The Witch of the Highway
By: Ann Wuehler

She roams the blacktop, looking for those who are lost. Not really, but it sounds good. She really is a witch, with powers. At least, she can mix dried plants and water together, get weird stuff to happen. But the conditions have to be right, the moon just so, the wind arriving from the east. Weather and potions cannot be emphasized enough, Jenna tells me when we meet up at the Rockside Cafe and Great Sandy Desert Museum, outside Rockside, Oregon here on the Christmas Valley Highway. It's not on the maps, you can't find it with GPS, don't bother. It's one of those places time forgot. Take my word for it.

I brought Callie Smathers here to meet my half-sister, Jenna, promising Jenna could help her. Callie's daughter, Arugula, ran off last year with her no-account thirty year old boyfriend whose one dubious pal had said he might be heading for San Bernardino, California. I can't remember the daughter's name, I have it written down somewhere on a sticky note folded up in my wallet. I call the kid Arugula as it makes me giggle a bit. It's close to that. I just want to know she's okay, but I had this dream she wasn't, Callie told me over the bad coffee they serve at the Starlite there in Vale. We each had a slice of the Dutch apple, which had a taste right out of heaven. You could imagine eating pie in heaven that tasted like that. Callie had decaf hot tea, she's a Mormon.

Jenna might not show. That message given to a hawk to give to me, written on a handkerchief with weird stains, did not say she would be here today for sure.

"Should we go in?" Callie wonders at me and I shake my head. Jenna would just pivot right back out again of the Rockside Cafe if we were already seated. I had made this mistake twice now. Once with a mama with a set of twins she hadn't wanted in the first

place and once with a man with a broken heart. He had lost his cat. No human had ever touched his heart but that small skinny runty barn cat had broken it for good by dying under a tractor wheel.

"She'll be here. See? The dust there? That's her."

We both observe the dust rising but it could be anything here. A slight breeze. The range cattle moving toward water. A four-wheeler on a two-lane path. A witch on her way to see if she could help. I had no idea if my sister made that dust but it could be her.

"I just want Arutha home."

Arutha. I bit my lip rather than ask this woman why she had saddled her fourth child with such a name. Spite? Was it spite over the pain and the knowledge her religious underpinnings told her she was nothing but a baby factory? That was mean and spiteful of me to think that, but I'm not, never have been, a nice anything. I leave that to others to try and pretend some sort of niceness. I don't believe it exists in the wild. It's something you do in polite society. "I know you do."

"She was such a good girl," Callie continues, getting out of my old Camaro, trying to peer into the cluttered windows of the cafe. A stuffed coyote, a snarling stuffed beaver, two stuffed mule deer, a pan used to ferret out gold in the streams, a full harness set for a team of workhorses, a fragile deerhide from the local Paiutes. It was advertising and hiding how tiny and dingy the place was. "I've never been past Burns before. Never been this way. Why build a cafe way out here? Don't make sense."

"Travelers always going by, you'd be surprised," I tell her, as that dust cloud grows, as whatever made it rushes this way. "I think that really is her. You got your offering ready?"

"I'm not sure about this," Callie tells me, but she takes a small jar from her giant black purse, sets it on the rusty blue hood of my car. Inside is a hamster, frantic and upset at not being in its cage or having that wheel to use. "Something living that belonged to Arutha. She got this hamster last year, she loves it. Why would she leave Elvis? I don't understand."

I nod, having heard all this before, with different names. "Love erases. What can you do?"

"She's fifteen. She has a birthday coming up."

"Okay," and really, what else is there to say?

"What month?" Jenna stands behind us both, in her denim overalls, her bright yellow blouse, with her one-strapped pack slung over her left shoulder. It carries her trade and she guards it with spells handed down from the Fertile Crescent. "Hi there. I'm Jenna! Howdy! A hamster?" Callie hands it over. The jarred hamster, with the holes punched in the lid, went into Jenna's pack, the zipper very loud. "Crystal, you got here late. I've already wasted my time." Jenna removed her straw hat, her hair spiky and white as that fiction called virginity. She cut it herself, with dull scissors but she had no time, she said, to sharpen them. "Why didn't you go in, order something? It's hot out here. What month?" Cowboy boots, the heels worn down, the white leather comfortably worn, adorn my sister's feet. The same ones every time.

