Someone New in Town
They say that children born on Friday the 13th are immune to evil spirits. Both Ivy and Maggie had been born on exactly the same day of the same year under the same full moon, and both had been adopted by two single fathers who had recently moved to Crowood Peak.
The place was named as such because of its puzzling number of crows. The birds seemed to watch everything you did with an odd kind of intrigue, and they squawked back and forth to each other as if in conversation. They weren’t bothersome exactly. Simply a little strange and creepy. It was named Crowood Peak because once upon a time there had been a small but proud mountain that loomed over the village that sat at its base. Most of the mountain was still there, but its peak was... well, nothing special these days.
Bill Eerie and Max Tomb had been great friends since they went to school together. They had called themselves the Double Trouble Society. (Well, exasperated teachers, fed up with their antics, actually gave them the name, but it stuck.)
The two fathers bestowed the name on their daughters, Maggie and Ivy, when they decided that they themselves were too old to get up to any further tricks, and it was clear that the girls had established the same unbreakable bond that their fathers had. For even as adults, Bill and Max were inseparable friends and had moved into houses so close to each other that only one house separated them.
It was a house that no one liked to talk about – some even called it evil – but Ivy and Maggie didn’t worry about it too much; after all, they were immune to evil spirits, weren’t they? But it didn’t stop them checking for monsters under their bed each and every night...
The house between the two girls’ houses was set away from the road, with a long path to the front door. Ivy and Maggie could look over its front garden and into one another’s bedrooms through their side windows. It was much too far to shout, so their dads had given them a set of walkie-talkies when they were little, and they’d used them every night since. Mainly for their nightly monster hunt...
‘Ivy for Maggie. Do you copy? Over,’ Ivy whispered into her scuffed-up pink walkie-talkie. She sometimes wished they could forget the walkie-talkies and talk to each other on their phones, but she knew that Maggie would shrug at the idea and say: ‘Where’s the fun in that?’ (It was something she often said!)
‘Go ahead, Ivy,’ came the reply. ‘I copy loud and clear.’
Ivy’s walkie-talkie crackled loudly and she quickly turned the volume down. It was only slightly past their bedtime and she didn’t want her dad to cotton on to what they were doing – Bill Eerie was very scientifically minded and would laugh at the idea of monsters. Ivy also liked to think of herself as a rational, reasonable girl of science. She knew that monsters didn’t really exist, but it didn’t stop her being a little nervous when she looked under her bed. Well... quite a lot nervous, if she was being honest.
‘We have a negative on the monster situation at this end,’ Maggie added, using her best military voice. ‘How’s it looking over there? Over.’
Ivy scrambled to the end of her bed in the dark and swung the front half of her body over the edge. With her walkie-talkie in one hand, she slowly lifted the end of the duvet where it hung down. She took a deep breath and squeezed her eyes shut tight. ‘Three... two...’
The crackle of her walkie-talkie sprang into life again and made her jump. ‘What’s taking you so long? Over,’ Maggie whined.
‘Don’t rush me, Maggie! I have a process. Over.’ Ivy took another deep breath, pushed her gold-rimmed glasses up her nose and squeezed her eyes shut again. ‘Three... two...’
Her walkie-talkie fizzed. ‘The longer you take, the more worried I am that there is a monster under your bed and it’s eaten you! Over,’ Maggie whispered.
‘Shhh!’ Ivy hissed.
‘You didn’t say “over”. Over.’
Ivy could almost hear her friend smile through the line – there was nothing Maggie liked more than winding her up. She shook her head, took a deep breath and squeezed her eyes shut once more. OK, she thought. Here we go. ‘Three... two...’
‘JUST LOOK! Over!’ Maggie shouted down the line.
Ivy rolled her eyes and knew if she didn’t look now, she never would. She quickly ducked her head below the bed. She never expected to see anything other than her neatly lined-up shoes when she lifted the edge of the duvet, but she always worried about what would happen if she did become the very first person on Earth to discover a monster living under their bed. She’d be famous, of course – probably not as the first person to discover a monster, but as the first person to be devoured by one, pyjamas and all. So, when she finally opened her eyes and glared into the darkness and did, in fact, see two big green eyes glowing straight back at her, she felt shivers suddenly ripple over her skin, making her hair stand on end.
