Piper stood frozen on the porch, splintered floorboards creaking beneath her. To her left, something rattled and she nearly went backward down the steps before realizing it was only the ancient wind chime that hung at the corner of the old mansion’s wrap-around porch. Just beyond the fence, bushes tittered with laughter. She narrowed her eyes in their direction. “Laugh all you like,” she called at them. “You candy-asses couldn’t even get past the front gate.”
The bushes quieted and a second later a representative for the five boys who had followed her from the home popped up and shouted back. “Crack all the jokes you like Pippy, but you don’t get a dime of our money unless you go inside.”
Piper turned back toward the door, staring at the crow-faced knocker. It wore such an ugly grimace, she couldn’t imagine why anyone would have ever willingly decorated their door with something that sent such a chill up one’s spine. She buried a fist in her pocket and clenched it tight, she couldn’t let them all see her fear again. If word got out that Pippy Morgan had run screaming from the house on the hill, would anyone still talk about the grand slams she scored in kickball or all the high scores she held at the arcade? No, Piper wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of seeing her whimper. “Give the world hell,” her mother had always said. “It’ll never give you anything less.”
Using her baggy sweater as a glove, Piper grabbed the talon-shaped knob and turned. As the door eased open she breathed a sigh of relief. No monstrous hand had reached out to grab her, electricity hadn’t shot through her limbs, and when she shined her flashlight into the foyer she could see no colony of bats waiting to flutter out and carry her away into the night. Piper smiled to herself briefly, then exchanged the look for mock fear as she glanced back toward the bushes. “I-I-If I’m not out in t-t-ten minutes, call the c-c-cops,” she shouted. Perhaps, she thought later, the stutter was a bit much, but they were all too stupid or too scared to call her on it.
Despite her posturing, when the heavy door latched shut and drowned away the outside entirely, Piper felt more alone than she’d ever been. She pressed her back firmly against the door, keeping her left hand tight upon the handle and using the other to furiously scan with her flashlight. It wasn’t like the haunted houses she’d seen in movies or countless nightmares. Instead of being piled high with old furniture and paintings whose eyes followed any trespasser who walked beneath them, this was only a handful of empty rooms, caked with dust and old flowered wallpaper decaying slowly on the walls.
Yet there was still something about the place that kept her heartbeat in her fingertips and brimming with an energy that begged her to cease her stillness. Perhaps it was the solemness of the silence, how not even the howling autumn wind could be heard. Or maybe it had to do with how the thickness of the dust, which was so keenly undisturbed that it made the place feel like some long forgotten tomb, hallowed ground which Piper was the first to profane. “Just half-an-hour,” she told herself, “Then it’s back to the home with all their money.”
After Piper had arduously counted away five of the minutes by the light of her watch, the flashlight began to flicker. “Nonono,” she whispered, beating it against her palm. That earned her a few more moments of resistance against the dark, but long before the sixth minute had started, all the light Piper had left was from the pale-green face of her watch.
The hand that was still fixed upon the door began to tremble. She tried to tell herself that it wasn’t even that dark, but the veil of utter black that hid everything beyond the foyer made the lie taste sour on her tongue. And as she watched the seconds slow their ticking, she found herself twisting the knob further and further. But just before she’d got it all the way open, there was a startling flash of light from the opposite end of the hall.
Piper would have screamed had she given her voice the time to. But before the girl even was aware she was doing so, the crow’s-foot knob was twisted nearly off and she was wrenching at it, though now it would not open. With all her weight she pulled, leaping backward with each tug, but still the door refused to budge. Panicking, her eyes began to search for other ways out and that was when she saw it. Obstructing the square of light that had appeared was a dark cloaked figure. A figure, that was growing quickly as it hurried down the hall.
A scream leapt into Piper’s throat, but as it did the figure shot a pale hand out from beneath it’s dark robes and snapped. The shriek went dry in the young girl’s throat like the smothered scream of a nightmare. Piper shrank against the door, watching helplessly as the cloaked figure passed into the foyer. Shutting her eyes as tight as her fists she held her breath and folded into a ball.
But the thing did not descend on her. And after a minute or two of keeping her eyes pressed firmly shut, Piper dared to peer out of them again.
She saw the heels first, then followed the shapely boots up to where the black, silk cloak was draped over the rest of the woman. She was peering down from a shorter distance than Piper would have assumed from the shadow she’d cast in the light of the doorway. “W-what do you w-want?” Piper whispered, her stutter genuine this time.
