One of our wonderful Humor Contest Runners-Up, “Citrus and Ash.”
By Miranda Sun
Geoffrey lifted the knocker and brought it down on the witch’s door. Three short authoritative raps to get the job done.
Hardly a few moments passed before Owen shifted beside him. “Maybe she’s not home,” he suggested. “I can go peek in her windows.”
“If you want to get turned into a rat, go ahead. We’re here to conduct an investigation, and that means being professional and practicing something called waiting.”
Owen fidgeted, tugging at his yellow-thatch hair.
Geoffrey counted. One, two—
“Maybe you didn’t knock loud enough,” Owen said. “I can do it!” He darted forward and pounded on the door like he was trying to break it down. Then he opened his mouth and began to yell, “HELLO GOOD WITCH WE ARE FRIENDLY CITIZENS HAILING FROM THE ASSOCIATION OF SORCERY SCRUT—”
Noise from inside. The door swung open to reveal a young woman who did not look happy to see them.
“For the last time, I’m not buying those sugar-loaded traps you call cookies! They’re too addicting and my willpower is weak.” Then she seemed to realize they weren’t Knight Scouts, and adjusted accordingly. She brushed off her inky robe and ran a hand through her crow-colored mane. “Oh, hello, boys. What are you here for?”
“Good morning, Miss….” Geoffrey trailed off, but when the witch didn’t offer her name, he plunged ahead. The directory listed addresses of magical denizens, but not all of them had names attached. “My name is Geoffrey Chanong, and this is Owen Mettleby. We are junior investigators in the Association of Sorcery Scrutiny, as my colleague here just announced. We wanted to ask you a few questions about the flare in the sky from a week ago.”
“Oh, you’re from the ASS!” the witch exclaimed, and Geoffrey winced. “Well, come on in.”
The house was heaps bigger on the inside. Cool, musty air met their faces, as if the witch had never heard of opening a window in her life. Blocks of stone mixed with panels of wood arched up to a high ceiling of rafters, floating dandelion lights, and quite a few bats.
Geoffrey had to drag his gaze back down to the ground to avoid tripping over the mess. There were enough tables to hold a feast for a church, and all of them were full to groaning of objects of some kind.
The witch led them through the maze with ease. They reached a table that seemed no different from the rest, but it was here that she stopped and picked up a tiny green six-legged lizard from a cage, stroking its head and cooing to it.
Geoffrey cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Miss—”
“Miss El,” Geoffrey said, slightly peeved. “I wanted to start off our visit by asking your thoughts on the flare. I know you weren’t there that night, so I’ll go over the report. Nearby witnesses described the flare as an orange plume of light, tapered like a flame, maybe one hundred feet long, hovering about three hundred feet off the ground. A couple dragon riders from the League tried to check it out from the air, but their dragons refused to come too close to it. The flare burned strong for a few nights, but as of now, it has virtually faded away. Have you ever seen anything like that?”
Miss El paused, tapping her chin with a scraggly jade-painted nail. “Not in my lifetime, no.” Which could have meant anytime from the last twenty years to the last two hundred. Witches aged differently. “But my great-grandma, may she fly in peace, did tell me about one, once. She said it was the most phenomenal thing she’d ever experienced. Wait.” Her eyes lit up in excitement, and the lizard made a squeaking sound as her hand clenched around it. “What did the air around it smell like?”
Geoffrey’s brow furrowed as he flipped through his binder of notes. One of the witnesses had been very thorough with the details, which he’d thought odd. “Citrus and ash.”
The witch gasped.
“Here, hold this,” she commanded, dropping the lizard into Owen’s hands. Then she turned to Geoffrey. “That’s something huge! Don’t you see? This whole thing! Stars, minerals, hurricanes, the Galapagos….”
Behind her, Owen was holding the lizard as far away from him as possible while still in contact with it, nearly falling over as he craned his head back in fear.
“Yes?” Geoffrey said, still not sure what she was after.
She stared at him for a second, then, unsatisfied by what she saw in his face, whirled around and began riffling through her papers.
Owen had managed to flip the lizard upside down and was holding it by the tail with reluctant forefinger and thumb. The lizard was, understandably, quite upset, and was swinging back and forth like a pendulum, six hands waving, in an attempt to get back on Owen’s finger.
The witch turned to Geoffrey, arms full of disorganized papers. She shuffled through them again, then flung them into the air in frustration. Geoffrey jerked to the side as one sheet folded itself into an airplane and dove for his jugular.
“Natural things! Occurrences occurring naturally in nature. Oh, Mount Visny, you know what I mean!”
Geoffrey coughed. “I’m afraid I do not, Miss El.”
“If only I had a better memory! Or had listened more closely to my great-grandma. I was more interested in finding ways to make the garden mice do my homework, you know.” Her words dissolved into unintelligible mutterings.
