Your brother says Mrs. Carstairs is a witch, but you’re not so sure. He points out that the Campbell kid who threw stones at her cat came down with the chickenpox, that her eyes are green, and that she wears black sometimes.
But Mrs. Carstairs can’t be a witch. Witches wouldn’t help you pluck wildflowers in the park. Witches wouldn’t look as beautiful as she does, with a smile curved like a rainbow and twice as stunning. Witches don’t wear cut-off denim shorts and tie-dye sweatshirts. Besides, witches certainly don’t live in places like Eldritch Street, where all the houses match each other and nothing ever happens. “And witches don’t get married! Mrs. Carstairs had a husband.”
“He was a soldier! He was killed in Afghanistan.”
He snorts. “Yeah right.”
Mrs. Carstairs lives across your house. She moved in last year, and she transformed the lawn from a neat square of grass into a garden. Tulips and gardenias and daffodils trap sunlight in their petals and glow in jewelled colors, wand-like stems waving in the breeze. There is a maelstrom of roses that Mrs. Carstairs spends hours pruning into place. She can’t be a witch.
But then you see the signs.
When you fall down riding your bike, your first thought is that your parents mustn't know. They are professors at the local university, and you are their good little daughter. You keep yourself and brother in line. You microwave the TV dinners and wash the dishes in the sink so tall you have to stand on your tiptoes to reach the tap. You do not want them looking at your scraped, bleeding knees like you’re an equation that yielded an unexpected answer.
Mrs. Carstairs pauses before a frilly stem of bougainvillea, sees you, and hurries over. “Emily! You okay?”
“Hello, Mrs. Carstairs,” you say cautiously, your brother's warnings echoing in your head. You’re at that age where any stranger is a witch, let alone just Mrs. Carstairs.
Mrs. Carstairs grimaces when she sees your knees, green eyes glinting, calling to mind the wet skin of a frog basking in sunlight. “Geez, that doesn’t look too good. Let me patch you up.”
She runs a hand over your knees and you have the strangest feeling that your skin is being stitched back together. When she removes her hand, there is no wound.
“All done.” She helps you get to your feet. “Next time, wear knee pads, okay?”
You check your knee again when you’re home, and there still is no sign of an injury. No one else notices anything either, least of all your parents, who spend their evening correcting papers before the TV, condensation dripping down their cans of Diet Coke into pools of tears.
There are more signs. How Mrs. Carstairs walks in the rain without getting wet. How butterflies trail after her like she’s a flower herself, enticing them with her nectar, with that sweet-wildflowers-and-grass scent that rolls off her body in little waves.
When you’re in study hall or waiting for your turn at Brownies, you find yourself thinking about her. Where did she learn how to become a witch? Did all witches have freckles sprinkled across their nose like glitter, hair the coppery color of newly minted pennies? Would she teach you her magic if you asked nicely?
You long for those lessons especially after your parents become more and more distant, wrapped up in research and sabbaticals and formal dinners at the university president’s house, where they present you and your brother like the conclusions of a project. In the middle of one such dinner, you wonder if magic can be used to stitch together a family like it did your wound, make the tears disappear like blood. Can Mrs. Carstairs create something out of nothing? Can she plant a seed in your mother’s heart and make it do something other than pump blood?
You think about witches when you stand in front of the mirror and realize you do not know your body anymore—the strange stretch marks and bulging hips that now make you up. This body was not the one that fell from a bike so long ago. Could a spell make you yours again?
One day, your brother tells you that he’s going to sneak into Mrs. Carstairs’ house and bring back a skull—she’s gotta have plenty hidden in her basement. You tell him you don’t think Mrs. Carstairs is that kind of witch, try to pull him back, but he doesn’t listen. He doesn’t listen to anyone anymore. Not to you, not to the teachers who keep trying to contact your parents for meetings. He strolls out of the front door as soon as he sees her car pull out of the driveway.
You watch him flit across the street. He steps into Mrs. Carstairs’ garden, and reaches out to touch one of her flowers. You cry out in warning.
Shrill screams shatter the silence swamping the house. Your brother is back in your living room, writhing on the carpet. With mounting horror, you see his skin is turning green—the verdant green of lush grass—thorns are sprouting from his nails—red is bleeding into his hair—and his face is a mass of petals.
Your brother is a rose. A freshly bloomed, long-stemmed, scarlet hued rose.
You scream, as if your brother and his terror have melted into you. You look around wildly, and seize the phone before remembering your parents are at a conference two towns away. Mrs. Carstairs was supposed to check in on the two of you.
You hear a car halt outside the house. There is a knock at the door, and she walks in, hair disheveled, petals strewn across her clothes.
“I’m sorry,” she says, gazing at the rose.
You scrutinize her. She seems sincere enough. “I told him not to.”
“I know,” she murmurs, smiling wistfully. “It was not intentional.”
“Can’t you change him again?” You ask.
“I’m not that kind of witch, Emily,” Mrs. Carstairs says.
* * *
When your parents arrive a few days later, you open the door and tell them your brother isn’t around.
“Honestly,” your mother mutters, exchanging a look with your father. “That boy.” They both shake their heads. They’re speaking about your brother as if he was a botched experiment, a trial gone wrong. Like it’s an inconvenience rather than a cause for worry. You feel something in you snap like a stem.
Later, you’ll swear to Mrs. Carstairs that all you meant to do was ask them how the conference went. Instead, when you open your mouth, your lips form words you don’t recognize, and your parents vanish in puffs of petals. Two roses lie on the sidewalk.
Mrs. Carstairs helps you plant them next to your brother.
About the Author
Jyotsna Nair is a seventeen-year old currently living in Kerala, India. She mostly writes prose fiction, and her work has previously been published in Polypony Lit, Canvas Literary Journal, Cathartic Youth Literary Journal, and The Apprentice Writer. She is a firm believer in the power of banana bread, and has been known to consume copious amounts in alarmingly short intervals of time. In her free time, she enjoys exploring real and imaginary worlds with her writing.