At the edge of town, along a gravel road that stretched between lonely, rundown farm houses, Toby ran from Dana. Toby, a seventh grader and small for his age, pumped his arms and legs, moving with a desperation reserved for night terrors and closet monsters. Dana, an eighth grader that towered over the rest of his class, pursued with a wolf’s grace, each of his long-legged strides covering as much ground as two of Toby’s. The bully closed in on his prey. The cadence of their passing made quiet thunder and left a cloud of dust in their wake.
Toby could see his home off in the distance as he ran. A long, rude fence separated Toby from salvation, along with a broad field of tall, scraggly, brown grass. Just ahead of him, a gap in the fence marked the driveway. He sprinted harder.
Dana reached forward. His hand found Toby’s backpack. The smaller boy missed a step. He went down hard, the bully falling on top of him. Both boys tumbled across the gravel road, collecting fresh scrapes and bruises.
The bully recovered first. He grabbed the front of Toby’s jacket, hauling the smaller boy up and throwing him against the closest fence post. Toby bounced off, landing on all fours at Dana’s feet.
“Where is it?” Dana’s voice echoed across the field, sending a pair of birds into the air.
“Where is what?”
“Don’t play dumb.” Dana held Toby with one hand as he raised the other into a threatening fist. “That weird flashlight. Where is it?”
Dana swung. Knuckles struck Toby’s cheek. His head snapped back with the blow, the dull crack chasing the echoes of Dana’s voice.
“Where is it?”
Toby held up his hands to shield his face. He tried to pull himself from Dana’s grip, but the bully held firm. Neither of them noticed the long-haired, black cat slip past the fence to stand a few feet away from the boys. Not until it hissed.
“Is he yours?” Dana asked, nodding towards the cat.
“Misty is a she. Leave her alone!”
Dana released his grip on Toby’s jacket. The smaller boy fell hard on his back. As Toby rubbed his cheek with one hand, Dana lurched towards the cat. The feline took a step back, but not fast enough or far enough to escape Dana. The bully brought one hand down, grabbed, then picked up the cat gripping it by the scruff of the neck.
“Got you,” Dana said, straightening and holding the cat out in front of him. Misty made a deep, angry noise from the back of her throat, but remained motionless in Dana’s grip, her front paws sticking stiffly in front of her.
“Let her go!”
“No. I’m going to count to three, then I’m gonna see how far I can kick him if you don’t give me the light.”
“I don’t know what you-”
“Please! She’s a good kitty, you can’t-”
“Why are you doing this? You don’t-”
Dana turned, raising the cat a little higher. He took a step forward, a football player starting the motion of a kick-off. One step. Two steps. His foot went back.
“Wait! I’ll give it to you!”
Dana stopped. He lowered the cat but did not release it. When he turned back to Toby, he wore a smug, triumphant grin.
“Please, just let her go. I’ll get you the light. Just don’t hurt Misty.”
“Give me the light first. Then I’ll let her go.”
“I can’t.” Toby wrung his hands in front of him, his eyes fixed on his pet. “I don’t have it with me.”
“Bullshit.” Dana turned towards the field again.
“Wait! I’ll show you!”
Toby unslung his backpack and unzipped it. He upended it, dumping school books and papers into the dirt at his feet. After emptying the bag, he reached into his jeans pockets and turned them inside out. A few wadded bills and some loose change joined the pile at his feet.
“I don’t believe it.”
“You can search me! Just let my cat go. Let her go, and I’ll show you where it is. We’re not far from it.”
As fast as Dana’s hands had been catching the cat, he considered Toby’s words with glacial slowness. Time stretched between the two boys. A tear slipped from the corner of Toby’s eye, carving a slow path across the bruise growing on his cheek. Just as Toby opened his mouth to make his case again, Dana opened his hand. The cat fell to the ground and darted off into the scrub grass.
“Fine. Show me.”
“Okay.” Toby released a held breath. He looked off in the direction Misty had run before kneeling to pick up his things.
“Leave it,” Dana said. He moved closer and kicked one of Toby’s books into the road.
Toby straightened. He looked at his books, his unfinished homework, his box of pencils which had cracked open and spilled yellow number twos onto the gravel. Then he looked into Dana’s face. With a shiver, he turned and began to walk.
The smaller boy walked in front of the larger, the bully close enough to reach forward and prod Toby in the back. They moved in silence, Toby leading Dana past the fence and down the driveway. Instead of heading on to the farmhouse, with its clean white walls and short rise of stairs leading to a red door, Toby turned down a side path, leading towards a dilapidated barn.
“In there?” Toby punctuated the question with a shove to Toby’s back.
“I like to play in there, sometimes.”
