A SHORT STORY
T H E S H E D
Ten year old Teddy meets the hedge witch of her dreams.
AUTUMN 1987 — Teddy was nine the first time she locked herself in the dilapidated brick shed in the back corner of the yard. The shed was steadfast, determined not to topple and likely held together in part by the unearthly vines tangled over every visible brick. It was an accident— the first time Teddy got trapped— an attempt to make friends with the toothless lady-witch who lived inside. The one that would stare into her second floor bedroom every autumn after school.
Teddy’s room occupied the backside of the second floor apartment where she lived with her father. She’d had the same room, the same window, and the same garden view for as long as she could recall. Her whole life, she decided.
Every summer Teddy would watch the downstairs neighbours tend to their cumbersome garden, growing cucumbers and kale and grapes and greens. They’d go in and out of the shed on every sunny Saturday, extracting lawn chairs and hoses and baskets and gloves until the frost settled into the soil mid-September. The shed would be locked and the backyard would sit quiet until it would frost, then snow, then spring.
It was always around the first frost when Teddy would see her— the yolk-ish eyes of the lady-witch peering up into her bedroom window from inside the shed. Her toothless mouth agape, the lady-witch would raise a long-fingered wrinkled hand to the dirty glass window, neither waving nor calling but watching and leaning and peering luridly up at Teddy. For her whole life, she decided.
The frost came late that year. It wasn’t until the early hours of October 31st when the leaves curled inward, laden with frozen dew. It was that night when the unmistakable chill of winter’s reach snuck in through Teddy’s slightly open window and tickled her slumbering toes; toes peering out from under the comforter. With a sharp inhale, Teddy awoke with a jolt. She held everything in, her tummy, her breath. The silence was suffocating, whomping in her ear drums, Only the thwmp thwmp of her heart filled the room.
Even in the dark, Teddy’s eyes were drawn to the window which was open a smidgen to let streetlight-illuminated trails of dusty air float in from outside. In contrast to the beautiful days they’d been having, the breeze was knife-edged as it brushed Teddy’s cheek. Her stomach knotted as she swallowed hard and held herself still, wondering if the dreaded frost had finally arrived. Wondering if the lady-witch with the yolk eyes was outside.
Wanting to seal her sanctuary from the backyard, Teddy crawled out of bed and up the wall to the window so she could lock it tight. Her arms above her outstretched, she reached past the opening but she paused to let a curiosity linger.
She pulled herself up to stand.
There, in the middle of the night and unable to look away, she stared into the backyard at the shed window wondering if that dark, disfigured someone inhabited the enclosed space. If they had returned to collect on last year’s exchange.
The shadows of the house fell over the vined hideaway, making it hard to see, so Teddy squinted, desperate to confirm its vacancy. She leaned her forehead against the glass, peering into the yard as her fingers pressed the bottom rail of the window to close it with a thwmp before a slight tickle across her palm pulled her back into her body.
“AWH!” A hairy, thumb-sized spider was tip toeing under the flesh of her left palm. She flung it across the room with a yelp and watched it skulk away frantically. She spent the next few moments flicking her wrists wildly before pressing the lock down on the window sash and running back to her bed like the asylum of the world depended upon it. She had the jitters, traumatized by the feeling of a creepy crawly on her skin. Teddy sealed her eyes shut so hard she could feel the blood pumping through her lids. She held everything in and listened to the thwmp thwmp of her heart The thwmp thwmp the beat that called her back to sleep. The beat that buried her beneath blankets where she vowed to all of Winter to only wake when it was day.
In the pale light of morning, Teddy’s eyelids fluttered open. She emerged from the sheets, confirming her window was still and very shut and that the spider had fled her boundaries. “Halloween,” she inhaled with a wide smile and a stretch. “And one day until I am ten.”
“Halloween!” called a husky voice from the other room. It was Teddy’s tradition with her father that their first words on the last day of October be its namesake. “And one day until your birthday,” said the voice, bounding into the room and jumping on the edge of the bed, sending Teddy into the air.