The lizard was now a miniature emerald tornado dangling from Owen’s hand. Geoffrey eyed it and decided to back away a couple feet.
It was clear Owen was terrified beyond thinking, and his arm couldn’t stretch any further. Geoffrey witnessed the exact second that Owen, not knowing what else to do, decided to let go just as the lizard’s spinning reached its peak.
Fate had been set into motion. Or rather, the lizard. Legs flailing, the tiny reptile flew right at Owen’s face, and stuck.
The boy let out a scream, which immediately convulsed into a gag as the very, very long tail went into his mouth. He flung himself backward, in what could have been a commendable attempt to get away, had the thing he was trying to escape not been on him—or by this point, halfway in him—and he crashed into a table filled with magical stuff. The entire thing collapsed. Papers flew everywhere. There was a crunch, a crack, and a soft bloopf.
The noise brought Miss El back into the present. Her eyebrows shot toward her forehead, like crows trying to fly off, and she moved with purpose towards Owen, who lay spread-eagled in the middle of the sundered table and scattered sundry—which, considering the state of the rest of the house, quite went with the decor.
“Where’s my lizard?” she demanded, hands on her hips.
“I….” Owen’s lips flapped, trying to form a sentence, but the next thing that came out of his mouth wasn’t a verb, but a burp.
The room was silent as the sound floated up to the ceiling and bumped against the rafters, scattering a couple bats.
“I….kinda swallowed it,” he said, turning as green as the unfortunate lizard. “I think I felt all six feet slipping down my throat.”
The witch stood stock-still for a second, then lunged forward. She grabbed Owen by his mop and crammed her fingers into his mouth, impressively getting in all the way to the elbow.
“Not the—hurk—hair!” he wailed around her arm.
“Oh, blast your stupid hair,” she snapped. “It doesn’t matter when you just murdered my lizard in cold blood!”
“I wouldn’t say murder….maybe manslaughter,” Geoffrey mused, watching the witch root around inside Owen like she was digging for potatoes. “Lizardslaughter?”
“Hehe, in cold blood. S’funny ’cause—” Owen paused to scuffle with his gag reflex before plowing on, his words coming out distorted. “—’cause it’s a lizard which means it’s cold-blooded.” He giggled.
It was a mistake.
The witch removed herself from Owen’s esophagus and stepped back, nostrils flaring as she inhaled. She seemed to swell to twice her size, like a cat arching its back and puffing up its fur. “Do you think this is a joke?” she snarled.
He backed away, still burping, but now also hiccuping in fear.
“Stop! Burping!” She smacked him on the arm. “Do you know what burping means in Kaisong? It means you enjoyed the meal! You uncultured reptile swallower! I’m going to get Petunia back even if I have to cut you open, and by Mount Visny, I will.”
Geoffrey surveyed the unfolding scene with interest. The witch had Owen by the neck and was actually lifting him a couple feet off the floor. She was so worked up about the so-called murder of her lizard that it appeared she was ready to commit actual murder. He might have liked to see what happened next, but they were here on a mission, and he was going to accomplish it.
He approached the two the same way he might approach a werecat under a full moon. “Miss El,” he began. “I apologize for your sudden loss, but I also still need to ask you about—”
A hand shot out and grabbed him by the collar. Geoffrey’s cordial sentence screeched to a halt.
“Don’t,” the witch hissed, pitch-black eyes locked on Owen’s terrified face. “As you can clearly see, Mr. Chanong, I’m in the middle of something.”
She let go, and Geoffrey retreated at a pace that was appropriate and he definitely did not show his fear.
Owen gulped, his dragon’s egg bobbing in his throat. “Please, Miss El! I-I didn’t mean to, I swear! If you want, I can buy you another lizard, or maybe—”
The witch dropped him, disgusted.
“I hope she lays her eggs in you. She was due soon.”
“Noooo!” Owen moaned. He looked like he was seriously considering grabbing a sword from a nearby table and splitting his belly open. “Get it out get it out get it outttt! I don’t want six-legged reptile children crawling inside me!”
“You should have thought of that before you ate my lizard!” Miss El shouted at him, storming away. It would have been an impressive exit had she not had to constantly zigzag due to the tables, so that she rather looked like an angry top spinning this way and that.
The door to another room slammed. Geoffrey gazed down at Owen in exasperation.
“How do you always get yourself into situations like this?” he said, offering a hand.
Owen let himself be pulled to his feet. “I don’t know,” the boy muttered, his shoulders drooping like a wilted dragon flower.
“Well, we still have to finish our investigation, so here’s your chance to make it right.” Geoffrey clapped him on the back. “Come on. Through the tables we go.”
They found the witch in what had to be the kitchen, plowing through a carton of caramel-and-spider-leg ice cream.
“What?” she said. “I eat when I’m stressed, okay?”
