The Witches on Floor Fifteen

by Brian Rowe

The little witch sucks on a lollipop, her lips and chin covered in a pumpkin shade of orange, as she peers inside the hospital room. A tall black hat covers her hair, and her brown silk dress has a large vampire cape that stretches down to her shoes. She holds a small bucket shaped like candy corn.I wave to her from the dark, gloomy corner; and she waves back. Her upbeat smile gives this room a needed ounce of cheer.

When she looks at the bed beside me, her smile fades into an appropriate witch-like grimace; and before I can say hello, the girl speeds down the fifteenth-floor hallway and disappears from sight. That’s okay—I don’t blame her. The horrors in this room outweigh anything scary she’ll witness tonight.

I finish my trigonometry homework and then start on physics, trying not to let my mom’s deep, rumbly snores distract me. I can work in the waiting room, or go home if the dank smell and flickering fluorescent lights become too much for me; but I like being near her, the sound of her breathing reassuring me she’s still alive.

When she awakens a few minutes later, I approach the side of the bed. Her face is so skeletal. Her once luminous, chubby cheeks now sunken and discoloured. She’s lost all but a few strands of her golden hair, and her eyes are squinty, as if to open them fully would require too much effort. She reaches for my arm but stops before touching it.

“Aimee?” she asks, her voice quiet, powerless.

“It’s me, Mom.” I kiss her on the forehead and grab her hand. “Can I get you anything?”

She glances around the room like she’s forgotten where she is. She moans as she starts to push herself up.

“No, no. Mom.” I bring her back down, setting her head on the pillow. “Just tell me what you need.”

“I’m thirsty,” she whispers.

“Okay, here.” I bring a cup of lukewarm water to her mouth.

She takes a few sips through a thin straw, then nods. “Thank you.” She says it so weakly, the voice of a dying ninety-year-old coming out of someone who’s not even forty.

“No problem,” I say. “Do you want something to eat?”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Not even Jell-O?”

“No. Where’s Terri?”

I sit on the bed and run my fingers along her dry toothpick arms. “She’ll be here, Mom. She works until five, remember?”

“I miss her so much. She still wants to see me, right?”

“Of course she does. Terri loves you, more than . . .” I sigh. “Oh, Mom.”

She is crying, using every last ounce of her strength to move her shoulders up and down. Her lips quiver as tears spill onto her cheeks.

“I hate this,” she says. “I hate that you have to see me like this.”

“It’s okay. It’s not your fault . . .”

“This isn’t fair to you. Just let me die. I want to die.”

I don’t know what to do, so I climb into the bed, nestle my legs next to hers, and rest my chin on her forehead. I think about opening the window to let some air in, or calling the nurse to see if she can help. Instead I grab the remote control.

“Want to watch some TV?”

I don’t wait for an answer. I aim the remote towards the tiny television secured to the ceiling and press the POWER button. It takes a moment for the ancient TV to start up, but when it does, music from an obnoxious car commercial blares through the room.

“Sorry,” I say, and quickly change the channel.

I bypass five political channels, football games, the Kardashians. I’m about to give up, when I land on something special. On the screen is a man with a painted skeleton face and a black top hat. He’s clapping before a large nightclub audience as three women take the stage.

I turn to my mom, thinking she might have fallen asleep; but she’s wide awake, focused on the screen, her tears dried up. First she taps her fingers against my leg, then she sways her head back and forth to the music. When Bette Midler hits the song’s high note, my mom grins.

“I love this movie,” she whispers. “God, I forgot how much I love this movie.”

For the next ten minutes, my mom and I watch Hocus Pocus, neither of us saying a word, both of us taken with this cheesy Halloween favourite.

I first saw it at our house down in Palmdale, when my mom was eighty pounds heavier, when her face had more colour, when she was still with my dad. For a while it was an autumn tradition, popping in the scratched Hocus Pocus DVD and turning the volume on full blast. One October night we watched it three times in a row, only taking breaks for M&Ms and pumpkin milkshakes. The movie always put her in a good mood, always made her problems go away.

When the commercial break ends and Bette returns to the screen, it occurs to me this might be the last time she watches it.

“I first saw this when I was your age,” she says. “Did you know that?”

“When did it come out?”

“1993. So, yeah, I was sixteen. I thought it looked stupid, but you know how much I love Bette Midler. Did you know it came out in the summer?”

“It did?”

“Yeah, it made no sense . . . like if Christmas Vacation had come out at Easter.”

I smile, and she laughs, and then I kiss her on the cheek. I don’t want this moment to end.

“I love you, Mom.”

“I love you, too, sweetheart.”

She leans her head back, ready to sleep, but then a loud knock brings her back to full consciousness.

Terri walks into the room, still dressed in her drab work clothes. After she hugs me, I move towards the wall.

“Hey, you,” Terri says to my mom. She kisses her on the cheek. “Whatcha watching?”

“Oh, just the best movie ever,” my mom says.

Terri glances at the screen for about two seconds, then sighs and taps her fingers against her hips. “The best ever? Seriously? I take it you haven’t heard of a little film called Beaches.”

“You were in your thirties when Hocus Pocus came out. I was a teenager. It made an impression on me you’ll never understand.”

“So you’re saying I’m old.”

