The girl walks to the edge of the woods, hands in her pockets, wind through her hair. Goosebumps raise on her arms like mountains, leaves crunching like thunder under her feet. Behind her, children laugh and a friend calls out to her in a high squeaky voice. She turns and when the other girl reaches the woods, they both turn to stare at the tall pines and oaks that loom overhead. They both wear t-shirts and jeans, with jackets pulled close.
“What do you think they’re doing?” the other girl asks, her heavy breathing making clouds form in the crisp air.
“I don’t know. Probably something bad,” the girl responds, pulling her blonde hair out from under her jacket.
They stand in silence, shoulder to shoulder.
“I think we should go back inside,” the blonde girl says, her hand trembling.
Together they walk against the wind, back towards the looming school building in front of them. Other kids run to line up to their teachers, their noses pink with frost.
The two girls line up to a man with a beard, who calls roll and leads them inside. The pavement turns into tile as they walk through the door, heat hitting their faces like fire.
They then learn how to add fractions in math and how to grow flowers in science. They get reading time next, and the girls hurry to get the two spots on the red couch next to the window. The teacher mentions signing out a book from the classroom library and the girls get up, carefully leaving notebooks and jackets that mark their spots. The blonde girl signs out Roald Dahl’s The Witches and signs A.B. next to the book’s spot on the list. The other girl, who has stick-straight brown hair and freckles, signs out a book about Ancient Egypt and signs B.L. And they walk back to the couch, where the springs creak as they sink down into the cushions. The room is quiet, full of only rustling of papers and shifts of seats. With one of the bulbs completely burned out, the room is illuminated dimly. Outside the sky is gray and the swings on the playground sway in the wind, lonely.
“What do you think they look like?” A.B. whispers, looking down at her book whenever the teacher looks up from his desk.
B.L. pulls her knees to her chest and glances outside. In her head she sees pointy hats, broomsticks, and long noses. “Like witches probably,” she responds, her eyes never leaving the window. Finally, she turns back to her friend and glares at the front cover of A.B.’s book. “I mean, they probably look like that,” she says, pointing to the witches on the book with evil eyes and claw-like hands.
A.B. shifts in her seat. “Maybe they look like the blonde witch in Hocus Pocus. She isn’t ugly like the others.”
“Maybe,” B.L. responds, her eyes never leaving the window.
The next day, the pair walk towards the woods again. They bring extra jackets today because the weatherman told them to. A.B. is even wearing her pink and orange scarf.
In the girls’ hands, they are holding chalk, stripes of pale pink and blue lining their palms and coloring their fingernails. Together they stare at the woods for a while, but eventually they get to work on their assignment.
First B.L. stands straight and holds up her arms, while A.B. gets on the ground and outlines her shadow on the concrete of the sidewalk. Then they switch.
“Since we’re done we can go play now,” B.L. says, glancing over at the teacher who is reading a book on the old concrete basketball court.
A.B. nods and they walk to the edge of the woods. This time they peer in and move along the base of the trees, straining their eyes to see more than wood and leaves.
“Found it!” B.L. shouts, pointing to an opening in the trees where a few pieces of metal stick out of the ground. Further back, they can make out a peeling red set of monkey bars and an ancient slide that lays on its side and is half covered with leaves.
“The others won’t even notice we’re gone,” A.B. says, glancing anxiously at the teacher and the students who were throwing a frisbee.
B.L. looks back, nodding. “Yeah, we’ll only be gone a few minutes, right?”
A.B. stares and slowly nods, her hair flowing like waves in the breeze. She sets her chalk on the ground carefully, and quickly stuffs her hands back into her jacket pockets.
The girls walk into the woods together, stepping over rotten trees and crumbling rocks. They trip up now and then, gasping quietly and moving on. They both stop at the metal playground erupting out of the ground, taking note that it resembles a graveyard. B.L. starts shivering.
