The night Ma died, I woke up to the smell of cigarette smoke, and a sudden blaze of light.
I heard the scratch of wood on wood as she leaned towards the window and took out the too-small screen we’d wedged against the frame. A white moth came in, drawn to the glow of the lamp on the floor, its naked bulb lightin’ up the room as good as any sun. I watched Ma stick her head outdoors and breath, pullin’ in the smoke, then lettin’ out all she had inside of her. When she were done, she sat back on the metal foldin’ chair she’d brought in from the kitchen, and closed her eyes.
She’d do this some nights, come into our bedroom dressed in her too-short nightie and ratty slippers with a cigarette in hand. Sometimes she’d leave the light off, and I’d wake up to find a more solid piece of dark hoverin’ between me and my little brother. Most nights, I heard nothin’ more from her then sighs.
But not that night.
“My father was a real man,” she said. “No one would doubt that. Fought in the war. Saved a baby from a bomb they say. Growin’ up, I remember he always supported his family. No matter how hard times would get, he would be there. I wish you could have gotten to know him better, Gretel. You would have loved him.”
She took a drag from her cigarette, her eyes restin’ on the crayon pictures that Hansel had put up on the walls. I doubt she noticed them.
“Now your father.” Ma paused and sighed, the smoke pourin’ out her nose and mouth. “Now he never would have fought in no war. A coward that one is. How could his son be any better?”
I scowled and looked over at the chubby faced boy asleep in his bed. He held a one-eyed teddy bear in his arms. Drool puddled on the pillow beneath his open mouth. I wanted to tell her that Hansel were no baby-saving solider, but what could you expect from a five year old? I didn’t say nothin’ though. Ma’s ears never worked too well. Only heard what she wanted to hear. The rest of the words just got tangled up in her frizzy, graying hair.
Ma was thirty-two when she died. She’d looked older than that for a long time.
“The reason I tell you this is because when I’m gone, you’ll have to be in charge. Your Pa can’t take care of himself. If you don’t do it, he’ll find someone else to, and I don’t think he’ll be all that picky about it. Better to keep outsiders away. Don’t know what type of influence they’ll bring into the house.”
I turned from her and her stinky cigarettes smoke, and pulled my blanket over my head. I squeezed my eyes shut and began countin’ the seconds.
Didn’t get to fifty before I heard the metal chair creak and the door shut behind her.
Hansel woke me up at dawn with his screams. I ran to the bathroom where I found him huddled with the dust bunnies beneath the sink. Across from him in the cast iron tub lay Ma, all pale and still in a sea of red. I didn’t understand what had happened at first. I was only ten after all. Startin’ that day, I felt a lot older.
Ma’d been right about Pa at least. Without her to make his food and wash his clothes, he was useless. He walked around all wide eyed and confused. Every now and then he’d look at Hansel and me, and I swear it was like he was tryin’ to figure out where we’d come from all of a sudden.
He didn’t ask about school no more, so I spent my days at the town library with a big stack of books instead. Better then dealin’ with the other kids teasin’ me about my smelly clothes. I got back at three to pick up Hansel every day. God knows Pa could never remember to. Once we got home, I’d feed him a couple cans of Spagetti-Os before sittin’ down to watch him play video games until bed. I liked watchin’ him play. There was something nice about the way the characters danced across the screen, barely touchin’ the ground from start to finish.
Not six months after Ma died, Pa found a new woman to see. She was nothin’ like Ma. No frizzy hair, or nightgowns until noon. No cigarettes turin’ her finger tips yellow, or secret stash of booze beneath the sink. Debra was an ever changin’ sea of bright colors. Bright nails. Bright lipstick. Bright shirts. Tight jeans that came up over her round hips and stomach, and curly hair that shined. When she spoke, it always seemed like she was shoutin’, just a little.
I’m not sure if I liked her at first, but she clearly hated both Hansel and me.