‘Aargh!’ she squealed, losing her grip and falling face first on to the floor, her walkie-
Talkie skittering out of reach.
‘What’s going on? I heard a big thump! Over!’ called Maggie, her voice panicky.
Ivy reached for her walkie-talkie but it was too far away and she couldn’t stop staring at the black shadow that was slowly moving towards her. Its eyes were fixed on her, and even though it looked like a small creature, she was certain that monsters had powers beyond her own imagination. It might be super strong and be able to throw her metres into the air, catch her in its jaws and swallow her whole, like those pythons that can eat entire sheep in one gulp! It might have laser vision and zap her into a pile of dust in a nanosecond. Or it might be able to wipe her memory, making her forget she ever saw it...
‘Please don’t eat me! Please don’t eat me!’ she whispered into the dark as the creature crept closer and closer. ‘Please don’t –’
‘Meeeeeoooowww!’ The black shadow jumped into the moonlight to reveal the pointed ears and whiskers of... a cat! But this was not any ordinary cat – it was the angry all-black cat that lived in the abandoned house next door. It often tried to scare Ivy and Maggie as they walked past every morning by hissing at them from the overgrown shrubbery or snagging their school jumpers with its claws. This was not the first time Ivy had found the cat in her room, and each time it gave her the heebie-jeebies.
‘Ramshackle!’ she said crossly, her shoulders slumping. Ramshackle sneaked out from under the bed and strutted over to the door, meowing, a purple gem on its collar shimmering in the moonlight. Then it turned to hiss at Ivy. Ivy dusted off her neat pink-and-purple-striped pyjamas and ran over to the door, quickly opening it so the cat could get out. Then she grabbed her walkie-talkie again, raced over to the window and pulled it up.
Maggie, in blue-striped pyjamas, was at her window, holding her green walkie-talkie. ‘Was that stupid cat in your room again? Over.’
Ivy waved her walkie-talkie back, then they both watched Ramshackle, having left Ivy’s house the same way it got in, sneak into the garden of the house between theirs and disappear into the tangle of overgrown greenery. Several crows cawed and fled from the foliage in a furious flap of wings.
Like the rest of the villagers, Maggie and Ivy mostly ignored the house between theirs. Hokum House, people called it. In fact, the house was part of the centuries-old legend of the Crowood Witch, and when the village held its Festival for the Twelve every blue moon, Ivy and Maggie had to fight through crowds simply to get to their own front doors, as so many people came to see it. They would lay flowers and candles in a ring round the house, to remember those who had been taken by the witch.
It wasn’t a particularly happy story, and it certainly didn’t have a happy ending, but the people of Crowood Peak enjoyed keeping this important piece of local history alive. Maggie loved the festival – she couldn’t get enough of the Legend – but Ivy just liked the decorations people made for the occasion. The next festival was coming up, and she was looking forward to it.
The house was so covered in moss, vines and birds’ nests that it barely resembled a house anymore. You could sort of see the windows if you got close enough, but only the bravest kids ever got that close. Even around festival time, Ivy and Maggie tried not to talk about the Crowood Witch, who supposedly used to live there. Ivy didn’t want to talk about the witch because she didn’t believe in witches, and Maggie didn’t want to talk about the witch because she did believe in witches – and was really quite scared of them!
So it was quite a shock when Maggie suddenly did mention witches.
‘Can you see that?’ she asked in a whisper. A few crows had landed on the old broken fence in front of Hokum House. They cocked their heads to one side and peered up the street in the same direction Maggie was now looking.
‘You didn’t say “over”. Over,’ Ivy said teasingly.
‘Ivy, I’m... I’m serious.’ Even though Maggie was far away and Ivy couldn’t see her expression, she could tell by Maggie’s voice that something was up. ‘Someone’s approaching the gate.’
