Grand Prize Winner 80th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition – “Boy Witch” by John T. Biggs

Navajo clerks at the Circle K’s wouldn’t look Danny’s way if he took a couple of hot dogs from the rotisserie. They’d let him take big pretzels too, even the ones dripping with cheese and jalapeño peppers. He could have all the fountain drinks he wanted, and flavored coffees with names like French Vanilla, Mocha Latte and Pumpkin Spice Cappuccino—white man names. He could probably take cigarettes if he wanted them, but he didn’t like the way they smelled, and he couldn’t sell them because no Indian on the Big Rez would buy smokes from a boy who might be a witch—not even Marlboros.

Danny liked to pace himself, steal from different convenience stores so his invisibility didn’t wear thin, but the Rez was pretty big and Circle Ks were kind of far apart and he didn’t have a car, so some of the clerks got so they could see him pretty well.

He brought his own big green plastic sack borrowed from the trash can outside his mother’s Airstream trailer. Twenty-gallon size, lots of room for chips. The big Fluffy Cheetos were his favorite, but he liked Fritos and Doritos too, especially the ones that tasted like BBQ sauce. He took cans of StarKist Tuna, two-liter bottles of Mountain Dew, and tins of Vienna Sausages for Queenie.

Who’d have thought a gray timber wolf would like Vienna Sausages?

Danny watched the clerks ignore him as he loaded up his grocery sack. They weren’t talking about witches now, but they would as soon as he was gone. Danny knew because sometimes he’d hide and listen. That’s how he found out he was a witch.

The locals figured it all out after Nathan Balance disappeared.

“He didn’t want that boy around no more” is how the conversations always started. Then nobody saw Nathan anymore. Nobody saw his truck, either, but lots of people saw wolf tracks, and lots of people saw Danny Riley roaming the desert after the sun had set and dark spirits looked for company.

That’s how a 12-year-old Laguna Pueblo boy becomes a witch on the Navajo Reservation. His mother’s no-good diabetic boyfriend chases him into the desert without thinking about his insulin and then can’t find a way back home.

Put that together with Queenie, and you’ve got yourself a full-fledged mystical phenomenon—Indian style. Nothing magic about Queenie. She was one of the gray wolves a bunch of white college students released on the Rez a few years back. Those kids probably learned a lot in college, but they never learned how to say thank you or please. They just sort of naturally knew that timber wolves would get along with Indians.

Never mind if they ate the Indians’ sheep. Never mind if they ate an Indian child or two. Everything was unofficial and done with the best intentions and without asking the locals what they thought. That’s how white people did things on the reservation.

Some good came of it anyway.

Now Queenie belonged to Danny Riley. The wolf did what Danny wanted without ever being told, followed some kind of secret witch language made up of scents and gestures. Today, she’d wait outside the Circle K, so blended with the desert no one would see her until she moved, and she wouldn’t do that until the time was exactly right.

Danny stepped toward the cash register. This one wasn’t closed up behind bulletproof glass like some.

His invisibility would fall away as soon as he made his move, because Indian magic didn’t work on money. Not even food stamps. The minute he put a finger on the cash register, the two clerks would come for him.

Danny’s meandering shoplifting path through the store seemed random, but every step he took required a step by the clerks so they could keep pretending he wasn’t there.

Ignorance is the first line of defense against witchcraft. Don’t look at anything too long or think about anything too much, and never put your thoughts into words where something dangerous can hear. That’s how Indians keep goblin seeds from taking root in their minds. Ignore a witch and sooner or later, he’ll probably go somewhere else.

As long as he stays away from the cash register.

Danny kept the clerks busy looking the other way. Just two of them and they were good friends who didn’t mind standing close together. Get them into a corner by the frozen goods, as far from the front door as possible.

Time to make his move. He had a clear path for the door and a double handful of Circle K money in addition to the plastic sack filled with stolen merchandise. Six steps toward the gas pumps and a sharp left. He could hear the clerks behind him. They still weren’t calling out for him to stop. And they wouldn’t.

