The Lion, and the Witch in the Wardrobe (a #31ShortHorrors tale)

Boston, Massachusetts, has always been a magical place.

There once was a witch who lived in a wardrobe. It was cozy and warm. She had a soft nest in the back corner, bordered by work boots, lined with old blankets. Above her, threadbare winter coats hung, casting off duck and goose feathers every once in a while. The witch, whose name was Lucille, had a pet rat named Honkers, who fetched the occasional snack for her from the kitchen.

The wardrobe itself was in the back corner of little Bobby’s bedroom, on the third floor of the house 333 West 3rd Street in Boston, Massachusetts. The street was narrow and old, and although this particular house was not narrow, it was old. Each house on the street was ancient as the city itself, and each was home to a magical creature. Bobby’s house had Lucille, the neighbors next door had a werewolf, the folks across the street had an elf. All of the old houses had enchanted protectors that had travelled with the original inhabitants hundreds of years ago.

As is common in old cities, Boston was undergoing something of a construction revival, and many of the original structures were being torn down and replaced with highrise condominiums. With each razed property, its magical protector evaporated in a puff of smoke. Because they were bound to their structures, only the whispers of pigeons and crows carried the news of loss from home to home across the city.

One bright winter morning, a dumpster was deposited in front of 333 West Third Street. It blocked the sidewalk on Bobby’s way to school, causing him to climb wayyyy up the snow bank and slide down the other side. Lucille heard the racket outside and sent Honkers to investigate. He returned breathless, but with a packet of saltines.

“What are we going to do? What are we going to do?” Lucille wrung her hands. “I don’t want to go up in a puff of smoke!” Honkers crawled into her lap and nestled in the crook of her elbow. Lucille stroked her pet’s fur and did her deep breathing exercises. Then she consulted her spell book.

She read all day until Bobby returned from school. She helped him with his homework. After his light switched off for the night, she read by the glow of the streetlights. She consulted crows and pigeons and a long-travelled hawk. She had deep discussions with Moon and Sun, Wind and Rain. Among all the oracles and wisdom, the only solution to be found was that most magical of transformations, that of changing the human heart.

Dawn approached, and she retreated to her wardrobe to develop her plan.

Lucille worked within and outside the physical world. When the family arrived home that night, their eyes were drawn to the details of the house: ornate woodwork, the curved banister, the grain of the hardwood floors. The sweet whistle of the old teakettle on the even older stove of the unremodeled small kitchen. The pocket door between the kitchen and the dining room. It was amazing what a difference a simple tilt of the electric lights could make in the illumination of a house.

Bobby sniffed the air as he walked in his front door. Cookies? Hmm chocolate chip? He set his bookbag down on a kitchen chair and peeked into the kitchen. His nose had not deceived him. Still warm, even hours after his mom must have left for work. He grabbed a plate, a glass of milk, and sat down at the dining room table to do his homework.

Bobby’s mom gave pause a moment at her front door. She squinted, tilted her head. Pulled two letters out of the old iron post box. The front door… ? She walked up to it, pressed her cheek against it. Warm. Not “Oh my God the house is on fire!” warm. Just, warm. She looked up at the doorknocker. Had that lion always looked so kindly? Had he always glowed?

Bobby’s dad parked his car at the curb and stepped gingerly around the dumpster on the front walk. Something, a black thing, whirred in his peripheral vision, drew it up towards the roof of his house. The chimney was smoking gentle puffs, the lights were on, music filled the cold clear winter evening air. He walked inside, his palm on the door handle longer than usual.

He looked around. Bobby was in the front parlor, assembling a jigsaw puzzle. His wife was just setting the final dishes on the table for supper. Chicken soup, by the smell of it. Fresh rolls.

At the end of the week, Friday evening, supper had been cleared. The dumpster still stood empty on the front walk. Bobby sat on the old sofa in the parlor under a new blanket – I found it in the bottom of my wardrobe – reading a comic book. His mother was at the other end of the sofa, sharing his new blanket, knitting a pink bonnet to accompany the pink sweater she’d just completed. His dad sunk into the recliner, catching up with the day’s news on a tablet computer. The ancient radio that the previous owners left was on, sputtered play by play of the Celtics game. The radiators clicked and sizzled.

Lucille did not let down her guard.

