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“Hmmmm.” Hattie the Swamp Witch opened her eyes. It was dark. The only other sound was the comforting tick of her windup alarm clock. A warm pressure on her feet told her that her cat, Mr. Sniff, slept on.
Tap tap tap.
“Not again,” she groaned, wrapping the pillow around her head. The cat squirmed and shifted off her feet. Again, the infernal tapping.
“I’m comin’!” she called, flinging the covers off the bed and scrambling to her feet. Mr. Sniff moved over and curled up, giving her a reproachful look. “Like it’s my fault?” Hattie grumbled at the cat, as she threw on her black dress. “Now where’s my—ah.” She jammed her pointy hat over her mussed hair. “Least this fool won’t see my bed head.”
The tapping came once more before she stomped across the living room floor and flung the door open. “What’d ya want?” she mumbled around a yawn.
“Miss Hattie?” It was one of the girls-almost-women from town, looking frightened. “I think I need your help. I’m… late.”
“Yer really late, if you come knockin’ on my door in the middle of the night. Don’cha know what’s out here in the swamp after dark?”
The girl looked confused for a moment. “No. I’m late late. Like with a boy.”
Hattie huffed. “Well, get inside, then. If the Swamp Critter don’t eat’cha, these bugs will.” She stepped aside, and the girl hurried in ahead of the mosquitos.
“Why is it so dark in here?” the girl asked.
“Contrary to what you and every other fool in the wide world seems to believe, witches gotta sleep just like everyone else. Only time I’m up at midnight is when one of you come a-knockin’.”
“I’m really sorry, Miss Hattie. I can come back tomorrow mornin’ if it’s a better time.”
Hattie sniffed. “Well, yer here now, so ya might as well get yerself taken care of. Besides, I suppose problems like yours are best dealt with when the rest of the world’s abed.” The witch scrabbled her hand across the table until she found the matches, then lit the kerosene lantern hanging above. “Here. Sit.” They took seats across from each other.
“This is real nice,” the girl said, looking around the room. “Cozy. Not what I expected.”
“Well, women like their places just so, ya know. I guess you was expectin’ a freak show.” She waved away the objection. “So, who was it?” Please don’t say ya ain’t sure.
A moment’s pause. “Cam—Cameron Lindsey.”
Hattie thought a moment. That name hadn’t ever come up before. “Wait. The smart one? Got a full scholarship to Loosyana State? He ain’t the kind to…”
“It’s not all his fault,” the girl admitted. “We both kinda got carried away. He promised he’d use protection next time.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t let there be a next time. Protection or no. Ya know he’s gonna find a girl at that college. One with an education. A future of her own.”
A sigh. “I know.”
“Well, gimme your palm. We’ll see what you got ahead of you, then we’ll take care of your other problem.” Hattie took the girl’s hand. Not like she’s got much future if she don’t get herself outta here. And get damn lucky. “Says here you… you got tough times ahead, but ya got a better chance of gettin’ by if you do good in school and finish up. Coupla years of tech school after ain’t gonna hurt neither, if you can find a way to pay for it.” She poked a random spot on the girl’s palm. “This here says, don’t take the first offer that comes along. Aim a little higher.”
“That’s what I was doin’ with Cameron. And look how that turned out.”
“Yeah. Not everything you try’s gonna work out. But if you got any friends or kin in Baton Rouge, maybe you move there. Find honest work, get some more schoolin’, and keep Cameron from forgettin’ about you.” Hattie stood. “Wait here. I’ll get what ya came for.” She trotted into the kitchen, and mixed up the recipe in a chipped coffee mug. She knew the recipe by heart; out here in Nowhere, Loosyana, there was a lot of call for it.
“Drink this down,” she said. “It’s gonna taste horrid, and yer gonna wanna chuck it back up, but don’t let that happen. It’s gotta be in ya to work. Then yer gonna have the worst cramps you ever had for a day. You can drink a little milk or something if you want, it ain’t gonna hurt.” She watched as the girl choked down the recipe, wincing all the way but only gagging once, then slid the glass of water across the table. “Here, drink this. It’ll get the taste outta yer mouth. But remember that taste, ‘cause you don’t wanna have to do this again. Ya hear?”
The girl nodded. “What do I owe you?”
“You got twenty? Good. That’s enough. And promise me you’ll be more careful from here on out.”
“I will. And thanks for not turning me into a toad.”
“Eh. I didn’t turn Martin Fontenot into a toad. Damn fool got off the path, and the Swamp Critter got him. You think about stayin’ on the path, and maybe you won’t think about chuckin’ that stuff back up.”
Hattie watched the girl go, and Mr. Sniff rubbed himself around her ankles. “Fool kids,” she said. “Y’know, kitty, I think I’m gonna make me a sign. Witching Hours, 9 to 5, closed at sunset. Yup. Stick that out there along the path, and maybe we can get a whole night’s sleep.”