My mom’s eyes go all wide and she says, as loud as her voice can muster, “No, I’m not! I swear I’m not!”

Resting my back against the wall, watching my mom and her longtime girlfriend lovingly bicker for minutes on end, I start to believe I’m not in a hospital room, that I’m not a witness to my favourite person withering away in front of me; instead I’m at home, before my mom suffered her stomachaches and vomiting and long nights in pain, before the cold reality of life slapped me hard across the face.

When my mom closes her eyes, Terri sits on the bed and begins to sing “Wind Beneath My Wings.” It doesn’t take me long to tear up, and soon I leave the room, not wanting them to see me crumble. I walk down the hallway and take a seat on the marble floor.

“What’s wrong?” a young voice says from my left. “Why are you crying?”

I force a smile. It’s the little witch from before, still licking away at her lollipop.

“It’s my mom,” I say. “She’s sick.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.” I peer down the long hallway, where two nurses are standing in a doorway talking. “Where are your parents?”

A grin appears on her face, as she pulls the black hat off her head. Long blond hair falls to her waist, and with her dark-black eyeshadow and pale skin, the girl resembles Sarah Jessica Parker’s character from Hocus Pocus.

I glance inside my mom’s hospital room, at the TV screen. The movie is still on. Bette Midler is riding a broomstick and cackling into the roaring wind.

When I turn around, the girl is gone. For a moment I pretend she’s a real witch, having snapped her fingers and vanished from sight; but then I see her, racing down the hall, swinging her Halloween bucket left and right. She’s just another girl pretending.

I stand up and stretch for a minute. I don’t feel like moving. I’m scared to see my mom, and I’m terrified not to. I rest my back against the wall, as my tears start up again. I thought I could control them. I thought I could be strong.

“What’s the matter, child?” a sweet voice asks, this time from my right.

I stare at the floor through watery eyes. “My mom’s dying. She’s dying, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it, nothing I can do to help her.”

“Oh, child. I’m sorry to hear about your mom, I really am,” the woman says, and then I feel a hand touch my shoulder. “Maybe I can help.”

“I’m not sure you can,” I say, turning to the woman next to me. “Oh. Whoa.”

She’s dressed as a witch—not stylish like Bette in Hocus Pocus, but still impressive—with long brown hair, a huge floppy hat, and a dress made of black-and-orange silk. I pinch myself real quick to see if I’m dreaming.

“What are you doing in a hospital?” is all I think to ask.

The lady lifts her pumpkin-shaped bucket, which is filled with mini candy bars. “My daughter and I have been going around the hospital today wishing all the patients a happy Halloween.”

The lady smiles, then waves a little girl forward, the same one from before. She yawns and takes her mother’s hand.

“Mom, can we go yet?” the girl asks. “I’m tired.”

“In a minute,” the woman says, before she grins at me. “I think we have one more stop.”

My tears have finally stopped as I guide the mother and daughter down the hallway. I feel so out of place in my bulky sweatshirt and jeans, the odd girl out. A nurse walks by and laughs, and an elderly patient asks the mother where their broomsticks are.

And then we’re in my mom’s hospital room.

Terri rises. “Aimee? Who are they?”

“How’s Mom?” I ask.

She doesn’t register my question. “Why are there witches in the hallway?”

I back away from Terri and peer over at the bed. My mom’s still breathing, still with us. “It’s Halloween,” I say. “They wanted to say hi.”

“No, not now. You should have a moment alone with your—”

“Terri, please. This will only take a minute.”

She reluctantly steps out of the way. The two witches follow me to my mom’s bed, and I drop to my knees.

“Mom?” The stench of vomit invades my nostrils, but I ignore it. “Mom, it’s me. There are some people here who want to meet you.”

She slowly opens her eyes. “Aimee?”

I rest my hand on hers. “It’s me. How are you?”

“Aimee . . . I’m scared . . .”

“I know you’re scared. I am, too.” I point to the woman behind me. “Look who’s here.”

I stand up and move next to Terri, as the two witches kneel beside my mom. The girl holds one of my mom’s hands, and the mother brings her palm to my mom’s cheeks. And that’s when I see it, so clearly in my mind: a small, orange light emanating from their fingertips, the mother chanting, the daughter joining in, the room starting to shake, my mom convulsing at the hands of great power. I can see every light in the room exploding, Terri and I ducking to the ground, not removing our hands from our faces until the emergency light turns on. I’d watch my mom sitting upright, her breathing heavier, her eyes opening wide, the first words out of her mouth filling me with a happiness I never thought I could feel again: “Can we go home now?”

This incredible movie plays out in my mind, as the mother and daughter both wish my mom a happy Halloween and then quickly exit the room, not forgetting to leave a few candy bars on the nightstand. My mom waves to the witches, and blows a kiss to me and Terri, before she closes her eyes and falls asleep.

I stay in the room as long as I can, waiting for my mom to wake up. I flip through the channels. Hocus Pocus is still on. Bette is turning into stone now, and the corny music is swelling. Terri holds my hand hard enough to break me.

The end credits roll. I’m still waiting.

June 2016

Brian Rowe

Brian Rowe is currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Nevada, Reno. His work has appeared in Fox Cry Review, Mobius Magazine, New Mexico Review, and Tincture Journal.


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