Though only 12 years old, he walked with the syphilitic shuffle of a much older man. His head hung so low and his shoulders slumped so far forward they arrived well in advance of the rest of his body. Oh, that body. Amorphous best described the dough-like, lumpen shape that caused the tormentors in his life to universally refer to him as Pudge; a name one of his bullies stuck him with in Grade 2.
A dark cloud hung over him as he shambled home from school. It was joined by dark thoughts of fantasy revenge. He took solace, at least temporarily, imagining himself wrecking physical, chop-socky havoc on all of them. And by all, he meant all, for Pudge was a boy without a friend in the world, a boy who lived in his head and, because of his sharp mind — encased as it was in a profoundly dull body — still managed to feel superior to those who made his life a living hell.
The first time the old crone called out to him he didn't hear, so lost was he in his satisfying fantasies.
"I said boy, come over here," she repeated, more loudly.
Pudge stopped, looked over his shoulder and shook himself into the here and now. He wasn't sure what to make of the command, coming as it did from the gnarled old woman everybody in the suburban neighbourhood called The Witch.
"Me?" he implored?
"Yes, you, boy. Come over here."
Uncertainty froze Pudge. "The Witch wants me to come closer," he thought, trying to weigh his puzzlement against his deep-seated fear.
"Come over here; I won't bite," the old woman cackled.
Slowly, for he did everything slowly, he backtracked a few steps and walked gingerly up her weed-cracked walkway.
"What do you want?" he asked, skeptically.
"I have a proposition for you," she replied. "You know what proposition means, don't you."
Pudge was insulted by the question. He was certain he commanded a far wider vocabulary than the old woman ever would. And as repulsed as he was by her appearance — wild, gray hair that looked like she styled it with a Waring blender, rheumy pale eyes, food-stained clothes, crooked, brown teeth and bent, bony fingers — he felt curious, an unusual state for a terminally incurious boy.
In the absence of any response from him other than a dull stare, the old woman continued, "I need someone to help me set up my haunted house for Halloween. I need you."
"Why me," he asked?
"I see you walk by every day. You don't seem to have anything to do and no friends to do it with anyway."
"What would I have to do," he said, sounding exactly like a boy who'd spent much of his 12 years avoiding labour.
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