Joshua poked at the chocolate cereal puffs and marshmallow bats floating in the milk puddle on his highchair tray. His cheeks and chin were wet with milk; a couple of mushy bats stuck to his face. His plastic bib was as messy as his tray. He wore most of his food instead of eating it, despite his efforts to the contrary.
He poked at another cereal puff, trying to pinch it between his fingers. The soggy cereal smooshed under his uncooperative fingers. He puffed his cheeks out in frustration, staring down at his hands and the delicate, silvery webbing of scars on his porcelain skin. His skin was so pale the scars were barely visible. He turned his wrist and the spidery, thin lines shimmered with a pearly sheen.
Normal scars were varying shades of pink, red, and white. Not pearl and silver and covering nearly his entire body. The odd scars were souvenirs from a necromantic witch who had slowly burned and destroyed his nerves. He’d been very close to death. Aunt Gertrude saved him just in time. She even brewed him a potion distilled from the Font of Youth, to regrow and restore his injured body. Recovery was not magically instantaneous; his body was like that of a baby, and he had to relearn all over again.
Hence his infantile lack of fine motor skills and barely controlled gross motor skills. And Auntie Gertrude raising him like he was an oversized baby. Physically, he was a baby. He couldn’t even manage to feed himself yet. Josh puffed his cheeks out and smacked one hand into the milk puddle on his tray. His fingers accidentally hit the rim of the bowl; milk and cereal arched through the air and splattered onto the floor.
He froze, eyes going wide as he realized just how big his mess was. He was in so much trouble; Aunt Gertrude would be furious. He wasn’t supposed to feed himself; he wasn’t ready for that yet. Aunt Gertrude had told his big half-sister Tabitha to feed him, but Tabi had snuck down into Aunt Gertrude’s liquor cellar. So Josh had taken the opportunity to prove he was a big boy who could feed himself. He’d failed.
Claws clicked on the tiled floor then a snuffling noise near the high chair legs. Josh looked down to see a monstrous, fluffy black dog-like creature lapping up the milk and cereal. Pandora, Aunt Gertrude’s familiar. Even at peace, Dora was terrifying. She was slightly larger than a Great Dane, bulky, and fluffier than a Tibetan Mastiff. Her cat-like claws and teeth were made for ripping into the flesh of her prey. She was a barghest, a hellhound; a beast who could only be controlled by a powerful witch.
Her massive pink tongue swept out, licking up the last of the spilled breakfast. Dora raised her massive head and started licking the highchair tray. Josh giggled in relief, patting the thick black fur with his clean hand. Orange ribbon was tied in a bow by each ear, making her look pretty for Halloween. Plastic bowl and rubber coated baby spoon clattered to the floor as Dora pushed them out of her way. Finished with the tray, she moved on to Josh’s milk-sticky hand then his face.
Joshua giggled some more, squirming helplessly as her rough tongue tickled his baby soft, delicate skin. He kicked his feet, his soggy diaper crinkling audibly. A wave of warmth engulfed his crotch as he wet himself but he barely paid any attention. He was too busy being tickle-attacked by Dora’s monstrous tongue.
“Pipe down. You’re gonna attract the old bat with all that racket.” Tabitha crept silently out of the basement. She scowled at her little half-brother. They had the same father but different witch mothers. Just looking at him annoyed her. He was so damn pretty; a soft, lovely, delicate baby doll she often just wanted to smash. She felt like an ungainly sow in comparison.
“S-sowwy.” Josh gasped out in a toddler lisp. His lungs ached from laughing. Pandora sat on her haunches, licking the milk and marshmallows off her muzzle. “Doggy tickles.” Shaggy, pale blonde bangs fell into his big green eyes as he ducked his head, looking down at his tray that smelled of doggy slobber. He poked at the mess on his bib. He hated making his big sister mad; it reminded him too much of all the times his mother had been upset with him.
“Whatever. Just don’t start blubbering.” Tabitha snorted, tossing her frizzy dark brown ringlets over her shoulder. She didn’t even glance at his tray or bowl on the floor; she turned and went straight to the kitchen cabinet above the sink to fetch a glass. She held up the pilfered bottle to the autumn morning sun streaming through the window.
The light caught the pale amber liquid, making it sparkle and shimmer. The bottle should have been brown; instead it was clear to show off the liquor. A homemade label decorated with drawings of pumpkins covered in spider webs. She read the squiggly handwriting. “Spider Cider.” She snorted. “Cute. How appropriate for Auntie’s Halloween party.” She sat the bottle down and turned to Joshua, who still sat quietly in his highchair. “You know, I’m 21. I’m finally old enough to go to the Samhain Feast. Become a full-fledged coven member. Instead, my Halloween is stuck here changing your diapers and handing out candy to filthy brats.”
“Sowwy.” Josh whispered softly, not daring to look up at her. Instead he looked around for his binky. He didn’t see it, so he slipped his thumb in his mouth instead and started to suck. Pandora’s wet nose bumped into his bare calf and he smiled a little at the ticklish sensation. The barghest stood in front of the highchair and just stared Tabitha down. She didn’t growl or bare her teeth; she just stared at the girl.
“Dowa, dat not nice.” Josh lisped at the barghest.
That dead stare trapped her like a cornered rabbit. It was the look of a dog that was considering attacking. Pandora often gave Tabitha that look. She found it almost as annoying as Aunt Gertrude’s reprimands. Pandora never attacked her yet, but often looked at her like the damn mutt was thinking about it. Tabi tried to give the familiar a wide berth; all it took was one time, one incident. A barghest attack was hard to survive, and with her sealed magic it was almost impossible.
“I’m not scared of you.” Defiance laced her tone. Her limbs were stiff and her knees shook. “Anyway, since this Halloween’s gonna suck, I might as well have some fun while I can. The least Auntie can do is spare me one lousy bottle of her brew.” She slowly, intentionally turned her back on the beast and tried to open the bottle. Her hands trembled and she waited with baited breath to hear a growl in her ear, pain erupt as teeth sank into her shoulder.
When no attack came, she let out her breath, hitched on a smirk and slowly, cautiously turned around. “Hey, baby pants, you want a sip?” She waved the bottle, amber liquid sloshing around.
“No, he doesn’t. You aren’t having one, either.” A calm, firm voice filled the kitchen. A second later, Tabitha let out a small shriek as her limbs suddenly went numb. She fell to the floor in a sprawled heap; the bottle landed with a muffled thump as if protected by a cushioning charm. She could only stare helplessly as fluffy black cat slippers and a blue floral housecoat filled her vision. She tilted her head, gazing up into the stern face of Aunt Gertrude. Her long black hair was wound up in curlers and her gray-blue eyes gazed unblinkingly at Tabitha as she silently cast her spell. To blink or look away would break the spell that numbed the young woman’s body.
