Lil’ Red Riding Through the Hood
Ever since she was young, Laqueshia Johnson was nicknamed “Red”. Maybe because she loved to wear her daddy’s red baseball cap since she was three (When he’d come home from work, he’d pick her up and fly her around the house. She’d giggle and laugh, then take his cap and run all around the house until he finally caught her). Maybe it was because Laqueshia was just way to heck frickin hard to pronounce or spell, so the kids at school decided to call her the first thing that came to mind (she just so happened to wear a red shirt on her first day). Maybe it was because her middle name was Rhett, something she didn’t really find out until she was twelve. Yeah. That was probably the real reason why she was called “Red”. An accidental mispronunciation. BUT, never mind all that. The reason why she was called “Red” doesn’t matter at all in this story...
It was a rainy night on the west side of Detroit. Red was bobbing her head to the fresh beats in her headphones as she finished up some algebra homework. Lying on her belly, elbows deep in a pink unicorn pillow, she tapped her pencil against her emoji binder to the rhythm of the pouring rain as it pattered upon her windowpane.
“Dinnertime!” her mamma called from the little dining room.
With a sigh, Red rounded out the last zero she was forming and started up from her bed. She slung her mp3 player down onto her beanbag and rushed out of the room.
“Hey, hun,” Mamma smiled, kissing her on the forehead.
“Mamma, you know I’m too old for all that now,” she giggled in embarrassment, “I’m sixteen!”
“You always gonna be my baby, Red,” Mamma grinned, “You know that.”
Red found a seat and plopped down. Before her sat a bowl of instant ramen that was staring up at her for the third time that week. She sighed in annoyance but quickly straightened her posture with a smile as she felt Mamma’s sharp, correcting gaze land upon her.
“That’s better,” Mamma smirked, “Say your grace now.”
Red bowed her head and closed her eyes.
“Thank you, Lord God, for the food you provide us. Thank you for blessing me and mamma with this nice apartment, and the money to pay the rent...”
“Yes, Lord,” Mamma interjected.
“Thank you for helping me get good grades in school...”
“Thank you, Jesus!” Mamma over-emphasized.
“Thank you Lord God for legs to walk, a bike to pedal, and the bus to ride, but please help us to get enough money to buy a car to drive...”
Mamma breathed a silent laugh as she glanced up at Red only briefly.
“Thank you for Grandma. She lives on the other side of town all by herself, and she’s been sick lately. Please help her to get better. Thank you for Daddy, too. Please help him get out of jail soon. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen,” she said swiftly.
“Amen,” Mamma nodded in agreement.
Red quickly grabbed her fork and began devouring the noodles.
“So, baby, how was school today?” Mamma asked.
“It was okay,” she said with a mouth full of ramen, “TGIF though. Them exams is somethin’ else.”
“L-O-L, right?” Mamma chuckled.
“Yeah,” Red giggled.
“Speaking of TGIF, tomorrow is Saturday...” Mamma hummed, “Do you think you could go drop some stuff off at your Grandmamma’s house for me?”
“Sure, Mamma!” Red smiled. She loved to visit her Grandma. Even though the journey required two bus transfers and a few miles of walking or biking in between, she enjoyed observing the scenery of the neighborhood and all the people from different walks of life who lived there. She also had a secret graffiti project she had started (without her mamma’s knowledge) on the side of an abandoned storefront, and she’d been itching to add the next piece.
“Alright, but be careful, now,” Mamma warned, “They been talkin’ about that gang on the news.
“What gang?” Red asked.
“That new gang or somethin’,” Mamma murmured, “They been causin’ trouble, robbing people, and even kidnapping little girls,”
“Mamma, I ain’t a little girl anymore!” Red laughed, “I’m over all that ‘stranger danger’ crap.”
“Laqueshia,” Mamma said sternly, “You can never be too careful.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Red nodded and looked down, finishing her noodles without another word about it. Mamma had broken out her real name. That meant it was time to stop arguing.
