The Witch of the Wood
The Witch of the Wood
Copyright © 2014 by Michael Aronovitz
Published by Hippocampus Press
P.O. Box 641, New York, NY 10156.
All rights reserved.
No part of this work may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
Cover art by Lyndsay Harper.
Cover design by Barbara Briggs Silbert.
Hippocampus Press logo designed by Anastasia Damianakos.
First Electronic Edition
Chapter 1: Witch
Professor Rudy Barnes was like an assassin, if only for the fact that he could easily be lost in a crowd. He was in his mid-forties, divorced, tall, a bit gangly. He was balding, but didn’t have any of those awful age-veins spidering his nostrils. He had black-rimmed glasses and close-set eyes, yet wore an honest countenance about him that set his students at ease when they came for help on their papers during his office hours. His coeds viewed him with sober trust, often slipping into little narratives about their overbooked schedules, their boyfriends, their families. Shana Porter, for example, was a lovely brunette, all cheekbones and lashes, a bit too skinny for her own good but unable to deny the points of those glamorous hips you could make out even through the nondescript bagginess of her oversized sweatpants. She had actually burst into tears when Rudy was carefully explaining to her the way to fix her issue with those overly dramatic pop-up words like “very” and “so.”
Her wet sob surprised him, even cut him inside just a bit, but Rudy’s face was a mask, well practiced. He leaned back, hands webbed across his stomach. He didn’t have any tissues, and she used her fingers, wounded gaze flitting up at the ceiling.
“I’m so sorry, Professor,” she said. “It’s just that I can’t sleep. There are these guys living right above my dorm room who get drunk until after midnight and then start wrestling and banging and knocking stuff over.” She looked down and shrugged tragically. “And I miss my mother.”
The back of her knuckles went up under her nose, and for the billionth time Professor Rudy Barnes marveled at the ironies life brought. Decades ago, when he was a freshman himself, a looker like Shana Porter wouldn’t have even acknowledged his existence, let alone opened her world to him. She was out of his league even dressed down in her sweats and Ugg boots. When she’d first worn shorts last semester in Comp 101, he’d glanced twice, the second time a bit too long over the rim of his glasses. Definite athlete at least through her high school years, cheerleader or field hockey, pick your skirt, feed your fetish. But here he was, the nerd with an advantage, the stoic nerd who had gained enough life experience to finally enter the arena.
Passively, of course. Always passively.
“Shana,” he said. “I understand what you’re going through, really. Still, I want you to consider something for a moment. I don’t mind telling you that the relationship between my own mother and me has been strained for years. Often, I want to tell her of my accomplishments, but I still feel she would condescend. Last year, in fact, I published an article in the
Winstrom Academic Journal,
and I kept this from her. Even at my age, I wanted her approval, and the pride in me kept it locked up like a secret.” He crossed one knee carefully over the other. “You, on the other hand, have a mother to miss. You should consider yourself fortunate. As for the wrestlers, get a broom and bang the business end of it against the ceiling until they shut the hell up.”
She forfeited a short laugh and looked up at him through those long, dusty lashes.
“How could anyone not love you, Professor?”
“Hell if I know.” He hunched back in toward the desk. “Now look at this sentence and read it aloud for me. Then tell me which synonyms we could use to up the level of your discourse.”
Shana would get an “A.” Rudy would work the rest of his Thursday in a state of vague emptiness and disconnectedness, eventually leaving Widener to go to Rutherford University late that afternoon for a mandatory staff development session. He wasn’t even a full-time professor there, just an adjunct, playing the game, splitting his time between Widener University, Cabrini College, and Rutherford in their continuing ed. program. Good old, dependable Rudy. The ghost in the eaves. The shadow-daddy.
He stopped at McDonald’s for a Big Mac, skipping the fries so he could keep at least a shred of dignity, and ate it in his car in the parking lot. After this in-service (God, he hated these boring things) he had his apartment to look forward to. A bit dark. Fairly neat. A half bottle of Mondavi up on the sink, stains on the label. He drove up Route 7 missing his ex a bit, but he knew this was fraudulent. He missed having someone there to fill in the other side of the couch, that was all. In reality, it had gotten old, a job, a bad debt. When he’d quit public schools to ragtag around the university circuit the relationship went visibly sour, and when he’d defended himself with a rare defiance she told him in that tired kind of wheeze that his dreams were too expensive. Oh, she was the dream-killer all right, had been since their first year of marriage way back in the stone age, but now she was fifty pounds heavier with a case of old-lady face. They split last year, not really because of said argument, but because of a million other little failures and idiot-patterns they’d invented and stood by until they were just thanking God they could keep it civil.
He pressed the buttons on the radio and finally found the new one by Seether, shouting down from the rooftops, baby. He liked rock and roll, almost felt himself foolish for allowing this blemish of immaturity to continually surface, but he’d come to the conclusion that adults were all really fourteen-year-olds inside, amazing themselves every day that with the proper language and mannerisms they could pass through the world as absolute counterfeits.