Because that’s when Queenie showed herself. Came out of nowhere, standing on a few stray bills and coins Danny dropped when he made his turn. He didn’t wait and see what happened next. Like most magical things, all the really cool special effects happened out of sight.

Just by standing there, Queenie slammed the Navajo clerks’ attention so hard, Danny seemed to disappear. That’s how they’d tell the story in a day or so. The boy vanished—poof!—and in his place a great gray wolf. They wouldn’t even notice Queenie was a girl-wolf. In a week, every Indian on the Reservation would know that Danny Riley was a skin walker, the most dangerous kind of witch that everybody wants to leave alone for as long as possible. Danny hoped that would be a long, long time, because when Indians decide they can’t ignore a witch anymore, they come with rifles.

***

It’s a delicate thing being a boy-witch, especially if you love your mother. Especially if she’s young and kind of pretty and likes to spend time with men. Nelva Riley never had been choosy. She tried to change her ways a hundred times. Made promises. Broke them in a little while. Said she was sorry and tried all over again.

“Edison Wauneka is coming here tonight,” she told Danny. “You said to let you know.”

“Can’t you go to his house?” Danny couldn’t be around when Nelva’s boyfriends came to visit, what with the witchcraft rumors and all.

“His wife wouldn’t understand,” Nelva said. “You know how it is.”

Danny knew all right.

There was barely a road to Nelva’s Airstream. The nearest town was Tonalea. Lots of desert in between, but not much cover. If boyfriends started driving around Nelva’s place, it wouldn’t be any time until somebody ran onto Nathan Balance’s truck, or even Nathan Balance’s body, and then some of Nathan Balance’s family would get drunk enough to decide that justice couldn’t wait another minute, and they’d come to kill a witch. It happened all the time.

So when Edison Wauneka came to spend the night, Danny hid underneath the trailer and listened to the conversation. Indians are supposed to have quiet ways, but Nelva’s boyfriends all talked a lot.

“Your boy a witch?” Edison asked.

“He ain’t,” Nelva said. “But he don’t live around here anyway.”

That was the story Danny and Nelva settled on. He’d gone off to live on the New Mexico side of the Rez. Probably somewhere around Crown Point, but Nelva couldn’t be sure.

“He don’t come around?”

Danny heard Edison open a beer can. He figured Nelva would get him down to the business of adultery pretty soon and he’d lose interest in her missing son, and that probably would have happened.

But Nelva said, “Well, sometimes he does. You know … a boy and his momma.”

Nelva Riley never learned to tell a lie. Danny knew that was a problem with most Indians. Words have power. Words make spirits notice you. The only lies Danny’s mom could tell were the ones she believed herself.

Her words would have Edison out the next morning looking for things: wolf tracks, Nathan Balance’s truck, Nathan Balance’s body. And he’d find all of them if he looked hard enough. And then the Navajo police would come around and sort of investigate, and when they were done, it would be the Balance family’s turn.

At least Danny could make things inconvenient for Edison Wauneka. He rolled out from under the Airstream trailer. He let the air out of Edison’s pick up truck tires—even his spare. Not all the air, just enough to make it difficult to drive on the almost-road where Nelva parked her trailer.

A man gets discouraged when something happens to his truck. Even a little thing like four low tires can change his mind about how often he ought to come out and see his new girlfriend, or how much he should look into her witchy son. Danny thought there was an outside chance Edison would go away and not come back again. But like most outside chances, this one didn’t happen.

***

There are lots of bodies on the Rez that never get found, or sometimes people find them a hundred years too late to interest anyone. But pickup trucks are another matter.

Maybe Danny should have driven Nathan Balance’s old truck off into a wash somewhere, covered it with brush and dirt. His only excuse was: It didn’t seem like the right thing to do at the time.

