My mom doesn’t like it when I tell her she’s the wrong age.
I am ten and she is six. It’s been this way for a month now.
My mom says that she was a princess cursed by an evil witch, that’s why she changed. But that’s a lie. My mom used to wave her arms at me, complaining about the way they flapped. She’d pull at her face and tell me how much smoother it could be.
She made a wish.
Wishes are different than curses—you have to ask for them. My books are filled with poisoned wishes; I think that if my mom had read them with me she’d have known that.
Mom doesn’t want me to call Grandma. She doesn’t want to get in trouble, so we keep letting the phone ring, and ring, and ring. Whenever Mom went on dates, Grandma would come over with groceries. I’d help peel potatoes, or wash lettuce, and Grandma would tell me, “Some people are bad at growing up.” I think I’d be a good grownup.
When Mom goes to the bathroom to wash her hands, the doorbell rings. If she was out here, Mom would tell me that we have to play hide and seek and I’m not supposed to answer the door. But if it’s Grandma, then maybe she’ll have groceries. Mom ate the last of the cereal this morning and I don’t want Zoodles again for dinner.
The door swings open after I turn the lock. The woman on the other side is tall, almost as tall as the doorframe, and smells like burnt herbs. She smiles without really smiling, tells me her name is Leandra, and asks if my mom is here.
Witches know when you lie, so I say yes.
Leandra goes up the stairs, into the kitchen, without asking. Mom is already trying to hide, crouching behind the back of a kitchen chair. Through the wooden bars I can see her face is bright red like she’s ready to throw a tantrum. I hold my breath and hope for my mom to change back and tell Leandra to getthehelloutofhere. But she doesn’t.
Leandra’s nose wrinkles when she gets upstairs. The garbage was too heavy to carry outside, so I left it by the stairs. We don’t notice the smell much anymore.
Leandra crouches to talk to me, her elbows bent backwards like wings. “Do you know who I am?”
She laughs, so strangely high-pitched it makes my ears hurt. She sounds like the cicadas around Grandma’s house. “And what I am?”
My skin prickles when she looks at me. You have to be careful with witches—that’s the always the lesson. I don’t want to say anything to her so I look at the dishes that are drying on the counter because I can’t reach the cupboard.
Leandra digs through her coat until she hands me a warmed green apple. The apple shifts like it’s wormy and rotten at the core.
“A gift. Eat the fruit and your mother will return to her previous state.” Leandra glares at my mom’s hiding place. “Had Charlotte mentioned a child I would have denied her.”
When a witch appears in stories, Grandma always sighs that wishes are rooted in curses. Leandra tells me that her gifts are special. Gifts are like a promise. They’re permanent, not something that can be twisted or taken away. She even holds out her fingers so I know they aren’t crossed.
“Use an apple to restore or an apple to destroy.” Leandra hums. “Eat up child.”
When my teeth break into the apple, the flesh caves and melts. There are no worms, like I imagined but the pieces feel alive between my teeth.
Behind the crunch of the apple my mother shrieks for me to stopjustwaitstop. Leandra rolls her eyes and motions for me to keep eating. When there’s no more bites, the core of the apple shivers and dissolves in my hand.
My mom’s clothes don’t fit any longer. Her limbs look stretched out and strange in the too-small clothes. She’s staring at her hands, touching the bright-blue veins that bulge under her skin. She doesn’t seem happy. “I misspoke.” She reaches out to Leandra, who’s too far away for her to grab. “I should have given you an age, I know that now.”
“You lied Charlotte.” Leandra ruffles my hair, it feels like static on my scalp.
Mom seems confused. “No, I just said the wrong thing.”
“At worst you deceived, at best you omitted that you had a child.”
Mom frowns. “No. I didn’t know you’d make me so young. I should have given you an age, that’s all.”
“So you blame me?”
Mom’s eyes widen, for a moment she looks afraid.
Leandra’s hand tightens on my hair.
You have to be careful with witches.
My mom doesn’t empty lint traps. She stacks dishes too high. Sometimes the chicken she serves is still pink. She doesn’t like being careful.
“You had your wish, Charlotte. Why would I give you another?”
Mom glances at Leandra’s hand on top of my head and her eyes narrow. “Fine. Whatever. You can leave now.”
“But I came all this way.” Leandra’s head cocks to the side like a bird. “You were sloppy and selfish. You’re rude; at least your daughter has manners.”
When Leandra bends down again there’s an apple in her hand that wasn’t there before. The burnt smell around her is stronger now. I look for smoke above her head but there’s nothing. “Take it.” She offers.
Witches like tricks and lessons. I think there’s a lesson here but I don’t understand it.
Leandra pushes the apple forward. “You don’t need to eat it, just take it.”
Mom shrugs, she looks confused.
I take the apple, this one dissolves too. The skin caves in and crumbles until there’s just stem and seeds. The seeds writhe in my palm until they burrow under the skin.
Leandra grabs my hand, twists it so that I can see the small brown seeds nestled through. “You’ll come with me. You need a proper caretaker.”
Mom shouts something but she sounds echoey and far away.
I don’t understand. “Are we going to Grandma’s?”
Leandra’s hands disappear behind her back. She smiles wide and sharp. “Soon, dear. Soon.”
Rebecca Bennett is a speculative fiction writer in Canada’s capital. This is her first publication.