Kurt stands on his backyard deck and watches the sunset through the winter-bared trees. He stares at the vacant house across the pond, as he has each winter evening for the past nine years. A chill runs up his spine. This year, the tenth winter has him on edge. Tank, his German Shepherd, walks toward Kurt and nudges his hand.

Kurt bows his head and looks into his dog’s eyes. “Atta boy, Tank.” He scratches the dog’s neck and whispers to him. “What do ya think? Did we break the spell? Will the witch return?”

Woof. Woof. The senior dog responds.

The sun drops below the distant mountains. Kurt heads inside to join his wife; Tank wags his tail and follows along.

“Dinner’s almost ready,” Harlie announces as they enter the sliding door. She pulls out a casserole dish from the oven and sets it on a red trivet on the dining table.

Kurt unzips his jacket and slips off his boots in silence. He puts his hands on his hips and gazes out the window at the unlit house.

“You’re awfully quiet.” Harlie’s furrows her brows. “What’s up?”

Kurt sighs. “Just a bit stressed. It’s no secret that I wish we sold this house and moved. Wintertime always puts me on edge–especially this one.”

Harlie places a salad on the table next to the hot casserole dish. She raises her head and looks at Kurt. “Why? Because it’s been a decade?” Harlie points toward the house across the pond. “Look. It’s dark and empty. If she were back, we’d know, and we’d leave until winter passes.”

Kurt hangs up his jacket then sits at the dining table. “Babe, just because it’s dark doesn’t mean she’s not there. What if she’s hiding out? What if you start to feel some effects?”

“Kurt, you know I’m fine. I’ve had no symptoms­–other than being stuck with her hideous black eyes. But, wearing blue contact lenses solves that.”

“Mommy, Daddy!” Winter, Kurt and Harlie’s five-year-old daughter, scampers into the kitchen. “I found my Raggedy Ann dolly! She was inside my toybox!”

Beast, their two-year-old Rottweiler, chases after Winter and sticks to her side. Winter’s blue eyes widen and twinkle with glee. She smiles and holds up the doll to show her parents.

“That’s wonderful, sweetie,” Harlie begins. “Now go wash your hands. It’s dinner time.”

Later that night, Harlie lies awake in bed unable to doze off to sleep. She ponders her refusal to let fear dictate, and wonders if remaining in the house was a smart idea. What if we’re in danger? Should we disappear until winter is over? A noise outside the bedroom window startles her.

Sccrraaatch. Sccrraaatch.

Her heart races and she looks at Kurt. He’s oblivious and continues to snore. She climbs out of bed and heads to Winter’s room to check on her.

Harlie eases her daughter’s bedroom door open and finds her tucked under the covers with an arm around her Raggedy Ann doll. Beast, as usual, has coiled himself into a ball on Winter’s bed. Some watchdog you are! Ya didn’t even flinch when I opened the door!

She heads to the kitchen for a drink of water. Harlie grabs a chilled bottle from the fridge then swallows a few sips.

Sccrraaatch. Sccrraaatch.

She flinches and jerks her head toward the sliding door. Her heart pounds inside her chest, and goosebumps crawl on her skin. Harlie walks toward the door and reaches a hand up to edge the blinds open. Afraid of what she might see, she hesitates and retracts her hand.

After mustering up a bit of courage, Harlie edges the blinds open and peeks around the backyard. She looks left then right. Movement near the pond’s edge grabs her attention. She gasps. Harlie squints to sharpen her vision and stares at the location in question.

“What are you doing?” Kurt asks.

Harlie jumps backward. “Oh my God, Kurt! You scared me.”

“See,” Kurt begins. “You’re nervous, too.” He crosses his arms over his chest.

Harlie sighs and looks toward her husband. “I–I think I saw something outside.”

“What?” Kurt bolts over to the door and peeks outside. He scans the property beyond the pond, the one occupied by the witch a decade ago.

“I don’t know for sure,” Harlie mutters. “But, I thought I saw a shadow or something move.”

Kurt slips into his boots and jacket. “I’m going to check.”

Harlie grabs Kurt’s arm. “Be careful! Take Beast or Tank with you!”

“You know Beast won’t leave Winter’s side.” Kurt arches his neck down the hallway. “Tank…here, boy!”

Tank jumps off the bed and his paws thud on the floor. He sprints down the hall toward Kurt and halts at his side.

“Come on, boy,” Kurt begins. “We’ll be right back.” He calls over his shoulder then heads out the door with the German Shepherd.

Harlie stares out the glass door and her heart pounds in her chest. She watches the flashlight as it moves amongst the naked trees on the moonless night.

A few minutes later, Harlie sees the flashlight inch closer toward their house, and she breathes a sigh of relief. Kurt and Tank enter the house, and Harlie locks the door behind them.

“Were Winter and Beast outside today?” Kurt asks.

“Yeah, why?”

“Because there are small footprints and dog prints in the snow,” he responds. “But…they’re across the pond.”

“What?” Harlie’s heart skips a beat. “They were outside, but they didn’t leave the backyard. I’m sure of it because I was outside with them the entire time.”

“Then someone else has been wandering around the witch’s property,” Kurt explains.

Harlie’s mouth drops open, and her eyes widen.

“I wouldn’t worry too much, though,” Kurt shrugs his shoulds. “I don’t think they’re from the witch because they’re too small. Must be someone out for a walk and they decided to go look at the pond.”