This was the power a witch could achieve. Both thrilling and terrifying. Tabitha was helpless before the head witch of one of the largest American covens. Part of her wanted to become that powerful; to be feared and respected. Most witches used words to help them concentrate. Gertrude didn’t need to. That would never be Tabitha; her powers had been sealed away as punishment for assisting her mother in killing her philandering father, his whore mistress and torturing her bastard son.
“Tabitha. We’ve had this discussion before. I’m disappointed; you know you’re not allowed into my cellar. When I tell you something is too dangerous, I mean it. Drink this-” The bottle floated off the floor and into Gertrude’s palm- “and you’ll rot your insides out. There’s black widow and brown recluse venom in here. This is NOT for human consumption. Took me ages to get the balance of the venom and alcohol just right. A lot of work went into this. Losing just one bottle would cost me a pretty penny. And more importantly, it would cost you your life.”
Joshua chewed his soft lower lip. Auntie Gertrude could be very scary when she wanted to. Tabitha was in trouble. Again. Her judgement had improved less than his motor skills. Under orders from her mother, Tabitha had helped kidnap and torture him. For that, her magic had been sealed. Tabi was no longer a witch- just a normal human. She could still do adult thing. Auntie gave her responsibilities. He’d have traded his own magic to be a big boy again. Tabi had no idea how good she at it. Pandora lay quietly at Josh’s feet, calmly watching Tabitha.
Gertrude released the spell with a blink. “This is your final warning. Do NOT go in there again. If you can’t act like an adult, then I’ll treat you like a child. Maybe you’re not ready to grow up. Maybe I should treat you like Joshy.” She glanced from her niece to her nephew. Reaching out, she tenderly stroked his soft golden locks. Same shade her brother had.
“NO!” Tabi shouted as her limbs began to tingle, sensation slowly returning.
“I asked you to do one simple task. Feed your baby brother. He can’t feed himself yet. Instead, you let him make a mess while you sneak off into a room expressly forbidden.”
“I just wanted to have some fun. I was gonna feed him after-”
Gertrude cut Tabi off. "When? After your stomach became necrotic? " She snorted.
Tabitha glared, her eyes shiny with tears. Josh was the one who made the mess, yet she got blamed for it. Gertrude never made him do any chores or yelled at him. She coddled him. Lucky brat had no idea how good he had it.
The older witch stared down at her a moment longer. Tabi feared for a moment she’d hex her again. “Soon as you get feeling back in your limbs, clean this mess up.”
Gertrude turned to Josh, unbuckling his tray and untying his bib. Her voice gentled into a doting mother’s coo. “Come on, big boy. Let’s get you a nice ba-ba. At least Dora won’t eat that.” From the floor, Pandora snorted.
Joshua obligingly held his arms up. His aunt picked the eighteen year old up as if he weighed nothing more than an actual toddler. He looked down at his sister lying on the floor. Her limbs twitched with muscle spasms, her body recovering from the after-effects of Gertrude’s magic. The gray of Tabi’s sweatpants had a dark, wet ring around the crotch herself and a yellow puddle under her butt. She’d peed herself without realizing it yet. He stuck his thumb in his mouth to hide his giggle. Sure, he peed himself all the time, but that was inside his diaper. Outside, he was dry as a bone. He wanted to make a remark about how maybe Tabi should wear one of his diapers, but thought that would be too mean.
While his bottle heated on the stove, Gertrude poked a stubby finger at the leg holes of his diaper and onesie, checking to see how wet he was. She squeezed the thick, damp padding encasing his backside. The plastic crinkled loudly with each poke and squeeze. “Soggy but I think you can hold out a little longer.”
Josh just continued to stare at Tabitha’s wet crotch. He was too used to diaper checks to be bothered by Auntie Gertrude’s intruding fingers. Since his torture, he’d been unable to use his own magic. As his nerves regrew, he sometimes felt twinges of magic every now and then, like it was a muscle he was just relearning to flex. Was this what it felt like for Tabi and her seal? His eyes traveled up to her chest, just above her heart. A circular, twisting mark burned into the flesh there, a deep magical scar from the spell that sealed her magic. It was hidden by her shirt. Three covens of witches- his mother’s coven, Tabitha’s mother’s coven, and Gertrude’s coven- had to work together to cut the flow of magic from her body. They only spared her because of her young age and hope for redemption.
He shivered like he always did when thinking about it. It would be like having a limb cut off. Losing her magic was a better alternative than execution; her mother’s fate for torturing Josh and killing his mother.
Tabi caught Josh staring. At her teary glare, his eyes quickly darted to the window. Branches of the huge old oak trees swayed in the autumn breeze. Orange, ruby and gold leaves drifted about the huge backyard. Plastic bats and ghosts hanging from the limbs fluttered madly. Gertrude lived in a sprawling suburb with plenty of yard between houses. A cluster of raggedy, half dead pines stood between Auntie Gertrude’s yard and the neighbor’s. The dark of night still seemed to cower within the dense, rotting evergreens. One branch dipped in the opposite direction of the wind.
Josh narrowed his eyes, squinting. Was something in there? A feeling of unease curdled in his stomach. The more he stared, the stronger the feeling grew. Something felt off. Maybe it was just an animal? Nausea rolled over him; he moaned and buried his face in Auntie’s shoulder. Her flowered housecoat smelled of burned coffee and mints.
“Shh. Almost done, baby. You’ll feel better with some warm milky in your tummy.” Gertrude patted his back, rubbing little circles like she did when she burped him. Josh kicked his feet through the air, hearing his soggy diaper crinkle. Didn’t Auntie Gertrude sense whatever was out there? She was a powerful, skilled witch. Pandora more demon than dog. If something truly was wrong, surely they would notice. Auntie always knew everything. He sighed in confusion. His head was telling him one thing and his gut another. He only had a few bites of cereal; maybe he just needed some food.
Gertrude tested the bottle’s temperature on her wrist then nodded her approval. “Come along, Joshy.” She cooed as if he had a choice. She swept past Tabitha without a word.
Tabi lay on her back, tears silently trickling past her clenched lashes. Her teeth dug into her lower lip so hard her skin nearly tore. She choked on her sobs. Only the tips of her fingers and toes tingled now. Still, she did not move. Her crotch and butt were cold and clammy. The scene of her urine filled her nostrils. She knew when she peed herself, the nerves of her bladder bound up in Gertrude’s spell. She said nothing- she wouldn’t give her aunt the satisfaction. Joshua looking at her with pity stung worse than Gertrude’s disappointment. Spoiled brat! What did he know of hardship? His whore of a mother never made him do a damn thing and now their aunt pampered the big baby.