Callie snaps her jaws shut. That cloud of dust is just a boy riding a brown and white pinto, which he guides across the highway and off toward the hills. He waves, we wave back. I hope Callie didn't notice his scaly rat tail. "Callie?" I prompt the lady and she takes another peep at Jenna. Jenna with her faintly blue skin and her black eyes rimmed with scarlet. Jenna gives her head a shake and she just has black eyes and sunburned skin. And a warning curl to her lips. I clear my throat, give Callie a look that says don't ask, just don't ask. "When is Ar...your daughter's birthday?"

"November 8th. I had her at noon. Right at noon, on the dot. Breach. They had to turn her. It was breach."

Jenna gives a giant snort. She digs in her breast pocket for her can of chew but finds that it's empty. "Damn it. Let's go inside, have some coffee. You got any chew on you, Crystal?"

"No," I tell her this every instance she asks. She keeps asking. We all go inside the cafe and there's maybe five people in there. Ruby cleans the counter, in her ruby-red uniform and Greg scrapes the grill with three locals eating breakfast at the far booth. But breakfast is served all day long here. It's just good business to do so. "Just us three, Rube. Anywhere?"

"Anywhere," she tells us, not looking up. She does not like Jenna, who found her missing husband. Shacked up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, with two ladies who were neither wife, sister, daughter or cousin, or mom or granny. Very much alive and with no plans on returning to Ruby's thin, very hairy arms.

"I know some of this," Jenna took a sip of the black coffee Ruby had bothered herself to bring over to us three. I put a packet of creamer and a packet of sugar in mine, Callie refused to touch it. But she was a Mormon. "Your girl hopped out of town with some thirty year old screenwriter. San Bernardino, wasn't it?"

"We don't know if he's anything," I corrected before Callie got even more upset at my sister making tasteless jokes at a time like this. "She just wants to know if her daughter is alive."

"I haven't heard a peep for months. She was calling me. They were in Hawthorn. That's Nevada. That was almost two months ago." Callie took a sip of water. Ruby brought over three menus.

"You can do your business in the parking lot. You two never order anything but coffee," Ruby mutters, not even trying to be a good waitress.

"I'll take the chili," Jenna said. "Extra onions. Crystal will have the custard pie and mama here would probably like something with toast. Maybe some eggs?"

"Scrambled eggs, with cheese. Wheat toast," Callie tells Ruby, who blinks at the three of us, before taking our menus.

"Chili, custard pie, scrambled eggs. Anything else?"

"No," I tell her. "You got the hamster. So, is she dead or not?" This to my sister, who seems intent on finding something with tobacco in it somewhere in a pocket she owns.

"I need to walk that highway out there a bit. I got a ghost whispering in my ear to try the highway. I got a ghost bursting with gossip and grime, a talky sort of ghost, it's lucky day and she's a child born in a lucky month," Jenna stands, stretches, leaves her bag on the seat. She takes the jar with the hamster out. I knew it had moments left. "Babies born in November are very lucky. They live charmed lives. Most of them. Some of them." She smiles, goes out, her boots quite loud in the small interior. There's a door that leads to the museum part, which is just some plaques on local flora and fauna and the stuffed specimens. There's even a stuffed black bear and a red-tailed hawk skeleton.

"That's the witch?"

"She finds the lost. She says all the highways are connected. That the dead and the living use highways to get around. I don't know. But she finds people." I see Jenna falling to the highway, kicking at something I can't see as she crashes down. "Oh crap. Come on. We gotta help. Rube? We'll be outside!"

"Nabbies attacking?" Ruby cleaned the counter, the three locals carried on gossiping and laughing. "Good. Hope they bite her head to pieces."

"Get over it, Rube," I tell her before I go out to help my sister.

Callie gapes at the now dead, smashed hamster, the small pool of blood bubbling a bit yet. Bubbling as if boiling. Steam rises from the rodent blood, braids together, drifts apart, braids together. Repeats doing this but our attentions go elsewhere.