The next day, Red woke up bright and early. She looked out the window and smiled at the morning sun gleaming through puddles of yesternight’s rain. Dressing in her red hoodie, ripped jeans, and worn-out sneakers, she grabbed her purple backpack and headed to the kitchen.
“Mornin’ Red,” Mamma smiled, kissing her on the forehead, “Here’s the bag. There’s some tea, balms, and bath salts in there, along with a cup of my homemade chicken noodle soup, and a slice of my famous apple pie.”
“No fair, Mamma! I want some,” Red whined, shoving it into her backpack, “How come we get microwave ramen every night, but Granny gets all the good stuff?”
“Don’t worry,” Mamma laughed, “It’s what we’re having for dinner tonight.”
“Yes!” Red grinned, chugging her fist.
“Don’t stay out too late, now,” Mamma said as Red ran to the door, “Love you!”
“I won’t!” she grinned, “Love you, too!”
Walking down the street, she half-smiled at the environment around her. It was beautiful, yet broken. The pretty flowers in balcony gardens against the smoky clouds of exhaust. The cute little houses scattered amongst the dilapidated hulls scrappers had ransacked and squatters had called home. Green grass covered in spots by litter and illegal dumping. The pretty chirping of birds masked by the sounds of domestic disputes, swerving cars, police sirens, and occasional gunshots.
Red put on her headphones and bobbed her head the rest of the way to the first bus stop, stepping around puddles in time to the hip hop. Once she arrived, she leaned her back against the signpost and closed her eyes. Almost lost in the music, she nearly didn’t notice a young man approaching. At the last minute, she felt a presence and flung open her eyes. Smiling beside her was a young Hispanic man with slick black hair dressed in a leather jacket and faded dark gray jeans. He smiled with shiny white teeth and dark brown eyes. Caught off guard by him, she slowly lowered her headphones.
“Hola,” he waved.
“Hey,” she breathed.
She stared at him as his eyes looked her over, wandering from her dark, dimpled pie-face framed by her thick black box braids, to her petite pear figure, curvy hips, full thighs, and dingy red shoes. She began to feel a little uncomfortable, but something about the man was alluring. She mentally fought with herself, debating on whether she should run or stay.
“Sandalio,” he smiled, holding a hand out towards her.
Red stood there frozen in shock. Her brain didn’t know how to react.
“My name is Sandalio,” he repeated, “And yours?”
“Leq-- Uh--” Red shook herself out of the trance, but she couldn’t decide which of her names to tell him. Should she reveal her real name? This wasn’t ‘stranger danger’, was it? Maybe it was. She should tell him her nickname, “Red. I mean, Red. My friends call me Red.”
“Red?” Sandalio grinned as he shook her hand warmly, “I like it.”
As the two parted hands, Red looked off awkwardly.
“You waitin’ for the bus?” Sandalio asked, breaking the silence.
Red nodded but did not look in his direction.
“Little shy, huh?” Sandalio laughed.
“I ain’t shy,” she retorted, finally making eye contact with him again, “Just thinking, that’s all.”
“Thinking about what?” Sandalio asked.
“None of your business,” Red smirked, turning away again and putting her headphones back half-over her ears.
Sandalio snorted a laugh, then pulled out his iPhone. As he began playing some sort of app, the bus pulled up. Red got on the bus and sat towards the back in the corner. Sandalio followed and sat immediately behind her. Red removed her headphones and placed them into her backpack that sat next to her on the seat. Leaving her bag half unzipped, she tried to distract herself with her phone. She opened her match-three app and began to play.
“Woah,” Sandalio exclaimed, looking over her shoulder, “That’s a high score.”
Red self-consciously put down her phone and whipped her head around. She found herself nose to nose with the boy. Startled, she yanked back and leaned against the window.
“So,” he continued, resting his chin upon his folded arms that rested over the back of her seat, “How old are you?”
Red’s blood pressure was increasing. Her back was pressed against the glass as far as she could go.
“How old are you?” she retorted with edge.
“Twenty-one,” he smirked, “Your turn.”