She never talked to us unless she had to, but I would catch her sayin’ things to Pa that didn’t make no sense. About how he worked so hard at that factory every day. Why should he have to take care of us kids too? And how did he know that we really were his? We didn’t even look all that much like him.
They dated for about six months before Ma’s old engagement ring could be found on Debra’s finger. Six months after that, they went to the town hall and made if official. Hansel and I didn’t come. We told Pa that we wanted to stay home and play video games. He seemed relieved to hear it, for all of the noise he made. Once she moved in, Ma’s words came back to me, but Debra had been practically livin’ at the house for months. Why would gettin’ married change anything?
I would soon learn that I never should have let that bright, loud creature find her way into our small, dark family in the first place.
I should have been suspicious when Pa mentioned the campin’ trip. We never went campin’. Barely even went outside. Hansel was so shocked that he agreed to leave his video games behind for a whole night. Since Hans said yes, I had to go too. I suppose a piece of me were hopin’ for an apology for always forgettin’ to pick us up from school. It was a small piece of course, but there it was, flutterin’ in my chest like a wounded bird.
We stopped at McDonalds first, and got chicken nuggets, fries, sodas, and little plastic toys. We ate in the car as Pa drove over bridges and bumpy, dirty roads. The food smelled good at first, but after the third nugget I felt like I was gonna puke, so I passed the bag to Hansel. This happened with a lot of our dinners. I was skinny and didn’t need all that much, so my brother got most of my food.
I spent the trip with my face pressed against the window, watchin’ the woods pass in a steady blur of green and brown. The sky was a strip of gray between the trees and the roof.
By the time we stopped, it was startin’ to get dark. Pa said he would set up the tent but we needed to find firewood so we could make a campfire and s’mores before bed. As I jumped down from the pickup, I couldn’t help but think that this were a strange place to set up camp. It wasn’t a clearin’ as much as a thick piece of the road. Wouldn’t we have to worry about a car comin’ by and squishin’ us dead in the night? Before I could say anything, the little piece of hope fluttered in my chest, and I found myself walkin’ out into the woods with Hansel.
We didn’t really know what to look for, so we picked up some sticks that looked about the right size and weren’t all that heavy. One of them had a big hairy spider on it. I would’ve jumped about ten feet had Hansel not done it first. I did my best to squish it beneath my flip flops, noticin’ goosebumps showing up as the night crept on in. The AC in Pa’s pickup’d been broke for a long while, so I’d taken off my windbreaker on the ride over. It seemed like a good time to get it back. I told Hansel about it and went to the truck, carryin’ plenty of branches. Some were covered with sap which got all over my hands and arms.
It were the headlights from the truck that led me back, their light so bright that the rest of the world seemed as whole and dark as a cloudy night sky. This was probably why Pa didn’t see me as I stood at the edge of the forest. I frowned as I came forward, seein’ that there were no tent set up. Instead, Pa just stood there, smokin’ a cigarette, which Debra didn’t let him do no more. I watched for a few seconds as he passed his weight from foot to foot before stampin’ out the but and headin’ back to the truck.
Before I knew what was goin’ on, he had turned on the ignition and pulled away.
And the flutter of hope in my chest stilled for the very last time.
You’d think the woods at night would be a place of peace, but close your eyes and you’d be surprised at what you hear: a chorus of broken twigs, the rustle of leaves, and the cryin’ and hootin’ of all kind of birds. Sometimes, if you wait long enough, you’ll catch the growl of animals.
“Do you think he’ll be back soon?” Hansel asked for the fifth time. Part of me wanted to smack him, but I stopped when I saw his big eyes. The sight of them fillin’ up with tears would break me into a million pieces.
“Maybe,” I said under my breath.
Try as I might, I couldn’t remember the way back. We had taken too many turns, and hadn’t seen nothin’ for miles: no houses, no trailers, no cars, no people.
“Do you think Debra’s jealous?” Hansel asked a little while later.