Leaving a man to die from lack of insulin in the desert weighed heavy on Danny’s mind, and the idea of taking off in Nathan’s truck while the vultures were still circling was just too much.

So Edison Wauneka found the truck where Nathan left it. He didn’t find the body, but everyone, including the Navajo police, knew it was out there somewhere. They could find it if they really looked, but Danny thought they wouldn’t, because Navajo didn’t care much for dead bodies and if there was a murder on the Rez, the FBI would be all over the place. If there was one thing Navajo disliked more than dead bodies, it was white men from the government.

Danny hid under the Airstream and listened to a woman cop tell Nelva Riley, “Maybe Nathan will turn up later, you know. Just show up at a cousin’s house with a pocket full of money and a lot of wild stories.”

“Truth is they’ll be happier to see that truck than Nathan anyway,” the cop said. “No one’s even reported him missing.”

Nathan’s family wouldn’t talk about him. Wouldn’t even mention him by name, in case his ghost might hear and come to visit. Everybody knew the good part of a Navajo went to the next world in four days, but his bad part could stick around and cause a lot of trouble.  Since Nathan Balance was mostly bad, it might take a long time until his ghost was all used up.

Danny figured he had a month before Nathan’s relatives started thinking about revenge. Time enough to round up supplies, and steal some money and make plans about leaving the reservation. He was pretty sure his witchcraft wouldn’t work once he got beyond the sacred mountains, but that was OK. Witching wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

***

Things happened just the way Danny thought they would, only they happened a lot sooner. Three trucks showed up around midnight. They split up and parked at different locations with their headlights pointed right at Nelva’s trailer like the Airstream was a deer they were about to poach. They might have opened fire and asked questions later if Edison Wauneka hadn’t been there, but even men on a witch hunt think twice about killing a nearly innocent man.

One of the pickups almost ran over Danny while it was getting into its best position.

Equilateral triangle. Danny remembered that from the reservation school he attended sometimes when Nelva insisted. He didn’t know if there was anything magical about equilateral triangles, but that’s how these Balance relatives placed themselves.

The driver nearest Danny concentrated so hard avoiding rocks and ruts and pointing his headlights exactly right that he didn’t notice Danny sleeping in his bedroll 20 feet away or the gray timber wolf at Danny’s feet.

No passenger. Danny was lucky there. If his luck held, he could fetch his cache of supplies and money and be way too hard to find by morning.

The driver’s name was Leonard Balance. Barrel-chested, bowlegged, pockmarked skin, hair done up in a Navajo bun, and thin sunburned lips that couldn’t hold a smile.

Leonard looked like a bear with a Winchester rifle as he stepped out of his truck and searched the darkness for potential enemies outside his high beams.

It’s dark in the Tuba City sector of the reservation. No lights except the moon and stars, and Leonard’s high beams made it hard to see behind his truck where he really needed to look.

Danny slept with a large broken cottonwood branch at his side. It was as thick and heavy as an old-fashioned wooden baseball bat, and it still had char marks where it was struck by lightning. He walked barefoot across the sand and gravel hardpan holding the cottonwood club over his shoulder like he was waiting for a fast pitch to come across the strike zone.

Five steps away from Leonard Balance … four, three, two.

Danny swung the club as hard as he could at the back of Leonard’s head. It made a hollow sound, like a watermelon dropped on a concrete floor.

Leonard dropped his rifle. He fell to his knees and put both hands on his head, and shouted, “Shit! That hurts!”

Not what Danny expected. Leonard was already back on his feet, and even in the desert darkness he looked mad as hell.

“You little bastard!” Leonard didn’t seem to mind that Danny still had the club. He moved fast for a bowlegged man with a head injury.

Danny swung again. It felt slow and feeble and missed Leonard’s face by inches.

Leonard took a step back. His lips moved while he formulated and rejected plans.

“This cottonwood’s been struck by lightning,” Danny told him. “It’s magic,” he said, in case Leonard didn’t know.

