The Witch at Westport High by Samuel Van Pelt

Samuel Van Pelt’s fiction has appeared in PERIHELION SF, THE MARTIAN WAVE, and is upcoming in others. He holds a degree in computer science and makes his living as a software engineer for a large technology company. He enjoys science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and writes from his home in Seattle.


The Witch at Westport High

img_1946Lily dumped me and, if it weren’t for whisky, I’d be upset about it. But here I am, five shots—I counted—deep and on the floor of my studio apartment. I haven’t counted in a while, not since high school, but it feels like the right thing to do. Drinking and counting are my hobbies. What could be better than counting? Other than drinking.

Anyway, I’m drunk and looking through my Westport High yearbook. I’m not sad, but Lily and I started dating at Westport. Lily Whit, captain of the debate team, coolest girl in western Washington. I don’t mind being broken up with her. We only dated four years (minus fourteen days). Four years isn’t that long. That’s why I’m not upset about it. Lily Whit, vice president of the Student Body Association. We should have elected her president. That’s what I think. It was a long time ago, though, so I am not really worried about it.

I was treasurer, Lily was vice president, and Hannah was president. Hannah the Witch. I was treasurer because I liked counting things. In my senior year the SBA made money. Two hundred dollars in the black.

Hannah the Witch and Lily hated each other. The SBA didn’t have joint tickets. Anyone could run for president, and the runner-up got vice. Bozzy said Hannah stuffed the ballot box, but he was wrong. There were four-hundred-thirty-two students in Westport High and four-hundred-thirty-two ballots cast on the presidential ballot. Bozzy was just in love with Lily and couldn’t figure how anyone could vote for Hannah the Witch.

Bozzy was my best friend. Bozzy was also Hannah’s brother.

“Will,” Bozzy said. I called Bozzy “Bozzy” because he looked like a Bozzy. He had that chiseled chin and bleached hair that you’d expect of a Bozzy. Bozzy called me Will because Will was my name. “Will, we’ve got to get to the bottom of this.”

“Bottom of what?” I asked. The announcements for SBA election results were posted on the bulletin board in the lunchroom. We discussed them over lunch.

“The Witch stuffed the ballot box.”

“She didn’t. I counted.” Lunch was stale peas, corn, and chicken-fried steak; I moved the peas into a line so I could see how many there were before eating.

“She did, I assure you,” he said. Bozzy also had the self-assurance of a Bozzy. Trying to convince him he was wrong was like trying to convince a mountain it was a hill.

“I counted the ballots, Bozzy.”

“Even so,” he said, “there’s something afoot: mischief, Will, mischief.”

Bozzy wasn’t elected to the SBA. He might have made a better president than Hannah. Presidents were mostly in charge of planning dances, and the electoral process didn’t reflect that fact. Hannah ran on a platform of change. Lily ran on a platform of class-schedule renegotiation. In the end, both things happened, but Hannah’s prom was pretty lame (that’s not important, though).

I’m thinking of having another drink. Maybe a double. That’d make seven shots. Seven is a lot of shots.

“You know why we call her the Witch, right, Will?”

“Her nose?” I asked. We had always called her the Witch.

“No,” Bozzy said, “she turns lizards into newts.”

“That doesn’t seem very useful.”

“It’s a metaphor.” Bozzy took a big bite of steak and then talked through the mouthful. “Ever since middle school, she’s been able to convince anyone to do anything. She tricked me into doing her chores more than once. I was a free-spirited lizard, and she turned me into an obedient newt. That’s how she stuffed the ballot box.”

“By convincing people to vote for her? Isn’t that just politics?”

“Will, you really don’t get it, do you? She cheated. The Witch cheated! Her magic wears off after a while, that’s why I didn’t vote for her. I know how to avoid it now.”

Seventeen peas on my plate, by the way. They tasted like the last bit of milk in a cup after several backwashing swallows. Not as fresh, though. Bozzy didn’t mind. He cleaned his plate before I finished counting the corn.

We haven’t gotten to Lily Whit, coolest girl in western Washington (even though we weren’t dating yet). Bozzy was convinced we needed to solve the election fix (even though it wasn’t a fix, I counted). Hannah was turning the faculty lizards into newts (we’ll get to that). Lily Whit was tearing down election posters.

After lunch, I went to economics. Westport was a white-collar town. Lots of boats and boat shoes. They didn’t teach personal finance (everyone had a personal financial advisor), but they taught economics. Lily was in my economics class and she met me there with a tattered stack of her own posters. I asked her why she didn’t tear down Hannah’s and she huffed at me.

“Her first act as president was to have me take down my own posters, Will,” she said.

“And you did it?”

“She’s president.” Lily dropped the posters in the trash. It was right next to the recycle bin, but I didn’t say anything (I wanted to date her, and correcting a girl on where she throws her election propaganda didn’t seem like a good first step). She was pretty peeved. Plus, there were only seventy-eight posters. That’s not that big a deal in the world of recycling. Less than a ream. (Reams have five hundred sheets. They print that on the packaging, so I didn’t have to count.)

