I know about a witch named Emily Umberto.
“I don’t know this witch,” Vree said to me.
This witch wasn’t a bad witch, but she did a bad thing to a man named Morton Twitchel. I don’t know if he’s related to a kid named Morty Twitchel, but he wasn’t a nice guy to his mother. His story goes like this:
Something strange had happened to Myers Ridge after an earthquake shook the little town of Ridgewood three months ago. Vehicles stalled on the ridge. Not all vehicles stalled, and sometimes a day went by when no cars or trucks stalled. But when they did stall, business at Morton Twitchel’s garage was good.
Mort sat in his lamp lit sun porch, reading the evening edition of The Ridgewood Gazette chocked full of Christmas ads when he glanced up and saw the car go past his house, heading toward Myers Ridge. By its sleek, aerodynamic shape, Mort knew that sensors and computer chips controlled the vehicle.
He grinned. Then, “Ma,” he hollered toward the living room where the sounds of Wheel of Fortune blared from a TV; “Hey, Ma, I’m going out. Be back later.”
“What about supper?” his mother called back.
“Keep it in the crock. I’ll eat when I get back.” He slipped on his coat and gloves.
“Pick me up some Pepsi…”
“I ain’t going to town—”
“…and some sour cream and onion chips.”
Mort sagged against the storm door and shook his head, but his voice rose with his blood pressure. “I said I ain’t going to town, you stupid old cow. You never listen. Never ever. Just moo, moo, moo, all the time.” He bolted outdoors into December’s gelidity and fought to catch his breath. There, he fired up a Marlboro when the coughing jag subsided, and he felt his strength return after a deep drag from the cigarette.
His long, weak shadow followed him across the crunchy snow. The day’s timid sun had hurried to leave Ridgewood; the last minutes of daylight clutched the western sky. Somewhere, far away, that sun was high and hot and tanning pretty girls in bikinis.
Mort spat a brown hocker—cancer?—then pulled his capillary body into his big Ford 350 with a Holmes 440 wrecker boom and bed and hurried onto Russell Road. The tow truck had no engine control unit to manage emissions. It was the only way he could rescue the damn fools from the ridge’s electrical disturbances crippling their vehicles’ fancy engines.
He spotted the dead Nissan at the intersection of Russell and Ridge highways sooner than he expected. It was a fancy car, a wannabe rich person’s car, no doubt circuited with an electronic data recorder and loaded with all sorts of the latest electrical sensors. He parked in front of the stranded vehicle, then dropped to the ground and nearly fell when his knees almost buckled. He tossed away the cigarette and spat before he approached the car.
“Everything went dead,” a woman said to him. She stood outside her car in the waning daylight and had a cell phone in her hands. “Even my phone doesn’t work.”
Mort’s heart skipped a beat. The woman was young—late twenties, perhaps—and pretty, despite her face looking a bit jaundiced.
She put the phone in a pocket of her white mink coat. Strands of her long chestnut hair lifted in the cold breeze coming at her. She shivered, though her nose and cheeks remained ghostly white. “The GPS went first, then the engine. The car’s practically brand-new, and I just had it inspected last month.”
“Ain’t the car,” Mort said, and then said no more about it. He had learned his lesson several weeks ago when he blabbed his theory to a stranded traveler from New Cambridge: “It’s this here hill … seems to knock out everything electronic … ignitions, dashboard displays, all that ultra-fancy stuff. Not sure how it happens, but it’s been good for my business.” The guy turned out to be a reporter. He interviewed others familiar with the ridge’s mysterious nuisance and wrote a news article, which brought some scientists from New Cambridge University to snoop around. Afterwards, the county wanted to close the roads to outside traffic. But the ridge’s two highways were essential shortcuts to Alice Lake, even in the winter. So far, his towing business was in the black for the first time in five years.
He jerked a thumb at his tow truck. “I’ll getcha back to my garage. Then I can getcha up and running in no time. Meanwhile, you can ride with me.”
“I’d like that, Mr. …”
“Twitchel. Call me Mort.” He kept the smile on his face despite the cold picking at his dingy front teeth, returned to his truck, opened the passenger door, and helped the woman into the truck’s cab. When she was settled, he closed the door and spun, as much as his rickety ankles and knees would allow, and went to work getting the Nissan fastened to his hitch. Then, on the way to his garage, he turned on the radio to avoid conversation. The radio played a silly Christmas song about a grandmother run over by a reindeer. Mort chuckled. The woman smiled. Both were silent until Mort parked inside his spacious garage behind his mother’s lesser house.
“This shouldn’t take long,” he told her before he set the truck’s fan and heat at high so she could wait comfortably inside the cab. Then he went to work lowering the car and pretending to inspect the Nissan’s engine. He knew the car would start on its own; they were far enough away from Myers Ridge. And besides, the electrical disturbance at the ridge never fried any circuits. But if he were to get any money out of this woman, he had to put on a convincing show.
“Mr. Twitchel,” she called out from the rolled-down window a few minutes later, “do you have any hot coffee?”
“This won’t take long.” He had forgotten to start the Mr. Coffee in his office. His beverage of choice was the Budweiser in the garage fridge and anything on tap at the tavern a mile south.
“Won’t take long at all,” he said.
He went to his workbench and returned with some wrenches. Then he clacked them against each other from time to time under the hood while he pretended to fix the engine. He even sprawled his backside on a dolly and rolled beneath the car.
“Mr. Twitchel,” the woman called out again, “do you enjoy being a mechanic?”
Mort stopped clacking his wrenches and looked surprised. It was an honest question that few people ever asked him.