“Hmmm? Why’s that?”
“Because we get to go campin’ with Pa, and she has to stay at home. We never get time alone with Pa anymore.”
I frowned at the mention of Debra. Pa had always been dumb as toast. He would’ve never figured out a plan to get rid of us like this. Had Debra put him up to it?
“Hey, what’s that?” Hansel asked.
I looked up to see light through the trees. Not strong like the headlights, but faint, flicking things. Fireflies? The books in the library sometimes talked about will o’ the wisps leading travelers off road, but only in fairy tales.
The more I looked, the stronger the lights seemed to get until they were nothin’ like fireflies.
“Let’s go look!”
Hansel took off into the woods.
The books in the library said to stick to the trails in the woods, but stayin’ together seemed more important so I ran after my brother. You could barely see his small, stout form with all the trees around. It would be easy to lose him in the dark.
Once we were close, I saw the lights came from the windows of a small house, all lit up like the place was full. Hansel stopped, and I reached out and grabbed his hand, worried about losin’ him to the dark. A smell that reminded me of Christmas filled the air.
“Who’d live out in the middle of the woods like this?” I asked.
“I smell cookies,” Hansel said.
He pulled me close to one of the side windows. We looked inside to see a kitchen with a stove could have fit the largest Thanksgiving turkey ever. A plate of something sat on the windowsill. I looked to see a dozen little men with smilin’ faces, and ruby red buttons painted onto their chests. Gingerbread.
“Maybe we can borrow a phone,” I said. “Hansel, don’t!”
My brother’s chubby hands, already half way though the window, stopped at my voice. He looked back at me with a pained look.
“They wouldn’t leave them outside if they didn’t want us to take them,” he said, “right, Gretel?”
The sound of a bright female voice nearly caused me to jump out of my skin. I pulled Hansel back, away from the cookies and whoever stood inside.
“I’m sorry, did I scare you?”
A plump woman with a round face stepped towards the window. Her hair were pulled back into a bun and she wore a red sweater, buttoned all the way up. She looked how librarians were supposed to, but never did. She smiled at us. It made her cheeks look rounder.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I just never get guests out here, and so rarely children.”
“S’okay,” I said after a pause. “We got lost.”
“How awful! Where are your parents?”
“Home… Do you have a phone we can use?” I asked.
“Oh dear.” The woman paused to nibble on her lip. “I’m sorry but the lines don’t come out this far. You’re welcome to stay for the night. I can fire up the car tomorrow morning and drive you into town. There’s a phone at the general store they let me use.”
I hesitated, not needin’ any library books to let me know that goin’ into strangers houses were a bad idea. But it all looked so warm and welcomin’ when next to the outdoor chill. The smell of fresh baked cookies seemed to grow stronger as I waited. Even though I’d never liked sweets, I couldn’t think of anything I wanted more in that moment then one of them cookies.
“Okay,” I finally said. “But we need to leave right away tomorrow.”
The woman smiled and unlocked the back door for us. Before I knew it, we were sittin’ at a big wooden table, the plate of cookies in front of us. The woman introduced herself as Mrs. Danvers and mentioned that big crowds of people made her scared, so she moved to the woods so she could be alone with her son. Her kitchen had red and white checkered wall paper and china plates pinned up like pictures. A lot of them had drawings of animals on them, like fuzzy mice and rabbits, but some had little people with wings: fairies with large eyes that seemed to follow you as you walked by.
I took a cookie from the tray and bit off an arm. The taste of gingerbread was too sweet for me but left me feelin’ the same kind of sleepy and content I got when playin’ video games with Hans. I took another bite.
Hansel talked her ear off, tiny flecks of half chewed gingerbread spewin’ from his mouth when he spoke. He talked about school, his favorite video games, and the campin’ trip we were supposed to be on. Mrs. Danvers smiled and asked questions in all of the right places. Before I knew it, Hans had eaten most of the cookies.