“Deadly magic.” He took another swing, so weak and off target it turned his threat into a lie.

“Looks like lightning don’t strike twice,” Leonard Balance said.

Danny hadn’t noticed the tooled leather holster hanging from Leonard’s belt. It held an old-fashioned cowboy pistol. Nobody used those anymore, but Leonard was about to.

He drew it slowly, not like the gunfighters in the cowboy movies. He pointed it at Danny like he had all the time in the world, which he did, because Danny’s lightning-struck club wouldn’t be much good against a bullet.

He cocked back the hammer. Danny remembered that was called double action. It made a pistol shot more accurate because the shooter didn’t need much pull to drop the hammer.

Queenie fell on Leonard like an 80-pound sack of fury. Not before he could fire, but soon enough to throw off his aim.

She went right for Leonard’s throat, but he didn’t have much of a neck, and he was pretty good at covering up. Her teeth closed on his chin and came away with most of his lower lip. She tried for his neck again, and this time she got his cheek and part of his ear.

Leonard made less noise that Danny thought he would, and he hoped maybe Queenie finally got a hold of the man’s windpipe. But when he heard another gunshot he knew that wasn’t so.

A muffled shot, like the ones made by silenced pistols on satellite TV. Muffled by a wolf’s belly. Then another shot and a yip from a wolf that couldn’t hold her pain in any longer.

Queenie fell off of Leonard Balance. She hit the ground like a bag of wet bones and spilled a pool of blood on the ground the shape of Alaska.

Leonard rose to he knees, holding his torn face in one hand and the pistol in the other. Danny took a step forward. He swung his lightning-charged club at Leonard’s gun hand. The pistol discharged as he struck it, filling the space between them with a basketball-sized bubble of fire.

Then Danny put the club back on his shoulder. He put his left foot forward, but kept his weight centered on his right. He understood about the strike zone now, and all the mechanics of baseball’s heavy hitters even though he’d never played a game.

It took two swings to bring Leonard down. He was ready for a third, but he could tell from Leonard’s breathing that it wouldn’t be necessary.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Danny couldn’t decide if he was crying because he’d killed a man or because the man killed Queenie.

He’d have to make his mind up later, because the other points of the equilateral triangle around his mother’s Airstream were moving his way.

Edison Wauneka poked his head out of the trailer door, and when no one shot at him, he moved in Danny’s direction too.

No time to do anything but run.

Away from Nelva’s Airstream trailer. Away from Nathan Balance’s brothers and cousins looking for revenge. Away from a dead man and a dead wolf that would keep the Navajos whispering for a long time about the boy witch who disappeared one night without a trace.

Click here to meet John T. Biggs, winner of the 80th Annual Writing Competition.

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6 thoughts on “Grand Prize Winner 80th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition – “Boy Witch” by John T. Biggs

  1. trhodes

    I liked your story – you have a very easy to read style. Congratulations on the win.

    I’ve been trying to leave a post comment about the pistol but it never gets posted…not sure I understand this site.

    Congrats – would like to read more from you.

  2. SuzeeQ

    Congratulations, John! Loved it. I live in Arizona, and can imagine the location down to the dusty dirt road to the Airstream. The Rez has always held an aura of mystique to us not privy to native American ways, even though it is literally in our back yards. I hope you continue to write, my husband doesn’t read much, but loves novels set in Arizona. And I want to thank you for a boost of confidence. I didn’t start writing until two years ago at age 55. THERE IS HOPE! The best of luck to you as you continue to develop your characters, stories and pile on the successes!

  3. seingraham

    Very cool story – it has all the elements including the all-important (to my way of understanding) narrative arc – you hooked me from the get-go and held my interest to very end. Congrats. I also read your bio/interview and you sound like you’re taking your writing seriously but have a good sense of humour and don’t take yourself too seriously, traits I admire. Again, congrats – all the best for future projects.

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