“Seems pretty silly, Lily. Petty and silly,” I said. I think that’s what I said. Maybe I said something else, but doesn’t it seem petty? If I were elected president I wouldn’t have made anyone tear down their own posters. I would have called them up, respectfully and the like, and congratulated them on an honorable campaign. Hannah the Witch wasn’t like me, though.

Lily was cool about the whole thing. She tore them down and threw them away and never said a word about it. I respected that. She was modest and amazing. Lily didn’t pay attention in economics, though. She twiddled her thumbs or something. Maybe she was texting. She wasn’t learning about money. Economics was my favorite class and the whole election thing kind of ruined it.

Hannah’s second act as president came four minutes before the bell that period.

Westport High classrooms had gray speakers installed next to their analog clocks that the office could use for school-wide announcements. In the mornings they did the Pledge of Allegiance and at the end of each period a bell rang through them to signal the changing of classes. Hannah used the speakers to make an announcement of her own.

“Attention Westport,” she said, her voice crackly and high through the tinny speakers, “This is your president speaking, Hannah the Witch.” (She may not have announced herself as “the Witch,” I don’t remember.)

“Listen up, class,” our teacher said, stopping the lesson on John Maynard Keynes. Lily stopped twiddling her thumbs.

“My vice president, Lily Whit, promised class-schedule renegotiation. My first act”— second act, counting the poster thing—“as president is to fulfill that promise. Classes are now four minutes shorter. Those of you looking at the clock might note that your current class is over, given that it is four minutes to the previously scheduled bell. Please stand up”—my classmates stood—“and roam the halls as you will. Welcome to the new era.” The speaker clicked off, and the lesson on John Maynard Keynes would have to be resumed the next day.

I’m pretty drunk now. I poured another double after the last. Nine shots is more shots than I’ve ever counted having. In high school I didn’t need that much to get drunk. After high school I didn’t count. I’m having trouble remembering exactly how it happened next, but there’s more we’ve got to get through. I need to tell you why I started dating Lily. I need to tell you about Bozzy and Hannah, too. Bozzy had it all figured out. I’ll tell you about Bozzy and Hannah first, then Lily, then what happened after high school. That seems like a sensible order. I like order. Order is a lot like directed counting. Counting and drinking go hand in hand; that’s the order of things.

Bozzy said he knew how to avoid Hannah’s magic, and that intrigued me. Since I had almost ten minutes (nine to be exact—the usual five, plus the four more Hannah gave us), I went and found Bozzy. Bozzy’s locker was three lockers to the right of mine so it wasn’t very hard.

“She’s going nuts, Will.” Bozzy found me.

“Extra time in passing period doesn’t seem that nuts,” I said.

“First it’s extra time. Next she’s going to get rid of English and replace it with Apothecary,” Bozzy said, though I didn’t think Apothecary would be a bad class.

“She’s only been president for half a day—”

“Look.” Bozzy held up a pair of orange ear plugs. “She’s been planning this for years. This isn’t the last stop on her obscene train. Put these in any time she starts talking and you’ll be fine.” Bozzy pointed to his ears where a pair of yellow plugs sat. “The best thing to do is learn to lip-read, and wear them constantly.” He dropped the orange pair in my hands.

“Okay, Bozzy.” Bozzy was nuttier than Hannah.

“What was the vote count, Will?”

“In the election?”

“Yeah.”

“Hannah won by a lot of votes; Lily got the rest of them, though. Nobody else got any.”

“What was the count?” Bozzy was really hung up on the votes.

“Four hundred thirty one to one,” I said. I counted. At first I thought maybe Lily voted for herself, but after what Bozzy said I decided it was him. Everyone else in the school was under the Witch’s spell.

Bozzy puffed his cheeks out and walked away. He didn’t tell me his whole plan, but I threw the ear plugs in the trash. I couldn’t figure a situation where I’d want to use them.

I’m not an alcoholic or anything. I don’t want anyone to think that, but I might count another shot. Bring myself up to an even ten. I need the courage if I am going to call her after all this time. Takes a lot of courage to call a girl, that’s what I think.

I counted steps as I walked down the hall (thirteen to the corner, twenty-seven to the water fountain under the climbing wall). I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but nine minutes was a lot of time between classes. I didn’t want to question my president (especially one I voted for), but it seemed like an odd thing for Hannah the Witch to do. She got almost no benefit from it.

I figured it out pretty quickly, though. She was yelling at Bozzy between the climbing wall and the gymnasium. Fourteen steps to Bozzy’s side, I counted out loud.

“I’m going to be president of a lot more than this high school someday, Bozzy,” she said. “You can either help me get there or keep wearing your goddamn ear plugs like a nine-year-old.”

“. . . thirteen, fourteen.” I didn’t think anyone could hear me, but apparently Hannah could.

“Oh, Will,” she said, looking at me like I was a deflated balloon. “You don’t have to count anymore.” And I didn’t. I didn’t have to count anymore.