“Do you not like gingerbread, dear?” Mrs. Danvers asked.
“Oh…” I looked down at my half eaten cookie. “I don’t like sweets.”
“Oh really? I eat too many of them! My son is like you. I guess he’s had enough sugar to last a life time.”
“Is he here?”
“No, but he should be back in a couple days… It’s getting awfully late now. You too should probably go to bed.”
Mrs. Danvers took us out of the kitchen, through a hallway, and across a dinin’ room that looked too large for the little house. She brought us upstairs and put us in a room that looked a little like ours at home, only the bed were covered in pretty patchwork quilts, not pilly fleece blankets.
“I like her,” Hansel said after Mrs. Danvers had left. “She’s like a grandmother.”
“Hmmmm,” I replied.
Minutes passed before I found myself asleep, the sound of Hansel’s little snores fillin’ my ears.
The next morning, Mrs. Danvers cooked us a big batch of chocolate chip pancakes with oodles of syrup. I could barely get through one, but lost track of how many Hansel ate. The sight made me scratch my head. Usually, if Hans ate too much, he got a tummy ache and had to lie down. Mrs. Danver’s food seemed to do the opposite. He skipped ahead of me as we walked to the barn out back, where Mrs. Danvers kept her car.
Even with all three of us, the doors were hard to open. Inside, we saw the shape of a car hidden beneath a big, heavy blanket. Hansel and I helped Mrs. Danvers pull it off. Underneath were a dark blue car that looked really old. She poured in gas from a red plastic jug before gettin’ inside. Unfortunately, no matter how many times she tried, the car wouldn’t do more than cough.
Mrs. Danvers apologized, and told us that it were too far for her to walk to town with her bad knee. Since we would get lost on our own, it was best to wait for her son, who was coming home the next day. Part of me wanted to leave, but with my stomach filled with chocolate chip pancakes and syrup, staying at this strange lady’s house seemed to make the most sense.
She had no TV or video games, but Mrs. Danvers made the day go by awful fast. She and Hansel made another batch of gingerbread cookies while I curled up with a one of her books. It was a bunch of fairy tales where people lost their heads, a little different from the ones at the library. I noticed the fairies on the cover were the same as the ones the plates in the kitchen. This seemed odd to me. Who made both books and plates?
As I nibbled on the edge of a blueberry pancake the next morning, I was almost sad that we would be leaving when Mrs. Danver’s son got back. I don’t think I’d ever seen Hans so happy. He was bein’ so useful, helpin’ Mrs. Danvers clear off her pots and pans after breakfast.
“You make the best pancakes,” Hansel said. “Ma used to make good ones sometimes, back before she went dead.”
“I’m sorry to hear about that,” Mrs. Danvers said. “I lost my mother around your sister’s age and I’ve always missed her. Can you put your hand on that burner?”
It took a second for me to understand what Mrs. Danvers had said. I turned my head to the side to see Hansel lowerin’ his hand to the burner, bright red with heat.
“Hans, no!” I jumped up from my chair, stoppin’ him just before his palm touched the twisted iron. We stumbled back.
“What were you thinkin’!” I asked, shaking him.
“Well… she asked me to.” Hansel’s eyes were wide and confused.
“Oh poo, I had a feeling you didn’t eat enough.”
I heard the back door open and slam against the wall. Both Hansel and I jumped. I turned to see a tall thin man with a large head, large hands, and empty eyes.
“Fred, the girl’s no good. Too skinny. Take her to the cage.”
Before I had a chance to react, Fred had picked me up with just one arm. As he dragged me away from the kitchen, I dug my nails into his dry skin and felt something crumble. He pulled me across the dinin’ room and opened a closet door. Inside were a cage, like a giant bird might use in a cartoon, its bars so narrow that even I couldn’t slip my skinny wrists between them. He threw me in, and shut the cage door. I heard a click as it locked shut.