Maggie was looking up the street, past Ivy’s house, so Ivy couldn’t see what she was looking at yet. But she could hear a faint clip-clopping of heeled boots against the pavement, which got louder and louder as a figure in a hooded cloak walked into view. The hood came to a curiously long point that zigzagged down the person’s back. Their face was covered mostly by fabric, but in the light of the moon Ivy could just make out lips painted the colour of ripe plums. This mysterious figure had a book held open in one black-gloved hand and a large black leather bag in the other.
‘She looks like a... a...’ Maggie gulped hard. ‘A witch.’
‘Don’t even say it, Maggie. There’s no such thing as witches,’ Ivy said quietly. ‘Besides, I doubt she’ll be able to get much further. That gate has been rusted shut for forever; she won’t have much luck opening... it...’
Ivy stopped talking as the cloaked figure waved their hand over the latch on the gate and read something out loud from the book they were holding – though Ivy and Maggie couldn’t make out what was being said – and then the gate did the most peculiar thing. It trembled under the figure’s fingertips and, as it shuddered, shed its rust. The crows cawed and scattered as all the flakes of peeling paint that had fluttered away in the wind now came back on the breeze and re-attached themselves to the gate, until it looked as good as new. When it was a glossy black colour once again it swung open without so much as a creak.
The figure closed the book and gave a single nod, satisfied with their work. But the weird goings-on didn’t stop there. As the person walked up the long pathway, passing the girls’ windows, every piece of each cracked paving stone rearranged itself like a puzzle, the cracks glowing bright white and then disappearing altogether, until the broken pathway was no longer broken. Each stone mended itself in this fashion before the person’s boots made contact, so they had a perfect path to the door of Hokum House.
The person flicked through the book once again, and then Ivy and Maggie could both hear more muttering – although it sounded like gibberish – and the cloaked figure began to wave one hand high above their head. With a flick of the wrist, another even more peculiar thing began to happen. Bit by bit the house began to repair itself. Weeds and vines started to shrink away from the brickwork; shattered windows became whole and sparkling clean; the bats fled as the roof fixed itself; and the front door swung open with a satisfying thunk of the lock. It was as if a hundred invisible people were mending the house, except Ivy and Maggie couldn’t see a soul.
Finally, the visitor set down their leather bag, slid the book inside and then reached up and removed the hood of their cloak. Ivy and Maggie both gasped as a cascade of bright blonde hair tumbled down a woman’s back. Her skin was whiter than the moon that hung above the house, and seemed to glow in the same celestial way as she turned her face towards it and closed her eyes. She stood there for a moment, basking in the light as if she could feel its warmth, just like Ivy and Maggie could feel the heat of the sun on a summer’s day.
Ivy was so enraptured watching this stranger she didn’t notice her walkie-talkie slowly slip out of her hand until it was too late. It clattered to her bedroom floor and broke the silence of the calm night. The woman’s eyes snapped open and up to Ivy’s bedroom window. Ivy ducked down quickly, but not before seeing that the woman’s eyes were a bright luminescent purple, which cut through the dark like a blade of amethyst.
‘Ivy, come in! I repeat, Ivy, come in.’
Ivy scrambled towards the voice coming from her walkie-talkie, which had slipped under her bed. ‘I’m here! I’m here!’ she replied through jagged breaths. She pulled herself back up and peeked through the window again just as she heard the bang of a door closing and the click of a lock turning. The woman had disappeared inside the house – which now looked brand spanking new, as if it had been built only yesterday.
‘So... it looks like we’ve got a new neighbour, then,’ Maggie said. They stared at each other over the front garden of Hokum House in total disbelief at what they had just witnessed.
‘She seems... spooky. She must be some sort of magician. Or... or a really fast house renovator,’ Ivy said uncertainly, but she could feel Maggie judging her from across the way. Ivy refused to believe the alternative. ‘I’m sure she’ll make a lovely neighbour.’ She squinted to see if she could see into the house and catch sight of the woman’s eyes again. They couldn’t really have been purple, could they? she thought.
‘Ivy,’ Maggie said, sighing.
