“Are you sure anyone even lives here? I’ve never seen anyone in the yard.” Tim’s voice was shaky, worried.
Pete pursed his lips and cast a disdainful look at his friend. “Sure, someone lives here. I mean, you don’t think that garden takes care of itself, do you?” He nodded to the overflowing plot of land that stretched out from the west wall of the long, low-slung cottage.
The three boys moved in lockstep, forming a straight-line defense against whatever darkness awaited them. The front door stood a mere twenty feet ahead now, folded under the mossy porch roof and recessed into the unpainted clapboard wall like an eye folded into an ancient and sagging face.
“Besides, I told you — the old lady who lives here is a witch.” Pete’s voice cracked on that last word.
“How do you know that?” Sammy whispered, bumping into Pete’s right shoulder. They had to stick close together.
“My dad told me.” Pete said. “See those things over there?” He pointed to six x-shaped trellises standing upright in the garden. “Those are made of enchanted hickory sticks that come to life at night and roam the neighborhood looking for little kids who have wandered out of their yards.”
Tim gulped. “And what do they do with them?”
“They bring them back here, and the witch chops them up, puts them in her cookies.” The other two boys stopped and looked at Sammy. “My cousin told me that part. See those?” He pointed to a string of wooden silhouettes in the shape of children lining the porch. “Those are the souls of the kids she captured. They run around at night, too, but they can never leave the porch.”
Just then, the front door clicked, and creaking hinges howled like a pack of werewolves.
“Let’s get out of here!” Pete spun and dashed back down the sidewalk toward the street, the other two boys on his heels.
Dusk was settling in, and shadows played across the patchy lawn, making it hard to tell what was real and what was mere wisp. The boys smelled the spices before they ever saw the old woman.
“Oh, goody,” a voice cackled, “I haven’t had guests in ages.”
The three boys dug in their heels and grabbed at each other, skittering to a stop just inches from the black-clad figure standing in the gateway of the front fence. She smiled sweetly and held a tray of the plumpest, most aromatic cookies any of them had ever seen.
The boys looked back and forth, from the closed door of the house to the woman standing in front of them. How had she gotten past them?
“I just took these cookies out of the oven, boys. They’re still warm! Won’t you come in and sit for awhile?” They stared at here with wide eyes. Pete’s stomach growled.
The old woman smiled, then dropped her face into a scowl, leaning toward them. “I won’t take no for an answer.”
Behind them, something stirred in the garden. It sounded like sticks clapping against each other.