This did not happen once upon a time. It was last Friday, in the hours when it becomes Saturday and kids can stay up later huddled under their bed covers reading books on their ipads and sometimes proper books as well that smell of mould and dead trees. Robert is huddled up under covers reading fanfiction his mother would have been horrified to know existed and his father probably read in secret, which says little about them at all but everything that will be told in this story.
Robert is wide awake in the way of children, listening to the movements of shadows and the deep creaking of floorboards. He is half-convinced his parents bought the old house just to give him nightmares, because of some cruel thing he’d done as a child or might one day do as a teenager. He tells himself he is not afraid, but he knows the telling is a lie. It is part of what keeps him up under artificial light, the rest is a waiting.
He has a missing tooth, and he is waiting for the tooth fairy. To see her and not to capture her, not even as an image on his phone, which to some would suggest Robert is a good boy and others that he has a dearth of imagination that would be quite hideous to behold. The truth is neither as simple as the extremes make it out to be. He is waiting, and not sure what he will do until he does it.
There is a creaking of the old window, a rattling of glass in a wood frame that lets in cold air every night despite his fathers attempts to caulk it. Robert doesn’t mind the cold that much and is wondering how hard the wind is blowing when he hears the soft creak of wood rising up and footsteps softer than a cats alighting on the ground. He does not move under the bed, because part of him is pretty sure that tooth fairies fly, but the footsteps come closer until he can’t pretend they’re not real.
He pokes his head up from under the covers and finds a witch standing over him. She is obviously a witch, dressed entirely in black from head to foot, with a face marked with acne rather than true warts but Robert is not surprised at that: real witches, he figures, are probably good at hiding that they are witches.
“Hello,” he says, and the witch goes still.
“Hello,” she says finally, and her voice sounds utterly ordinary, like an older sister might, but Robert is not fooled at all: older girls tend to hide behind nice words in his experience, and then tear you apart without throwing a single punch.
“You’re not the tooth fairy: is she ill?”
“I don’t believe so,” the witch says slowly.
“Then why,” he presses, in the way that makes his teachers twitch, “is a witch here instead?”
The witch pauses, and for the first time Robert notices she had a black bag as if she was also filling in for Santa even though Christmas is not for another 41 days. “You think I am a witch.”
“I’m not stupid,” Robert says, wisely turning off his ipad and keeping it hidden under the folds of his covers. He doesn’t think a witch would steal it, but he’s pretty sure his dad wouldn’t get him another even if it was a witch that stole it, because adults are always unfair.
“I imagine not,” the witch says, and hides her black bag under her clothing.
Robert decides not to ask about it, since witches do terrible things in stories and he doesn’t want anything horrible to happen to him. “Are you hungry?”
“Pardon?” the witch says.
“I’m not allowed to get snacks after supper, but I don’t think that applies if there is a guest here,” Robert says, and he is quite proud in declaring the witch a guest, since he is pretty sure it means she can’t do all the terribly evil witchy things he is trying very hard not to think about.
The witch just nods and Robert gets out of bed and puts his robe on, padding into the kitchen as quietly as he can. The witch is far quieter behind him, her steps slow and uncertain, and Robert gets fries from the fridge to put in the microwave along with gravy from a can he can heat as well after he turns on the kitchen lights.
“We don’t have cheese curds,” he says, “but it is still poutine.”
“Oh. I see,” the witch says, and she sounds as if she is trying not to laugh.
Robert bites into his lower lip. The kitchen is brighter than the bedroom and the witch is staring at him and it feels too much like some of the kids at school.
“Is something wrong?” the witch asks, suddenly soft.
“You’re laughing at me.”
“I’m not,” the witch says, and presses a hand to her heart. “I cross my heart.”
“Everyone knows witches keep their hearts outside their bodies,” Robert says.
“Well, I would if it was here,” the witch says after a short pause. “Why do you think I am here, boy?”
“Witches steal dreams,” Robert says. “But I don’t have any you’d want to steal so you’d be really hungry. Poutine is good for that.”
“You don’t have dreams I’d want to steal?” the witch says, and she looks sad at that.
“No,” Robert says warily.
“Then why would I be laughing at you?”
“Because I’m fat,” Robert says, and it is late and dark and cold, and he doesn’t hide from himself in front of a witch. “Mom and Dad say I can’t diet until I’m older because it’s not safe, but other kids in school are making fun of me.”
“You’re not that fat,” the witch says. “If you were,” she adds, “I would probably lure you to a cottage and eat you, now wouldn’t I?”
“Oh!” Robert blinks at that, and gets the fries and gravy, handing the witch a plate and eating his own to cover his shock. Mom and Dad had told him it was just the other kids being cruel and he would grow into his body, but it sounded more real coming from a witch than it did from him.
He hears his moms voice then from her bedroom, as if thinking hard about them had somehow woke her up. “Robert?”
The witch goes still, setting down her fork, and her smile is a strange thing: not cruel but wounded, though Robert isn’t quite sure why he thinks that or what it means at all.
The witch is gone, faster than Robert can move, out of the kitchen and through the back door, the wind slamming it shut behind her in a blur of shadows. If she has a familiar, he doesn’t see it follow her.
“What are you doing?” his mom demands as she comes into the kitchen.
“I got a witch to not eat your dreams by feeding her poutine,” Robert says, but his mom just tells him it’s two in the morning in the tone of voice of an adult who will not listen at all and bustles him back to bed with a lecture about no treats for a week if he ever does that again.
And Robert gets into his bed, sets his ipad aside as his mother closes the window and tsks about letting all the warm air in the house out and he falls asleep as she leaves, dreaming about other meals he could trap a witch with and wondering if anyone will ever believe him at all.