She angrily wiped her face with shaky palms. All she wanted was a little Halloween fun. She didn’t know the alcohol was full of spider venom. That was something a disgusting ghoul would drink. What kind of lunatic would concoct a noxious brew like that? Making Josh feed himself would help him grow up again. Wasn’t that what everyone wanted? Why the hell was Gertrude so hard on her and so soft on him? She had paid her debt for her past actions. Things her mother had coerced her into doing. Why couldn’t the covens just release her and let her get on with her non-magical life instead of trapping her under Gertrude’s guardianship? She was twenty one; an adult by human standards. Witches considered age twenty five, when the brain was fully mature, to be the marker of adulthood. So she was considered a witchling, underage until she hit twenty five. Four more years of being trapped in a hell that constantly reminded her of everything she’d lost because of her mother and Josh.
“Fine. Be that way. See if I care.” She sniffled then scowled. She rubbed her face, hands still shaking. She sat up and winced at the cold pee puddle sloshing around her. “Ugh. After I clean up, I’ll show you who’s a witch.” She vowed with all the venom of a brown recluse.
Joshua crawled along the rough, green carpet of the hallway. The heavy cream coating his bottom caused his cheeks to slide together, almost making it feel like he’d messed himself. He sucked on his yellow and white pacifier; the crinkle of his freshly changed, bulky diaper seemed to echo down the huge, quiet hall. Bright flashes of multi-colored lights shot out from under the door to Auntie Gertrude’s off-limits work room. He knew where his older half sister was; getting into trouble again.
Auntie Gertrude was getting dressed; she had a lot of preparation to do for the Samhain Feast. Her coven was hosting a few other covens along with a contingent of ghouls. Josh had taken advantage of her preoccupation to slip away. He felt like he should check on Tabi because she had looked so miserable and humiliated this morning. Normally, he’d be in his playpen. He rarely got time alone, only when he was in his crib or playpen. Even then, Pandora frequently popped her huge, shaggy head in to check on him. Just like now; as soon as he’d crawled out of the nursery and out of Auntie Gertrude’s sight, Pandora was on his tail.
He paused, turning around to pout at the huge demon dog. “Dowa, shoo!” He lisped in a whisper around the rubber nipple filling his mouth. The familiar just gave him a long, slow blink. Her expression clearly said, Yeah, not gonna happen.
He sighed in defeat. Pandora only listened to Auntie. “Otay but yoos gotta be shush!” He had no choice, so it was just easier to agree to her coming with him. He held up one finger to his paci in a “be quiet” gesture, then started crawling down the hall again.
Dora chuffed, her reply as clear as if she’d uttered the words. I’m not the crinkle-butt.
Josh sucked his paci and crawled on. He’d only figured out how to crawl a few months ago. Walking was still a faraway dream. He hoped he could talk Tabitha out of whatever she was up to this time, though he had a sneaking suspicion it involved attempting to remove her seal. If her magic was sealed, how could she cast a spell? Unless her magic was somehow leaking through.
He frowned behind the plastic shield covering his lips. The light wood of the workroom door creaked as he nudged it open a crack. Bright flashes of Crayola colored light shot out from a small, rapidly boiling cauldron suspended over a bunsen burner. The flickering, painful onslaught blinded him; before he closed his eyes, he caught a brief glimpse of Tabi nervously dancing around with a small blue bottle in one fist. Oh, he knew that bottle well; Aunt Gertrude’s Concentrated Essence of the Font of Youth. Use Sparingly. That little bottle had saved his life and regrew his nerves.
“Yes! I can feel my magic! That stupid seal drained it away, but not anymore. I won’t spend my days as a powerless human!” Tabi crowed, her voice filling Josh’s ears. A chilly autumn wind swept in from the open window. Both made him shiver. An ominous tingle ran down his spine, the same wrong feeling he’d gotten earlier. He whined softly. Pandora made no sound. Had she stayed out in the hall?
“Tabi? Dis bad. Stawp. Peese.” He lisped in a soft plea for her to stop. She never heard his tentative whisper, too swept up in her elation. She poured several large dollops of Font of Youth into the cauldron; with a bubbling whoosh and the shrill whistle of an over boiling tea kettle, all of the colored lights shot out of the cauldron at once. Tabitha screamed. Josh curled up into a ball on the floor as the bubbling brew exploded.
The scent of ozone filled the air. A warm, tingly sensation washed over Josh, the wave of magic cocooning him. What had Tabi done? How? He cautiously cracked open one eye. Multi-colored smoke filled the room like dense fog. He could just make out the outline of the empty cauldron, shimmery potion dribbled down it’s sides and bunsen burner flame out. He couldn’t see much of the room, but he felt normal. He held his hands out in front of him, wiggling his fingers. He looked normal. He sat up and looked around some more, trying to figure out what the potion had affected.
Smoke drifted out the open window; gradually his view cleared. The shelves of books and jars of ingredients and potions lining the walls were intact. Nothing broken or missing, aside from Tabi. Her clothes puddled on the floor like shed snakeskin. A chubby toddler with brown curly hair lay, her head swiveling around in stunned confusion. She spotted him and narrowed her eyes.
“What da heww? Why every fin so big?” What the hell? Why was everything so big? Her voice was a squeaky, toddler lisp. Her eyes grew wide gain and her stubby fingers flew up to her mouth.
Josh was just as shocked. “Tabi? What did you do?” His own words were normal, enunciated adult speech like when he was a big boy. His eyes widened and his fingertips pressed against his lips. They stared at each other, slowly realizing just what had gone wrong. Tabitha was now a baby, and he had his voice back.
Heart pounding, he wondered what else he could do. Was he a big boy again? He pushed off the floor with his legs, expecting to fall any second. He stood up, wobbling as his muscles trembled. He reached out to the wall for support and balance. He giggled, beaming and excited while Tabi watched with narrowed eyes, annoyed he was so happy when she was distressed.
“Oh, Tabitha. Why must you ungraciously throw every change I give you back in my face? You’ve truly done it this time.” Auntie Gertrude stood in the doorway. Dark curls shit with streaks of gray tumbled to her hips and her velvet gown clung to her curves in all the right places. The burgundy cloth was embroidered with pumpkins in thick, gold thread. She crossed her arms, pinning her niece with an ominous stare. “You’ve got too much of your mother in you and not enough of my brother.”
Josh’s smile died on his face when he looked up at his aunt. He was part of this mess, so surely he was in trouble, too. He remembered how angry his mother used to get when he touched her tools or books. He lowered his gaze to Auntie Gertrude’s feet.
“I did nuffin’!” Tabitha insisted, frowning at her toddler voice. Fear crept over her face. She held her hands out in front of her, curling and flexing her soft, pudgy toddler hands as if she couldn’t believe this really was her body.
“I know what you did. Don’t lie to me.” Pandora padded in, shoving her shaggy head under Gertrude’s hand. As a familiar, everything Dora saw, Gertrude saw. Gertrude’s ruby lips stretched in a slow, cruel smile while her blue eyes glittered dangerously. “Aren’t you just precious in that form.”