Red was really uncomfortable now. This guy was older than she thought he was. He was a grown man! She was only sixteen, but she couldn’t tell him that.
“How old do you think?” she blinked.
“Hmm... Let’s see...” he chuckled, “Nineteen?”
“You got it!” Red nodded, sighing internally.
“You’re kinda cute,” he said, biting his lip, “You look so young.”
“I get that a lot,” she exhaled, looking back down at her phone but still not settling back into her seat correctly. A text had arrived from her mom. “I forgot to put crackers in that bag!” it read, “Could you stop by the store and get some for her, please? She just has to have them every time she eats soup.” Red texted back a thumbs up and a heart.
“You got a boyfriend?” Sandalio asked, brushing his hair back.
Red shook her head shyly, tilting her phone screen away from him.
“Lucky me,” Sandalio peeped, raising his eyebrow, “So, bonita, where are you going on this bus all by yourself?”
Red’s eyes dashed around to find an excuse. She knew she couldn’t tell him where she was really going.
“A friend’s house,” she decided aloud.
Sandalio nodded his head with pondering eyes that drifted to the ceiling of the vehicle. Red glanced out of the window, then back at the man who was now adjusting his watch. Upon his wrist, she noticed a small tattoo of a wolf’s head.
“What’s that?” she blurted involuntarily.
“Oh, this?” he smiled, revealing the entire tattoo, “It’s a wolf. You like?”
“I guess it’s alright,” Red nodded as she stared at the intricate detailing, “Why do you have it, though?”
“Well, it’s my name,” Sandalio explained, “Sandalio means ‘true wolf’.”
“Interesting,” Red nodded, looking back at her phone.
“So, what does ‘Laqueshia’ mean?” he asked.
Red’s heart nearly stopped. How did he find out her real name? She looked up with a face as pale as someone her complexion could get.
“I saw it on the nametag in your backpack,” Sandalio laughed.
Red swiftly grabbed her backpack and zipped it up, but it was too late. The man’s bright grin grew more and more sinister in her eyes.
“What you got in there?” he asked curiously.
“Stuff,” Red snarled.
“That ‘stuff’ smells pretty good, like apple pie,” Sandalio slurred, “Can I have some?”
Red didn’t answer. She had to find a way to get away from him. She looked out of the other window and saw that the bus was slowing to a halt.
“It’s my stop,” she breathed, hastily jumping up and heading towards the doors.
Just then, Sandalio caught her by the arm, causing her to gasp.
“Have a nice day, Laqueshia-- Red,” he smiled shyly, letting go.
Red almost wanted to scream, but the look in his eyes was hypnotic. Besides, he only desired to bid her good day.
“You too,” she nodded and leapt off the bus.
When her kicks hit the pavement, she stood there motionless with her back to the bus until she heard it start off again. She glanced up and stared down the street until it was out of sight. Sighing in relief, she headed along her way. She was glad that the boy had stayed on the bus. She wouldn’t call herself nervous, but she just didn’t like being followed. On her way to the next bus stop, she passed her mural and added a few strokes of spray paint. The painting displayed an open book laying out in the midst of a lush garden. From its pages leapt musical notes, emojis, and splashes of color. She smiled and stood back, drawing out her phone to take a picture of it. Just after she took the snapshot, a text notification popped up. “Hola, Rojo,” it read. She nearly dropped her iPhone. How? How did he get her number? The second after, a text from him answered her thoughts. “It’s Sandalio. So sorry I snuck your number, but I saw it in your backpack on the nametag and I couldn’t resist. I can’t imagine meeting such a beautiful girl and never being able to see her again.” Red’s fingers quivered. She probably stared at her phone for five minutes, unsure of what to do. Suddenly, she realized the time. She was going to miss the second bus! Red shoved her spray cans back into her backpack and ran away from her mural. Her feet pounded rhythmically against the sidewalk as her breaths grew shallower and shallower. Just as she arrived at the next bus stop, the bus was nearly pulling off.
