“Here she comes!” Shelly hissed, and the three girls flattened themselves against the ground.
The wild sweet peas rustled, and Julie jumped.
“Shhh!” Deena whispered. “If she sees you, she’ll turn you into a frog.”
Julie knew it wasn’t true, but she shivered anyway. Cautiously she peeked through the tangled weeds. Across the street she saw the hunched figure of the old woman trudging toward her mailbox. Overgrown shrubbery caught at the sleeve of the woman’s patched sweater as she made her way down the path from her house to the side of the road. The girls watched as the old lady’s gnarled hand tugged at the rusted latch. She peered inside, then closed the little door. With her shoulders hunched even more, she turned and walked empty-handed back to her house.
Shelly rolled over on her side and propped her head up with one hand. “Why do you think she looks for mail every day when she never gets any?”
“Do you really think witches get mail?” Deena asked.
“Oh, Deena, she’s not really a witch,” Julie said.
“She is, too!” Shelly protested. “Why else would she live all by herself in that old run-down house? She never talks to anyone, and did you notice her hair? It looks kind of green under that old scarf she wears. Of course she’s a witch!”
Julie shrugged. The stories they made up about the witch who lived down the street had added a little excitement to the long summer afternoons, but Julie’s mother had told her that Mrs. O’Hearn was just a lonely old lady who had no one to look after her. Sometimes Julie felt sorry for her and even considered being Mrs. O’Hearn’s friend. But she was afraid. Maybe the woman really is a witch, she thought.
“Let’s go back to your place, Julie,” Shelly said as she scrambled to her feet.
The three girls cut across Julie’s front yard and glanced around quickly before sliding into the space between the garage and the neighbor’s fence. Blackberry vines curved overhead to form a tunnel. It was their own special place.
“Want to play truth or dare?” Deena asked.
“OK,” Shelly replied.
“It was my idea, so I go first. Truth or dare, Shelly.”
“Dare.” Shelly always chose the dare.
“I dare you”—the other two girls learned forward eagerly—“to go knock on the witch’s door.”
“You have to come, too,” Shelly said.
“Oh, we’ll come, but only as far as the corner of the hedge.”
From the street Mrs. O’Hearn’s house was barely visible, but the back door was only separated from the alley by a wooden porch. The three girls paused at the hedge that marked the boundary of Mrs. O’Hearn’s yard.
“Go on, Shelly,” Deena prodded.
“Maybe we shouldn’t,” Julie said hesitantly.
“Aw, come on, Julie, don’t be such a sissy. Besides, all you have to do is hide,” Deena said.
“I know, but …” Julie stopped. I know it’s wrong to tease the old woman, she thought, but I don’t want Deena and Shelly to make fun of me.
Shelly darted forward. Her feet echoing against the wooden planks, she pounded on the door, then raced back to where the girls hid behind the laurel hedge.
The door opened, and the old woman looked in their direction. “You young rascals stay away from my door!” she shouted, shaking her fist. The door slammed as she went back inside.
The girls scampered back to their hideout to continue their game.
“It’s my turn now,” Shelly announced. “Julie, you’re first, and this time you have to pick a dare.”
“Yeah, Julie,” Deena agreed. “You never want to take a dare.”
“I dare you to go look in the witch’s window,” Shelly said before Julie could protest.
“Oh, that’s a good one,” Deena applauded.
“That’s not fair,” Julie argued. “She’ll be watching.”
“She’ll never see you,” Shelly said,” not if you’re quiet.”
“Julie’s a scaredy-cat. Julie’s a scaredy-cat,” Deena began to chant.
“OK, OK, I’ll do it.”
“That’s better.” Shelly led the way back to the alley. When they reached the hedge, she began to whisper directions.
“Just follow the hedge to the Petersons’ yard, then go along their fence to that hole. You can squeeze through there, and you’ll be right under her window. All you have to do is climb that apple tree and look inside.”
As Julie crept along the hedge and Peterson’s fence, she wiped her sweaty hands on her jeans. She hoped Mrs. Peterson would see her and chase her out of the yard, but nothing happened. She reached the gap in the fence and looked back.
“Go on!” Shelly motioned.
Dropping to her knees, Julie edged forward, her heart pounding. She rose to her feet, and directly in front of her, on the other side of the tree, was the house. She glanced toward the alley. Shelly and Deena were hidden from view. It was very quiet, and Julie felt totally alone.
They’ll never know if I don’t do it, she told herself. But even as she thought it, she moved toward the tree.
Julie’s sneaker-clad foot slipped once on the damp bark, but soon she reached the level of the window. Curiosity overcame her fear, and Julie rubbed the dirty windowpane with a dampened finger and peered inside.
The room was dark. At first she could only make out dim outlines of furniture. Gradually her eyes adjusted to the light, and she saw the old woman hunched over a table, her head resting on her arms. At first Julie thought that she was sleeping. Then she saw the shaking shoulders and realized that the woman was crying.
Julie slid down the tree, thoroughly ashamed of her actions. She retraced her path and joined the other two girls in the alley.
“What did you see?” demanded Deena.
“Was she making witch’s brew in a kettle?” Shelly asked.
“Don’t be silly,” Julie snapped.
“Well, what did you see?” both girls chorused.
Julie hesitated. “Nothing,” she said at last. “It was too dark.”
A voice called out.
“That’s my mother,” Julie said. “I’d better go.” She ran home, glad to get away from the house and from her friends’ questions.
“Want to get cleaned up and go shopping with me?” her mother asked.
As they drove toward town, Julie kept remembering Mrs. O’Hearn bent over her kitchen table, shaking with sobs. She was sorry that they had teased her.
While her mother shopped, Julie paused at the greeting card counter. She picked up a small card with a picture of a raccoon in a mailbox. It seemed to have a smile on its face, and one paw poked out as if it wanted to shake hands. Julie looked at the card for a long time. “Can I get this?” she asked when her mother came by.
Her mother glanced at the card in Julie’s hand, and smiled. “It’s kind of cute, isn’t it? All right, we can buy it. Just tuck it into the shopping cart.”
When they were home from the store, Julie pulled the card from the shopping bag. Just looking at the furry little animal made her want to smile. She slipped the card into its envelope and tucked it into the pocket of her jeans. Then she went outside.
The next day Julie hunched down in the tall weeds of the vacant lot and waited. The sun grew warm, and the back of her neck began to itch, but Julie stayed motionless as she continued to watch the house across the street.
At last Mrs. O’Hearn came down the path. She opened her mailbox and started to turn away. Then she stopped and looked inside again. Slowly she reached into the box and pulled out a small white envelope. The gnarled fingers shook as she opened the envelope and pulled out the card inside.
Julie saw Mrs. O’Hearn open the card and read it, then carefully slide it back into its envelope and into her pocket. The old woman looked across the street for a moment, smiled, then turned to make her way back to the house.
Julie rolled over on her back and watched the clouds skim across the blue summer sky. Aloud she recited the words that had been written inside the card: “Have a nice day. From your Secret Friend.”