A.B. bends down and runs her finger across the red swing set, paint chipping off in her hand. She recoils from feeling the cold metal on her skin.
B.L. walks up to the slide, which is standing straight up. She slowly lifts her leg and puts her foot on the silver surface. It creaks under her weight.
“My dad told me that they don’t make slides like this anymore,” B.L. whispers, putting her foot back on the ground.
“The metal kind?” A.B. asks, shuffling over to her friend and glaring at the slide.
“Yeah, he says they make you slide real fast.”
A.B. nods and carefully puts a foot on the first step of the ladder that goes up the slide. Step by step, she ascends, gripping the rails until her hands turn as white as snow. Finally, she makes it to the last rung, freezing in place at the top.
“There’s no way it’ll hold me,” A.B. whispers, looking around at her bird’s eye view. There was nothing but trees and branches for what seemed like miles. Clouds hung low and wove between leaves and trunks, reaching out for A.B. like a hand.
A.B. jumps down. “I don’t see anything,” she says, breathing heavily.
B.L. nods, sympathetically looking at her friend. She turns away and shuffles aimlessly through the metal poles in the ground.
“What’s this?” she asks, kicking a pole that makes a clinking sound.
A.B. walks over, grabbing the side sticking out of the ground. “It looks like monkey bars,” she says as B.L. grabs the other side.
They look at each other and pull. Nothing budges. They both position their feet and put all of their strength into it, sticks falling away and dirt flying into the air. The other side finally creaks and erupts out of the ground like a geyser. A.B.’s foot slips in the leaves and she gasps as she hits B.L. who tumbles down after her.
They both lay in the dirt under the monkey bars, stunned. From the sky, they imagine that it would look like they were hanging off the bars, just playing together to see who could keep their grip the longest. But they are not, they are instead staring at the clouds in awe, breathing heavily with their hands shaking. And after the initial terror disappears, A.B. sits up, her scarf covered in brown specks of dirt.
B.L. rubs her ankle where A.B. had slid into her, a footprint etches across her jeans like a map to nowhere.
“Sorry,” A.B. says, glancing at the other girl.
B.L. giggles. “It’s all good.” She pushes her palm against the dirt in an effort to stand up, feeling a slimy blob wriggle through her fingers.
“Ew!” B.L. yells, flinging her hand off the ground and shaking it in the air. The girls look down, eyes big in disbelief. Hundreds of worms, snails, ants, and roly polies litter the ground like squirming polka dots trying desperately to seek shelter.
A.B. and B.L. gasp and frantically push themselves off the ground, wiping their jackets off as quickly as they can. The unlucky bunch of bugs that had held onto the girls when they got up, now rained down like waterfalls.
For seconds after, the girls wipe themselves down, not caring about anything else. But a rustle echoes through the trees, and A.B. is the only one who notices. She looks up, forgetting about the insects that weighed her down like anchors.
“Do you hear that?” she asks, grabbing B.L.’s arm and gripping it.
B.L. stares into the sea of wood and leaves where everything is still and quiet. They can’t hear the wind anymore, only the sounds of their own breaths forcing their way out of their lips.
B.L. turns to say no but a deafening rustle vibrates through the trees. Birds flap into the sky from the tops of the branches, leaves fall in bunches, and the wind blows the girls’ hair in circles. They could almost swear they see a figure (just a figure and nothing more), darting through the trunks, skillfully keeping out of sight. They hear another sound behind them, turning as quickly as they can and (maybe) seeing it again. They feel like they’re being watched, eyes boring into them, every little move recorded. So they scream and run towards the school, pushing branches and spiderwebs aside. They feel like they run forever, until finally they burst into the clearing, falling onto the gravel, and freezing in place.
The girls look at each other. A.B. grabbing B.L. and forcing her up, together wheezing in harmony. They make eye contact and A.B. opens her mouth, forcing her words out like they’re glued to the back of her throat.
“The Witches!” she says, eyes wide. “The Witches are real!”