“Dad!” she yelled, steadying herself. “Calm down!”
“I can’t help it. It’s my favourite time of year. Candy goes on sale tomorrow!” her father laughed wildly, filled with an incomprehensible joy. Teddy scoffed, then blinked innocently in her father’s direction as a her lips thinned and curled upward into her cheeks. “What is that look for?” he asked.
“You know,” she said slyly.
“Alright, you can have one little treat,” he said, pulling a black envelope from his back pocket and placing it in Teddy’s open palms. “But only because I like you.”
Teddy tore at it, her excitement palpable. This was her favourite time of year. With every birthday, she grew more filled with an amplifying sense of self. A greater handle on the world that confounded her. A world she felt one could be the web, the bug caught in the web, or the spider. Teddy wanted to be the spider. Ripping the envelope into little pieces, she pulled from it an equally as black card, void of any images or words. In curiosity, she turned the card in her hands studying it as her father watched on eager.
Deciding there was nothing more than blank barren cardboard to look at, she smirked at its anonymity, grasping the two sides to pull it open. A peak of whites and greens and purples moved inside as she pulled her hands apart. At the same time, her father’s palm bore towards her lap and pressed into the middle fold, sending speckles of gold confetti flying into Teddy’s face as a cardboard cut out of a ghoulish witch came flying at her face.
“Ah!” Teddy wailed, honestly frightened, throwing the card off the bed and away from her.
“Happy Halloween! Happy Halloween!” The screechy voice of the card vehemently filled the space, stopping suddenly after seven declarations.
“Happy Halloween, honey,” her father said. “Do you like it? You didn’t think I’d fall for your sweet eyes, did you? Your birthday’s tomorrow!”
“Great joke, Dad,” Teddy said, sinking back into her pillows eyeing the card sitting ominously open on the floor. The wide eyes of the cardboard witch staring up at her. A tiny pale paper hand raised. The grin, full of gum and lacking all the teeth. “Thanks Dad, but you can go now,” she said, pushing him off the bed with her feet.
"What? You didn't like my joke?”
"And you can take that creepy card with you!”
An hour later, Teddy bounced into the kitchen clad in her favourite costume to date: a skeleton suit complete with a rotting skull mask, her body wrapped in burlap and speckled with chunks of dirt and the odd imitation spider. “Ta da!” she proclaimed as she walked stiffly, arms outstretched, towards her father. “I have risen to seek revenge!”
“Revenge on who? Was it the card? You look awesome by the way,” her father said, placing a crocheted witches hat on his head. “How do I look?”
“You finished the hat! It looks dashing,” Teddy replied. "Now, let’s get out of here.”
On the way out, Teddy caught her reflection in the hallway mirror and staggered backward. It was a hideous sight to see herself like this— a far stretch from the dragon and wench and pickle and pumpkin that had come before. She raised a hand to the missing teeth in her mask. She felt quite menacing. Her stomach lurched like there was something living within it. “Actually, Dad, can we skip school and go to the movies instead? I don’t know if the kids at school can handle how amazing I look.”
At first, no one knew it was Teddy. “Morning!” she said to the shrieks and moans of her peers. Classmates jumped out of her way and watched on to ensure she had passed by without interaction— a strange yet powerful ostracization— until Piper.
Piper was Teddy's nemesis but not on Teddy's terms. Teddy didn't care to encourage or enable the girl. She felt her desperation to be mean was quite outstanding. Bullying might be the only subject Piper could attain an A+ in. The lengths she'd go to let Teddy know who had more friends, a better lunch, cleaner clothes, it was exhausting. But Teddy's continual nonviolence only added fuel to Piper's fire.
Piper stood tall by the front doors of the school in her posh Robin Hood costume. "Real velour,” Teddy heard her say as she approached. Piper may have had a straight spine but her posse, dressed as merry young women, cowered behind one another like the visible plague was approaching.
