She wiped her hands on her apron, peering out the window. Red and orange leaves hurried by as the cold autumn wind battered the small cabin. The girl should have been back from the errand by now. At that moment, she saw the flying, fiery red braids. The devil’s mark on her right cheek, a constant reminder, was clearly visible, even at dusk. The girl, breathless, burst through the wooden door.

“Ma! Come quickly!!”

(Entries must touch on the topic in some way to qualify.)

Ma wouldn’t speak to me mostly that last long day. She just crumbled dried parsley, grated all manner of roots into that black-iron pot on the stove for our final meal together. Wouldn’t look at me none, neither.

But I looked at her. I hid behind Papa’s hanging old barn coat, the only thing that still held his smell, and I saw her hushing up her tears in her apron, and her lookin’ around first to see if I was near. Finally sent me to sneak on Reverend Brown, see if folks were moving up our way yet.

No one much was gathered at Reverend Brown’s. I walked my secret woods-path home. The sun was goin’ down fast tonight. It didn’t want to be here when He came.

The sun wasn’t the only thing hurryin’. A flow of spiders, centipedes, half-crawlers, every color and size of snake, worms. All pushed past me. Couldn’t get out of Summerdale fast enough to please ’em. I heard no birds. Saw none of the squirrels, deer or mice that ran so thick in these woods. They had long-left.

I saw Ma standing, waiting at the cabin window. Bet she already knew. But I ran in anyway.

“Ma! Come quickly!” I wanted her to see what things were making their way across the front lawn.

“I know. I know what’s comin’. I know Who is comin’. You get over here now. Come look at me.”

I stood before her.

She tipped up my chin, held my face. Her thumb carefully covered the mark He put on my cheek a year and a day ago. She looked me in the eyes, directly. Parts of her face were musclin’ and twitchin’ funny. Her voice was tight.

“I want you to know that whatever happens tonight, I am your Mama. I did not wish this on you. This was them.” I nodded, then she held me so hard I felt all her bones press through.

We ate soup in silence.

Not long after, we heard voices outside. They were gathering. Reverend Brown put himself outside our front window.

I knew He would be among them. And He was. I went cold as creekstones to see him. Him with the slick black hair. Him with the too-wide smile. Him with the eyes that could swallow.

Reverend Brown spoke first, in a shout. Like he was in charge of something. “You surely do know <i>why</i> we’re here. You bring her on out, now. We got to pay what’s due.” His last line held the hint of a shake. Of course it did. He was standing next to Him.

Ma shouted right back, “You give me a minute, Edward Brown. He’ll have her soon enough. You give me my one more minute.”

She wouldn’t look me full-on. “You saw what He did to your Papa and Old Jonathan.”

I nodded.

“You do as He says. I don’t think He’s looking to hurt you, if you do as you’re told.”

I nodded again, but not because I believed her.

“He picked you. Out of all of them. He picked you. Now, that’s gotta count for somethin’.”

I didn’t say that He surely picked me for what Papa tried to do to Him after He cut Old Jonathan top-to-bottom. Anyway, it wasn’t me she was trying to convince.

“Let’s get out there, then.” We stepped out into the moonlight.

Reverend Brown held out his hand for me to take. Suppose he intended to look like he was presenting me to Him on behalf of the town. I ignored that hand, walked to where He waited, pushing down the sick I felt.

He turned and walked into the forest. I followed, distracted by the silence. It wasn’t until I tripped on a fir-tree root that I saw and smelled the hole. I knew my woods. This hole had not been here before. I would surely have noticed the stink that rose from it, all dead-deer gasses and bile.

His ice-hands grabbed me and pulled. We were both falling. Some mercy caught my hand, gave me a root to hold and I kicked, hard. This caught Him in the face. Knocked Him deeper into his own hole. I worked my way back up. I heard Him laugh behind me.

I ran, gasping. Ma’s cabin was ahead. The people were gone. I threw myself against our door, rattled the handle. Locked. I slapped the door, pounded the heel of my hand into it.

Ma answered. My Ma, in ruffles. My Ma, plump and smiling. “Hello?”

A bald man walked up behind her. He wore the finest suit with a gold watch and chain. “Darling? Who’s there?”

“I was just waiting for her to tell me that. What can I do for you, dear? It’s awfully late.”

I couldn’t breathe, let alone speak. I started to press into the house.

“Pardon us, Ma’am,” He had come up behind me. I froze. “My missus seems to have the wrong house.” He smiled his too-wide smile.

Ma nodded a “Goodnight,” and gently pushed me out the door. I heard the lock slide into place.