‘Iiiiivvvvy,’ Maggie said again, as if Ivy was missing something quite vital. Ivy was very good at examining facts, so it bothered her when she felt like she’d overlooked something important.
‘She’s so obviously a witch!’ Maggie hissed through the walkie-talkie so violently that it came out at Ivy’s end with a fizz. ‘And does it suddenly smell weird to you?’ Ivy could hear Maggie sniffing. ‘Smells like... fruit. Like someone’s just taken a cherry pie out of the oven.’
‘I’m sorry, I think there’s something wrong with our devices because it sounded like you said that the woman we saw go into Hokum House is a witch,’ Ivy said, laughing, but only gently, as what they’d seen that woman do really had been impossible. ‘And I can’t smell anything,’ she lied, even though her stomach was rumbling at the sweet and delicious scent filling the air.
‘I said she was a witch the moment I laid eyes on her!’ Maggie insisted.
‘I know, but I thought you were joking! I thought you were talking about the way she was dressed! You know, that cloak with the hood... I didn’t think you were genuinely suggesting she was capable of doing actual magic.’
‘OK. First of all, Dad says never comment on other people’s appearances, because it’s none of my beeswax, and you know I would never!’ Maggie said, scandalized. ‘But come on, Ivy! We both saw her do a whole house makeover in less than a minute! When Dad had the kitchen redone, it took about three months!’
‘Well, that was down to him changing his mind about the colour scheme thirteen times,’ Ivy said huffily. ‘Maggie, there is no such thing as witches. I refuse to believe it! It’s very dark outside and it’s really quite late, so I expect we’re both tired, and someone moving in next door – that old house that has always been empty – has been quite a shock. I don’t know what we saw, but it definitely wasn’t magic.’ Ivy yawned to emphasize exactly how tired she was.
‘OK... but how about just for fun we –’ Maggie began, but Ivy cut her off abruptly.
‘Do not say what you’re about to say.’
‘What do you mean?’ Maggie said, outraged.
‘Please, Maggie. Whenever you say “but how about just for fun” it always ends up with us doing something that could get us killed, or in double trouble, and definitely not fun! So please don’t say it... please, please, please...’
‘But how about just for fun,’ Maggie said excitedly, ‘we go next door and pay our new neighbour a visit?’
Ivy was silent for a moment – Maggie’s suggestion seemed totally absurd. Brave too, as she knew Maggie was scared of witches. But she also knew that Maggie would never let her fear get in the way of a good adventure. ‘I am not knocking on that door,’ she said at last, as if it were the final word in the conversation, although she knew it wouldn’t be. With Maggie it never was.
‘Why not? If she’s not a witch, like you said she isn’t, then that means she’s an ordinary person and an ordinary neighbour.’ Maggie had a sing-song tone to her voice; a tone Ivy had heard before when Maggie was trying to get something she wanted from her dad.
‘But... but...’ Ivy was struggling to find another reason not to go anywhere near that house.
‘And good neighbours,’ Maggie continued, knowing Ivy was trying to come up with an excuse, ‘do nice things when someone new moves in. We could take her some flowers or a box of chocolates or something. We could make her a card and get everyone on the street to sign it.’ Maggie knew that Ivy was a stickler for good manners and that this idea would appeal to her.
‘Fine.’ Ivy sighed. ‘But if she turns us into toads, I’ll never speak to you again!’
‘You’ll never croak to me again, you mean?’ Maggie said, laughing, but Ivy did not find it in the least bit funny. ‘Besides, I thought you said there’s no such thing as witches?’ Ivy could almost see Maggie’s mouth twisting into a wry smile from across the gap between their houses, her eyes twinkling mischievously in the moonlight. It seemed as though the possibility of a real witch had made her feel excited rather than scared.
The sound of a window scraping open startled them both. They ducked down a bit, peering over their windowsills to see where the noise had come from. One of the windows at the front of Hokum House was open and warm yellow light was pouring out on to what was now freshly cut grass. The woman with the long blonde hair and bright purple eyes poked her head out and made sucking noises with her lips. Sort of like the kind of noise you’d make to summon a –
‘Meeeeoooow!’ Ramshackle appeared from under one of the perfectly neat hedges that now lined the front garden. The cat jumped over the window ledge and disappeared into the house, and the woman closed the window again and drew the curtains. Curtains! The house actually had curtains now.