The woman smirked down at the girl, her sprightly face wrinkling subtly at the edges. “What do I want?” she asked in a voice that seemed a touch to grandmotherly for someone who’s hair was such a lush, autumn color. “You’re the one who came barging into my house.”
Piper got uneasily to her feet. “I-um, I guess I’m sorry about that,” she said. “But I didn’t know that anyone lived here. I was trying to leave, actually, but there seems to be something wrong with your door.”
The woman folded her arms across her chest and Piper could see that the body that hid beneath the billowing cloak was barely half the size it made her look. She was almost petite. “There’s nothing wrong with my door,” said the woman. “It opens precisely when it needs to.”
“Well I need to go,” said Piper, more than a little confused. “So if you could open it for me–”
The woman laughed uproariously. “If I could open it? Oh girl, you’ve never met a door like this one. I couldn’t open it even if I were as stubborn as you.”
“Stubborn as me?” Piper said. “I’m not stubborn.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “Not stubborn? Is that why you snuck into this spooky old house just to prove to those little dingbats hiding in the bushes that you weren’t afraid?”
“Well, I’m not sure that’s stubborn,” said Piper.
“It would be if you’d been plagued by nightmares of this place all month,” said the woman.
A shiver skittered up Piper’s spine. “How did you know about that?”
“But those dreams all ended when you opened the door, didn’t they? Now that you’ve made it inside, pulled back the shroud, it isn’t nearly as chilling. Is it, Piper?”
“How did you know my name?” Piper asked, sneaking her hand toward the knob behind her back. But when she touched it this time a sharp heat scalded her hand. She pulled away, crying that same suffocated scream once more.
“I told you, child,” said the woman. “The door is stubborn.” She grabbed Piper’s wrist and, after a bit of protest, got the girl to open her hand and inspected the inflamed skin. “He got you good,” said the woman. “But I can do you one better. I’ve got just the salve for that kind of burn in my workshop.” She turned around and started back down the hall. When she realized that Piper wasn’t behind her, the woman scoffed and turned about. “Stay up here if you like,” she called back. “But you’ll be waiting much longer and it will get much darker before the night is done.” Then she became a shadow against the square of light and it swallowed her up.
Piper touched the raised, red flesh on her hand and winced. It did hurt, and not in the same way any burn she’d had before did. So clenching her unscorched fist beneath her sweater sleeve, Piper marched warily toward the hall’s far end.
Upon reaching the door, Piper saw that it contained a staircase that was in much better repair than the rest of the house and descended steeply beneath the main floor. Hearing the woman whistling to herself at the base of it, the girl started tentatively for the bottom. But once she made it down below the wall and she could see out into the basement, Piper froze.
The room danced not only with light, but a smattering of color. In massive cauldrons, pastel liquids brewed and bubbled, and along every wall bookshelves were stacked high with ancient tomes whose titles shimmered in shades of gold and silver and all manner of archaic scripts. At one of the many tables that stretched out in the room’s great center, test tubes and beakers and Rube Goldberg contraptions of glass glowed as neon liquid boiled through them, traveling toward a long, spiral apparatus to where it emptied into a cup that the woman hovered over impatiently.
“Wow,” Piper said, struggling to drink it all in. “The basement’s half the size of the entire home.”
The woman glanced up at her and scowled. “Come now child,” she shouted. “You can hardly help me from all the way up there.” She snapped her fingers and the stairs beneath Piper’s feet became sheer. The girl promptly lost her balance and slid down the final turn in the staircase before being emptied into a chair that waited at the bottom. “Now get over here, and grab me a half a cup of morning-dew from that cask along the way, your poultice is almost ready.”
“What’s a cask?” asked Piper, rising from the chair the staircase had spilled her into.
“For siren’s sake girl, don’t they teach you anything in that orphanage?” she asked. “The barrel!” She pointed to a wide barrel that was raised up on it’s side, a spout jutting out of the flat ends. Piper hurried over to it, grabbing a clay mug from the shelf beside it and turning the spout’s handle until a clear liquid splattered into the bottom of the cup.
“Here you are,” she said, handing the woman the cup of cloudy grey liquid. It smelt wonderful, like the peace in the air after a good, long thunderstorm. Piper couldn’t wait to find out what it tasted like. But the woman handed her a different cup, one filled with a sour-smelling green and not a single drop of the morning-dew. “Don’t you need to mix them together?”
“Of course not,” said the woman, putting the dew on a metal disc that seemed to float freely above her table. She snapped her fingers again and a blue flame flashed below it, bright as the sun and burning only for a second before disappearing entirely. She grabbed the cup, which was now producing a chimney of steam and dangled a pouch down into the heat. “The dew was for my tea.”