“Hans!” I cried as Fred turned away, swingin’ the closet door most of the way shut, leaving me nothin’ but a crack in of light to see by. Tears filled my eyes, and I buried my face in my hands. It was then that I realized that I had something stuck beneath my finger nails that felt a lot like dirt. I leaned in close and inhaled. Cookie crumbs?
Fred wasn’t Mrs. Danvers son, at least not in the normal way. He were nothing more than a giant gingerbread man.
They didn’t feed me at first. My stomach cramped, and my head ached, but my mind was crystal clear for the first time in days. The sleepy warmth that came from those gingerbread cookies went away as soon as the hunger arrived. There were somethin’ wrong about Mrs. Danvers’s food. Watchin’ Hansel almost put his hand on that hot stove made me realize that eatin’ too much of it would make you obey her every command.
Hansel didn’t seem to miss me all that much. He asked Mrs. Danvers once or twice about where’d I’d gone off to, but the evil woman distracted him with promises of cookies and games. I scowled. Hansel had always loved food, but he’d never been this much of a pig. It was almost as if…
It was almost as if she were fattening him up to eat!
The door to the closet banged open, sending me scramblin’ to the back of the cage. I looked up to see Mrs. Danvers’s son, Fred, a tower of dark standin’ out against the bright lights of the dinin’ room. Was it night already?
He unlocked the cage door.
His voice was so deep. I felt it rumble in my chest. He reached out, a plate of gingerbread cookies tiny in his thick hand. The cookies looked up at me with their toothy grins. And the smell… Oh I wanted nothin’ more than to bite off all of their heads!
“Eat!” Fed’s voice was louder this time. He pushed the cookies close to me, until they were almost touchin’ my face. The smell made me forget about how much I hated sweets. Or how eatin’ one would put me under Mrs. Danvers’s spell. How it could be my hand on that stove.
But then I thought of Hansel, and all the horrible things Mrs. Danvers could be doin’ to him at that very moment.
I reached out, and bit down, but not onto the cookies. No, I bit into that the giant gingerbread man’s wrist.
Fred grunted, and jerked his arm back. I kept my jaws clamped down, the taste of ginger fillin’ my mouth. He pulled so hard that he fell backwards, yankin’ both his arm, and me out of that cage. I grabbed the plate and hit him as hard as I could across the face. The porcelain shattered, slicin’ open my hand somethin’ nasty. I grabbed onto a particularly big piece of it and stabbed Fred’s face, over and over again, until it crumbled into little cookie pieces.
His body jerked for a few seconds afterward, like a chicken with its head cut off.
I looked up at the hallway that led into the kitchen, hoping Mrs. Danvers hadn’t noticed. I heard nothin’ but the clang of pots and pans in reply.
I swallowed and stood up, pointin’ my feet towards the kitchen.
The hallway were all shadows, the kitchen lit up as bright as can be. I inched towards it as quietly as I could, pokin’ my head around the corner before steppin’ in.
What I saw made me shake all over.
The enormous stove was somehow even bigger, as if the dark metal thing had grown during the day. It was now large enough to fit an adult inside. Its door hung open, letting out a wave of heat that made me sweat all the way across the room. Next to it sat Hansel in a large roasting pan, surrounded by vegetables. His eyes were wide and confused. Mrs. Danvers had taken his shirt and shoes. He hugged his chest as if shivering.
Mrs. Danvers crouched in front of the stove, movin’ the racks around. Her hands were protected by large oven mitts.
And I felt a hatred like nothin’ I had ever felt before. A hatred stronger than what I felt for Pa, who never knew what to do with us. For Debra with her bright, loud ways. And for Ma, who’d left us behind in a sea of blood.
Before the witch could see me, I ran forward and pushed her inside of the oven, shuttin’ the door before I could second guess myself.
I will never forget the screams that she made. Or how the door jerked against me as I held it shut. Or the tears that poured down my face as I let her burn to death.
