Bertha sighed and fidgeted with the invitation in her hand. All week she had debated coming to this annual Halloween party for witches, and now she almost wished she hadn’t. It was too late now, though.
She impatiently rocked back and forth on her heels, looking for her friend, Lily. Lily had said she would meet her outside the house so they could go into the party together, but if she didn’t show up soon Bertha was going to look a complete fool.
She glanced back at the house and tried to reassure herself that there was nothing out of the ordinary. One couldn’t tell there was anything very unusual about the house, could they? It had four walls and a roof, a trim little yard with a neatly pruned hedge and a carefully swept walkway that were as irreproachable as those of any other house.
Bertha squinted and looked a little harder. Yes, there were some discrepancies; the unusual gold trim on the mailbox, the elaborate curlicues in the letters of the address, a peculiar mark scratched on the left side of the door….Well, she would just have to hope none of the neighbors noticed. She did think it a little foolish, however, to have a party in cloaks and everything, even if it was Halloween.
Just then a car pulled up next to the house. Could it be Lily? She caught her breath.
No, it was not Lily. A strange young man she had never seen before got out of the car and walked up to her, holding out his hand and smiling.
“Hello, you must be Bertha. Lily got sick last minute, but she didn’t want to call it off, so she sent me in her place. We were friends at school-had she ever mentioned a Jack to you?”
“No.” Bertha suddenly felt overcome by a wave of embarrassment. She always felt so awkward around guys; she never knew what to say or do. And she felt a little angry too. Lily knew how much she hated being around guys and this was probably her idea of a joke. Well, there was nothing she could do about it now. She was here, and she would have to make the best of it.
As they started up the walkway, Bertha found herself nervously thinking about what she could say to fill up the impending silence. The only thing that came to mind was what was bothering her at that exact moment, and she found herself saying, “The only thing I don’t like about this whole party is the fact that we have to come in cloaks and use the Identity Charm to get in. It makes it too obvious, I feel.”
Jack looked over at her in surprise. “Really? I think that’s the best part! I mean, the whole year we have to wear normal Human clothes, but tonight is the one night that we can wear what we’re supposed to! I think it’s great.”
“Oh, yeah, I guess so.” Bertha mentally slapped herself. Why could she not say anything remotely intelligent to this guy! It was going to be a very long evening…
They had reached the steps by now. Instead of knocking, Jack made some small motion with the long stick he had been concealing in his cloak. A brief flash of light, and he was gone. Bertha swallowed, cautiously looked around, and did the same.
A moment later she was on the other side of the door, blinking in the light. The party was already in full swing, and the little house was crammed with guests, their tall hats and long cloaks contributing to the weirdness of the entire evening.
She looked around for Jack and saw him near the food tables, just like a guy. She was about to join him when a voice sounded in her ear.
“Bertha dear! So glad to see you! And how are things in your assignment?”
Bertha turned around and saw Mrs. Fletcher, a slightly stout, round-faced witch who had transformed her face with bright streaks of color and glitter to resemble a butterfly. At least, Bertha assumed it was a butterfly. It might have been a fairy.
“Perfectly well, thank you. And your assignment?”
Every witch’s work, or ‘assignment’, was to prevent the Humans in their area from discovering the reality of witches and wizards while also contributing to make Humans’ lives run a little more smoothly. The head of Witches’ and Wizards’ Interaction with Humans Board reasoned that since witches would end up deceiving multiple Humans in the course of their lifetime, it was only fair to make up for it in some small way.
Bertha’s current assignment was in a small town where everything was so predictable that she suspected the inhabitants would welcome anything to break the monotony, even the discovery that a witch was their neighbor. But that was not her decision.
“Wonderful, wonderful! Mine and Horace’s is going just fine as well. It can be a little more difficult, living in a big city-”
Was Bertha imagining it, or did Mrs. Fletcher seem a little smug?
“..but we do just fine! Do you like my costume?”
Bertha nodded. “Words fail me.” Well, that was not a complete lie. She just intended it in another way. She was racking her brain to think of something to say before Mrs. Fletcher started gushing about her eldest daughter, her husband, and actually her entire life in general when Jack came to her rescue.
“Hey, Bertha! Try any of the food yet? It’s amazing!”
Bertha shot him a grateful look of thanks. “Oh, not yet, but it smells great!”
She turned to Mrs. Fletcher. “I’m sorry, do you mind if I go? I’m really very hungry-”
To her relief, Mrs. Fletcher did not insist on accompanying her. “Go on, dear, go on! Just make sure you try the Pumpkin Pastries! My eldest daughter made them, and she-”
Bertha nodded. “Uh-huh, sounds great,” and slipped away with Jack.
“Oh my gosh, thank goodness you found me! Do you know Mrs. Fletcher? And her daughter?”
Jack laughed. “Do you know, I once got into an elevator with her - I think I was at Headquarters for some reason - and the elevator got stuck!”
“Yes! I was trapped there for a full hour, and I don’t think she stopped talking once.”
They had reached the buffet by now and Bertha felt her stomach growl at the savory odors that wafted up to meet them. She grabbed a plate and stood waiting in line while Jack finished off the last of his food and took a second plate. Bertha shrugged and pretended not to see. He could take more food if he wanted to, gosh...When she looked up, however, Jack’s eyes were laughing down into her own.
“Don’t judge, Mrs. Fletcher’s daughter’s pumpkin pastries are actually pretty good.”
Bertha tried to keep a straight face, but the amusement in Jack’s eyes was too much. She burst out laughing. Something warm and good and very sweet was rushing through her. She had not felt this way in a long, long time. And to think it happened because of a complete stranger! She was glad she had come. If only every night could be like this....