Piper’s eyes were so wide now that the chocolate irises that usually looked so large were dwarfed to pinpoints by the whites. “How did you do that?” she asked.
“Psh, it’s only hot water and some leaves, dear,” said the woman. Then she snapped her fingers again and an armchair waddled up behind her. She fell back into the moment it ceased it’s movement and set her tea on the end table, which had sidled up to the chair’s flank just in time to catch the cup.
“Your chair just walked up behind you,” Piper said, grinning with delight..
The woman looked around. “Oh, is yours not following?” she said. Then, spotting the chair that Piper had spilled into upon sliding down the stair she shouted, “Maxine! You get over here this instant and take care of our company!”
Piper turned and saw that the armchair was darting briskly toward her. Bracing herself, she was not surprised when the lip of the seat struck the back of her knees and she collapsed much more roughly than the woman had. “Forgive her,” said the woman. “She’s still being house-trained. If you think that’s bad, you should have seen how wild she was when I got her.” Next to Piper an old, cherry-wood end table shuffled slowly into place and sighed. “One day she might be as well behaved as old Albert there,” added the woman. “Or at least I can hope.”
The girl looked down at her drink and sniffed. She must have made a face, because when she looked up again woman was wearing an encouraging expression. “It’s no chardonnay, but start with a sip and you’ll see the trick to it.” She raised her cup toward Piper and sipped at the steaming tea.
Piper tipped her own cup back and let a splash of the green stuff past her lips. It tasted ten times worse than it smelt, like old socks and rhubarb pie, but she was still a little uneasy about the woman and didn’t want to offend, so she choked it down. In seconds she felt it working, a soothing cool manifesting itself upon the claw-shaped burn on her palm. And as she drank another sip and another, she could see the swelled up skin descend, the irritated redness melting back into her familiar pasty white. By the time Piper had drained the cup of every last, disgusting drop, it was impossible to tell she’d ever been burned at all.
“Thank you,” she said, setting the cup on Albert, who groaned again upon gaining a load to bear. “I don’t feel a thing, it’s incredible.”
The woman smiled, setting her tea down as well. “It’s nothing really,” she said. “But I’m glad I could help, that door of mine can be a real piece of work.”
“Well then he’s the only bad thing about your house,” said Piper.
The woman chuckled. “Why dearie, this isn’t my house, it’s only my workshop.”
“Your workshop?” asked the girl. “What do you do here?”
“Anything I want,” said the woman. “Make potions, conduct experiments, work on new spells–”
“Spells,” Piper blurted out. “So you are a witch then.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “Were you waiting for me to put on a hat and ride a broom around to prove it?”
“Sorry,” said Piper. “It’s just—I’ve never met a witch before.”
“No, I shouldn’t think you had. We do our best to stay hidden, or at least disguised. Wouldn’t want another Salem on our hands, would we?”
“No,” said Piper, though she wasn’t sure exactly what that meant. “So what’s your name, if you don’t mind me asking.”
“My name?” laughed the woman. “You really don’t know witches, then. If I told you my name, then you’d have power over me.”
“But you know my name,” said Piper.
“I do, don’t I? And do you recall what happened when you tried to scream last?”
Piper’s thick eyebrows furrowed. “You did that?” she asked. “You stole my voice?”
“Not your voice, just your scream,” said the woman. “I didn’t want you giving those snot-nosed cowards in the bushes what they’d been craving.”
Piper’s scowl softened as she was struck by a thought. She looked down at her watch and saw exactly what she’d expected. It had been a full five minutes since her challenge had ended.
“Somewhere to be?” the woman asked.
“I’d love to stay,” Piper said. “It’s just, those boys were expecting me out five minutes ago. If I stay too much longer they might call the cops, and if I get in trouble with them Old Lady Simmons will ship me to off to some other foster home. She already says I’m more trouble than I’m worth.” Begrudgingly, the girl rose to her feet. “Is there any way you could convince that door of yours to unlock himself now?”
“I’m afraid not,” said the witch. “Though if you truly wish to leave, he shouldn’t give you any trouble. He only fights those who fight themselves.”
Piper made a face. “But I wanted to leave before,” she said. “I was terrified.”
“Terrified, yes,” said the witch. “But did you really want to burst out of that door screaming, only to find that for the rest of your life you’d be ridiculed as a lunatic, endlessly mocked by those cretins you came with?”
“I’m not sure what you’re saying.”
