| A Clean Sweep
By Meg Smith
When Ellen came to the Pickett family as a housekeeper, Allison Charles-Pickett swore very vocally that
she did not agree to hire Ellen just because she was a witch.
Ellen came to the Pickett family by way of the Tidy Town Cleaning Services, which had disclosed that
Ellen was a witch. They said it was their policy to disclose such information.
And so, on the appointed day, the Pickett family waited for Ellen to arrive.
At their front door, Ellen did not look anything at all like they had anticipated. She looked for all the world
like a mundane, non-magical housekeeper, with a blue uniform and hair sensibly pinned up and netted.
She stood outside, waiting. When the family -- Mrs. Charles-Pickett, Henry Pickett, and their daughter,
Campbell, got a look at her through their elaborate home security system, Mrs. Charles-Pickett nearly
opted not to open the door because of Ellen’s non-witch-like appearance.
“It’s got to be her,” Mr. Pickett said impatiently.
“People do dress up in maid uniforms to break in,” Campbell, informed them. Campbell was 14. The
Pickett’s thought naming their daughter Campbell, a surname, would give her an edge in a world that
vested authority in people with two last names.
“Honey, it’s broad daylight,” Mr. Pickett said. “If she’s a thief, or a witch -- or both -- she’s not the most
clever one they’ve got. Let’s let her in, and if she threatens us, we’ll shoot her first.”
“Henry!” Mrs. Charles-Pickett screeched.
Mr. Pickett shrugged, let a smirk escape -- and then opened the heavy wooden door of their elegant,
Victorian home, to Ellen.
Ellen was crisp and smiling in her greetings, and repeating the company policy (no staying alone in the
home with Mr. Pickett or any other male,) and no exposure to biohazards.
“What does that mean?” Campbell asked later, as Ellen, her name, “Ellen,” embroidered prosaically on a
patch, began almost at once vacuuming, dusting, and polishing.
“It means,” Mr. Pickett said, “That if anyone gets murdered in here, she won’t clean it up,” Mr. Pickett
said. Before his wife could reprove him, he went up the creaky, polished, carpet-lined staircase, to his
office on the second floor.
Campbell stood in the hallway, feeling a little uncertain what to do.
She was thinking that Ellen was not exactly a witchy-sounding name. Not like Lilith, or Tabitha.
Mrs. Charles-Pickett reappeared, at her shoulder, and said, “Campbell, you have a science fair to get
ready for. And remember please, Pluto is no longer a planet.”
Campbell had also noticed that Ellen had a cellphone, an ordinary, unwitch-like looking cell phone,
clipped to her waist belt.
Campbell sat on the front hall stairs, listening to the vacuum cleaner gurgle as it ran over the carpeting.
She thought of how she would redo her model of the solar system. Should she leave out Pluto entirely, or
make an extra ring, with Pluto, Eris, and some of the other minor planets?
She was beginning to wish she had joined her friend, Madison, in drumming up a petition to ban the
dissection of frogs and earthworms in biology class.
Over the next few days, Campbell reworked her solar system model and got a B, which would have been
an A, if she had managed to make the wiring that suspended her planets more elliptical.
At least two other students had made solar system models, although her mother assured her that hers
was the most empowering.
At lunch, Campbell told Madison about the new housekeeper.
“She’s a witch,” Campbell said in hushed tones.
“Madison’s eyes lit up. “Wow, a real witch?”
“Yeah,” Campbell said, and sighed, regretting that she had chosen quinoa when a good old-fashioned
pizza slice was on offer.
“You don’t sound thrilled,” Madison observed. “Hey, my petition got an ‘A’. I can’t believe it!”
“Are they gonna stop cutting up toads?” Campbell asked.
“Frogs,” Madison said. “They said I have to take that to the School Committee. So, that’s next.” Then,
“Your housekeeper...did she, like, show up in a tornado or something?”
“No,” Campbell said, sighing again. “A boring old car. A four-door.”
Madison said, “Well, I read witches don’t always look the way you think they will. And she’s cleaning the
house, so she probably keeps all her nice witch clothes at home.”
“Maybe,” Campbell said. “It’s just...she doesn’t even act like a witch, or do any witch stuff.”
“Well,” Madison leaned in closer. Two boys, Nat Colson and Box Pike, were snickering, their get-a-load-
But they seemed to lose interest and were on to a sword fight with rulers, the ends broken off, slashing
the air with slivered, improvised blades.
“The thing about witches,” Madison said gravely. “For thousands of years, they had to live in secret. They
were persecuted. So, that’s probably why she doesn’t go around bragging about it.”
“Ummm,” said Campbell.
Then Madison said, as if by way of an official announcement: “I know a lot about witches. I’ve been
reading. If I go over to your house, I could talk to her and she’d tell us all about it.”
