Stories, Part 3:
“Tell me another story,” I said to Vree. She was very good at it and I wanted to hear more.
“What would you like to hear?”
“Anything. You choose.”
“I have one about a witch named Emily Umberto. She wasn’t a bad witch, but she did a bad thing to a man named Morton Twitchel.”
“I know about a kid named Morty Twitchel,” I said, remembering my first visit to Ravenwood.
“I don’t think Morton and Morty are related. Morton wasn’t a very nice guy … especially to his mother.”
“I don’t think Morty was a nice guy, either, but go on with your story.”
Mort lived with his mother in a big farmhouse in the country. He owned a garage next to the barn behind the house where he worked on cars and trucks and sometimes tractors when he wasn’t milking his cows or growing and harvesting corn and hay. Something strange had happened outside his house the day the first snow fell. A white cloud appeared along the road not far from his house, and when vehicles passed through it, they stalled. And when they did, business at Mort’s garage was good.
One December evening, he sat in his lamp-lit sun porch, reading the evening newspaper chocked full of Christmas ads when he glanced up and saw a car pass through the cloud and continue past his house. He grinned. Then, “Ma,” he hollered toward the living room where she knitted in her rocking chair; “Hey, Ma, I’m going out. Be back later.”
“What about supper?” his mother called back.
“Keep it on the stove. I’ll eat when I get back.” He slipped on his coat and gloves.
“Pick me up some Pepsi…”
“I ain’t going to town—”
“…and some potato chips.”
Mort sagged against the storm door and shook his head, but his voice rose with his blood pressure. “I said I ain’t going to town, you stupid old cow. You never listen. Never ever. Just moo, moo, moo, like those heifers in the barn, all the time.” He bolted outdoors into December’s gelidity and fought to catch his breath. There, he fired up a Marlboro when the coughing jag subsided, and he felt his strength return after a deep drag from the cigarette.
His long, weak shadow followed him across the crunchy snow. The day’s timid sun had hurried to leave Ridgewood; the last minutes of daylight clutched the western sky. Somewhere, far away, that sun was high and hot and tanning pretty girls in bikinis.
Mort spat a brown hocker—cancer?—then pulled his capillary body into his big Ford tow truck and hurried from the driveway. He spotted the dead car past his house sooner than he expected. It was a fancy car, a silver Cutlass Supreme, no doubt circuited with the latest electronics. He parked in front of the stranded vehicle, then dropped to the ground and nearly fell when his knees almost buckled. He tossed away the cigarette and spat before he approached the car.
“Everything went dead,” a woman said. She stood outside her car in the waning daylight, her hands in the pockets of her white mink coat. Mort’s heart skipped a beat. The woman was young—late twenties, perhaps—and pretty. Strands of her long chestnut hair lifted in the cold breeze coming at her. She shivered, then said, “The car’s practically brand-new, and I just had it inspected last month.”
“It’s all good,” Mort said. He jerked a thumb at his tow truck. “I’ll get you back to my garage. Then I can get you up and running in no time. Meanwhile, you can ride with me.”
“I’d like that, Mr. …”
“Twitchel. Call me Mort.” He kept the smile on his face despite the cold picking at his dingy front teeth.
He returned to his truck, opened the passenger door, and helped the woman into the cab. When she was settled, he closed the door and spun, as much as his rickety ankles and knees would allow, and went to work getting the Oldsmobile fastened to his hitch. Then, on the way to his garage, he turned on the radio to avoid conversation. The radio played Christmas songs. Both were silent until Mort parked inside his spacious garage behind his mother’s lesser house.
“This shouldn’t take long,” he told the woman before he set the truck’s fan and heat at high so she could wait comfortably inside the cab. Then he went to work lowering the car and pretending to inspect the Nissan’s engine. He knew the car would start; they were far enough away from the strange cloud. And besides, the cloud never fried any circuits. But if he were to get any money out of this woman, he had to put on a convincing show.
“Mr. Twitchel,” she called out from the rolled-down window a few minutes later, “do you have any hot coffee?”
“This won’t take long.” He had forgotten to start the coffee pot in his office. His beverage of choice was the Budweiser in the garage fridge and anything on tap at the tavern a mile south.
“Won’t take long at all,” he said.
He went to his workbench and returned with some wrenches. Then he clacked them against each other from time to time under the hood while he pretended to fix the engine. He even sprawled his backside on a dolly and rolled beneath the car.
“Mr. Twitchel,” the woman called out again, “my watch must have stopped. Do you have the correct time?” She sounded restless, perhaps becoming impatient with his act. An unhappy customer could sour the deal. It was time to wrap things up.