“I think you know exactly what I’m saying, Piper,” said the witch. She rose from her chair and put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “There was a reason you snuck inside my house tonight aside from pride. You’re curious. Afraid at times, but curious. And tonight your curiousness gave you the courage to face a fear that’s visited you in countless nightmares. How horrified were you of this house? Yet you stepped past my door and braved the dark, even after being stripped of every safeguard you had.”
“But I was still scared,” said Piper, softly. “Until I came down here and saw this place. I was still more scared than I’ve ever been in all my life.”
“And that’s just fine,” said the woman. “Those without fear are just as foolish as those who are paralyzed by it. What is important is that when you put your hand on that door, it didn’t open. Do you know what that means?”
Piper thought for a moment. “That I was more curious than I was afraid?”
“Exactly,” said the witch, grinning so widely that the corners of her mouth nearly disappeared around the sides of her small, elfin face. “And only those who are curious enough to look beyond the veil of fear are able to see the magic that fuels the mysteries of this world.”
Piper’s timidity gave way to excitement. “Are you saying I’m—”
“I’m not saying you’re anything yet,” said the woman, raising a hand to calm her. “But your soil is fertile and ready for planting, and I find myself in dire need of something to grow. I’ve been without an apprentice for far too long.”
“But what if they come looking for me?” Piper asked, remembering how Old Lady Simmons had nearly called in the National Guard when she’d missed the bus after school. “They’ll come looking and those boys will show them right where to find me. Then the both of us will be in trouble.”
“Piper dear, do you really think that any of those boys would have been able to see this place? The basement is like the front door, and not only does it only open for us, we’re the only ones who can see it. The house might let the police get in, but to them there is no basement and there is no door. To them it’s just a blank wall and a whole lot of dirt.”
Piper reeled for a moment, her stomach beginning to flop and flutter inside her. Apprentice? She wasn’t even fully certain she knew what that meant. And what did it mean to her if she didn’t go back up those stairs? “So if I stay and become your apprentice, does that mean I have to leave my old life behind?”
“Not all of it,” said the witch. “I won’t take on a student who abandons the world they come from. You’ll be expected to go to school, to have friends, to live the life of a normal child. But while others play their video games or set their brains to rotting in front of the rest of their accursed black mirrors, you’ll be working with me. Either down here, in my house, or on the road.”
“The road?” asked Piper.
“Did you think that all magic was hidden in dusty old cellars and library shelves?” asked the woman. “The good stuff is out there, waiting for us to find it. Now what do you say?”
Piper stared down at her feet. Could she say no? Even if a family of millionaires that bred corgi puppies by the boxful were to adopt her the second she stepped back onto that porch, would it ever be able to hold a flame to this? After a few moments of trying to wrap her head around it, she looked back up and cleared her throat. “I would stay, if you’d have me.”
“Excellent,” said the woman, her amber locks bouncing as she clapped her hands together. “We’ll begin our studies first thing tom–”
“I wasn’t finished,” interrupted the girl.
The witch pitched a single eyebrow upward.
“First, I want my scream back,” said Piper, finding a sternness in her voice she did not know she had.
The woman stared at her for a moment, then sighed. “Done,” she said, snapping, and a tickle in Piper’s throat told her that it had returned.
“Next, you know my name and that gives you a lot of power over me. If I’m going to study under you, I would to have some assurance that my voice wont be snatched away or my hand singed whenever you feel like it. If you want me to trust you we have to start on even ground. I’ll need to know your name, or you’ll need to forget mine.”
The witch scoffed. “That’s ridiculous, I simply cannot forget a name.”
“Then you’ll need to tell me yours,” Piper said with a smirk.
The woman paced between their chairs, tapping a finger to her lips. After a few moments she stopped and glared at Piper. “Never in all my time have I ever heard such an outrageous demand from an apprentice.”
The girl felt what little color was in her face leave and her legs grew weak beneath her. She’d pushed too far. She’d pushed too far and now she’d be banished back to mundanity forever, back to where chairs didn’t walk and burns took weeks not minutes to disappear. But just as she was beginning to hang her head, a soft finger pulled her chin back up.
“It would be foolish to pass up a student so bold,” said the witch. She raised herself up and extended a hand. “Allow me to introduce myself, I am Morgan Prospera, Witch of the Western Wood and from here on out, your esteemed instructor.”
Piper didn’t hesitate, snatching up Morgan’s hand immediately and shaking it with both of hers. And as the two of them cemented their agreement, Piper knew that the door upstairs, the one that led back to her old life, would never open for her again.