The black dog slept against the iron fence. Her torso raised and lowered with each heaving breath of her heat-induced sleep. Water sloshed in front of her nose and her eyes flickered open. With eyes as dark as ink, she looked up.
“Just give it to him,” One girl said, giving the shoulder of the other a light push.
“My mom specifically told me not to give strays anything.”
“What if she’s not a stray, Ali?”
Impatient, Ali grabbed the plastic container of water and placed it in front of the dog’s snout. A.J.’s Margarine was printed on the label and still pieces of yellowy fake butter floated on the surface. The dog sniffed the container, gave a loud exhale that caused the girls to teeter backwards and put her head back down on the cool grass.
“I’m sorry, Queen of the Alley Trash, shall I get you a Perrier?” Ali quipped as she put small balled fists on her hips.
A crow called from the nearby oak trees, loud and insistent.
Both girls jumped. A windbreaker crinkled. They were both wearing colorful lycra leotards with button up track pants; one wore a jacket over top with Kelsey printed on the sleeve, the other wore a diamond A necklace.
“My aunt drinks Perrier,” Kelsey said as she watched the dog fall back asleep, their act of kindness going completely unnoticed.
“Isn’t that something, Kelsey?” Ali muttered.
Kelsey rolled her eyes.
The crow cawed again.
“Shut up, ass!”
“What? Your brother says it all the time.”
Kelsey pulled her jacket in closer to her chest and shook her head at her friend. She knew her brother, just like her mother, was going to be absolutely livid when she arrived home after dark. The sun was setting behind the graveyard, painting the grass with spots of deep red and stretching the shadows of the tombstones into skinny black fingers. Beside them, an oak tree towered, providing the black dog with a cool relief from the once scorching day.
“This place gives me the creeps.”
“The graveyard? No way!” Ali continued with the sarcasm.
“Ease up, Ali. Let’s go. My mom’s going to be so mad. I was supposed to be home from gymnastics an hour ago. Also that ice cream is making my stomach start up.”
The dog opened her eyes and stood from the ground.
She took a long, needed stretch, pushing her paws so hard into the ground that her digits spread apart into individual beans of black. Kelsey and Ali didn’t dare move as the dog approached the container, took three gulping slurps and then laid back down, almost on Ali’s sneakers.
Ali mouthed “She likes me!” to Kelsey and to the sky.
“I bet the leftover butter helps,” Kelsey whispered. Ali snickered.
Ali crouched down and reached two fingers forward, slowly moving them towards the dog. The dog’s ears twitched forward and back, well aware of Ali’s encroaching hand.
“I wouldn’t touch that stray thing.”
Ali’s hand snapped back. Kelsey stumbled towards her friend.
A woman, dressed all in olive green, stood on the other side of the iron fence, looking into the graveyard at Ali, Kelsey and the black dog.
“She bites.” The young woman held up a hand, covered and ripped apart with stretched scarred skin. “Also that dirt on her is actually mites.”
“Ew!” Ali bumbled away from the dog, half-crouched, pulling herself with her hands.
Kelsey reached out to her friend and pulled her to her feet. They stood shoulder to shoulder, in matching unitards and scrunchies, staring between the iron fence at the green woman.
“You guys from around here?”
“Sorta… we live-”
Ali socked Kelsey in the stomach. She let out a gurgled gag and her stomach churned like a machine needing oil.
“Oh.” The woman walked along the fence and came through the gate of the graveyard. Standing on the gravel pathway, she said, “I’m Cassandra. I’m just visiting here. Don’t know a lot of people, sorry.”
As Cassandra got closer, Kelsey noted that she was much younger than her first impression. She took a small step towards the path.
“Are you lost?” Kelsey asked. Ali grabbed Kelsey’s forearm as she went to take another step forward. They exchanged glances and a silent conversation about whether or not to trust the stranger.
“No. I’m just waiting for my husband, you know? You girls live nearby?”
Cassandra took a step off the pathway towards Kelsey and Ali. A hard gust of wind filtered through the graveyard, kicking up piles of wet leaves that tumbled in between Kelsey, Ali and the black dog and Cassandra.
The crow called for a third time.
“Quiet.” Cassandra snapped her head to the side, looking, staring deep into the graveyard.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Ali whispered to Kelsey.
Cassandra was three tombstones away. Three large steps to reach them. The dog gave a low growl and she stopped walking forward.
“Is this your dog, Ali?” Cassandra asked.
“No… not mine.”
Kelsey knew they hadn’t given her their names, the woman had been watching them, listening to them. The dog was, maybe, the only barrier that prevented Cassandra from reaching them.
Ali looked back at her friend and raised her eyebrows. Even Kelsey was surprised at her ability to suddenly lie with ease.
“Is she now? What’s her name?”
Kelsey paused, her courage, her falsities crumbling around her; Cassandra was tearing down her wall, brick by brick.
The dog’s growl grew to a bark. She let out a string of loud, menacing snarls and yaps until Cassandra took a step backwards.
“You can’t have already laid claim,” Cassandra said, her head rolled backwards and then her eyes flashed back towards the girls.