He shrugged at her sincerity.
“Most of the time,” he said above the noise of the truck’s fan, “except—”
His forehead scrunched suddenly. If she wanted to be sincere, then he would oblige for the moment.
“Except when our lousy government passes stupid rules like emissions laws. You know, there was a time when a mechanic could legally build a car engine without computer chips telling it what to do. My truck’s engine is how a man free from his greedy Gestapo government intended an engine to be.”
“Yes,” the woman said, “man shall not be rewarded for behavior unkind.”
Her cryptic remark caused Mort to pause. Then he shrugged and smiled and returned to clacking his tools beneath the car.
“Mr. Twitchel, my watch must have stopped. Do you have the correct time?” The woman sounded restless, perhaps becoming impatient with his act. An unhappy customer could sour the deal. It was time to wrap things up.
“There’s a clock on the wall above my workbench.” He got up, wiped his hands on a rag from his jeans’ back pocket, then got into the car and turned the ignition. The Nissan’s engine purred to life.
A large canvas tote bag beckoned him to look inside it. He was not after money (should there be any), just something small like a fancy pen to give his mother for Christmas so he would not have to spend any money on her. He pulled out a small white box, the kind with jewelry inside. He shook it and thought he heard the delicate rattle of a chain.
He hurried the box to his coat pocket, climbed from the car, closed the hood, and went to the truck, smiling kindly as he opened the door and helped the woman out. Then he climbed into the truck’s cab and turned off the heater.
“How much do I owe you for your prompt and valuable assistance, Mr. Twitchel?” the woman asked as she retrieved a wallet from her coat pocket and opened it. Several expensive rings on her fingers flashed and sparkled under the fluorescent shop light. Mort paused to admire their value and hoped something of equal value was inside the box he’d stolen.
“Your price?” the woman asked.
Mort noticed her raised eyebrows and said, “My flat rate is fifty bucks up front for the tow, plus five for each mile. That’s fifty-five, minus the time spent working on your engine. For that, I charge twenty bucks an hour, which I know sounds expensive, but a guy’s gotta make a living, you know.”
The woman nodded. “I’ll pay you for the entire hour, although a cup of hot coffee would have been nice.” She handed him a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill. “You’ve been very professional. Keep the change.”
Mort grinned. “Thank you kindly, Miss…”
“That’s an unusual name for Ridgewood folk.”
“I moved here in July. I teach at the high school.”
Mort nodded as if he approved of her reply. Out of habit, he held the bill up to the light and found the watermark. “Well, I’m glad I saw you drive by so I could be of service.”
He left her while he wrote up a greasy receipt at his workbench and she got into the car and waited. When he handed the receipt to her through the open window of her car, he hoped she hadn’t noticed the box missing from her purse.
She took the receipt, put it in her wallet, and addressed him once more.
“Have a very merry Christmas. And make sure you spend some of that money on your mother.”
“My mother? I … I don’t—”
Mort was going to lie, tell her he didn’t have a mother. But the sudden stern look she gave him caused him to close his mouth.
She narrowed her eyes at him.
Before she did, Mort thought he saw a flash of green light pass across them.
“You have a pleasant night, Mr. Twitchel,” she said before she backed out and drove away from the garage and the road to Myers Ridge.
When her taillights were out of sight, Mort opened the box. He whistled when he saw the yellow gold necklace trimmed with diamonds. He stepped outside and grinned wide. It was going to be a very merry Christmas indeed. Ron Koehler at the pawnshop in New Cambridge always paid top dollar for jewelry with no engravings. And the diamonds were not too big that ole Ron would have any trouble selling it, either.
Mort grinned so wide that the sharp, frigid air hurt his teeth.
He held the necklace to the clear, night sky. The diamonds glistened like the stars there—all those billion sparkling lights ablaze against the night’s velvet canvas above him.
It made him feel small and insignificant … and dizzy.
He squeezed shut his eyes, then looked again at the starry sky.
The wide expanse made him dizzier. He stumbled and sat hard on the snow; his gaze, however, remained riveted on the sky. There, the stars grew suddenly larger, their light brightening as a billion planets and suns came at him at a terrible speed.
They filled his vision and he felt the weight of their magnitude descending on him.
His throat tightened. He knew what he saw wasn’t real.
Still, they fell, seen only by him.
He tried to open his mouth and call out to his mother—to scream for her to rescue him as the entire night sky seemed to drop on him, crushing the air from his lungs.
Minutes later, a film of clouds entered the vast, starry sky from the north. New snowflakes fell where Mort’s body lay on the driveway’s old snow, his wide eyes staring lifelessly at the cover of snow clouds drifting across the sky.
A green shimmer of light appeared next to him. The pretty woman stepped from the shimmer and pried the necklace and box from Mort’s icy hands. She put on the adornment and felt her magic return. A ruddy color filled her cheeks; her eyes filled with bright emerald. She bent and placed a two-liter bottle of Pepsi and a bag of potato chips in the snow, next to Mort’s darkening head. Then she took the hundred dollars from his pocket and placed it under the bottle of Pepsi.
“For your mother,” she said, “so she won’t think too unkindly of you.”
She stood, twirled a hand, and her body vanished in a flare of green light eaten by the night’s rapacious darkness.
# # #
“I don’t know this story,” Vree said. “Can you tell me more?”
I will try, I said, putting a new sheet of paper in my typewriter.
Thanks for reading my history about Ridgewood and some of the characters there. Please let me know your thoughts. Helpful criticism goes a long way and adds to filling and strengthening the writer’s toolbox.