“Morning!” Teddy said, expecting Piper to step aside so she could enter the school.
“I know it’s you Teddy," Piper snarled. “Everyone, it’s just Teddy. You don’t fool us.”
Teddy lifted her mask and nudged Piper aside with a nod, unwilling to argue with the outlaw.
Seizing the silence, Piper stepped forward. “I’ve just got to ask. What are you? A boy?” Piper snorted like impressing a gendered insult could do wretched damage. But Teddy, who looked Piper square in the eyes, wasn’t biting this bad apple.
“That doesn’t even make sense, Piper!” Teddy ruminated on how to respond next as a darkness enveloped her. Her body pulled her to walk away, to disengage, to scoff at Piper’s juvenile inability to control her negative energy. But the hellish vibes of her handmade costume tightened Teddy’s posture, her rigidity, as she stood and stared Piper in the eyes. Teddy thought of the wicked screams, her classmates jumping out of the way, the posse currently cowering behind their Pied Piper. She felt almighty. She felt, for the first time, like she possessed the ability and bravery to take up space instead of walking away.
“Robin Hood is a crusader.” Piper snarled. “You’re just disgusting.”
Teddy let Piper’s insults in. She let them infiltrate her blood, heat it up and toil with her chi as she lowered her mask over her face and began to step slyly toward her nemesis in an effort to be intimidating.
“Actually, Piper, you’re way off. I’m the decomposed skeleton of all the girls who have been murdered by their bullies. And I’ve risen from the dead and I am here to get revenge on all the sorry souls that didn’t have an ounce of niceness in them.” Teddy lunged forward, squeezing out any stagnant air between them. To Teddy’s deep satisfaction, Piper caved, jumping back. “So watch out, Pipes. If you’re not careful you might not make it to tomorrow.” Teddy shoved Piper aside and slid into the building.
Adrenaline pumped through Teddy’s body. Her hands in fists, she made her way to class with a little skip in her step.
Teddy kept her mask on all day, relishing the visible fear that ensued simply by turning a corner. She felt like she was unravelling, but it was at the hands of a power she’d never felt before. The ease at which Teddy could incite an emotion in another human was addicting. She spent the day staring criminally at a disinterested Piper from across the classroom and dishing out small punishments, burying the bubbling realization that it was lonely being avoided. The high of the scare was fleeting and Teddy needed more— more power, more control, more confrontation. Teddy needed Piper to feel real fear. She needed her to know what it felt like to feel so alone at the hands of another person. Teddy had no clue where to start.
At the bing of the last bell, Teddy soared out of class, planning a sneak attack on her father who always napped in their car out front the school every afternoon in wait for his daughter. But there was something slouched in the front seat with him. A shadow of small human that wasn’t supposed to be there. Upon inspection, Teddy realized it was Piper. In their car. With her father. A red hot wave crawled up Teddy’s spine as she flung herself against the window, watching the two of them jump.
“What’s Robin Poo doing here?” she said as she bounced into the backseat.
“Oh, Ted, you scared the crap out of me. Well done,” her father said, clutching his chest. “But I think you mean Robin Hood, right Pipes?” Both girls rolled their eyes. “Piper’s coming trick-or-treating with us.”
“Oh really?” Teddy said thickly, attaching herself to the opportunity, turning herself on. “I’ve been looking for a specimen like you,” she added, curling a finger around Piper’s hair.
“Ew, don’t touch me! And don’t think for a second I want to be here,” Piper griped, crossing her arms and turning towards the passenger window.
“Dionne got called into work so Piper’s spending the night and it’s going to be great, right girls?” Teddy’s father always tried too hard to be the glue stick that held the hatred at bay when Teddy and Piper were forced to spend extracurricular time together.
