Howling winds gust through trees, forcing branches to graze the house’s siding. Their finger-like limbs taunt and tease, and Harlie bolts awake. Her heart races as she listens with a keen ear. She shivers and grumbles about Kurt’s new work schedule, which leaves her alone at night.

Tapping the mattress with a hand, she calls Tank, their German Shepherd, to join her in bed. He jumps up and circles around, searching for a comfy spot. Tank settles and places his head on Kurt’s pillow. Bamboo chimes, dangling from the deck, bong with persistence and create unsettling sounds.

Unable to calm her nerves, Harlie climbs out of bed to fetch some water. She grabs a blanket, tosses it over her shoulders, then looks at Tank to see if he plans to follow. He lifts his head, extends his limbs for a stretch, then settles back onto the pillow. Some watchdog you are!

In the kitchen, Harlie fills a glass halfway with tap water and gulps it down. Wondering if it’s snowing, she walks toward the sliding door and edges the blinds open. Other than slight illumination from a neighbor’s light, Harlie’s unable to see much in the moonless night. She flicks on the deck lighting and gazes around her small, snow-covered backyard. Beyond the tendrils of a few winter-bared trees, the water appears black and emits an eerie vibe.

Movement beyond the tree line grabs her attention. She squints to sharpen her vision and surveys the area beyond the pond. Unsure if her eyes are playing tricks, she remains focused on the trees. A silhouette moves and appears from the darkness, causing her to gasp and flinch.

A cloaked person advances toward something round lying upon the ground. Harlie realizes the circle consists of broken branches, and, equally spaced around the formation are four lit candles. Harlie watches as the person raises their arms, gesturing and dancing. Bewildered, she observes for a few minutes before sauntering back to bed.

In the morning, Harlie wakes to a restless Tank, ready to go outside to relieve himself. He whines and licks her arm.

“Ok, ok, ok, Tank,” she begins. “I’ll get up.” She yawns and swipes the hair from her face before climbing out of bed.

At the closet, Harlie reaches in and grabs a fur-lined jacket before stepping into a pair of treaded boots. Tank’s eyes sparkle with glee, and his tail wags back and forth. She zips up her coat, then heads out the sliding door with him.

Harlie watches as the energetic German Shepherd rushes down the deck’s steps to roam the yard. She plays on her cellphone, checking emails while waiting for him to do his business. Before long, he begins snarling and growling. Harlie looks up from her phone and sees Tank staring across the water, his back arched and hackles raised.

“Tank–what’s up?” She tucks her phone into her jacket and walks down the steps to join him.

Grrrr. Grrrr. Grrrr. Tank refuses to quit.

Following his gaze across the pond, Harlie spots splattered blood, tainting a large area of snow. She gasps and throws her hands up to her mouth. Oh my God!

Harlie struggles to get the dog back inside the house, then hurries to call Kurt. As she’s dialing, she hears his truck pull into the driveway and rushes out to greet him. She hops inside his truck and instructs him to head over to the house on the other side of the pond. On the way, Harlie tells him about last night’s cloaked person and of her morning discovery of blood-coated snow.

Kurt parks his black truck in front of their neighbor’s porch, and they step out. Harlie fiddles with her jacket’s zipper and takes in several deep breaths as they walk toward the door. She stands next to Kurt as he rings the doorbell, unsure of what to expect.

A sallow-faced woman opens the door. She glares at them through soulless onyx eyes and speaks in monotone. “Can I help you?”

“Uh, yes,” Harlie begins. “Um, I noticed quite a bit of blood down by the pond, and I just wanted to make sure you’re ok.”

A mirthless chuckle escapes from her colorless lips. “You do realize there’s wildlife among us, don’t you?”

“Well, yes, of course. But…” Harlie pauses. “But–I saw a person outside last night. So, when I found blood this morning, I thought maybe someone had gotten hurt.”

The woman’s black eyes study Harlie. She rakes her fingers through her long, dark hair and fakes a smile before speaking. “Well, I don’t make a habit of wandering outside at night, but I appreciate your concern.” She closes the door without offering another word.

Harlie looks toward her husband, and he gives her half a shrug.

“Babe, let’s go.” He tugs her arm.

“Kurt, what’s up with her eyes? Did you see them? Jesus, they’re creepy!”

Kurt laughs and reaches an arm around her. “It makes me extra thankful for your ocean-blue ones,” he jokes. “Her eyes looked like death.”

Harlie nods in agreement.

Back at home, Kurt climbs into bed to get some sleep before the start of his night shift. Harlie heads to the mini-mart across the street for a few groceries.

While paying, she mentions the odd lady at the pond house to the cashier.

The slovenly-dressed man snorts and bursts into laughter. “That house has been vacant for more than a decade, ma’am.”

“Well, it’s not vacant now. My husband and I met the homeowner.”