“There’s a clock on the wall above my workbench.” He got up, wiped his hands on a rag from his jeans’ back pocket, then got into the car and turned the ignition. The Cutlass’s engine purred to life.
A large purse beckoned him to look inside it. A small white box, the kind with jewelry inside, caught his attention. He shook it and thought he heard the delicate rattle of a chain.
He hurried the box to his coat pocket, climbed from the car, closed the hood, and went to the truck, smiling kindly as he opened the door and helped the woman out. Then he climbed into the truck’s cab and turned off the heater.
“How much do I owe you for your prompt and valuable assistance, Mr. Twitchel?” the woman asked as she retrieved a wallet from her coat pocket and opened it. Several expensive rings on her fingers flashed and sparkled under the fluorescent shop light. Mort paused to admire their value and hoped something of equal value was inside the box he had stolen.
“Your price?” the woman asked.
Mort noticed her raised eyebrows and said, “My flat rate is fifty bucks up front for the tow, plus five for each mile. That’s fifty-five, minus the time spent working on your engine. For that, I charge ten bucks an hour, which I know sounds expensive, but a guy’s gotta make a living, you know.”
The woman nodded. “I’ll pay you for the entire hour, although a cup of hot coffee would have been nice.” She handed him a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill. “You’ve been very professional. Keep the change.”
Mort grinned. “Thank you kindly, Miss…”
“That’s an unusual name around here.”
“I moved here in July. I teach at the high school.”
Mort nodded as if he approved of her reply. “Well, I’m glad I could be of service.”
He left her while he wrote up a greasy receipt at his workbench and she got into the car and waited. When he handed the receipt to her through the open window of her car, he hoped she hadn’t noticed the box missing from her purse.
She took the receipt, put it in her wallet, and addressed him once more.
“Have a very merry Christmas. And make sure you spend some of that money on your mother.”
“The woman inside.” She narrowed her eyes at him.
Mort thought he saw a flash of green light pass across them.
“You have a pleasant night, Mr. Twitchel,” she said before she backed out.
When her taillights were out of sight, Mort opened the box. He whistled when he saw the yellow gold necklace trimmed with diamonds. He stepped outside and grinned wide. It was going to be a very merry Christmas indeed. Ron Koehler at the pawnshop always paid top dollar for jewelry with no engravings. And the diamonds were not too big that ole Ron would have any trouble selling it, either.
Mort grinned so wide that the sharp, frigid air hurt his teeth.
He held the necklace to the clear, night sky. The diamonds glistened like the stars there—all those billion sparkling lights ablaze against the night’s velvet canvas above him.
The huge sky made him feel small and insignificant … and dizzy.
He squeezed shut his eyes, then looked again at the starry sky.
The wide expanse made him dizzier. He stumbled and sat hard on the snow; his gaze, however, remained riveted on the sky. There, the stars grew suddenly larger, their light brightening as a billion planets and suns came at him at a terrible speed.
They filled his vision and he felt the weight of their magnitude descending on him.
His throat tightened. He knew what he saw wasn’t real.
Still, they fell, seen only by him.
He tried to open his mouth and call out to his mother—to scream for her to rescue him as the entire night sky seemed to drop on him, crushing the air from his lungs.
Minutes later, a film of clouds entered the vast, starry sky from the north. New snowflakes fell where Mort’s body lay on the driveway’s old snow, his wide eyes staring lifelessly at the cover of snow clouds drifting across the sky.
A green shimmer of light appeared next to him. The pretty woman stepped from the shimmer and pried the necklace and box from Mort’s icy hands. She put on the adornment and felt her magic return. A ruddy color filled her cheeks; her eyes filled with bright emerald. She bent and placed a two-liter bottle of Pepsi and a bag of potato chips in the snow, next to Mort. Then she took the hundred dollars from his pocket and placed it under the bottle of Pepsi.
“For your mother,” she said, “so she won’t think too unkindly of you.”
She stood, twirled a hand, and her body vanished in a flare of green light eaten by the night’s rapacious darkness.
# # #
“I liked this story,” I said to Vree. “Will you tell me more?”
Thanks for reading my stories about Ravenwood and Vree and other characters there. I stopped writing about Ravenwood in 1974 and stopped thinking about the place until that day many years later when I opened those notebooks from my mom’s attic and reconnected with Vree.
I want to publish some of those stories after I edit them, so please let me know your thoughts. Helpful criticism goes a long way and adds to filling and strengthening a writer’s toolbox.