“Yeah, fine. Will you help me with algebra?”
“That’s some bargain,” Madison said, her nose scrunched up. “But okay.” and, “your minor planets
looked like blobs of cookie dough. Nat almost ate one. I chased him off when you were in the girl’s room.”
When Campbell got home, Ellen was polishing furniture, and humming softly.
“It must be some kind of chant,” Madison said, softly, in awe.
Campbell saw goosebumps bristle on Madison’s arm.
“C’mon,” Campbell said. “C’mon! I live here!”
They fell into each other, walked awkwardly toward the kitchen. Ellen waved at them, and Campbell saw
disappointment in Madison’s face.
As they came closer, they realized Ellen was humming a Beatles song, one from her father’s music
collection which in Campbell’s estimation, dated back about 400 years.
When the girls went into the kitchen, Ellen followed them.
“Hello, ladies, do you want me to fix you a snack?”
Campbell was about to say yes, but Madison could no longer contain her emotion. “Campbell says you’
re a witch! A real witch!”
Campbell resisted giving her a good jarring in the shin. But, Ellen said calmly, “Well, yes that’s true,” and
opened the fridge and began fixing up a plate of veggie slices and flavored water.
Mrs Charles-Pickett did not countenance cookies, or chocolates, which is why, normally, Campbell liked
to spend her after-school time at her friends’ houses.
With the plate of veggies before them, Madison tried again. “It’s okay. You can talk to us.”
Ellen was folding some dish towels. “Sorry, dear? What’s that?”
Campbell was regretting letting Madison come over, even to help with algebra.
Madison said, “Well, I read all about witches. I know you all really worship the goddess and can help
people with your powers.”
Ellen said, brightly, “Well, you like to read. Good for you.” Then, “Campbell, I’ll be just upstairs doing
some vacuuming, if either of you need anything.”
Before Madison could say anything more, Ellen was gone.
Campbell glared at Madison. “I hope you’re happy! You scared her!”
Madison replied, logically: “I told you, that’s how they are. It's a secret.”
The one person who did not fit succinctly into the Pickett family schematic was Campbell’s older brother,
Campbell thought the few times their lives intersected -- usually unintentionally, and always unpleasantly --
that Darren is a stupid name. Even for a boy.
Mrs. Charles-Pickett thought perhaps naming him “Darren” instead of “Walker” or “Winston” or another
surname had hobbled him with a lifetime handicap of lowered expectations.
Darren himself seemed wholly indifferent to his given name, his present family, and his future prospects.
He was nearly 20, and nearly-six feet of sullenness, which he broadcast without saying a word.
Madison had been reading “Frankenstein” in English class, and thought her brother was like a mish-
mash of stolen parts of dead big brothers, stuck together on a slouchy spine.
A few days after Ellen arrived, all three of them nearly collided in the front hall.
Ellen was bringing the vacuum cleaner around a corner, Campbell was reaching for a sweater, and
Darren was creeping, almost reptilian, in the direction of the kitchen.
“Pardon me,” Ellen said, with her voice of professional detachment. Campbell pondered that for a witch,
old Ellen wasn’t terribly coordinated.
More like her math teacher, Miss Nilch, always walking into the same wastepaper basket and saying “My
pardon,” out loud, every time.
Darren shrugged, his way of signaling he was unoffended, or merely disinterested.
Still, his threadbare courtesy irritated Campbell.
“Darren,” she commanded. Darren glanced down at his little sister with the antagonizing glare he gave
most things, especially his little sister.
“Darren -- this is the new housekeeper. Ellen.”
“How do you do,” said Ellen, before working her way, with some effort, past the siblings.
When she was out of sight, Campbell said -- “Hey. Genius. She’s a witch.”
A contemptuous smile played at her brother’s cruel-looking mouth.
“That’s a witch,” he said, mockingly.
“Shhh!” Campbell hissed.
But her brother was headed toward the kitchen, to leave a mess for Ellen to earn her pay by straightening
up, and disinfecting.
Things went more or less smoothly at the Pickett house, with Ellen straightening up whatever the family
dynamic had left in disorder.
Campbell kept watching, listening, for any sign that Ellen was the witch she said she was.
After a while it became clear there would be no spells, no crushed-velvet, pointed hats, or cool-looking
dresses, or broom demonstrations.
But, Ellen was a fair and more than satisfactory domestic engineer, as Mr. Pickett referred to her, but did
not say to her.
Then came the day the final day Ellen arrived at their home.
Her calm demeanor was shaken, slightly, by the presence of police cruisers, an ambulance, and lots of
frog-eyed looking spectators gaggling about a perimeter created by grim-looking officers.
Ellen put her hand to her mouth. A neighbor of the Pickett’s was approaching her.