“I don’t care what you do in there. If we go in and there’s no light, you’re dead meat.”
They stopped in front of the rundown barn. If the bare, warped planks that made up the front door had ever held a drop of paint, it had been washed away long ago. The barn sagged ever so slightly to one side as if too tired to sit up straight. In contrast to the weather-worn door and the dry, crackling leaves leading up to it, a length of silver chain held the barn closed.
“Locked?” Dana asked. He balled up a fist and smacked it into his open palm, like a baseball player prepping his mitt.
Toby said nothing. He reached down through the neck of his shirt and drew out a chain holding several keys. He selected one, bent in front of the door, and worked the lock until it opened with a click.
Dana stepped forward and threw open the door before Toby could free the key from the lock. The smaller boy choked as the chain pulled him to one side. Dana gave the barn door another shove, laughing at Toby’s pain before stepping into the dark structure.
Rays of afternoon sunlight sliced through gaps in the western wall of the barn, lighting up thin spider webs stretched between the rafters like strands of gold. The corpse of a broken-down tractor peeked out from the deepest shadows of the barn, its rusted bulk listing to one side on flat tires. The straw-floored space contained tools and farm implements, mundane equipment and other sundries that Dana ignored. A clean black table standing at the center of the barn became the focus of Dana’s attention. A broad shaft of sunlight broke through a hole in the west wall, illuminating the table’s contents.
An old copper pot squatted at the left side of the table, its small handles poking out on each side like cat ears. Opposite the pot, a number of dinner plates sat, covered in cookies, brownies, fudge, and assorted Halloween candy.
“What’s this?” Dana asked, reaching for one of the plates.
“You don’t want to do that.”
“Ha. Watch me.”
Dana plucked one of the pieces of fudge off a plate and tossed it in his mouth. He turned and leaned against the table. Chewing with his mouth open, he stared defiance at Toby. The bully swallowed, and silence filled the space between the two boys. Then Dana turned to grab another chocolate treat.
As the bully’s finger touched an orange and brown square, golden light filled the pot. The illumination grew in brightness until it seemed that the ridged copper pot held a piece of the sun itself. A fragrance like cinnamon and honey wafted out from the depths of the blazing vessel.
Dana stood transfixed, one hand still extended towards the candy. The light filled his eyes, narrowing his pupils to pinpricks. The scent filled his nostrils. Then he began to change.
His skin blackened like charcoal as though scorched by the golden light pouring out of the pot. His eyes pushed outward, the soft irises flattening, his pupils splitting, then splitting again and again until two, black, multifaceted gems stood in the place where his eyes had been. His mouth twisted and mandibles protruded from his cheeks like a pair of down-turned tusks.
The transformation began slow, then ended in a rush. One moment, Dana stood there, his body becoming strange and monstrous. The next, the boy was gone. Where his hand had been, one finger touching a piece of candy, a small black spider stood, its long, yellow-striped arms twitching.
The light went out of the cauldron. It became a simple pot once again, and the scent of Autumn magic diminished. Toby stepped closer to the table and looked at the spider, shaking his head.
“Toby? Is everything okay?” The female voice floated in through the barn door. Before the boy could respond, Toby’s mother appeared in the doorway.
“I’m okay. But we have another spider.”
“Oh, dear.” Toby’s mother stepped up next to her son. She tilted her head to one side as she studied the spider amongst the Halloween treats. Then she saw Toby’s swollen red cheek and the dirt covering his jeans. “Did he do that to you?”
“Yeah.” Toby touched the bruise, then lowered his hand.
Toby’s mother looked back at the spider, her eyes narrowed and her lips pressed into a thin line. After a moment of consideration, she raised her foot, slipped off her shoe, and raised it over her head.
“Mom, don’t!” Toby said. “I think he saw me playing with a will-o-the-wisp at school yesterday. It’s my fault. I should have been more careful.”
“Oh, Toby.” She lowered her shoe, still staring daggers at the striped arachnid. “Okay. I won’t smash him. But I think he deserves to stay that way until he learns a lesson. Where’s your backpack?”
“It’s back at the road. Will you stay with me while I go get it?”
“Of course, dear. Tell me everything that happened.”
Toby’s mother slipped the shoe back on her foot, then rested a hand on her son’s shoulder. They left together, Toby recounting everything that happened. As they walked, Toby’s mother drew upon the afternoon sunlight and the Autumn breeze to weave a simple healing spell. She laid the magic on Toby’s cheek while he talked, the mother’s love already at work to set things right.
So wrapped up in the retelling and the magic, neither of them remembered to close the barn door. Neither of them saw Misty creep in from the tall grass, stalking into the barn. The long-haired cat sought a kind of justice of her own.