Kelsey shook, her fingertips trembling as she placed a hand on Ali’s shoulder.
“Yup. He’s my dog, Blackie.”
Cassandra shook her head, her neck cracking with each movement.
“Ali, come here girl.”
Night had fallen. The red spots of sunlight had dissipated into an evening as black as the dog. The shadows had stretched and grabbed onto the tombstones, the grass, the trees; a desperate revenge on an unusually sunny day.
Kelsey gave a small, terrified gasp when Ali stepped out of her grip and towards Cassandra.
“Ali!” She whisper-screamed.
The dog was still barking, yelling at Cassandra as Ali passed by her.
“Ali!” Kelsey yelled again, this time louder, frantic.
Cassandra reached out slender, white fingers that seemed to hang in the air like floating bones. Just as Ali reached Cassandra’s hand, the dog latched onto her ankle, pulling her back towards Kelsey.
Ali’s scream ripped through the night air, clattering through the graveyard and along the fence. The light from the nearby street lamp filtered onto the grass, illuminating the side of Ali’s face and the terror in her eyes as the dog dragged her backwards.
Kelsey bound forward, grabbing her friend’s hands and pulling her away from Cassandra, away from the dog but further into the lines of tombstones.
“She is not yours to take!” Cassandra rushed forward. With her hands flailing in front of her, Cassandra clamped her hands down on the back of the dog. She threw the mongrel, detaching the grip of its teeth from Ali’s ankle with a small chunk of her heel still in its jowls.
Blood pooled out onto the grass underneath Ali’s track pants. The dog rolled into a tombstone and hit with such force that the old grave cracked in two, grey stained stone toppled over itself leaving behind traces of white dust on the dogs black fur.
Kelsey reached out her hand. Ali dragged herself along the grass back towards her friend.
Ali yanked herself forwards, ripping grass out in thick chunks that were spattered with her own blood.
In the darkness, Kelsey lost both the woman in green and the dog. The straining light from the streetlamp provided little help as she picked up Ali from underneath her arms and dragged her away from the broken gravestone and pool of blood.
“Where did they-” Ali coughed, choking on her heavy breaths. “Where did they go?”
A grey boney hand wrapped around the trunk of the oak tree, nails as sharp and as long as blades and knuckles so dry that the skin cracked with each flex. The wrist bent around the trunk at a sickening, perverse angle, folds of grey skin dissipating back into the darkness.
“These are mine.”
Into the stretched oval of light, a second woman appeared. Her hair was black, thick and matted down to her ankles. Her skin and bones splintered loudly with each step, like her bones were being ironed and straightened into the shape of her long slender body.
Her teeth were sharp and yellow, her gums were speckled with black.
Like a dog.
Her mouth opened, her jaw extending to three times its size, canines reflecting the amber light into Kelsey and Ali’s eyes.
A snap behind them.
The iron fence, without a touch from anyone, lifted from the ground, one of the rods shook loose and darted through the air to the black womans open mouth. Cassandra emerged from the darkness and between the gravestones, with a wave of her hands, she sent the metal spike down the throat of the woman with black hair.
Kelsey and Ali screamed.
The fence rod speared the woman to the oak tree. Her black hair billowed like a heavy blanket, cascading around her suspended feet. Her extended mouth hung loosely around the spear, her bottom jaw, filled with sharpened teeth, slapping against her chest.
Kelsey pulled Ali towards the path, somehow throwing her friends arm around her shoulder and limping her onto the gravel.
“She’s coming,” Ali said, looking behind them at the approaching Cassandra. Two, three more metal spikes bounded up from the fence, they floated for a moment, hanging in the night air above Cassandra’s open palms.
“If I can’t consume you, I’ll just have to kill you.” Cassandra spit. She bent down wiped her hand in the pool of Ali’s blood and smeared it across her chest and then her mouth. The smell of iron and burning hair filled the air. The fence spikes pointed down, positioning themselves in line with Ali’s heart and Kelsey’s forehead and stomach.
The crow, with another caw, descended onto Cassandra. It brought its talons forward, immediately picking and pulling at her eyes.
The witch screamed. Red streamed down her face, her own blood mixing with the stain of Ali’s.
Kelsey moved Ali’s weight up her torso and hobbled out of the graveyard and onto the safety of the sidewalk. Half-tripping over the pavement, Kelsey dragged both of them down the street, the sounds of Cassandra’s screams, the crow’s cries and the dogs growl fading into the distance after four long and strenuous blocks.
Kelsey’s mother didn’t understand why her daughter quit gymnastics, why she wouldn’t walk down Third Street anymore or why she had a sudden fear of dogs. She had given the girls a shake of her head and scolded them for being late but she never questioned the blood seeping from Ali’s ankle or the terror in her daughter’s eyes.
Kelsey and Ali never spoke of the witches on Third Street, not to each other, not to anyone. Not even when Ali vomited up pile upon pile of black hair in the girls bathroom trash can or when her skin turned gray and dry and cracked into bloody fissures in gym class. Nothing was said. Not even when a crow appeared at Kelsey’s window, in the middle of a cold, impenetrably dark night, cawing and choking on a diamond A necklace.