The neighbor steered her gently by the elbow.
Ellen had not seen her before but she was commanding an air, as if she was the one overseeing
whatever emergency response was unfolding.
“I will ensure that your employer is notified, my dear,” the woman said, almost apologetically.
Ellen sighed. “Well I do wish them the best,” she said, heading to her aging car on the neighboring street,
where she had parked it.
Her agency was about to place her in a new situation, but starting in a week’s time.
This left Ellen with a few days to herself.
She met her friend, Anna, and they had coffee at their favorite place.
They sat outside, so they could smoke. The fall had come, and they both liked the dry air.
“Well, that’s too bad about the new gig,” said Anna, also a witch.
Ellen shrugged, almost philosophically.
“It was just getting to the time that -- “
“That what. You’d get asked to brew a love potion?”
Ellen blew a smooth stream of smoke into the air. “Probably, yes. The girl is in the eighth grade. That
There was a moment’s silence. They both erupted in laughter.
“What about worshipping the goddess.”
“Oh, we got that out of the way pretty quick,” Ellen said. “Her best friend.”
Ellen looked down for a moment at her coffee. She was momentarily silent.
“What,” Anna asked, her voice dropping.
Ellen looked up again, distantly, as if trying to follow the stream of smoke she had conjured.
Then, Anna seemed to understand. “Was there a son.”
“Into devil worship.”
Anna shook her head. Then, “Ellen, is there something you want to tell me?”
Ellen turned to look at her friend, squarely. “Sure. I’ll tell you everything.”
She told Anna of the evening Mr. Pickett and Mrs. Charles-Pickett had gone to Campbell Pickett’s
school, to see Campbell’s entry in the school science fair.
Ellen thought everyone was out, but then the boy, Darren, accosted her in the kitchen.
There wasn’t time to reiterate the rule against being in the home alone with males. This ungainly, surly
creature was not interested in rules.
Ellen recounted the bright fury in his eyes. He had grabbed her wrists and started to kiss her, violently,
until she pulled away, her wrists smarting, tears stinging in her eyes.
He uttered something incomprehensible, and staggered backward, away from her, down the front hall,
and up the stairs.
Ellen sat and almost missed her chair, shaken. After a few minutes of reclaiming her composure, she
forged a plan.
She went upstairs, knocked on the door of his room, with a glass of his favorite soda. Loud music was
When he opened the door, a weird, purple light spilled out. He seemed quite calm, even apologetic.
“Sorry ‘bout that, earlier,” he mumbled. “Under lotta pressure.”
Then, strangely, almost grandly, he had told her, “It’s cool with me. Satan. Yeah. ”
Ellen had given him the soda, which he took, with some hesitancy.
Loud music was playing.
He drank the soda, eyeing her uneasily, and then handed her the glass before stumbling back to his
cluttered bed. Protruding from the sheets was the inevitable -- a copy of The Satanic Bible, by Anton
He finished the soda while she waited dutifully, and then fell sloppily into the covers. He was in a sleep,
Ellen said, but not a natural sleep -- he lay, eyes open, his mouth frozen as if in midword. She could see a
gap between his front teeth.
Wincing at the unpleasantness of her task, she wrenched his mouth open, pulling at his peculiar, almost-
His tongue drooped, a sort of blue-black, like a snake lacking motivation. This was the tongue that had
insulted her in deed as well as in word.
She exhaled, and drew from the pocket of her uniform a knife, and severed it. She closed his mouth
again, firmly, his open eyes flickering the slightest distress, and left the room.
She was gone well before the rest of the Pickett family returned.
By the time Ellen finished telling Anna, Anna’s face had turned a kind of blue-gray of its own.
They both sat for a while, in silence, sipping their coffee, and smoking.
Finally, Anna said, “Well. That’s solving a problem through magic. Aren’t you worried?”
Ellen pondered the question. “Well, not really. He’s not telling anyone anything. And he won’t remember
any of it. That’s called backing your tracks.” She felt almost smug, recalling the efficacy of her soda
Ellen wasn’t looking for Anna to reassure her, but still, Anna said, “When you think about it, they’ll
probably think he did it to himself. Some kind of Satanic offering.”
Ellen nodded. “That does make sense.”
“We are flying tonight?” Anna asked.
Ellen smiled a relaxed smile, and said, “I wouldn’t miss it.”
|About Meg Smith
Meg Smith is a writer,
journalist, dancer and events
producer living in Lowell,
Mass. Her poetry and fiction
have appeared in The Horror
Zine, Dark Dossier, Sirens Call
eZine, Raven Cage, and many
more. She is the author of five
poetry books. Her short fiction
collection, The Plague
Confessor, is due out in fall
2020. She welcomes visits to
|To read other short stories,
click one of the titles below.