It had gone dark by the time Rudy made the light at the Winfield Business Center, and when he turned right off the highway straight into the boonies, a light snow began filtering down. Back here there was a double yellow line, but the twists and jogs were tricky as the road narrowed and threaded its way into the wood. There was the Nut Brown Ale House, a light at Rock Ridge Road with a church on one corner and a train depot on the other, and from there it was all forest rising up at the moon on both sides. A former student had told Rudy that the dorms facing Rutherford’s South Pasture were small, quaint, and smelled faintly of cow shit. You got used to it after awhile, got to like it even. It was sweet, like coming into a house where they were baking cookies and cinnamon sticks. Rudy had never smelled the cow shit. He taught adult education classes on the opposite side of campus in the ROTC building, a dark wetland in the background, but no cow pastures. He had about as much to do with campus life at Rutherford as the contractors refacing the brick on Anderson Hall. In and out. Faceless. His usual.
He pulled in to the long drive leading to the Knickerbocker Quadrangle, where the third building in housed the Continuing Ed. offices and a huge first floor foyer they always used for faculty meetings. There were balloons tied to a stone entrance pillar and a sign that said, “Welcome Adjuncts.” Yeah, hoorah. Rudy hoped this would be short and sweet, maybe some lukewarm theoretical garbage, like a presentation on formative assessment, or maybe just a PowerPoint on the latest computer advancements: tutorials for using the virtual library, techniques for troubleshooting the new gmail system so you didn’t have to bother the tech support staff. As long as they got through the roundtable bullshit without too many questions prolonging it. Rudy hated “question-guys,” those silver-haired, soft-talking bastards who always thought they looked oh-so bright and inquisitive, while everyone else in the room really wanted to yank their tongues out with a pair of hot pliers.
On the way up the steps, Rudy happened to glance down and see that he had sesame seeds on his black coat. He brushed them off, absently wondering if he was wearing more of his dinner than the dull arch lights were revealing, maybe a gob of special sauce on the zipper guard, a tiny strand of lettuce stuck at the bottom of his chin. He opened the door and looked for the bathroom. None to either side, and the presentation had started. There was a reception table, a buffet of appetizers and wine across from it, and rows of chairs facing away, most of them already occupied at the far end of the room in front of a podium.
“Hello,” someone whispered. “And you are?”
“Rudy Barnes,” he murmured, setting down his stuff. He unzipped his coat, absently feeling around his chest pocket for a pen and simultaneously reaching for one of those silly nametags they had there on the table in a glass dish. The man at the pulpit was doing some sort of long introduction for the head of Human Resources, all yuck-yuck and campy and smug, as if the adjuncts would do best to envy and appreciate the camaraderie of the office staff.
“Well, hello, Rudy!” she said, still a whisper, soft and professional. “It’s so nice to finally meet you!”
He glanced down at the woman sitting at the other side of the table taking names, and suddenly wished he had detoured to a bathroom to check his coat, his face, and his tie to make sure it was centered. She was stunning, black hair cut in a shoulder-length soft-feathered bob, her face a sketch of daring edges and lines, thin along the jaw, sharp at the nose and chin. And there was a sparkle about her, like Champagne, like diamonds. She had soft brown eyes, but they were mischievous. She had a wide smile, but her teeth were white and even. Rudy let his glance fall, just for the barest flicker down south a bit, and he almost forfeited an audible groan. Her collar was open and there was cleavage nice and deep. And sun freckles. Rudy Barnes was a sucker for texture, and he was feeling it below the belt now. He looked up quickly, and her smiling eyes widened at him for a bare second as if to say,
“Shame on you!”
then blended right back into an expression of warm and personable courtesy.
“I’m April Orr,” she said. “Materials and Support. We’ve e-mailed a number of times.”
Rudy offered his hand. “Glad to see you,” he said.
“Hmm,” she said, taking his hand, still smiling, but looking at him a bit sideways. Did she just made a chiding yet welcoming reference to his “Glad to
you” . . . teasing him about the way he’d just been caught looking at her tits? Her fingers were smooth and long and he was fully aroused and suddenly sure she would see it. But she never looked down. Yes, women really were stronger than men, and here was the empirical proof. Oh, there was a paper in this for sure.
Someone came into the periphery to Rudy’s left and hissed his name, the cold coming off him, forcing Rudy to move a step to the side. April addressed the guy politely, all confidence, leaning forward and flashing that wide, welcoming smile, and Rudy just stared on for a second, arms dangling down. That was a smile meant for
and no matter how irrational that feeling was, he felt it right down to his tailbone just the same. His mouth was ajar. The newcomer was reaching for a nametag and April’s eyes slid back over. She’d caught him staring again! Would his social blunders never cease? But she crinkled up her nose, shoulders shrugging all cutesy and personal, as if they had just shared a joke, or a third-grade Valentine, or one of those middle school message clovers that revealed they were meant for each other. Then she was back to her newcomer, talking about some science workbook that was in the module, yet only available through the department website.
Rudy shuffled off and took a seat in the back row next to a woman with a screaming tight ponytail, a pants suit, and a briefcase. He had the aisle chair, so there was room on his left for his book bag and small thermal lunch bag with the yogurt in it, just in case his stomach started growling in the middle of one of those quiet moments where the “dynamic” speaker was playing one of his dramatic pauses. Of course, if he opened it after an offense, the rip of the Teflon would key everyone in on the fact that he was a guy in his mid-forties controlling an “issue,” so he opened it up as a precaution and got out a Yoplait.