“Wait!” she panted as the doors began to shut.
The driver rolled her eyes as she opened the doors back up, letting Red inside.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Red breathed, collapsing into a seat.
All throughout the ride, she stared at her iPhone. Her heart was beating fast and her palms were sweating, but she attributed that to the run. She took a deep breath and looked at his text again. Her fingers hovered indecisively over the keyboard until she finally typed “LOL” and hit send before she talked herself out of it.
“Whew,” he texted back, “I thought maybe I had a number off.”
Red texted back a laughing emoji.
“We didn’t have much time to get to know each other,” he continued, “What’s your favorite food?”
”...my mom’s chicken noodle soup,” she answered after hesitating.
“If I tried it, I’d probably think the same,” he responded with a cheesing emoji.
“What’s your favorite color?” she asked.
“Blackish grey,” he answered, “And I assume yours is red?”
Red replied with a thumbs up.
“So, your friend lives on the East side?” Sandalio texted.
“Yeah.” Red texted back with a nod.
Somehow, she was less afraid when there was a screen between them. She felt more confident, and she didn’t even ask herself how he knew this information.
“Fantastico!” he replied, “I have folks over there too. They live anywhere by the Berkshire Development?”
“Not too far from that. They on Bartham and Hearn near Fiori Park.” Red responded, then added, “My ‘friend’ is actually my Grandma. I’m taking the pie and stuff to her.”
“Cool cool,” Sandalio instantly replied, “I wish I was your abuela right now. JK”
Red laughed aloud.
“But I’m kinda serious,” he continued, “She’s a lucky lady right now. She gets :soup_emoji: and :pie_emoji:, and, best of all, she gets to see your gorgeous face.”
Red blushed and sent an emoji to match.
Before long, the bus paused at the stop. Texting a quick “GTG, TTYL,” she hopped off and shoved her phone into her pocket. She was smiling bright, inhaling the warm spring air. She glanced down at the sidewalk and saw many little yellow dandelions jutting out of the cracks. She remembered collecting them and giving a bouquet of them to Grandma ever since she was a toddler. The nostalgia of her grandmother's neighborhood warmed her heart. She knelt down and gathered some as she skipped along. By the time she reached her granny’s house, she had a whole fistful. She smiled big and wide, climbing the steps and raising her fist to knock, when, suddenly, her phone let out a sharp *ping!* sound. The noise caused her to remember her mother’s text. She had forgotten to pick up the crackers! But, Red did not despair. She knew exactly what to do. Cooper’s Convenience Store was on the corner just a few blocks down. Turning on her heels, Red ran down the sidewalk towards the place but abruptly stopped. She had heard a hacking sound ever since she’d gotten off the bus, but now she knew what it was. One of her grandmother’s neighbors stood chopping away at a large tree in front of an overgrown vacant lot just yards away from the house.
“Hey, Mr. Jack!” she shouted over the noise, “What are you doing?”
“That you, Red?” the man panted, bringing his axe down to lean upon it for a moment, “Well, I’m a’choppin’ this ’ol tree down.”
“Why?” Red asked in disappointment. She had many fond memories of playing around that tree. She climbed in it, broke her arm falling out of it. She hid behind it when she played hide and seek with her best friend. She and her first crush had even carved their initials into it.
“It’s dead, now, lil’ missy,” Mr. Jack replied, wiping sweat from his brow, “Last night’s storm nearly took it down. Wouldn’t want it to fall on somebody next time around.”
“Oh, I know you had a great time with this tree,” he said lovingly, “But there’s a time for everything, you know that. A time and a purpose for everything under the heaven.”
Red nodded. She was disappointed, but resolved that being attached to a rotted old tree was silly for a sixteen-year-old woman, so waved her acquiescence to Mr. Jack and continued on to the store. As she waited in line, she checked the notification on her phone. There was nothing except a little GPS symbol, so she swiped it away and shrugged. When it was her turn at the counter, she bought crackers for Grandma. She also decided to purchase a sodapop for Mr. Jack and a candybar for herself. She shoved them all into her backpack. The walk back to Grandma’s was slow and sad this time. She didn’t know why, but something about that tree was special to her. It had always been there when she needed it. When she passed by Mr. Jack chopping away at it, she passed him the ice cold drink and took one last look at her favorite tree. She didn’t want to imagine it being gone.