Teddy settled into the back with her mask pulled down over her face. “Right Dad,” she said to Piper’s dismay, peeling a spider from her arm and placing it on Piper’s neck. As her father pulled out of the parking lot to the melody of Piper’s cries, a faint smile carved into Teddy’s lips. Hidden away behind a mask, Teddy revelled in a power she had not known existed until now.
Stashes of chocolate, chips, candy and pop piled high on the living room floor. Teddy was laying on her back obnoxiously chewing a massive wad of gum surrounded by wrappers. Her father, snoozing on the couch. She rubbed her extended belly feeling slightly sick watching Piper decadently nibble on her third piece of chocolate. “Just eat it already!” Teddy barrelled at her, throwing a handful of wrappers into Piper’s face.
“I am eating,” Piper said through gritted teeth. “Do you think you can fit another piece of gum in that gaping hole of yours?”
Teddy stared at her vehemently while Piper pretended not to notice. “I done. I’m going to bed,” Teddy said, spooning what was left of her candy into a pillow case. “And you better come too cause I’m a light sleeper and if you wake me up—” she said stepping into Piper’s personal space before walking lazily out of the room. Out of view, Teddy dashed down the hall, cracked her bedroom window, and ran back out her her room to complete the leisurely walk just as Piper entered the hallway.
Gripping her candy, Teddy stiffened in the doorframe to her room. She was acting, preying on her audience, but Piper was clueless, caught in the perfect storm of pre-teen disgruntlement. Teddy flicked on the light and noticeably scanned the space. “There was a huge, hairy spider in here earlier,” she yelled back to Piper. But at that moment there wasn’t any movement. No dark spots on light carpet. No cobwebs in the corners. No visible signs of— “Eugh!” Teddy exhaled, suddenly shoved into the room. “Watch where your going, Robin!”
“This place is disgusting,” Piper said, repulsed. “The grossest spider is in the hall! You’re wearing them, and they live with you.” Piper shuddered. Teddy too. They both stared down the hall.
Where?” Teddy asked, clutching her stash tighter and peering out over Piper’s shoulder who was now trying to push into the room past Teddy.
“Did I stutter?” she said, rolling her eyes, triumphantly making her way in and flopping down onto the sleeping bag set up on the floor beside the bed. “Put a sweater at the bottom of the door so it doesn’t get in. Oh my gosh— if it crawls into my mouth while I’m asleep—”
“Crunch! Crunch! Crunch!” Teddy mimed, leaving the door wide open and, costume and all,crawling into bed like it was no big thing. “Hey, now that you’re here, can you close the window?”
After a moment of pause, Piper obliged, but not before pointing out Teddy’s spider dirt all over the carpet and in the bed where she’d be sleeping. “You are so gross,” she said, raising her hands to pull the pane closed. Teddy peeled another spider from costume and put it on Piper’s pillow.
“And turn off the light before you go to bed,” said Teddy with a smirk. But Piper wasn’t moving. “Are you going to close the window or what?” Teddy asked, watching a static Piper stare out into the yard. “Hey—” she repeated, tossing a chocolate bar at her back.
“Who’s that?” Piper said as Teddy grew rigid in her realization she was suddenly less alone in her nightmare. It was the lady-witch, Teddy knew. A cold breeze swept them like a pinch and Teddy could feel her— the lady-witch— pressing her grey hand into the window, peering up at Piper from inside the shed. Opening her mouth to grin or exhale or breathe, exposing all those missing teeth.
“So you can see her?” asked Teddy curiously.
Pointing out the window and turning, pale-faced, Piper repeated, “Who is that?” as if Teddy had not spoken.
Teddy felt a wavering. In that moment, a darkness cloaked her once again and her shoulders melted down from her ears. She let it in, taking an in-breath through her nose. Teddy was always good at recognizing opportunity. “That’s our neighbour,” she said, attempting nonchalance. “Wanna meet her?” She sat up in bed, empowered by a fearlessness at the hands of a weaker being, and she wasn’t even wearing her mask. Hopping to her feet, Teddy swept over to Piper without even looking out the window. She grabbed Piper’s hand and pulled her toward the door. How dangerous and thrilling it was to feel like she had insight over Piper. To suddenly discover an inner strength from a haunting curiosity soon to be shared between the two of them.