Panic welled in Tabi. She held her short arms up to her aunt. “I sowwy! Fix it! Fix it!”
Josh leaned quietly against the wall like a terrified mouse before a cat.
Auntie Gertrude crossed her arms. “No. This is a valuable lesson. I’m not shielding you from consequences anymore. Maybe you need to learn the hard way. I’m tired of you sneaking behind my back and messing with my things.”
Tabi’s eyes widened at the revelation her aunt knew all about her sneaking into her workshop on multiple occasions to paw through her spell books and grimoires, searching for a way to break her seal.
“Yes, I know all about your attempts to remove the seal. We left it partially open on purpose, so it would just drain your magic, not cut it off entirely. You’re so young. We thought you could be rehabilitated.” Auntie Gertrude sighed theatrically. “Well, that’s just another topic I’ll have to bring up at the Samhain Feast tonight. For now, you’re staying in that form. Much more manageable that way.”
Tears welled in Tabi’s eyes, but her aunt ignored her.
Gertrude turned to Josh, who shrank back into the wall and let out a little squeak. Warmth spurted into his diaper and he closed his eyes tightly, waiting to be hollered at.
“Now, this I hadn’t expected.”
“I’m sorry, Auntie. I-” Josh winced and mumbled, wringing his hands.
"Shush, child. I just didn’t expect you to get caught up in your sister’s misused magic. I don’t know exactly what she did wrong and I don’t have time to figure it out. " Auntie Gertrude shook her head. Both Joshua and Tabitha knew that spells and potions could have unintended consequences, like mixing chemicals.
“Come here, sweetie. Walk to auntie.” She smiled a sweet, motherly smile and held her arms out as if he were a toddler.
He relaxed at her syrupy tone, opening his eyes and looking at his now baby sister on the floor, then up at his aunt. Her face radiated love and understanding. He stretched out his arms and took a shaky tentative step from the wall. The huge diaper that hampered his crawling now forced his legs apart in a waddle, making his slow, wobbly walking even more off balance. After a few steps, he stumbled.
Auntie Gertrude caught him, her hands lifting him up by his armpits and settling him onto her hip, one arm under his diapered bottom. “Such a good boy!” She praised and he smiled, snuggling against her. He noticed when his crotch grew warm for a moment before the thirsty padding of the diaper whisked it away. He still wasn’t potty trained. He frowned.
Tabi screamed; his head jerked up to see he wasn’t the only one who peed. The adult sized clothes puddled around her were soaked with her pee. Tears streamed down her face as she wailed, looking pathetically up at Auntie Gertrude, who just shook her head.
“No. You’re staying there. I need to find a babysitter. At the last minute. On Samhain. As if I didn’t have enough to do with overseeing the Feast preparations. Maybe Matilda still has some baby crap laying around……I’m not wasting my time with resizing spells. Dora, watch the brat.”
The barghest lay down, calmly watching as Tabitha screamed her disgust, anger, and frustration in a spectacular, wailing tantrum that would have done any toddler proud. Josh winced at the piercing shrieks.
Auntie Gertrude carried him out of the room; he looked over her shoulder from his howling sister to the window. The smoke had cleared, but the leaves of the tree outside the window shimmered as they absorbed the smoke. Murky unease twisted his insides, feeling him with the sense that something was very, very wrong. He whimpered.
“Shh. It’s okay, baby. I know you feel bad for your sister, but she brought this on herself.” Gertrude bounced him soothingly as she walked down the corridor.
He shook his head. “The smoke went out the window. The leaves look funny. Something doesn’t feel right.” He hesitated a moment. “I felt it earlier, too.”
Gertrude kissed his soft baby cheek, inhaling the sweet fragrance of powder and lotion. Underneath floated subtle notes of newborn. The elixir she’d given him so long ago after his torture even made him smell like a baby. She smiled.
“You just got hit with a hefty dose of potion. Of course you’re topsy turvy and all out of sorts. If something was wrong, I’d know. I keep a close eye on everything. Including my babies.” She picked his dangling paci up and gently pushed the rubber nipple against his soft, pink lips.
Josh automatically opened his mouth, taking the paci and sucking. Auntie Gertrude was right, but the uneasy feeling still needled him. Another wave of warm pee spurted into his diaper just as he heard the snaps on the crotch of his sleeper pop open. Her fingers poked at his now exposed diaper. He thought of Tabi shivering helplessly in a cold puddle of her pee and he suddenly felt awful about how loving their aunt was being with him. He took his paci out. “I’m a big boy.” He hedged softly.
“Yes, you are. Somewhat.” Her hand roamed to the seat of his diaper, checking for a mess. “You still need your diapees.”
“I…I can take care of Tabi…” He whispered even softer, not daring to meet her eyes. Whenever he used to suggest something, his mother would get mad at him.
“That’s very sweet of you, but she has a lesson to learn. I’ll take care of her in a little bit. Now, how about a nice baba of chocolate milk while I make a few calls.” She put his paci back in his mouth.
Hours later, Joshua dozed in his adult sized baby swing. The thick, soft padding cradled him while the hypnotic rocking lulled him close to sleep. For him, all Halloween meant was a babysitter instead of Auntie Gertrude and lots of kids in costumes constantly ringing the doorbell for candy. He was more of a spectator; he got to watch some Halloween kid shows on TV, like Spookly the Square Pumpkin, and some soft candies and chocolates to nibble on.
The stewed, mashed prunes and carrots he’d had for lunch filled his belly, making him feel drowsy. Every time his swing slowed, it automatically wound itself back up with a rhythmic click-clack. Pandora lay in front of the large, empty fire place behind him. Dusty boxes piled besides the fireplace were full of old baby paraphernalia that Mr. Toadwart, Gertrude’s partner in the brewery business, had brought the boxes over after Gertrude’s desperate call. He could hear the barghest snoring. His swing faced the kitchen entrance and the big bay window to the front yard.
Tabitha lay quietly stewing, strapped into a baby sized bouncer. She wore a white fuzzy sleeper with a happy cartoon Jack O Lantern on the front and two small ones on the butt. Old spit up stains dotted the front, making her feel like a baby. As if those were promises of what’s she’d be doing in the future. Layers of old cloth diapers and plastic panty ballooned out ridiculously thick, forcing her legs far apart and straining against the sleeper snaps on her crotch. Even crawling would be impossible in those monstrous diapers. She stared contemptuously down at the rattle clenched in one tiny fist.
Both of them watched quietly as Gertrude poured Mr. Toadwart a glass of her Spider Cider in the kitchen.
“Tabi?” Josh spoke softly, a gentle prod to get her attention. It was unusual for her to stay pissed off at him for so long. Normally, she’d cool off and sulk. Her rigid posture and narrowed eyes radiated anger. The only reason she was stuck like this was because Aunt Gertrude refused to change her back.