“Thanks, Red,” he breathed, after taking a much needed sip, “Visitin’ your grandma?”
“Better not keep her waitin’ much longer then,” he said, putting down the bottle and picking up the axe again.
Coming within a few feet of her grandmother’s house, she instantly perked up. Her grandma’s face was something that always cheered her up. Just picturing it in her head was enough to put her in good spirits. She leapt onto the porch and lifted her fist to knock again, but this time, she noticed that the door was already cracked open.
“Grandma?” she asked cautiously, but receieved no answer.
Red slowly pushed the door the rest of the way open and stepped inside. The house looked just as it did the last time she had visited, but something seemed wrong. A few things wer knocked over, but she knew her grandmother was getting old, and it was harder for her to bend over, so Red shrugged and picked up the things for her.
“Grandma?” she called again, louder this time.
“I’m in the bed!” she heard a muffled mumbling voice yell back.
The voice sounded very strange. She realized that Grandma’s illness must have been worse off than she had originally thought. It was a good thing Mamma had thought to send her with soup.
“Okay!” she shouted, “Imma heat up your soup and bring it up to you, alright?”
Red headed to the kitchen and popped the bowl into the microwave. Then, she got a tray and sat upon it a napkin, a spoon, the crackers, and a glass of water. As the soup continued heating, she placed the box of teabags in the cabinet, threw the slice of pie into the fridge, and took the bath soaks and balms to the bathroom counter. Hearing the beep of the microwave, she completed the tray with the bowl of soup and headed upstairs. As she entered the open bedroom, she gazed upon the bed. Inside was her grandmother. She was covered with blankets and quilts from head to toe- even her face was covered. What she could see of it was discolored, and her eyes were harsh and wild. The room was completely silent save for the sound of slow, heavy breathing and the rhythmic solemn hacking of Red’s beloved tree being chopped down that resounded through the open window.
“Grandma, you look bad!” Red exclaimed, sitting the tray down on the sidetable, “You all bundled up! Why you got the window open? Want me to close it and turn the heat up?”
As she turned to fasten the window, a quick hand grasped her arm. She gasped and looked down as she felt the familiar clutch. To her horror, she saw the the wolf tattoo upon the wrist.
“You not my Grandma!” she screamed, trying to yank away, but the grip was too strong.
“Don’t worry,” Sandalio laughed evilly, removing the blankets from himself, “I won’t hurt you.”
Red screamed loudly, but he leapt out of the bed and covered her mouth from behind. Red kicked and and jabbed, shimmying herself out of his grasp.
“What the heck did you do with my gradma, you creep!?” Red screamed through fear, rage, and tears as she quickly ran over to the other side of the bed to put distance betwen herself and him.
Sandalio flashed a sinister smile and inched around towards her. Apprehensively, she looked around the room for some sort of weapon.
“I didn’t hurt your abuela,” he said softly, “I don’t want your abuela. I want you.”
Red’s chest heaved and her blood rushed as she stood frozen in fear, when, suddenly, he lunged at her. Thinking quickly, Red leapt onto the bed and tried to roll onto the other side when Sandalio laid hold onto her legs.
“HELP! HELP!” she screamed as he turned her over and pinned her down, “HELP ME! ANYONE PLEASE!”
“You’re a frisky one,” he laughed, bending his head down to her face.
Red reached up and grabbed the scalding soup from the side table and splashed it all over him, causing him to cry out and loosen his grip. At this moment, she kicked him into the wall and flipped herself off the other side of the bed. Landing on her hands and knees on the floor, she saw her grandmother’s twisted arm sticking out from underneath the bed.