Jenna rolls over and over, punching and yowling that she's gonna yank some ears off. I wade in, grab at her, feeling pudding soft substances attached to her. Rather like invisible globs of snot. I start throwing handfuls of the Nabbies away and they try to stick to me but I'm not a witch and I'm very much alive. They prey on the dead and my sister, mostly. Except Jenna prefers to fight them, hand to hand, rather than throw sagebrush-laced spell powder at them. I think she thinks it would be cheating. Throw things out of whack if she uses her power to fend off common ghost-eaters. "They followed me here! Crystal, the blood told me some secrets! November girl! She's coming home! She's had enough! Too ashamed to call her mama! You slippery shitweasel!" She has her hands around a column of air, she's shaking whatever she's caught extra hard, her teeth bared.

Callie puts her hand over her mouth, but she's starting to sob. Wanting to believe. Wanting so badly for her daughter to be okay and headed home, the happy ending she's been taught to think is actually a real thing. Forgetting about poor Elvis, used as a sort of conduit and lubricant on the supernatural switchboard side of things. Love erases.

I see the Nabbies. There are hundreds of them. Small, about the size of a tumbleweed, with square eyes and a triangle mouth, made of waving tentacles like phallic segmented worms. Comical, yes. A nuisance to my sister and a tragedy for any ghost caught in their midst, yes. You hang around Jenna enough, you see what she can see for a bit. You get a glimpse of shadows and eyes and light on long teeth in mouths opening up in the very air itself. I scoop them away; she batters them into otherworldly jelly. They slink off, making their squeaky threat sounds, several of their own torn apart by Jenna's efforts. "So many of them."

Jenna stands up, bruised and bloodied, her nose broken. She pushes it back into place, spits blood and snot onto the road. "I gotta go, Crystal. I gotta chase em. They got wind of something over by Riley. Or maybe it was Lakeview. I got time for some chili. Oh, your daughter? Should be home soon. She's working up her courage. Holed up in Reno a bit."


Jenna goes back into the cafe. I notice one of the Nabbies has bitten my hand. It's already swelling. Sharp puncture marks already turning swollen and full of pus. "Your daughter's fine. In Reno. You still want those eggs? We can go back to Harper."


"She reads the highway."


"Don't worry. The less we know, the easier we sleep. Eggs?"

"I don't...Arutha's coming home?"

"Sure. I guess you could call the Reno PD, get them to check about for her but maybe just let her come home when she's ready."

I trail after Callie, with her carefully permed hair, her eyelashes clumped with cheap mascara, her eyes full of sorrows and hopes. Jenna scoops another bite of chili into her mouth, Ruby toting up the bill for the locals.

Callie catches my arm, her fingers rough and very strong. A mama seven times over, she should be strong with hands that can wrap barb wire fence around a post without needing gloves. "Can we drive to Reno? Right now? I know I can find her."

Jenna raises her head, chewing, swallowing. Her eyes go right through me. She nods, tells me I'd better do this or she's not going to send back any messages through packrats or pheasants or whatever she can get to answer me when I find a way to beef up my bank account. Jenna tells me that I just have to put my hand on a highway, any highway, whisper – I got someone looking for someone, you up for it. Something like that. Wait for her to answer me or just ignore me. She's been ignoring me lately. Maybe she's getting old and doesn't have the juice anymore. "You buying gas?"

"I only have fifty after I pay you the five hundred."

"Just take her, Crystal." Ruby snaps and Jenna nods in real approval. "Lost kid maybe in Reno? It ain't even that far from here. Just go. Here," and Ruby hands me a fifty out of the till. "Tips. Take em. You go find that kid, hon. I bet she's at the Eldorado."

"Thanks," Callie just took the limp bills, stuffed them in her purse. "Can we go?"

"Sure," I say, as Ruby, Greg, and Jenna all gave me the stink eye.

"It's about three hundred miles, it's nothing," Jenna adds with a giant happy smile. It's not her time, after all. It's all mine. "Have your pie and eat your eggs. Bobby! You got things to tell me?" She went to greet an old man with liver spots across his wide moon of a face as I tucked into pie and Callie attempted to swallow her eggs.

"I got a lost horse, Jenna. Wandering around keeping me up all night. You come get it for me now," Bobby sat, Jenna sat with him, and I understood she had already moved on from what I had brought her to the phantom horses that plagued her good friend Bobby way out in the sage scrub. "I hear it all night. Hooves. It's calling for other horses. It's lonely. You come get it and send it on its way."

"I surely will try," Jenna promises.

The End


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