Once Mrs. Danvers went silent, I heard a small sniffle. I turned to see Hans, standin’ without his shirt, tears streamin’ down his face.
“What’s goin’ on Gretel?” He asked. “Where’s Pa?”
I felt my body sag against the metal.
“We’re goin’ to find him, right now.” I said.
And with that, I helped him with his shirt and shoes and led him from the house, leavin’ nothing but the scent of burned flesh behind.
According to the police, Pa had waited until the second night that we’d been missin’ to call for help. They didn’t like that all that much. Still, I kept things to myself when the officer asked us where we’d been for the last couple of days, sayin’ nothing more then we’d gone off to get firewood and got lost. The police lady said that we were lucky that old couple found us on their way to camp. Who knows how long we could’ve been wanderin’ through those trees.
Pa was all tears and hugs, his relief so big that it seemed like nothin’ more than a show. By the time we got home, it was night again so Hansel went to sleep.
“Are you hungry?” Pa asked as I sat at the kitchen table. “I know you ate at the station but… almost three days alone in the woods? I can’t even… and Hansel! That horrible story he told about the old woman-”
“Where’s Debra?” I asked.
“Oh.” His face fell a little bit. “We had a fight. She’s at her mother’s.”
“And she’s gonna stay there, right?”
“Well…” Pa looked down to the floor. “I know you don’t like Debra, Gretel but we’re married now, and you’re gonna to have to learn to live together.”
“I’m not livin’ with the woman that convinced you to abandon us in the woods.”
I wanted to shout those words, but they came out in a whisper. Pa went dead silent.
“I saw you, standin’ by the car with your cigarette. You didn’t set up no tent, Pa. I know that just as much as I know that you never could have come up with that idea on your own. Debra must have put you up to it.”
I waited for his excuses, but he just sat there, squirmin’. I’m surprised I didn’t burn a hole through his face, there were so much hate burnin’ in my eyes.
“She’s not gonna live here no more,” I said. “She’ll come back to get her stuff but that’s it.”
“Gretel,” Pa said, annoyance in his voice. “You can’t order me around-”
“Yes I can!”
I jumped up from my chair. It tumbled backwards with a clang.
“Listen Pa,” I said. “That story Hansel told you… well it ain’t no story. We went through a lot out there, thanks to you and Debra. I kept my side of things quiet with the cops, but if that woman ever sets foot in this house again, I will tell everyone about what you both did: the school councilor, the librarian, everyone.”
Pa’s mouth hung open. I wanted to knock all of those crooked teeth down his throat with one swing. Instead, I kept on talkin’.
“And you will start pickin’ Hansel up from school every day,” I said. “The kid’s not even seven years old and he never sees you. Spend some time with your son. Play catch with him! And if you don’t, I will make sure everyone knows what a horrible parent you are.”
My body trembled as I spoke. Pa said nothin’ in return, just stared at me with his wide eyes. I shook my head, and went to the bedroom. It took a long time to fall asleep.
It’s been months since we got lost in the woods. Pa’s kept his word about pickin’ Hansel up from school every day. Even plays catch with him on the weekends. Hans’s lost a little bit of weight, but not so much that he don’t look like himself no more. I learned how to do the laundry so my clothes don’t smell. It’s made me better at goin’ to school. Debra came back to the house a couple times, but only for her stuff. I think she once thought that she could change Pa into somethin’ she liked the look of better, but us comin’ back messed everything up. Now, she wants nothin’ to do with us.
There are nights when I wake up, convinced that my bed’s a cage, and that every shadow is Fred. And my nightmares? All of them involve Hansel in that oven. He seems to have forgotten most of it. Only talks about how we got “lost in the woods that one time,” not Mrs. Danvers, or the kitchen with the large oven, or even the house out in the woods.
There must be a piece of him that still remembers though. Nothin’ else could explain his new found hatred for gingerbread cookies.