“Grandma?” she gasped in terror as she saw her once warm eyes garing out at her nearly glazed over.
All seemed to go quiet in that moment. Sandalio had stopped cursing, She heard no breathing (not even her own), and even the hacking sound had ceased. Before she could ponder anymore, Red found herself pinned to the floor. Sandalio was on top of her with his hands to her throat. Red tried to scream again, but it only came out in choked whimpers.
“Little naive girls are the best prey,” he grunted, “They are so innocent and trusting. They leave clues out right where thieves can see them.”
As he spoke, his grasp around her neck grew tighter. She hit him repeatedly with her fists to no effect.
“They let criminals track their phones, and they tell too much information,” he continued, “And, best of all, they’re pretty.”
Red felt her consciousness slipping away. Her sight fogged with tears, and her throat could produce sound no more. Her arms dropped limply to her sides and her eyelids fell. Her hearing was the last sense to go, but she thought she heard the familiar hacking sound return and grow closer, louder, and more furious than it had been before.
Just then, the bedroom door was thrown open, and in barged Mr. Jack with his axe.
“Get the heck off of that girl!” he roared, holding the sharp tool over his head in a defensive stance, “Get on up and get the heck outa here!”
Sandalio yanked up and stood to his feet quickly, drawing a gun into his right hand and aiming it at Mr. Jack’s heart.
“Stupid move, muchacho,” he grinned slyly, motioning with a flick of his glock for the man to move over to the wall, “Now, put down the axe nice and slow.”
Mr. Jack slightly lowered his axe with a devastated face, then suddenly raised it again and threw it. Sandalio screamed in excruciating pain as it flew and sliced directly through his right arm. Hearing everything, Red finally recovered herself and opened her tightly shut eyes. Lying right beside her was the bloody severed arm with gun still in hand and the eyes of the wolf tattoo staring directly back at her. Red quickly jumped up and fell into Mr. Jack’s arms, weeping. Mr. Jack pulled out his phone and called the police. Sandalio was collapsed in a bloody pool upon the carpet.
“Where’s your grandma?” Mr. Jack asked.
Red pointed under the bed. Mr. Jack gently pulled the elderly woman out. She was alive but shivering and trembling.
“Oh, Red, thank God you’re alright!” she kept saying, “God bless you, Jack. Thank you, Jack.”
Soon, the police and the ambulance arrived, and Red had never been so relieved to hear those sirens. There were no handcuffs required for Sandalio, and everyone else lived happily ever after as one can in the hood.
Rapunzel: A Hairy Situation
Last time I trust Henry Malone for anything.
Since the day we met he’s made his way pedaling snake-oil in the backalleys of Brighton Street. An alley cleaver like that isn’t to be depended on, not ever, least of all by a teenage girl.
It was early and my common sense had yet to wake up—it usually lags in about three hours behind me. I’d befriended this boy from school, Diggy, and for a few weeks we’d been conversatin’ in the cafeteria. I wanted to have him over. But I knew my last grounding had yet to release, which meant no company. We devised a plan where Diggy would sneak in through the window of my bedroom but therein resided the problem. My window was about twenty feet off the ground. Not even NBA jumping legs could get him that high. He offered to catapult off the dumpster, but alas, even Brighton’s notorious mountains of garbage couldn’t gain him enough leverage. So I made a rope by tying bedsheets together. Fortunately when it came untied he was less than three feet up.
Never one to surrender, I spent the night tossing and turning, desperate to form a plan. I’d have to utilize my creativity for this one, or so I thought till an answer broadsided me like a freighter flying 180. On my way to school the next morning I ran into Henry, his hair all greased-back and his trenchcoat hilariously oversized. Never one for subtlety, he threw it open, brandishing a vast spectrum of wares, from off-brand watches to off-brand perfumes to off-brand smartphones. If he had an off-brand kitchen sink in there somewhere I wouldn’t have been surprised. That was Henry.
“Hey kid. Wanna’ buy a watch?” he pressed.
