Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson



“Bree?” Marshall said, concerned. I wasn’t sure what my face was doing.

I pushed past him, running to the windows.

He joined me. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” I didn’t sound fine, even though this woman was the least threatening thing that I had ever seen. She was ancient, and toting an earth-conscious reusable grocery bag much like mine, for God’s sake.

But she did resemble my dream witch. Especially her hair, striped gunmetal gray and silver, the thin locks straggling out from under her hat.

I wondered if I should call the headmaster, or even the police, just to get a report on the record. In case the witch hadn’t been a dream but a thing my subconscious had made out of this actual woman. In case she really had been lurking in my backyard.

It seemed ridiculous, though. I knew what they would think of me, a mom with a new baby, overanxious and sleep-deprived. I could perfectly imagine their amused glances if I called them to report seeing a little old lady, maybe twice. It would be worse if I was truthful and mentioned the dream I’d had earlier. A witch, you say? They would be polite, but only because we lived in Decatur; we had high property taxes and our own police force. Money bought manners, and Trey made a lot of it. Otherwise I knew how it would go.

I knew because when I was growing up, my mother called the police on the regular. She lived convinced that my father might come back, even after he’d gone to prison. Even after he was dead. She’d hear him creeping around under the house or on the roof at night. And yes, she often thought she saw a figure peering in our windows.

I knew most of our regular beat cops by name. Officer McKenzie would at least shine his light into the crawl space, but his flat gaze and long, slow exhales made it clear he thought my mom was crazy. Officer Loblis was more blunt about it. There are people in actual trouble. And here I am. With you. Again. Officer Dobson was the worst, looming over us, anger palpable in the lines of his big body. Once I heard him mutter, I ought to give you something to be scared about, lady, as he left. He was only a little less frightening than the imagined man she’d called about.

When I got pregnant with Peyton so soon after Anna-Claire, my mom let us buy her a condo near us. I’d long wanted to evacuate her from the leaky two-bedroom ranch where I’d grown up, but she wouldn’t move until she believed she was doing it for me. It was wonderful having her close when I had a newborn and a one-year-old, but the best part of the condo was the on-site security. All guests had to sign in and out, and only residents had key cards that would activate the elevators. Mom hadn’t called the cops once since she moved in, and yet, as I considered calling them myself, the mingled shame and fear from childhood were churning in me. I’d never learned my born-wealthy husband’s ease. In his mind the police worked for him, cruising our neighborhood to keep us safe. Whenever I saw them passing through or parked on our corner, I was swamped with the irrational, anxious feeling that I’d done a crime so secret that even I didn’t realize it.

Maybe I should tell Marshall? For all his recent coolness, I still trusted him. If he took my witch sightings seriously, it would be permission for me to as well.

“Did you see that woman?” I asked. She was already out of sight.

“The meemaw?”

“Did she look like a . . . ?” I couldn’t bring myself to say the word “witch.” Marshall didn’t have time for this nonsense any more than the actual police would. “No, it’s stupid. Never mind.” He was concerned, though, leaning toward me like the old friend that he was. It felt like an opening to fix whatever this breach was, and surely that mattered more than a bad dream. I touched his arm. “Do you have to go straight back to work, or can you stay and watch rehearsal with me?”

He blinked and stepped back. I could almost feel a wall of cool air whoosh back between us. “They let you do that?” There was a slight emphasis on the “you,” as if he thought I’d finagled some rare privilege.

“Any parent with a kid in the show can,” I assured him. I wasn’t sure if this was technically true, but a lot of moms did it. “If we sit up in the balcony, Ms. Taft won’t even notice.”

Marshall’s eyebrows came together. “There’s a balcony?”

“Yes. You haven’t gone in to see the performance space?” The new PAC had been open for only eight weeks. Grease, Junior would be the first middle-school show on the big stage. “It seats five hundred.”