“No,” Piper said, pulling her hand from Teddy’s grasp.
“What do you mean, ‘no?’ Don’t be a chicken shit,” Teddy teased brashly.
A vulnerability veiled Piper’s eyes in a way that Teddy would have really benefited from noticing had she not be set on using Piper to finally figure out who was squatting in the shed each autumn. But it was a fleeting moment and Teddy missed it. Piper’s competitive nature, especially when it came to Teddy, overtook any exposed part of her sensitivity. “You swore,” Piper said. “I’m telling.”
“Oh shush. Come meet her,” Teddy said, pulling her mask over her face and tilting her head to one side. “She needs to meet everyone in the house. If you don’t go meet her, she’ll come inside while you’re asleep and kill you. You’re not scared are you?” Teddy’s joke sounded intense but she half believed it, too, once it came out of her own mouth.
“Fine,” Piper said. “But you have to come with me. Unless you’re chicken… shit.”
Teddy was taken aback. She only thought about getting Piper down there, not being there herself. Of course, she would have to be there. She didn’t need to go inside, though. That task was for Piper, Teddy decided. “I’m not scared,” Teddy said. “I’m going to be ten in two hours.”
“Then let’s go,” retorted Piper, heading for the front door with a false sense of sureness.
The temperature had dropped below zero and the girls shivered under the thin cover of their costumes. The alley between the houses was dark as Teddy and Piper walked shoulder to shoulder, the streetlight in the back their lone guide to the garden.
“It’s locked,” Piper said, reaching out for the padlock and giving it a tug. It didn’t budge. The shed was bigger than she thought, especially now that she stood in front of it. The old wooden door was latched with a giant rusty lock and the windows had a good coating of dirt. It’s a wonder they could see they lady-witch at all.
Teddy rolled her eyes and nudged the lock which fell open almost immediately. Piper gawked but both were questionably brave, neither willing to turn back and face tomorrow’s teasing.
“Well, go on,” said Teddy, pushing Piper forward. “Be brave, Robin Poo.”
“Move,” she said, triggered by the nickname. Piper’s face hardened and she shoved Teddy aside so that she could kick in the shed door. With a glare back at Teddy, Piper disappeared into the black hole of the shed leaving Teddy shivering outside alone in the dark. “Hey lady!” yelled Piper, whose voice was the only element of the girl Teddy could pinpoint. “Why ya hiding all of a sudden?”
Teddy waited for a response but nothing came, and Piper did not call out again. “Pipes? Close the door. She’ll come if you close the door,” she said after an eternity of a moment. When Piper didn’t reply, Teddy lifted her mask and took baby steps toward the frame. As she neared, she spotted only shadows moving around inside. Were they scuffling? Or dancing? Were they even in there? Teddy placed one hand on either side of the door frame and moved her body slowly past the border between inside and out.
Inside the shed Teddy took a deep breath and closed the door behind her.
“Pipes?” she whispered feebly. “Did you meet the lady-witch?”
“Lady-witch?” a voice rumbled from the corner. It was soft and magnetic to Teddy’s ears, eerie in its familiarity. “Call me Teddy, girl,” the voice said as the real Teddy wiggled into the space a little more, trying to make out the shapes that were moving in her midst where there was no one to be found. “I told you to call me Teddy.”
“But I’m Teddy, lady-witch,” she said pointedly. “If it’s alright, I’m going to call you lady-witch. Do you have her now? Can I go?”
The lady-witch exhaled, sending dust shimmering into the air causing Teddy to curl in and cough. That was when, in the corner of her eye, Teddy caught sight of it— the thumb-sized, hairy spider that was in her bedroom. It was perched on the ledge of the window and seemed oddly off, Teddy noticed. She couldn’t be sure, so she inched closer to see if it was— and it was— quivering. The spider on the ledge was quivering, just as she and Piper had been coming down the alley moments before. Teddy pondered the possibility of such site. A scared spider. She watched it shake as a long-fingered wrinkled hand snatched it off the ledge.