“Wat?” At his timid voice, her head shot up and she glared at him.
His tentative ‘how are you feeling’ died on his tongue. He dropped his gaze, voice a whisper. “Nothing. Nevermind.” Too late; he’d already provoked her.
“Dis yew fawt” This was all Josh’s fault. She’d had everything almost under control until he crawled in and broke her concentration. And, as always, Gertrude blamed her for it. His normal, adult speech just rubbed salt into the wound.
“Sorry?” He offered in peace.
“Wiar.” Liar. Tabi glowered at him, frustration boiling over. She hadn’t dared lash out at their aunt, but she couldn’t take it anymore. First she lost her magic because of the things her mother had made her do, and now she lost her adulthood because of Josh. It wasn’t her fault. Her mother had ordered her to restrain and hex Josh. All they had done was inflict a little pain on a whore and her offspring.
She threw the scratched up rattle as hard as she could. It tumbled through the air to plop on the carpet, halfway between her and Josh. Dora opened one eye and growled softly in warning. Tabi winced in fear, put her nose in the air and primly turned her head away. She tried to show she wasn’t afraid at all.
In the kitchen, Mr. Toadwart sniffed the cider, admiring the scent, then took a deep sip. “Oh yes. Wonderful. The color, the bouquet. Just the right amount of venom. From different species, no less. So hard to get the venoms to blend and ferment well. Leave it to a witch to figure it out!” He laughed. “After we unveil this masterpiece tonight and I market it, ghouls, goblins, demons and boggarts will be showering us in gold.” He raised his glass in a toast, grinning and showing his crooked teeth.
“I can’t thank your wife enough.” Gertrude strolled into the living room with Mr. Toadwart.
“My pleasure. Matilda just loves babies, so she was happy to help. Our kids are all grown and the empty nest just drives her nuts. She would have loved to babysit; you know how much she adores little Joshy. Alas, she already has plans to go haunting with her sister. She does hope you’ll keep her in mind for future babysitting engagements.” Mr. Toadwart glided serenely behind his host, swirling the cider in his glass.
Both babies stared at the ghoul they rarely got to see but heard so much about. His long, stringy black hair was pulled back in a low ponytail and tied with a black and orange ribbon. His clothes carried a vibe of 18th century aristocracy, with a skull stickpin in his black cravat. His orange silk vest gleamed, making his light green skin that much paler. Warts and moles speckled his face and hands. He was long and lean, towering over Gertrude. He was a most distinguished ghoul.
“Of course. I just don’t know about tonight.” Gertrude sighed, frowning. Her eyes narrowed at the rattle on the floor then at Tabitha, who shrank in her bouncer.
Josh winced at the mention of Matilda Toadwart. She’d babysat him many times before. She was wartier and rounder than her husband, and had a fondness for rectal thermometers and enemas for constipated babies. She also thought of Josh as a helpless newborn, constantly holding and sniffing him. She wouldn’t even let him hold his own bottles. If he didn’t mess within an hour after eating, she was shoving suppositories up his backside. She was suffocating. But if Tabi was a baby and Mrs. Toadwart watched them together, maybe he’d get a little breathing room? He almost felt guilty at the thought. Almost.
Tabi didn’t know the horror that was Mrs. Toadward. She just watched with defiant eyes as two small, plump orange mittens with Jack O Lantern faces floated out of the box and fastened themselves onto her hands, tying in secure bows she couldn’t undo. The padding was so thick and stiff she couldn’t even bend her fingers. She whined angrily, trying to shake the horrible things off.
“Nice try, sweetie. Those are staying on. It’s not nice to throw things at your brother.” Gertrude smiled at Tabi’s pouty scowl.
“Spunky little girl. Reminds me of when mine were small brats.” Mr. Toadward smiled fondly. “How about Pandora?” He glanced at the snoozing barghest.
“You’re only really needed there for a few hours. You can slip away early. Business is important, but so is family. I can handle the cider on my own. I’m sure you have other witches in your coven you can delegate duties too? Just this one night.”
“This one prestigious night. We were given the honor of hosting the Feast and-”
“There’s not much of a choice. Dora’s a fine familiar. Your coven mates are trustworthy, are they not? The babies will be safe inside the house. Put them in a playpen. What could possibly happen in just a few hours?” Mr. Toadwart cut her off, gazing down at the liquid in his glass and admiring the quality of the color.
“I can help!” Josh quietly listened, but at the ghoul’s words, he perked up and waked his hands up to get their attention. “I’m a big boy! I can help!”
Both smiled in an oh-that’s-adorable way. Gertrude laughed. “Looks like I’m being railroaded. Alright.” She gave in reluctantly, plopping down onto the sofa. “I can pare down my responsibilities to the bare necessities and pass the rest along. And I had such lovely speeches planned…” She sighed.
Josh smiled. He was going to prove he could be a big, helpful boy. Just like Tabi when she was grown up, except he’d actually listen and follow directions. He looked out the window. The front yard was scattered with plastic, crumbly graves, bones and rotting zombie limbs. The long walkway was lined with carved Jack O Lanterns waiting to be lit. Orange, red, and yellow leaves sprinkled across the lawn. A breeze blew, rustling the fake spider-webbed bushes and scooping up leaves. More leaves from the backyard drifted past in a blur of purple, blue, teal and magenta.
He hased, eyes widened. “Look!” He pointed. Tabi’s eyes widened with an ‘oh shit’ expression on her face. Nervously, she looked at their aunt.
Gertrude chuckled. “Sweetie, it’s fine. They’re just leaves. You worry too much.”
Josh bit his lip. The leaves were gone. Auntie knew much more than he did; maybe she was right. He couldn’t shake the feeling she was wrong.
“I’m off now. You two stay here. I already put the candy bowl outside so kids won’t bother you. Dora’s in charge. Fresh bottles in the fridge. Fresh diapers on the babies.” Gertrude laughed at her little joke.
“Bye Auntie. Have fun! We’ll be good. I’ll help Dora out!” Josh promised.
“I know you will, sweetie. It’s not you I’m worried about.” Her gaze slid to her niece, who lay on her back on a floor playmat. Tabi shook her rattle loudly, pointedly ignoring her. “Now give auntie some sugar!” Gertrude kissed both Josh’s cheeks.
With that, Gertrude stepped back and headed for the door where Mr. Toadwart was waiting. He handed over her fancy black dress cloak with silver embroidery then extended his elbow to her. She blew Josh and Tabi kisses, then was gone in a swish of cloak and skirt.
Soon as the door shut, Josh stood up from the floor and waddled to the bay window. The sun hadn’t set yet, and auntie already had him in his extra thick, noisy night diaper. The plastic backed monstrosity covered most of his torso and was almost as thick as Tabitha’s cloth diapers. His candy-corn striped sleeper barely fit over all that bulk. He was just glad this sleeper didn’t come with attached mittens or feet.