Harlie stares in silence, unsure if she’s willing to accept his explanation.

“Considering the size of the footprints, I don’t think we have much to worry about!” He jokes then wraps his arm around his wife.

They check on Winter once more before heading back to bed.

The next morning, Harlie and Kurt take Winter outside to play. They watch from the deck with Tank, while Beast tromps in the snow alongside Winter.

Winter lays in the snow then moves her arms and legs to make a snow angel. Beast hovers above and licks her face, which elicits a series of giggles from the five-year-old.

“So, do you think we should leave until springtime?” Harlie asks.

“It might be best.” Kurt answers.

“No, Daddy. We stay.” Winter calls out.

Kurt’s brows furrow and he looks at Harlie. “How the hell did she hear me from over here?”

Harlie shrugs. “It’s not like you whispered.”

“I guess.”

Later that night, Harlie’s friend, Kate, comes for dinner. The expected light amount of snow for the evening becomes an unexpected snowstorm. A blizzard rages outside; winds blow fat flakes in circles and restricts visibility. A snowy white blanket coats the ground.

Kate opts to spend the evening on the couch to avoid the treacherous driving conditions. Kurt, Harlie, Kate, Winter, and the two dogs head off to bed.

Sccrraaatch. Crunch. Sccrraaatch. Crunch.

The noise wakes Harlie and Kurt. They climb out of bed to check on Winter and Beast and find them sound asleep. They head back to their bedroom, and Harlie looks out the window.

“Oh my God! Kurt, look!” Harlie’s face goes white as she points out the window. “There’s a faint, purple light on inside the witch’s house!”

Kurt peeks out the window and notices the whiteout has diminished to scant flakes. He runs a hand through his hair and clenches his jaw. “Come on,” Kurt begins. “Kate’s here to keep an eye on Winter. Let’s go check it out.”

Kurt and Harlie put on their winter gear. Kurt pockets a gun and a knife then grabs a crowbar. Harlie whispers their intentions to Kate, and she heads outside with her husband and Tank.

Their footsteps are silent in the freshly fallen snow, but their heartbeats pound in their ears. They arrive on the porch, and Kurt uses the crowbar and knife to break into the house.

They ease the door open and step inside. Kurt’s jaw drops, and he retrieves the gun from his pocket. Harlie looks in the direction of his stare.

“Holy shit!” Harlie shrieks.

She glares at the previously shattered orb–now fixed and glowing. Instead of green smoke, purple smoke swirls inside the glass.

Kurt struggles to speak. “H-how the hell–”

Two shadowy figures enter the living room from the hallway. Kurt aims the gun at the movement. Tank leaps in front of the target as Kurt pulls the trigger.

“Daddy, no!” Winter screams. She and Beast hurry toward the injured German Shepherd.

Kurt’s face loses color, and he drops to his knees. The gun falls to the floor.

“Winter?” Harlie calls out. “How the hell did you and Beast get in here? You were sleeping in bed.”

Winter cries and leans over Tank. “Those are just clones, Mommy. I made them so I could come here to fix the orb.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Because,” Winter mumbles. She wipes the tears from her cheeks before she continues. “The cycle might start again. I had to turn the orb from bad to good. I came last night to start, and I finished it tonight. That’s why it’s purple now.”

“So–so, the orb is harmless now?” Harlie stutters. “A–and you’re a w–witch?”

“Yes, Mommy. But I’m a good witch. Watch.”

Winter raises her arms into the air, then begins to create a vortex. The wintry whirlwind stems from the palms of her hands and moves toward Tank. She rambles out a chant.

I am a witch with cloak and hood,

but my spells are only for good.

My abilities you should thank,

for I can save beloved Tank.

Healing powers for you, I give,

now get up Tank–it’s time to live.

Tank hops up and hurries over to Winter. He gives her a lick on the cheek and Winter giggles.

“See? Not only did I fix his boo-boo, but now he’ll live a lot longer. I gave Beast the same spell.”

Harlie stumbles backward. “You’re–you’re a witch?”

“Yes, Mommy. You got stuck with the witch’s black eyes so, when I grew in your tummy, they gave me power. At least that’s what the orb says.” Winter laughs. “But it’s ok ‘cuz I’m a good witch.”

Kurt gasps. He looks toward his wife and finds her leaning against the wall with her mouth wide open.

“The bad witch can’t come back now; we’re safe. Put that gun away, Daddy.” Winter instructs.

“I’m–I’m sorry Sweetheart. I had no idea the two of you were inside this house.” Kurt struggles to speak and forces himself to stand. He bends over, places his hands on his knees, and draws in a long, deep breath. He calls Tank over and strokes his head.

“Silly Daddy,” Winter chuckles.

Harlie walks over to her daughter and bends down to hug her. Kurt joins the two in a group hug. The family heads out the door to go home with Tank and Beast.

“Maybe this isn’t the best time to bring it up,” Harlie begins then places her hands on her stomach. “But…I’m pregnant again.”

Winter giggles. “I know, Mommy. It’s a boy. We should name him Liam ‘cuz it means warrior and protector. Liam is strong and has more powerful abilities than me! I can read minds, but he can control them!”

Winter skips ahead and giggles; Beast catches up to her and struts along at her side.