“No thanks. I can miss the bus on my own. Those things are five minutes slow. You set ’em and a glitch stalls ’em out again.”
“Oh, come on. Perfume?”
“I have bad enough acne without a rash adding to the fray.”
“Hear those things have a penchant for exploding. I want to keep my face.”
“Okayyy, Miss. What do you need?” he pursued. “Name anything and I’ll get it.”
The answer was only meant to be facetious.
“Got anything that’ll let me sneak someone in through my window? It’s two stories up and tying sheets just ain’t cutting it.”
“Yeah,” he shrugged.
“Just as I thought, you— Wait, what? You do?”
“Yeah. May sound crazy, but if yer willing to experiment I’d say there’s a way. You got real nice hair, see...”
“Okay. Creepy. Did your brain just short-circuit because that was totes non-sequitur.”
“Just listen. A tonic. It’ll make your hair grow at a hyperaccelerated rate, and you can use that hair as a rope.”
“That’s...the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” I declared, before mulling it over a bit. “I mean it’s ridiculous. I feel insulted that you’d even—How much is it?”
“For you, five bucks.”
“Why do I pay you?” I huffed. “I’m not an idiot. But fool me this many times, shame ain’t even a factor anymore. It’s all numb.”
We made the exchange, and I slouched low in case anyone off the main road recognized me in passing. It felt dirty, like a drug deal. Was that it? Was I no more than his junkie now?
Speaking of junky, I slathered the stuff on my hair that night, hoping I wouldn’t die in my sleep. Maybe there wouldn’t be any bad reactions, or bad vibes. Maybe the hair wouldn’t grow inward and crush my brain to pulp. Like I was using it anyway...
The next morning I awoke to find myself an island amid a sea of hair. My golden locks churned around, leaving me to stifle a scream, be it from terror or joy I know not which. Well, at least I knew Henry hadn’t lied. In my cynicism I’d poured the whole bottle on, figuring it to be water. It was colorless and odorless. Easy mistake.
How was I gonna’ hide this from my parents, from my teachers, from everyone? I grabbed a baseball cap off my nightstand and attempted to stuff my hair into it like I used to. When that failed I slid on a hoodie, leaving my hair tucked inside. One problem—it flowed out the bottom like a fountain, dragging across the floor. So I gathered it and stuffed it under the hoodie’s copious flab, till I was inflated like a weather balloon. Thankfully Dad was already at work and Mom was busy with the baby. So I managed to slip out undetected.
“Dang. You cold, Zel?” Diggy made a face when he saw me. “What is this, a dare? Are you doing that dumb fifty hoodie challenge? You’re supposed to take them off right after. You’re not supposed to wear them around.”
Looking like an unhinged blob of humanity, I took him by the shoulders and guided him gently to the janitor’s closet where I proceeded to spill both my hair and my guts.
“This is insane,” he spat.
“Just one visit and I’ll cut it all off,” I pouted. “I want you to see my room.”
“That’s a long ways to go just to show me your room.”
“I’ve done stupider.”
“I believe you.”
That evening I was elated when a rock hit my window. I yanked the sash up and poked my head out to see Diggy standing below.
“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!” he cried. I did. But I misjudged the distance and wound up crushing him. Slight collateral. He survived. And in five seconds he’d latched on and was shimmying up. I gritted my teeth, straining to hold his weight. Guess I didn’t really think that part through either. He weighed twice what I did, so it quickly became a contest of whether he’d make it or whether my head would pop off first. That would be unfortunate.
Speaking of unfortunate. When I was a kid I had this rope swing in the backyard of my fam’s old place. I’d enjoy hours of gliding through the air, till one day it snapped. Dryrot had eaten it from the inside, and though it looked perfectly intact and safe from the outside—it wasn’t. You probably get where I’m going with this. I even recalled the sensation. The rope jerked a bit, gave, gave more, then snap. I felt a similar sensation right then, as Diggy scaled my hair. He was almost to the window. But my hair was starting to jerk. The strands were breaking from the inside-out.