He waved as Mr. Toadwart’s shiny black cadillac whizzed past. Gertrude and Mr. Toadwart both waved back. Once the shiny car disappeared around a corner, Josh stared out into the empty street and festive yards. A few houses hadn’t decorated, but most had happy or spooky Jack O Lanterns and yards full of witches, ghosts, vampires, zombies, werewolves, bats, skeletons and other assorted Halloween spooky ookies. Some kept it cute and kid friendly while others went for outright horror worthy of any R-rated slasher. Soon the streets would be teeming with costumed kids on a candy hunt. He sighed, drifting into memories of his own childhood Halloweens.
The wind picked up in a sudden, leaf blowing gust and fat rain drops splattered on the glass. Something heavy smacked into the window with a wet thump. Josh screamed, jumping back. His diaper grew warm as he wet. Tabitha jerked at his scream, turning to the window then let out a little shriek of her own.
A blue leaf plastered to the window right in front of his face. In the middle of the leaf, a little slit opened, revealing rows of tiny, jagged teeth that dug into the glass. With a puff of black smoke, Pandora appeared at Josh’s side, growling softly.
The wind picked up, dragging the leaf across the window. Loud screeching filled the room as the tiny teeth scratched the glass before the shimmery, pretty blue leaf was whisked out of sight.
A strangled whimper escaped Josh’s numb lips. He placed a shaky hand on top of Dora’s thick, coarse black fur. His fingers dug deep, searching for the soft pelt of her undercoat, seeking comfort. Tabitha struggled to stand, fighting the enormous bulk of her cloth diapers. Her plastic panty rustled noisily.
Pandora suddenly whirled, racing for the back door and barking madly. In a panic, Josh waddled after her as fast as his bulky diaper would allow. The leaves were mutating into little monsters. Magic was complex and unpredictable, especially spells that went wrong. This was something only a fully trained and experienced witch could handle. Josh had limited magic, even more limited training along with little idea what went wrong with Tabi’s spell. He knew even less how to fix it.
His mother had given him minimal magic training. She’d been more interested in her own affairs than her son from an accidental pregnancy. Auntie Gertrude had promised to train him when he was a big boy again. But now, he was overwhelmed and scared.
Pandora had simply ran through the backdoor. Small skeins of black smoke lingered by the heavy wood. The old oak tree by the workroom window had a foliage lush and vibrant with unnatural hues. Dozens of purple, cyan, and pink leaves floated on the breeze while Pandora raced around the yard, barking madly. A few leaves made it out of the yard, escaping on the autumn wind. The barghest turned her attention to the yard line; the rest of the leaves smacked to a half, as if they hit an invisible wall.
The scent of magic tingled in the air. Pandora had thrown up a barrier. Colored leaves fluttered around her; she snapped and growled at the ones that got too close. All those little leaf monsters and she was out there all alone. Whimpering softly, Josh struggled to open the door with a trembling hand. He finally pried it open, stepping onto the back porch just in time to see a purple leave scrape by on the ground. It was purple, plump and furry, screeching angrily as its little teeth left long scrapes in the wood.
More leaves fell from the enchanted tree, screeching when they hit Dora’s barrier. Josh watched as the escaped leaves fluttered down the street with nerve-wracking chitters. One leaf fluttered inches past Josh’s face; it chittered and snapped at him. He screamed, stumbling back into the house. He shut the door as the wind shifted, another pink one coming at him and smacking off the door’s window.
Pulse racing, he stared at the whirl of leaves confined to the back yard. What about the escaped leaves? In a puff of dark smoke, his aunt’s barghest appeared at his side. “Dora, what should we do? We need to get Auntie.”
Dora snorted. The neighborhood whistle blew, signaling the start of Trick or Treat.
“We go Twick Tweat.” Tabi lisped as she toddled into the room, diaper crinkling loudly. “We wook for weaves.”
“Go look for leaves? But Auntie said to stay here.” Josh chewed his lip and looked at Pandora, but the hellhound was focused on the back yard and swirling, chittering leaves. Those leaves were dangerous and the streets full of Trick or Treaters….Pandora couldn’t leave; she had to contain the rest of the leaves.
“Gotta go.” Tabi insisted, frowning up at her little half brother. She hated being so helpless, so dependent on others like the big dumb baby that was her brother. She didn’t care much what the leaf critters would do to any humans, but if anything did happen, Aunt Gertrude would probably blame her.
“We’ll go walk around and find those things. Make sure no one gets hurt.” He wrung his hands nervously.
When he made no further move, Tabi huffed. “Wet’s go, dum-dum.” She held her arms up; Josh was bigger and his legs could toddle faster than hers. Her cheeks went red in embarrassment and she silently cursed her aunt. Josh picked her up, carried her into the living room, then dug a folding umbrella stroller out of the largest box. He also found a faded orange pumpkin candy pail. The crinkling of his diaper filled the room as he worked. He focused on his tasks, trying not to think. If he thought too much, he’d think himself out of this crazy, terrifying plan. He wanted to be a baby again, safe and sound with Auntie Gertrude.
“Costumes.” Tabitha lisped out. They had to blend in with the Trick or Treaters. Joshua just nodded his head, digging through the boxes and pulled out a faded baby peapod costume. She glared at the green sleepsack as he dressed her. Then he dug through the closet, pulling out an old, worn cloak and Gertrude’s rainboots. The cloak dragged on the floor and his feet slid around in the too big boots.
He strapped Tabi into her stroller then hesitated at the front door. “Go!” Tabi hollered, pointing imperiously with one small, pudgy arm. Her plastic pail sat on her lap. Biting his lip nervously, Josh waddled out, pushing the stroller. The long cloak hid his bulging diaper even if it didn’t muffle the crackly crinkle.
This was an old, old neighborhood, surrounded by woods. Cracks ran along the uneven pavement of the sidewalks and potholes filled the roads. The houses were in better repair, though a few were boarded up here and there. Most were cheerfully decorated for this most ominous night. The sky blazed bright pink and orange as the sun set, dying the heavy rain clouds dark purple.
Shrieking, laughing children filled the streets, racing from one brightly lit house to the next. Josh held onto the stroller with a nervous death grip. His head swivelled around but he saw no sign of the drifting leaves. They went from house to house under the guise of getting candy, Josh toddling slowly to peer at the shadows, under bushes, piles of leaves in the yards. No one noticed the crinkling rustle of his diaper. Tabi thrust her pumpkin out at each door, lisping “Twick Tweat!” and leave a blushing Josh to stammer out a thank you.