Harlie hears the inhale of a sharp breath. She turns to look at the person in line behind her and sees an elderly lady, her face drained of color. The woman begins trembling and mumbling.

Harlie’s eyes widen. She leans closer to the panic-stricken lady. “Excuse me?”

“The Winter Witch has returned! You must go–now! Otherwise, your mortality will grant her another visit in ten years! Do not come back until winter has passed! To deprive her of someone’s death during her calling is the only way to break this town’s curse.” The lady drops the cereal and milk carton from her hands and bolts out the door. Milk gushes from the broken container.

The male cashier chuckles and makes a circular motion with his finger. “She’s cray-cray!” He reaches for the phone. Struggling to stifle his laughter, he speaks into the receiver. “C–clean up at register three.”

Later that night, she heads to bed and struggles to drift off to sleep. When she awakens, she climbs out of bed to peek outside the window. Her stomach sinks when she again spots the cloaked person. They stroll from the shadows toward the illuminated circle. After performing their unusual dance, they make their way toward the pond and halt at the water’s edge. Careful to remain unnoticed, Harlie watches through the parted drapes.

From behind, she hears Tank growling. She turns to look at him, and he remains focused on the window. How the hell does he know someone’s out there?

She inches her face toward the opening for another look. Her heart skips a beat when the cloaked person tilts their head in the direction of her bedroom window, toward her. Harlie jerks her head backward, out of view, then draws the curtains closed.

She climbs back into bed and struggles to fall asleep. Who the hell is that? What do they want? After a long while, Harlie’s breathing steadies, and her consciousness ebbs away.

She wakes to the sound of a creaking floorboard, and her eyes fly open. In the doorway stands the cloaked person. Harlie realizes it’s her neighbor, and she opens her mouth to scream. But the sallow-faced lady motions with a bony finger, rendering her silent and still.

The lady approaches Harlie with an eerie smirk, then begins to chant.

I am the Winter Witch,

though some cry Evil Bitch.

Each decade makes me yearn,

until I can return.

It is my goal,

to steal your soul.

Something you will supply,

thus now it’s time to die.

Harlie’s heart pounds in her chest, and her eyes swim with tears. Unable to free her frozen body, she gazes at the witch. Tears spill over and run down her cheeks.

The witch rises off the floor and levitates before looking upward; her arms spread wide. She opens her mouth and begins releasing a long, loud exhale. A smoke-like substance crawls from her throat and swirls above her face, creating a vortex.

Harlie takes in the sight of the whirlwind growing in size and strength. The hairs on her body stand at attention. She forces a gulp down her throat as she lays on her bed, paralyzed.

The evil hag lowers her head while maintaining an opened mouth. She pivots her levitating body to face Harlie, then begins floating toward her. The frigid vortex edges closer.

Harlie’s heart beats faster, and she tries to break free from the paralysis, to no avail.

Through soulless eyes, the hag glares down at her. The witch positions herself above Harlie then hovers in a horizontal position. She hisses and places the vortex over Harlie’s face.

Harlie tries to turn her head away, but the attempt fails. The wintry whirlwind invades her face, enveloping it from the top of her head, down to her chin. It siphons out her breath, and its pressure pulls at her eyeballs. The dizzying vortex weakens her, and Harlie begins to fade. Her skin goes ashen, and she succumbs to the blackness.

A few nights after the death of his wife, a grieving Kurt receives a chilling visit. He peers outside his bedroom window and comes face-to-face with a cloaked person. He bolts out of the house and heads over to his friend’s place, where he decides to remain until his home sells.

One afternoon with Tank in tow, he stops by his house to gather a few belongings. He leaves Tank inside the truck while he grabs his clothing and some tools. Kurt hurries to collect the items, then heads back outside, locking the door behind him.

Struggling to squeeze the items into the back of his truck, he decides to place a bag next to Tank. Kurt opens the door, and Tank jumps out.

The dog sprints toward the pond house, ignoring his owner’s calls. Kurt rushes after him and finds Tank on the porch of the sallow-faced lady’s home, barking, and growling.

“Jesus, Tank!” Kurt exclaims.  He repeatedly struggles to pull Tank from the porch, but the dog refuses to budge.

Placing his hands on his hips, he sighs and taps his foot.

“Fine!” He reaches up and rings the doorbell.

The sallow-faced woman opens the main door. Wearing a dark and hooded jacket, she stands on the inside of the screened door. “What?” she groans.

“Sorry to bother you. My dog is all worked up over something, so I wanted to make sure everything is alright.”

Refusing to look into Kurt’s face, her head remains bowed. Without speaking a word, she begins closing the main door.

Tank leaps forward and yanks on the screened door with his teeth. It bursts open and forces the hag to jerk her head in Kurt’s direction.

Kurt catches a glimpse of her eyes. Instead of soulless onyx eyes, the hag now possesses ocean-blue eyes–precisely the same as Harlie’s.