Ëven a master can feel fear,” said the lady-witch who stood before Teddy with a glaring smile, holding the quivering spider in her hand. Their eyes locked, Teddy’s both frightened and beguiled. Was it all those years trading glances from window to window that made this exchange possible? Was it Piper? All Hallow’s Eve? Or was Teddy slipping away, under the spell of a hedge witch waiting for Teddy to take the bait? Regardless, Teddy felt strangely comforted by her achievement; satisfied in a way that made her feel taller, stronger.
The lady-witch tossed the thumb-sized spider into her mouth and chomped on it just as Teddy had done with with chewing gum earlier. “Usually my dinner,” she said about the eight-legged adversary. “But a delicious appetizer tonight!” she cackled. Teddy balked at the site, feeling mildly more enraptured than her urge to run away screaming. The more Teddy stared at the the lady-witch, the more recognizable she felt.
“Lady-witch?” Teddy said again as though loss for words had captured her. “Do you have her now? Can I go?”
“She’s here, my child,” said the lady-witch, stepping aside to reveal Piper frozen like a statue in a museum garden. Piper’s jaw wrenched open, mid-scream and silenced. “You’ve done well. You’ve done exactly as I’ve asked.”
“Cool,” said Teddy, averting her eyes from the horrid site but catching a glimpse of Piper’s eyes that were franticly scanning the space. They were the only part of her that was still alive inside that petrified body. All of a sudden Teddy felt unsure of her decision to leave Piper to the witch. A massive wave of guilt washed over her. “Piper, I’m so sorry. I had to. I promised I would.” Turning to the lady-witch, Teddy added, “I can’t change my mind can I?”
Tossing her head back into the dank space and crowing, the lady-witch pointed a finger at Teddy that reached across the room and poked her in the cheek. “We have a deal, my little sister. Bring me your bullies and I will change your world. I’m here for you, remember?”
Teddy nodded at the lady-witch’s words. “It’s true. Sorry Pipes. We do have a deal.” But Teddy could sense Piper’s anger, pleading with her eyes not to leave her in that shed… or else. “Piper, the meanest thing I’ve done to you before now is call you Robin Poo. Even now you’re getting mad at me. I can see it in your eyes. This year I want to be the spider,” Teddy said. “This year I want to weave the web.” The lady-witch snortled, amused by the girl’s ruthlessness.
What happened next, the ugly, hellish site and sound, Teddy could not prepare for. Like she were an apple, the lady-witch took a bite out of Piper— a vision Teddy wished she’d never experienced. But like most difficult things, one grows accustomed to them the second, third, and fourth time around. Teddy backed away and out of the shed at the same pace at which she entered, closing the latch over the door and leaving Piper inside to languish. Outside the thwmp thwmp of Teddy’s heart walked her back into the apartment and helped her crawl under the sheets and into the din of dreams that would take her into her tenth birthday.
It happened many times after that. As Teddy’s legs and arms lengthened, her list of tormentors travelled in the opposite direction. Teddy woke up on the day she turned ten to shake hands with the eight-legged side of herself and never questioned the energy she attained by being the consequence to someone else’s actions. She was never meant to be the bug. She was never meant to take the bait.
Legend has it that Teddy never left that house. The child she bore took up the back room just as she had and they too had visions of the lady-witch well into their teens and twenties. We live in a world with many layers. People always go missing. People, often, are never found. When a web is woven so intricately across a lifetime, it can seem impossible to interpret, impossible to escape. Regardless of whether one chooses to be web, the spider, or the one who gets caught, it’s lonely being avoided. And Teddy always wanted to be the spider. For her whole life, she decided. ◇
Image by Priscilla de Preez