Josh’s thick, padded protection forced him to waddle slowly. Holding onto the stroller helped him balance. He toddled down one side of the street and up the next, growing more worried the further they got from Aunt Gertrude’s house. He felt like he was leaving a safe refuge far behind. Street after street passed. Josh emptied the candy pail into a grocery bag hanging from a stroller handle. Night pressed in, held back by street lights, porch lights and Jack O Lanterns. They press on with no sign of the cursed leaves. They clearly weren’t causing any damage. Josh wanted to go home, but Tabi insisted they press on.
The houses at the bottom of a steep hill were mostly decorated, but all of the lights were out. None of the myriad of costumed children went down there; they considered the steep walk too much effort. At the bottom of the hill, a Dead End sign marked an even steeper alley. The streetlight was burned out, making the alley seem like the gaping maw of a monster.
An eerie, familiar feeling tingled down Josh’s spine. The same sensation he’d been feeling all day. He tensed, frozen on the spot and staring down the hill, into the darkness of the alley. The wind blew and he shivered. Such a dreary, cold Halloween. It didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the excited children racing around behind them. All it did was convince the adults to stay indoors, leaving the children to ring doorbells. A few fat raindrops fell.
“What?” Tabi frowned when Josh wasn’t moving. He just kept staring, shaking. She didn’t sense anything. “Go!” He never replied.
Something small and teal glimmered in a shaft of moonlight escaping the thick rain clouds. The wind picked up, sweeping the teal leaf up. It chittered angrily, open mouth and exposed teeth biting at the air. It disappeared down the dark alley.
Tabi gasped when she saw it. “Go! Fowwow!” She hollered. Being pushed around in the stroller was nice if humiliating. She hated being small and helpless, dependent upon Josh to go chasing after the leaf. His reluctance and fear were frustrating. They were the children of witches! Why should they be afraid? Did Josh ever feel like this all the times she’d teased him? If he got them through this, she silently vowed to herself not to pick on him so much.
“No. Something bad’s down there. I can feel it.” Josh’s diaper crinkled as he took an unsteady step backwards. His eyes never left the alley.
“NO! GO!” Tabi hollered, voice squeaking. She scowled. Josh winced, warmth washing over his crotch as he peed.
“J-just to the bottom of the hill. A-a small peek wouldn’t h-hurt.” He mumbled. His sister might be smaller but she was still a pain in the ass. He could turn the stroller around, wait until Auntie Gertrude came home and tell her all about it. The leaves hadn’t bitten anyone so far. But maybe a quick look, just to confirm the leaf really was down there was a good idea. His legs shook, the plastic of his diaper rustling loudly as he slowly waddled down to the mouth of the alley.
Purple and blue leaves scuttled along the alley lip, disappearing into the darkness. Like they were gathering there. He whimpered, wishing he had his binky to suck on for reassuring comfort. Tabi kept her eyes glued to the leaves, repeatedly yelling at her stupid brother to go faster. She growled, banging her small fists on the stroller frame in her frustration.
At the lip of the alley, they argued. Josh wanted to go home. Tabi wanted to go down the alley. She shrieked, throwing a shrill tantrum that pierced through his ears and right into his skull. He started to turn to head back up the hill when his foot slipped in the too big boot. He tripped on the crumbled edge of a curb, falling onto the sidewalk. He cried out as he lost his hold on the stroller. The steep slope caused the stroller to roll forward. Tabi and Josh locked eyes in the split second before the stroller went careening down the alley.
“Tabi!” Josh cried as she started screaming her lungs out. He struggled to get up, tripping over the boots in his desperation to get to his big baby sister. He reached out, fingers closing on empty air as the darkness swallowed Tabi, her terrified cries filling the night.
“I’m coming! Hold on!” Heart pounding, Josh scrambled after her. The alley was in horrible shape. Chunks of asphalt lined the numerous potholes. In his rush, he skidded on cinders and slipped on pebbles before a deep pothole caught his toe, tripping him. He tumbled head over heels down the steep incline, disappearing just like his sister.
He landed in a heap. He hurt everywhere. His face throbbed, sticky with blood and cinders from scratches. The thick cloak had protected the rest of his body. His head swam, throbbing too much to think straight. The world spun. He moaned softly. The stench of rotten meat filled his nostrils, making him gag. He sputtered, coughing feebly. Tabitha whimpered softly, causing him to open his eyes.
Slowly, ever so slowly, his sight adjusted. The clouds shifted with the wind, spilling moonlight that illuminated the bottom of the dark alley. Parts of an old cobblestone road shone through the cracked and broken asphalt. Abandoned, overgrown yards lined the road. Three houses, all burned down to their foundations long ago, were the only dwellings down here. The woods pressed in, slowly reclaiming the abandoned area. The houses were old, some of the oldest in the neighborhood, forgotten leftovers from more prosperous times.
Tabi whimpered again. Josh moaned, slowly moving his pain filled limbs. A soft chittering sound approached. Fear spiked through him. His eyes shot wide open. He immediately jerked back from the teal, purple, and blue furry leaves. Little beady red eyes glowed in the dim, pale light and their stems swished, resembling rat tails. They were drawn by the scent of his blood, chittering in excitement.
The scent of his fear filled the air. A rustling behind the monsters sent them scurrying away with disgruntled screeches. At first he thought it was just a pile of dry leaves. Brown, dry, dead leaves of late fall. Then he realized they overlapped like scales on a fish, forming a cloak or robe of sorts. Abnormally long, skeletally thin arms coated with rough, bark like skin poked out like branches. A long, beak like nose protruded from the knobby, misshapen head while two yellow eyes stared at him with a yearning hunger. Behind the creature, Tabi sat unharmed in her stroller. Her own eyes were huge in a ghost white face.
They both knew what the creature was, and what it did. Any child of the supernatural world knew. Erkling- meat eaters who heavily favored the soft, sweet, tender flesh of the easy-to-hunt young. Nausea churned Josh’s stomach; this was the source of wrong he’d been sensing all day.
“Sweet child.” The erklilng husked in a voice as dry as the leaves clothing it. “I’ve been waiting for you ever since I first smelled you. Such a sweet, tender babe.”
Terror washed over Josh. He barely noticed his diaper flooding with warmth. He scrambled backwards in a crab-like scuttle, hands and feet tangling in the voluminous, torn cloak. He screamed with all his might, desperately calling for help. He screamed until his lungs and throat ached. He reached inside him, clawing at his own magic, but like his bladder and bowel control it was beyond his reach.
The erkling chuckled, amused at his terror. Savoring it like a sweet dessert. “Scream all you want. They can’t hear you. Get that blood pumping. Makes your meat all the more sweet.” It chuckled at its own joke, drifting closer. It moved faster than Josh could crawl. He clawed at the cloak, screaming with a raw throat. The erkling loomed over him, leaning low. He lashed out with a boot, his foot getting caught in the leaf cloak. The flesh eater laughed. It’s putrid breath washed over him.