They stared at her, and she sighed and gestured for them to sit.
Geoffrey took a seat at the mahogany table. “We’re not here to cause trouble for you, miss. We simply wanted to carry out our duty for the Association of Sorcery Scrutiny.”
“Yeah, my ASS,” she muttered, and Geoffrey groaned. “You may not have wanted to cause trouble, but cause it you did.” She aimed daggers with her eyes at Owen, pointing her spoon at him like a knife. “You come into my house and you eat my pets.”
“I only ate one!” Owen protested. “Pet, singular!”
“There were going to be more! She was going to lay eggs, remember?”
“No, don’t remind me!”
“Hang on, let’s get back on track,” Geoffrey said. “Miss El, I remember you were talking about how your great-grandmother witnessed something like the recent flare, and it had something to do with natural occurrences?”
“Yes,” Miss El said, tearing her eyes away from Owen. “Oh! Natural phenomena, I meant.”
“Okay, we might be onto something there,” Geoffrey said, his voice encouraging. “What kind of natural phenomena, do you think?”
“I feel sick,” Owen moaned.
The witch shoved a spoonful of ice cream into her mouth and swallowed audibly. “Good.”
“Miss El?” Geoffrey prompted.
“Ones that….” She seemed to be thinking, straining to remember. “Ones that were special. Didn’t occur very often, maybe only once in a lifetime.”
Geoffrey flipped through his notes. He didn’t see anything about once-in-a-lifetime natural phenomena. To be honest, his hunch had been that it was a signal from a covert magical organization, relaying a message that no one but the sender and receiver could interpret. Wizards, witches, and sorcerers were always fighting with one another. This was way off what he’d expected, had turned into something else. Much like how this visit had gone.
“I’m going to need more than that, Miss El.”
“Well, I really don’t remember that much….Wait! My great-grandma kept a journal. Maybe she wrote something about it.” The witch dashed from the kitchen, and returned after some time with a massive tome.
She plunked it onto the kitchen table, sending out a draft of dust. The table groaned under the weight.
Geoffrey and Owen watched as she flipped through it, muttering to herself.
“Wizards’ Day….Saint Ogs….Found it!” She jabbed a triumphant finger at a page written in elegant, flowing ink. “Here she describes an orange plume in the sky.”
Geoffrey leaned in and read, “‘Two hundred feet off the ground, fifty feet from beginning to end.’ This one was smaller.”
As his gaze traveled down the page, his mouth fell open. Owen, who had always been the faster reader between the two of them, beat him to the punch.
“‘Seven days later, Mount Visny gave birth.'”
The old witch’s words hung in the air.
Owen broke the silence. “A week after the plume. That’s like….now, isn’t it?”
Geoffrey checked his records, even though he already knew the answer, and nodded silently, not knowing what to say.
“Okay, but your great-grandma lived to tell the tale,” Owen said, turning to the witch. “She lived! So it can’t be that bad. Right?”
Miss El hesitated, and at that moment, the ground rumbled. A crack ran through the wide window pane. A dish slid from the cupboard and shattered, shards skittering across the tiles. From the living room came the distinct sound of countless piles of stuff falling off tables.
“Hopefully,” Miss El said, eyes darting to the door. She looked like she wanted to check on her things, but was aware there might be bigger problems at the moment.
There was a loud boom in the distance, and Geoffrey was afraid he knew exactly what it was.
“I’m going to be sick,” Owen said, and promptly threw up.
“I need to contact the Association,” Geoffrey declared, standing. Better late than never, he supposed. At least he could explain why the volcano was exploding, and how they might have known in advance.
Miss El gasped, and Geoffrey looked to her, but she was staring at the ground where Owen was bent over.
A tiny green six-legged lizard sat on the floor, shell-shocked and covered in stomach fluid, but none the worse for the wear.
“Petunia!” she cried, scooping the creature up. A quick rinse in the sink, and she was cuddling the lizard against her cheek.
“You’re….welcome,” Owen mumbled.
“Oh, don’t you start,” she snapped, aggressively petting the lizard’s head. Then her eyes focused on something outside the kitchen window, and her mouth fell open.
She moved toward the cracked glass, and they followed.
Above the trees ringing Miss El’s house rose a thick tower of smoke, gray as a dying man’s breath. This was no plume, no candle flame. It was the color of iron, the shade of terror and disaster and waiting too long.
The witch flung open the kitchen window, and a fresh breeze rushed in, perhaps the first in a century. Geoffrey breathed in, then wished he hadn’t.
The air tasted of citrus and ash.
Miranda Sun is eighteen years old. Her work has been nationally recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and published in “Glass Kite Anthology,” “Polyphony H.S.,” “Blue Marble Review,” “Inklette, “TRACK//FOUR,” and more. She is an alumna of the NYS Summer Young Writers Institute and the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop. She loves lychee bubble tea and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.