No Bad Deed Goes Unpunished

No Bad Deed Goes Unpunished

A short story is a great way for a writer to explore writing outside of their normal genre. It's also a way to test what readers may like to read. This is a Halloween themed piece. I've included this for your reading pleasure.

Thank you. I hope you like it.

No Bad Deed Goes Unpunished

by Marianne Scott

Harlan’s career was finally going well. He’d gotten promoted, which involved a transfer back to Blackbridge, his childhood hometown. He quickly signed a mortgage for the first suitable house he could find. It happened to be on Hespeler Avenue, a street near his old family home on Hammer Lane, where he recalled a recluse of a woman of questionable origin and background had lived. This transfer, though prestigious and lucrative, left him with apprehensions. Blackbridge didn’t hold good memories for him. The town had a dark reputation due to several unsolved disappearances. The people had walked about with an air of suspicion and secrecy. It definitely wasn’t going to make one of those “best communities to live in” lists. In addition, his school days had been isolated and lonely. He’d stopped hanging out with a few boys because of their cruel and destructive tricks, who turned around and bullied and ostracized him. But prior to that, for a time, Harlan had tried to be like them, something he regretted to this day. That Halloween prank they did on old Alma Stark, the woman they’d thought to be a witch, still haunted him all these years later.

After Harlan moved into his new home, he took a walk over to Hammer Lane and stopped in front of the woman’s house. He was instantly flooded with memories. He strained to see the house number, the address obscured by overgrown brush. He was sure the number was 666, a sure sign of evil, as sure as the woman who lived there and what she represented. To all the kids in his school, it was common knowledge that she was a witch. He never knew the woman or how she had acquired that reputation. But back then they were kids, and if everyone said it, they assumed it had to be true.

The kids had never actually seen Alma Stark, but she was rumored to have had long black wiry hair that she kept tied in a low ponytail. They imagined her as a tall lanky woman who flailed her arms in the air for reasons unknown to them, probably to summon other demons to keep her company. They assumed she was old and ugly though no one had ever seen her face. She grew herbs in a side garden, herbs they expected she used to brew concoctions for her evil spells. Spells that turned humans into toads and other undesirable creatures. No one had ever been brave enough to go near her place.

However, being the cocky youngsters that Mitch, Boomer, and a then-misguided Harlan were, the three boys had called the other kids scaredy cats and boasted that they weren’t scared of “any old witch.” Ganging up on the trio, the other kids from the neighborhood followed, trying to get them to prove it.

As the boys left for home after school that day to get their Halloween costumes on, the other kids jeered and dared them to visit the house that night. “I bet she gives out bat’s wings and eyeballs as treats,” the kids mocked, trying to get the boys to chicken out. The taunting became so great, the boys were shamed into agreeing – after all, they weren’t scared. But now they had to prove it.

And now, all these years later, Harlan was here again, at the scene of the bad deed.

A black cat meowed, breaking Harlan out of his memory. The feline approached and rubbed against his leg. He stared at it. Could it be the same cat who’d followed him around that day when he had gone back to clean up the vandalized lawn the day after? It was twenty-five years later. Cats didn’t live that long.

He examined the house again. The two-story clapboard cottage had seen better days. It was partially obscured by overgrown maples and willows that lined the short laneway riddled with broken pavers. The house was dark inside and looked abandoned and seemed even spookier than it had to his ten-year-old self. The wrap-around veranda was in dire need of paint though as far as he could assess, still solid enough to be safe. But the window shutters to the left of the black carved wood door were damaged and hung precariously off the hinges.

He looked up to the second story. He remembered how the windows in the cupola caught the moonlight on the night of the prank, making it look like a malevolent ghost was peering out at them. His mind drifted back as he remembered how he and his buddies had pranked the lady living there because she never gave out Halloween candy. A dare that had gone unfortunately wrong.

The kids had goaded Harlan, Mitch, and Boomer into vandalizing the front yard. After all, it was Halloween, and the expression: “Trick or treat” demanded a trick if no treat was given. They had armed themselves with toilet paper, a bag of trash, and stolen jack-o-lanterns, which they planned to smash against the steps leading to the porch.

Harlan shook his head at the bits of memory and huffed at how cruel and unkind they’d been. Then the full memory came flooding back.

Mitch had dressed as Zorro with a cape and mask, looking bold and sure. He had been the gang leader. Harlan, desperate for his friendship, followed his lead and was equipped with rolls of toilet paper for the act. Boomer carried a black bag of refuse. Mitch would confiscate the pumpkins from a nearby house. What the hell, it was expected. It happened all the time, he laughed. Mitch was the fastest runner on the school track team. He’d snatch and run, and no one would ever know who’d done it. That witch wouldn’t suspect what was about to happen. No treats? This would teach her.

Harlan remembered how the front yard had leaves that had been raked into a mound. Ah, a perfect target! Yet as they opened the gate by the picket fence, it squeaked louder than they wanted. A light came on in the house. The boys fell to the ground to avoid detection, but the woman came out and stood on the veranda, calling out into the dark, “No candy here so move on – or else. And don’t even think about your tricks. No bad deed goes unpunished. I will get you.” She stood there waiting for several minutes.

Harlan hoped she couldn’t hear his heart pounding. After a time, she went back inside and turned off the lights.