Monday, an architect banged the lion’s doorknocker. The lion growled. Bobby’s father opened the door, stepped aside as the tall dapper man walked in and appraised the space. He followed Bobby’s dad around the house and made notes on a legal pad. Another bathroom, clear out the attic and create a walk-up loft, open up the kitchen, skylights… stainless steel appliances, granite countertops are all the rage, yanno… open floor plan, master suite…

The pocket door pinched the architect’s pinky finger and refused to let go. Lucille, at the top of the stairs, raised an eyebrow at it, and the door relented. As they walked out, a floorboard popped and the architect tripped, flailed, and overturned the hall table as he crashed to the floor. Bobby’s dad helped the man up and escorted him out the front, as he did, he searched for whatever it was the architect could have tripped over, and found nothing. He looked around the parlor, the hall, up the staircase. Wistful? Sad?

He patted the doorknocker as he turned to leave, it was warm. Did it purr? He stroked around the outside of it, felt it vibrate. Huh, never noticed that feature before. Must be some old-fashioned technology? He stroked under the lion’s chin. The lion smiled, low vibrations filled his fingertips. He furrowed his brow, puzzled, then turned abruptly and left for work.

Thursday morning, Bobby’s mother stepped from her hot shower into the warm, muggy bathroom. She glanced at the bleach bottle and realized she hadn’t needed to spray for mold in several weeks. Not everyone is that lucky, especially in an old house, she thought. The mirror cleared up quickly and she applied her makeup, did her hair. Not even hotel bathrooms dry out this quick, she thought.

Saturday morning, the contractors arrived at 333 West 3rd Street, Boston, Massachusetts. A dump truck, a crane, and an excavator arrived to take up residence on most of the street, outlined by small orange cones, like chalk drawings around dead bodies. The beep beep beep of a bulldozer as it backed into place. Crows circled above. Bobby rubbed his eyes and sat up in bed.

He looked around quickly, scrambled out of bed to the window. His nose pressed against the thick swirled glass. He turned and ran, then skidded to the stairs, slid down the banister. His parents were at the open door, inside the threshold, talking to a tall, thick man in a bright yellow construction helmet and orange vest. Cold wind ripped through the open doorway. The sheers fussed over the windows in the parlor.

“We … we need some more time,” Bobby’s mother said to the contractor.

“Ma’am, we’re contracted for this property for a certain job, on certain days. If we don’t start today, we can’t finish on time, and that backs up our entire schedule. If we don’t start today, I can’t even guarantee we can do this job this year,” he answered. He tapped his clipboard and addressed Bobby’s dad. “I’ll give you fifteen minutes to make a decision.”

Bobby’s dad shut the door and turned to his wife. “Hon, I thought we had this all figured out? We have the drawings and plans,” he took her hands in his, “we were going to make this our dream home.”

She looked up him, tears welled in her eyes. “I can’t,” she whispered. “I can’t tear this house down. I don’t know why, I just can’t. It feels like we’re killing something.” Tears dripped down her cheeks.

Bobby stood behind them, gripping the curved, warm banister. He rubbed his chin on it. Lucille crept to the top of the stairs. With Honkers peeking out from his perch on her shoulder, she peered round the edge of the wall.

“Mom, don’t let Daddy tear the house down, please?” he hugged the warm smooth wood of the banister. “I like it the way it is. It’s safe like this. If they poke holes in it,” he pointed at the crew outside the parlor window, “it won’t be safe anymore. It won’t be warm.”

Bobby’s dad took his mom into a hug, waved to Bobby to join them. Bobby looked up at the sun carved into the woodwork above the front door, smiling down at him. The window sheers fluttered gently. The glass doorknob twinkled in the bright winter morning light. Vibrations in the floor tickled the soles of their feet through their shoes.

“Feels like purring,” Bobby’s mother murmured.

“I thought you wanted to have the new place done before the baby comes?” Bobby’s dad asked into his wife’s hair.

“I want the baby and Bobby to have a home. This feels like home,” she said into the soft fabric of his t-shirt. “This. Not some light beige, sanitized flat space. This,” she kept on, “this feels like a home.”

Her husband sighed into her hair and nodded, let go of her and his son. He opened the door, looked at the lion, his eye level. The lion met his gaze. He put his index finger to the lion’s mouth, felt the vibrations, a warm breath. “I get it, Watchman, I get it,” he whispered. The lion winked at him.

One by one, the gargantuan yellow construction vehicles abandoned West 3rd Street, beepbeepbeep by beepbeepbeep. One by one, crows lifted from the roof of 333 West 3rd Street, Boston, Massachusetts, to spread the news of how this small battle was won. One by one, a candle, a cigarette lighter, a reading light alit in the topmost window of each home across Boston where the news had spread.

And that is how the Watchman Lion, along with the Witch and her pet rat in the wardrobe, saved the magic of Boston by finding what humans prize most: the feeling of home.

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