I’m going to try to tell the rest of this like I remember it, instead of how I feel. It’s hard sometimes, and the alcohol doesn’t help. I’ve had eleven now. Eleven shots. Sorry, I’m going to try to tell it like it happened. I really didn’t have to count anymore. That was the nicest thing Hannah the Witch ever did.

“What are you guys talking about?” I asked. Bozzy looked me in the lips.

“We’re talking about the future, Will. Did you know Bozzy is in love with Lily Whit?” Hannah asked. I did know, but I didn’t say.

“Put in the earplugs, Will,” Bozzy said.

“Why?”

“Will, put them in.”

“Don’t listen to him, Will,” the Witch said, so I stopped listening to Bozzy. That makes the rest of this kind of hard to tell. I’ve filled in some of the blanks, but I don’t know what Bozzy said for most of it.

“Now Bozzy, I need your help. And you’ve been awfully uncooperative. It was going to be a nice footnote in my biography that my high school elected me class president unanimously, but now there’s an asterisk.”

Bozzy moved his lips, but I’m not sure how he replied.

“Somebody has to manage my campaigns, manage getting me in front of bigger audiences, get my voice into the ears of millions. I was hoping that would be you, Bozzy. Brother and sister taking the country by storm.”

I think Bozzy told her in an unsavory way that he wasn’t interested.

“I don’t think I will, thanks. Maybe I’ll make Lily do it. She’s been awfully compliant so far. Even voted for me in the election.”

Bozzy’s eyes grew wide.

“Or maybe I’ll just make sure she never dates you. I’ll tell her to skip off to Alaska. I’ll tell her to date someone else.” The Witch looked at me. What she did next kind of made me hate her. It was hard to hate her after she fixed my counting, but I don’t think she could have done a meaner thing to either of us. “Maybe I’ll make her date Will. I’ll make her love Will and by the time it wears off you’ll have come around to my point of view, Bozzy.”

I wish she’d told me to do something else. It would have been better if she told me to hold Bozzy down, pull his earplugs out, and make him listen. It would have been better if she did anything but make Lily love me.

Bozzy started pleading, but he must not have conceded, because she turned and walked away.

“Follow me, Will,” she said, so I did.

I wasn’t counting minutes, so I don’t know how long this took, but the bell for our next class hadn’t rung yet. Our classmates roamed the halls and wasted their extra minutes while Hannah the Witch laid the groundwork for her future. It really bugs me right now that I wasn’t counting minutes. I want to know how many minutes it took. I want to know how many words she said. I want to know how many steps were between the climbing wall and Lily Whit’s locker. Lily Whit, coolest girl I knew. I miss Lily. Why isn’t that wearing off?

“Lily,” she said, and her vice president turned from the open locker to face her.

“Yes?” Lily asked. She was in a trance. She tilted her head to hang on Hannah’s words.

“Lily, never talk to my brother again.”

Lily stood for a moment, like she was contemplating the command, though I know she wasn’t. She must have just been writing over Bozzy in her mind. “Okay.”

“You love Will.”

“I love Will.”

“You and Will are dating.”

“Of course, we love each other.”

“Will,” Hannah said, “you love Lily.” And I did. I loved Lily. I loved Lily more than anything I ever have. I loved Lily more than counting. More than drinking. More than anything.

“She’s the coolest girl in western Washington,” Hannah said.

Hannah’s commands wear off, just like Bozzy said; we aren’t dating anymore, but I don’t think love works like that. You can’t just forget four years (minus fourteen days) of loving someone. I’m back to being a lizard, but I remember being a newt. I remember loving Lily and time can’t get rid of that. Maybe another drink will help.

Hannah is the mayor of Westport now. Youngest mayor in the state of Washington. She’s been there a couple years. I think she could have gotten the law changed and hopped right up to governor as a high schooler (or president), but she seems to enjoy the journey. She gave me her number, wrote it in the back pages of the Westport High yearbook. I’m thinking about calling her.

There are a lot of numbers in my yearbook. I really like them. Lots of three-six-oh numbers. There are forty-seven numbers in all. Ten girls, thirty-seven boys. Forty seniors (at the time), and seven juniors. Westport High had four-hundred-thirty-two students, and I only have forty-seven numbers. I’m glad Hannah gave me her number.

Bozzy said it wears off, and he was right. I’m counting everything. It has been seven hours and thirteen minutes since Hannah’s spell wore off. I have had twelve drinks. Twelve is a lot of drinks. I wonder what she did to Bozzy.

Anyway, I’m thinking about calling her. I can use the number in my yearbook. She’ll tell me to vote for her in the next election, but I think I’m okay with that, as long as she helps me with the counting. Maybe she can make Lily love me again, too.

END


Photography by Toni Holtzman. Toni lives in Gaylord, Michigan, where she works as a hospice R.N. by day, and often night. She loves to travel, and recently returned from visits to Rome, Greece, and Israel.

All Special Issue photos are © 2016, Toni Holtzman