was alone. It blinked again, lapped at the milk, and was gone.
No one actually believed what we said about the old blacksmith’s house. Or the soldier on the bridge. Or the witch’s cave in the woods. Or the Mill, for that matter. Oh, I’m sure there were some ghost fanatics and pretend-mediums who did, but by and large, the village knew that the stories we told were just that – stories. Silly ghost stories to get people out here, wandering around, spending their money and time, funneling cash into our pockets. Stories are powerful like that.
You can call me cynical, I guess. I just don’t think there’s all that much wrong with giving people what they want in exchange for a tidy profit that keeps a village alive. But I digress. My point is, we were not what you’d call a superstitious lot.
Everything changed the morning that Rosie Blankenship didn’t open her eyes.
It happened the day after Halloween. The village’s children had spent the night collecting candy, parading from house to house, a whirlwind of color and giggles, and Rosie, as she always did, had led the pack. Rosie always led. She never followed. She lived her young life in perpetual motion, a bright star to light the way, talking, singing, dancing, laughing, and so when the news broke that she wouldn’t wake up, none of us really knew what to say.
“But she’s still breathing?”
“There’s color in her cheeks.”
“I’m sure it’s just the flu or something.”
“She’ll wake up soon. I know it.”
But Rosie didn’t wake, and as the days ticked on and turned to weeks, somewhere under the concern, the well-wishes and wishful thinking, something darker and more dangerous started to stir.
“You don’t think…?”
“How would it even be possible?”
“No one would ever want to hurt Rosie.”
Everyone became a suspect, even me. A wave of paranoia washed over us, all of us, until one day J.B. Michaels went to the chief of police and said:
“I think the baker did it.”
“The new one? Don’t know much about her, but she keeps to herself and no one’s complained about her shop.” And he added, “Mighty fine apple cider donuts, too.”
The chief crossed his arms, meant to close the conversation.
“The kids were there last,” J.B. went on. “She gave Rosie a special treat, my boy said. Made him awful jealous. Said she liked her costume best.”
“You know as well as I do that your boy tells stories, J.B. Remember the bear in the school hallway? Cost me a lot of time and manpower.”
“All I’m saying is, I think she has something to do with it, and if you don’t do something about it, then I will.”
And J.B. did. Came to my place first and told me all about his talk with the chief, and his certainty that this outsider was to blame, and weren’t we going to do something about that?
“J.B.,” I told him, “I think you’re jumping to conclusions. She seems like a nice old woman, and I like her red velvet cupcakes.”
“I tell you, I think she had something to do with it. And what else could it be? It’s like she’s bewitched that poor little girl.”
“Now,” I said, and fixed him with a level, serious stare, “you’re talking like a crazy person. All that stuff, witches and ghosts and haunted houses, you know it’s not real. That’s a show for the tourists, J.B.”
“I don’t know anything anymore,” said J.B., “except that Rosie won’t wake up, and I don’t want my boy to be next.”
To this day, I don’t know how he did it. I don’t know how he turned made-up stories into real life fears, but by the next week, J.B. had rallied an angry crowd in front of the bakery, and they demanded the baker come out and explain herself.
“If you have nothing to hide,” J.B. yelled through the closed shop door, “then you have nothing to worry about.”
The baker did not oblige, and the chief showed up to break up the mob.
“You all go home and leave that woman alone,” he yelled over the murmurs and the protestations.
But all that anger needs a place to go, and J.B. did not give up.
There were small incidents. Someone spray-painted “WITCH” in dark rust red on the bakery’s front window, and later someone threw a rock through it. The baker had it replaced, though with what money, I don’t know. No one ever walked into her shop anymore.
Things came to a head once the weather turned truly cold. I don’t know if he had help, if he did it himself, or if someone, or several someones, worked with him. I honestly don’t know if he even did it at all. But on the first night of December, under a new moon and plenty of darkness, the bakery caught fire. And the fire spread fast, too fast for anyone to help.
In the smoldering ashes the next day, the police and firemen searched. If the baker was in there, the fire had burned hot enough to leave nothing of her to find. And if she wasn’t, she was lucky. Either way, she was gone. Not a trace of her.
“Chief,” I said, “you know who did this.”
“It’s too early to say.”
“It’s not, and you know it.”
“I know that this town has seen enough suspicion and sadness lately.”
And on a bench across the street, there sat J.B., looking as smug and self-satisfied as a dog in possession of a fresh new bone.
The ultimate cause of the fire, I learned later, was never determined. And J.B. moved away the next month. Good riddance, I say. And as soon as he was gone, things calmed down. People started talking to each other again, pretending they weren’t part of that mob, going about their business as if nothing had happened. Funny how that works, isn’t it?
And so that’s it. The baker’s gone. I realize, I never even knew her name. She’s not forgotten, and she likely never will be, but we don’t talk about her. J.B.’s gone, too. We never could prove he did it. We’ll never know if he did it alone. I think I’m probably the only one who really wants to know, at the end of the day. We carry on our October traditions, welcoming travelers and ghost hunters to the village. What else can we do? But there’s a wariness now, a dark cloud over us, a thick, heavy fog that just won’t lift.
And still, Rosie sleeps.
In a town, somewhere far away, a large black cat curls itself around the corner of the newly-opened bakery and comes to a stop by the back door, where it waits, patiently, expectantly. The door opens, and a young woman steps out with a bowl of milk in her hands.
“You be careful tonight,” she says. “Remember last year.”
The cat blinks. Its tail twitches.
“I mean it this time,” the woman says, and smiles. “Be good.”
She turns and closes the door, and the cat sits, alone. It blinks once more, laps at the milk, and is gone.
Thank you for reading! This is the tenth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore
Here are the first nine, if you’d like to read them:
I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.
The next story will be posted at the end of November.