“Um, excuse me, miss. Could you please move up?”
She turned around in surprise and found herself looking at an anxious, somewhat plump-faced man who had been waiting behind her. Then she glanced ahead and realized that the entire buffet was free of people.
“Oh yes, sorry about that!” She stepped forward and hastily examined the remaining food. Martha’s spiced cider, that was always good. And the cinnamon coffee cake...and either the pumpkin bread, pumpkin stew, roasted pumpkin seeds, or pumpkin cheesecake-
She turned to Jack. “Definitely not enough pumpkin stuff, you think?”
He nodded, his mouth full of pumpkin pastry, and mumbled something that Bertha took to mean ‘definitely not’.
They sat down in a corner of the room and to Bertha’s complete amazement, she was thoroughly enjoying herself. The food was delicious, the atmosphere was relaxed and warm, and Jack was amazingly funny and sweet. He had her laughing at story after story, and before she even realized how late it was, the clock was chiming midnight.
Bertha jumped up. “Have you ever done the pumpkin carving contest here?”
Jack shook his head. “Actually no. The one other time I was here, I had to leave early for some reason and I never got to do it.”
“Oh my gosh, you have to do it! It always starts at midnight and the participants have one hour to carve a pumpkin however they want, with wands of course.”
Jack gulped down the last of his cider and stood up. “Let’s go.”
They headed outside into the frosty night air. Most of the other witches and wizards had already gathered outside and the air was loud with the sound of excited voices. Bertha and Jack found a place on the grass to carve and Jack picked out a pumpkin.
“Why not this one with the two stems? ”
Bertha laughed. “It looks like a two-headed monster or something!”
Jack wagged a finger at her. “Don’t you insult my pumpkin! It’s going to be a reindeer.”
Within a few moments, both were deeply engaged in carving.
“No, Bertha, it’s supposed to be a reindeer, not a dinosaur.”
Bertha laughed and tried to push her long hair out of her eyes without getting pumpkin in it. “Well Mr. Amazing-Artist, maybe you should show me how to properly carve a reindeer-pumpkin!”
“Try me,” said Jack, and placing both his hands over her frozen ones, he helped her carve the pumpkin.
They were given a whole hour to carve, but for Bertha it passed in five minutes. The delicious thrill of Jack’s strong, warm hands over her own, the continual meeting of their eyes, the frigid stimulus of the night air, the pungent smell of the bonfire, its waves of heat, and far above, the glitter of a thousand stars in a velvet-black sky...If only she could somehow capture this night, close it away somewhere so she could keep it forever, and take it out to relive…
All too soon the contest was over. It was now past midnight, and the guests were starting to leave. Bertha lingered behind, constantly inventing new excuses to stay just a few more minutes, but at last Jack said,
“Do you want a ride? We should probably go - pretty much everyone else has left.”
Bertha sighed and tried to conceal her disappointment.
“Yeah, you’re right. It’s super late and technically I have work tomorrow.”
“Well, you could call in sick because of ingesting too many pumpkin pastries made by Mrs. Fletcher’s daughter.”
Bertha tried to smile, but she suddenly felt very dull. It was over...Jack would go back to his assignment, and she to hers, and she probably wouldn’t ever see him again.
Jack helped her on with her cloak and they headed outside again into the frosty air. Bertha looked around for Jack’s car, but it was nowhere to be seen.
“Jack!” she cried in alarm, “Your car, it was stolen!”
“Oh, that. Don’t worry, a friend took it home.”
Bertha only looked at him stupidly. “Jack, forgive me if this seems very dense, but how are we going to get home?”
“Well, I thought, since it is Halloween, it might be more fun if we took these. Lily mentioned to me that you liked them.” And with that, Jack reached under his cloak and drew out two wooden broomsticks.
Bertha couldn’t speak. She couldn’t believe that a complete stranger had gone to all this trouble for her; she knew how hard it could be to find places that rented broomsticks. As if in a dream, she reached out and took one of the faintly glowing broomsticks. It felt cool and solid and reassuring in her hand. Suddenly she felt a rush of pure energy.
“What are you waiting for? Race you!”
In a moment, they had both kicked off and were swooping through the frosty night. The wind was rushing through her hair, tearing gasps of laughter from her throat, while Jack rode at her side, ducking and weaving through the wind as if it were only yesterday he had last been on a broom, and not years. She couldn’t remember when she had last laughed this hard, couldn’t remember when she had felt this alive…
How long they rode through the star-spattered night, she could never tell. But long before she had had enough, they were touching down in her own backyard.
She stumbled off the broom with stiff legs while Jack landed beside her. As she turned around to look back at him, she suddenly felt at a complete loss of what to say. A mere ‘thank you’ seemed completely inadequate for how amazing the entire evening had been. Well, no help for it. She couldn’t stand here all night. She was holding out her broom and opening her mouth to say ‘thank you’ when Jack spoke first.
“Hey, um, I just wanted to say, thanks for coming.”
“Oh, thank you! It was, amazing! I can’t even-”
She suddenly broke off as Jack bent down and kissed her. Just a light brush across her cheek, but it turned her hot and cold all over.
“Well, so long. I’ll see you soon, I hope.”
Bertha only nodded. Her throat was swelling too much to speak.
In one, easy movement, Jack swung himself back onto his broom and pushed off. Within moments, he was racing back the way they had come, a dwindling speck against the brilliant night.
Bertha stood there a moment, watching him go. She brushed her cheek and suddenly smiled. She knew she would see him again, soon...