“Come on,” Mitch whispered. “Let’s do this.” He moved stealthily, carrying the pumpkins toward the house while Harlan flung the toilet paper at the bushes. The white strands streamed out onto the branches, where they got caught and waved like ghost arms in the breeze. Brad emptied the trash bag, the wind scattering the garbage all over the lawn. Smash! The pumpkins Mitch threw one after the other exploded into pieces onto the wooden steps. The lights came on again. With lightning speed, they ran, right through the pile of leaves, unleashing a storm of leaves as they passed through. They ran like demons until they reached Harlan’s house and collapsed on his lawn.

“Oh, man, we’re the witch busters. The kids at school are going to worship us,” Mitch boasted as he danced with wild excitement, reveling in their act of vandalism.

Harlan wasn’t as pleased with himself. He already regretted engaging in the prank. Alma had done nothing to him. Why did he go along with Mitch’s bad deed?

“We shouldn’t have done that,” Harlan said.

Mitch stopped his dancing and sneered at Harlan. “What are you, some kind of sissy?” Mitch mocked. “Scaredy cat, scaredy cat.” He pushed and poked and made faces at Harlan. “Come on,” Mitch urged Boomer to join him in mocking Harlan.

Boomer, still hyped, copied the chant. “Scaredy cat, scaredy cat—”

“Stop it,” Harlan shouted. “I’m going inside.” The boys turned to leave. Harlan had already made up his mind that he would go back to Alma’s house the next day and face the consequences, even if she might turn him into a toad.

It was Saturday morning and Harlan, feeling shaky, made his way back to Alma’s house. He was greeted by a black cat, the name “Lucy” etched into her collar. She rubbed against his leg and purred.

“Hi there, Lucy,” Harlan patted her head. “Are you really a cat or somebody’s punishment? I might be joining you shortly.” She mewed and ran into the yard.

The mess they’d made looked worse in daylight. He knew what he had to do. Alma’s front door beckoned. Slowly he approached and knocked. No answer. He knocked again. Still no answer. He looked around and noticed a broom on the veranda, and in the yard, a rake lying on the ground among the scattered leaves. He knocked one more time. Still no answer, so he started to do what he’d come to do: to undo the devilish deed they had performed with such abandon the night before. He took the broom and swept the steps to clean up the smashed pumpkin bits, putting the broken chunks into yard waste and garbage bags he’d brought with him for the clean-up task. He picked up the refuse that Brad had scattered. Then he raked the leaves, putting them into several yard bags and taking them to the curb. All the while, Lucy followed him closely, mewing and purring as he worked. It took him all morning, but finally the clean-up was complete. Alma’s veranda and yard looked orderly again. He wanted to say goodbye to Lucy but when he looked around for her, she was gone.

Before he left, he noted the garden border had also been disheveled by their antics. There was nothing he could do about the trampled plants, but Harlan repositioned the rock border. He held the last remaining stone in his hand. Not having any paper on which to write, he considered its possibility. He wanted to leave her a note of apology so the smooth surface of the stone would have to do. Scratching out the words with his pocketknife he wrote, “I’m sorry” and signed “Harlan” on the face of it. He left it on the mat by Alma’s front door. She couldn’t miss it there. Satisfied that he’d done what he could, Harlan left for home.

The caw of a crow brought back him to the present. Harlan cringed as he continued to stand in front of the old house. Guilt and regret held him there. He noted the weather-beaten “For Sale” sign in the yard. A few weeks earlier in his own search for a house, the real-estate agent had told him the sign had been there for years. Who wanted such a rundown place, and to live where a woman reputed to make people disappear had lived?

Harlan felt like he still had to make amends. He headed to Home Depot for supplies. Close to the entrance, he ran into an old school acquaintance, Virginia.

They chatted and reminisced for a while, laughing at the silly things they did when they were kids.

But what she told him before she left the store made him shiver. “Oh, by the way, if you’re thinking about looking up your old friends, Mitch died in a motorcycle accident a year ago.” Virginia looked at him with frightened eyes. “And Boomer … ” she trailed off, her voice breaking. “He had a heart attack last week.” She shook her head and Harlan realized that Boomer hadn’t made it.

Alma’s fateful words came back to him. ‘No bad deed goes unpunished.’ He wheeled his cart to the check-out in a daze, dreading his decision to go back to Alma’s abandoned property. He was sure that her words were a curse, and he was next. But at least he could leave this world with a clear conscience.

Harlan worked for several days painting the veranda. He repaired the broken shutter. He cut the grass and repaired the gate and phoned the real-estate agent to ask her to replace the old sign with a fresh one. While there was nothing he could do about the reputation of the place, he could at least make it look better. Maybe someone would buy it then. Perhaps Alma was still alive, living in a retirement home or with family. She should benefit from the income.

As he left, he thought he heard the meow of a cat. He turned but saw nothing.

As he returned to his own new house, he noticed something on the veranda. There by the door was a rock. He felt a cold chill run over his body. This was it. Alma’s punishment. If he picked it up, he’d be transformed into some animal or perhaps its touch would kill him. But he believed he deserved it. He picked up the stone and read the words etched onto the smooth face.

“Thank you. A good deed is rewarded.” It was signed “Alma.”