A tootsie roll bounced off the creature’s head, followed by a peanut butter pumpkin.
“Weave him awone!” Tabi’s toddler voice called out. She chucked another piece of candy from her pumpkin, trying to chase the monster off her stupid baby brother. The candy missed, bouncing off the lip of a pothole and hitting the teal leaf-critter. It hissed like an angry cat and scuttled away.
The erkling turned to her. “I almost forgot about you. Little baby who smells like an adult. You’d taste just as bad, too. But your delicious brother….” It turned back just in time to see Josh clutching a large chunk of asphalt. He threw it. The erkling just laughed, easily catching it.
“Delicious little morsel. You smell like a newborn. You’re one of the few who ingested the Font of Youth and lived. A big baby indeed.” With a dry, leafy rustle, the erkling suddenly stood in front of him. It moved with the speed of a vampire or werewolf, so fast Josh could barely see it.
He cried out, stumbling backwards. Hard, twiggy hands grabbed him, squeezing his thin upper arms through the cloak. He whimpered in pain and fear, nearly fainting. The erkling leaned in close, inhaling the intoxicating scent of his pain, fear, and baby softness. Josh leaned back, desperate to keep as much distance as he could between him and those terrible, sharp teeth. The long fingers gripping him only dug in harder. He whimpered again.
“Such soft, succulent flesh. Mmm…I’m going to savor this feast. The hunt was well worth it. So hard to lure you out here. I thought my pretty pets would do the trick. At least they worked on your sister.” He grinned, laughing as the purple, blue, and teal leaf critters crawled into his cloak with chitters and rustles.
“Y-you m-made T-Tabi’s p-potion exp-plode!” Josh squeaked out in a fearful stutter.
“It was quite the risk, too. If that witch detected me…but my gamble paid off. Oh yes.” The erkling drew Josh close, lifting his feet off the ground. He kicked out with both feet, boots rustling the leaf cloak. All he got were irritated hisses from the leaf monsters. The erkling’s mouth stretched open, resembling the hideous mouths of his pets.
Josh struggled, thrashing. His arms were numb from the tight grip. He couldn’t break loose. His wet diaper crinkled with each kick. That horrible mouth and jagged teeth drew closer. He closed his eyes, expecting a bite followed by a world of pain and blood as he was eaten alive, torn apart bite by bite.
Tabi frantically threw all her candy followed by the pumpkin, but it was futile.
A rasping, barbed tongue dragged over his cheek, digging into the crusty scrapes and licking off the freshly drying blood. Josh cried out in pain, mind numb with fear and pulse pounding. A noxious smell filled the air, mingling with the erkling’s scent of decaying flesh. A warm, mushy mess spread over Josh’s backside as he filled the seat of his diaper. The scent of his mess didn’t faze the erkling. He felt the first needle-like prick of teeth as the creature started to bite down.
Suddenly, the erkling let him go. Air whooshed out of his lungs upon impact with the ground. Horrible, raspy, pain filled screeching rent the air. He opened his eyes to see the erkling writhing on the ground, thrashing around as if in the grips of a seizure. Josh could only watch as it screamed in agony. The hem of a burgundy robe embroidered with gold pumpkins swept past, blocking his view but not the screeches.
“You rotten shit. Snatch a few human kids? Not my problem. But my babies?” Malice dripped from Gertrude’s voice. She paused and the intensity of the erkling’s shrieks increased. The screams dragged on as she tortured it. Occasionally, Josh saw a limb or leaf flail past her skirt. He lay still and quiet, relief washing away his fear. He trembled slightly, limbs still stiff.
Finally, the awful shrieks and screeches died down to gutteral moans that tapered off into exhausted croaks. Gertrude stepped back, revealing a scrawny, twiggy toad with terrified yellow eyes. Tatters of purple, blue, and teal fur lay on the ground around the toad, along with shredded bits of normal, red, yellow, and orange leaves.
“You’ve been skulking around this neighborhood for weeks. I could never pinpoint your location but I knew you were there. Pandora did, too. I didn’t think you’d be stupid enough to touch my babies.”
Josh whimpered softly like a terrified puppy calling its mother. Gertrude turned, scooping him up as if he weighed nothing more than an actual toddler. “There, there baby. You’re safe.” The scent of her spicey orange perfume washed over him. At her gentle coo and warm touch, Josh broke down sobbing. His tears flowed freely, washing away his pent up fear and relief. He was safe. The salt in his tears stung the raw scrapes on his face.
“Sweetie. Let it all out. I’ll get you home and cleaned up. Auntie’s here now.” She kissed the top of his golden head. He buried his face in her shoulder, hiding from the world. Her cloak soaked up his tears. She gingerly poked at his diaper; just from the smell, she knew he needed changed. Josh just continued to sob, too distraught to care what she was doing. He just wanted her to hold him, to feel safe and secure in her arms.
The toad took advantage of her distraction and tiredly hopped towards the tall, thick brown grasses of the abandoned yards. Tabitha squealed softly to get Aunt Gertrude’s attention.
“Let him go.” Gertrude said calmly, rubbing little circles on Josh’s trembling back.
Tabi’s eyes widened in disbelief. Let it go? Why? It was going to eat them!
“I tortured it before I transfigured it. Gonna take that thing a long time to figure out how to break that spell.” She grinned. “I got my pound of flesh off it.” She undid the clasp on Josh’s cloak then tucked it around Tabi like a blanket then wrapped Josh up in her own cloak.
Tabi stared at her aunt, wishing Pandora had saved them instead. Was Gertrude going to blame her for this mess, too? Her aunt was almost as scary as an erkling.
“Tabitha. Overall, you did well tonight. You gave up your candy to protect your brother. I was surprised.”
Tabitha glanced at the grass where the toad disappeared to the pumpkin and candy scattered on the ground. She said nothing. Josh was the one who’d ran down the hill after her. Would she have done the same for him? She only saved him because she needed him to help fight the erkling. Right?
“Maybe I’ll reconsider undoing the effects of your little mishap. Seems like a fitting reward.”
Hope leapt like a fragile bird in her heart. She kept her gaze resolutely lowered; she wasn’t going to give Aunt Gertrude the satisfaction. But maybe if she cooperated a little bit it would convince Gertrude to stick to those words. “I…I need a new d-diaper. I’m…m-my diaper…wet…” She mumbled.
“Is that so?” Aunt Gertrude’s smile was that of a serene, gentle mother as she glided over. She held Josh on her hip with one arm and her free hand poked at Tabitha’s crotch. Tabi’s face was red and she looked away, but she still felt the invading fingers checking how wet she was. “Yupp, you’re one wet little girl. Let’s head home and get my babies cleaned up.” She patted Tabi’s head and kissed Josh’s golden locks. “Your witch’s brew caused quite an unforgettable Samhain.”