‘How did she know about Ramshackle? That cat has been living in that house since before we were born, according to my dad,’ Ivy whispered into her walkie-talkie.
‘Didn’t the Crowood Witch have a cat?’ Maggie said, her voice quivering, hinting at how nervous she really felt.
‘Maggie,’ Ivy said, rolling her eyes.
‘Maaaaagggiieee,’ Ivy said again, as if Maggie had suggested something outlandish. Maggie knew she had a vivid imagination, but what she thought was usually far more interesting and fun than the truth, so it bothered her when she was made to think logically.
‘Are you genuinely suggesting that a witch from a story that’s almost three hundred years old has returned from the dead and has moved in next door? And that her cat has also survived three hundred years and they’ve now been reunited?’ Ivy almost laughed as she said it.
‘Stranger things have happened!’
‘Like what?’ Ivy scoffed.
There was a long pause on Maggie’s end of the line. Then, ‘All right, this would be the strangest thing to have ever happened in this boring place, but the legend does say that the witch will return!’
‘D-d-does it?’ Ivy said hesitantly, and Maggie gasped in shock.
‘Haven’t you read the legend of the Crowood Witch? It’s what our village is famous for. There’s the festival every blue moon – we’ve both been to more than one! And there’s a blue moon coming up in a few days, so it’s about to happen again.’
Ivy liked knowing about blue moons. Not everyone did. Her dad had explained to her how it only happened when there were thirteen full moons in a year. Usually, there were only twelve, three for each season. If there were four in one season, then the blue moon was the third of those four. That was why the festival didn’t happen every year.
‘All right, all right,’ she said, guessing that Maggie didn’t want a science lesson right now. ‘I know the basic story, but I guess I never really took it that seriously. It’s like a tale about Robin Hood or King Arthur. Those are old British legends, but you don’t expect either of them to suddenly turn up and move in next door!’
‘But the Crowood Witch isn’t from just anywhere – she’s from here! Right here! This very spot. And for your information, the Crowood Witch isn’t just a story – it’s a legend, and legends aren’t made up!’ Maggie cried.
‘Legends are called legends because they might be true, but they happened so long ago that no one can be sure,’ Ivy corrected her.
‘Well, how about we find out if it’s true or not? How about we kick-start this adventure by going to the library after school tomorrow and reading the original legend of the Crowood Witch?’ Maggie suggested. ‘You know Mrs Moody keeps it in a glass case. Then we can talk about taking our new neighbour some cakes to welcome her to the village. If she’s not a witch. Although I’m sure by then you’ll be totally convinced that twitchy-fingers next door is a witch, so you’ll be way too scared to knock on her door.’
‘I’m scared to knock on her door now, when I think she’s simply a normal human woman who happens to be very handy at DIY!’
Maggie sighed and, for a moment, Ivy felt bad. Maggie was far more adventurous than she was, and Ivy did often have to step in and stop her from carrying out her grand plans. Usually because they were so dangerous – like the time
Maggie went to the top of Crowood Peak to whizz down it on her roller skates in an attempt to break the sound barrier! But this adventure was only knocking on someone’s front door to welcome them to the village. How dangerous could that be?
‘Come on,’ Maggie said, giving Ivy one last nudge. ‘Where’s your sense of adventure?’
‘I think we both know I’ve never had one of those,’ Ivy mumbled.
‘Besides,’ Maggie said, ‘you know I’m going to go with or without you. Wouldn’t you rather come with me to make sure I don’t get myself killed or in trouble?’
Finally, Ivy sighed. ‘One day, Maggie, you really are going to get us eaten by something or other, and when that day comes, I’m never going to speak to you again.’
‘Love you too, Ivy! See you tomorrow for our best adventure yet!’
As they pulled their curtains for the night and climbed into bed, the chimney of Hokum House began to smoke...