“Diggy!” I tried to scream, but it was too late. He was already on his way to the ground and I was already mentally throttling Henry Malone. A profound lapse of judgement. One of many.
The doctors said Diggy had a broken leg and a couple sprains. Nothing too serious. The tonic I’d used had worked, initially, but its cheap hack-job formula had weakened the hair, so while it was technically longer, that full look was just a brittle artifice. It wouldn’t have held a feather up long, let alone a human body.
Next time I saw Henry he had an ointment all whipped up that could supposedly heal Diggy’s broken leg.
“Woah, what happened to you?” he paused, after I’d lowered my hood and displayed the shaggy remnants of my new bob.
That was my only reply. Throttling him would’ve been overkill.
So I just kept walking.
There's a knock on the door.
That's something you usually don't want to hear past midnight around here. I try to convince my sister, Gretchen—well, my step-sister—to leave it alone, to pretend she didn't hear it, but my pleadings fall on deaf ears.
"You know it won't stop them. If they want to enter, they'll enter. I don't want to have to fix a broken-down door on your account."
I gulp, but drop the issue. I know she's right. Plus, there's no way she'd fix the door. That task would fall on me, anyways. Everything always does. It's the only reason they haven't ratted me out yet.
Gretchen shoos me into the space under the floorboards that serves as my shelter whenever unwanted company rolls around—though sometimes I think they invent make-believe intruders, just so they can get me out of the way, occasionally for hours at a time—and hurries her way back to the entrance, each click of her heels sending a small army of dust particles raining down on me.
"Just a second!" Gretchen calls out cordially, her voice high and fake. I snigger sardonically. There's nothing real about her or my other step-sister, Lorelei, from their perfectly powdered faces to their dirndl dresses and modernly-styled hair. They, along with my step-mother, have worked tirelessly for years to rejoin the upper crust of German society, wiping every last smudge from their otherwise pristine family history. Marrying my father, and by relation taking me in, was a mistake in their eyes, a stain on a perfectly white shirt. Even an ocean of the purest of blood can be tainted by a single drop of filth, they often say.
So, why do they keep me? Now that my father has been taken only the devil knows where? Well, someone has to do the dishes. No family of status is complete without ‘hired’ help. But harboring a Jew is as good as a capital crime, nowadays.
Hence the floorboards.
The door opens and I hear two sets of boots make their way into our home. I recognize the boots. Heavy, heel irons, the crinkling sound of well-kept leather. It’s definitely not the neighbors asking for sugar. Not that I’d expect any of the neighbors to venture anywhere near our house.
“Good evening, Herr Fiehler. Please, come in,” Gretchen says, her voice dripping with piety. “To what do we owe the pleasure of your presence?”
“I was in the neighborhood, Fräulein Shäfer,” he answers, his voice low and even. “I thought I’d drop by and check on your mother. I hardly saw her at the ball last night.”
Karl Fiehler. Reichsleiter Fiehler, to be proper. Second to the Fuhrer alone. A prince to the King of Hell, as it were. In my eyes, simply one of the many heads of the proverbial Hydra that took my father from me. Yesterday night, he was host to a party in Vienna held by the Nazis to honor the fall of France, and when I heard that he would be here, in Austria, I just couldn’t stay home and let the opportunity pass me by.
The opportunity to kill him, that is.
It didn’t end up working out, as you can see.
That night, I unleashed the best of my irresistible charms, one of the few traits I inherited from my mother, and managed to capture his attention for much of the night. Fortune had been smiling on me; I had my forged Aryan papers, the contraband invites to the event, the vial of poison. But when the time came to deliver my venomous blow, Herr Fiehler was abruptly called off by one of his advisors to attend to some urgent business, and the fatal cup of wine was delivered to the sewers instead.
“Oh, I wasn’t aware that you took notice of any of us that night,” I hear Lorelei say as she makes her way gracefully down the stairs. “You seemed occupied with other company.”
“Yes, well. Your mother has always attracted my attention with her…unique tastes.”
I feel like gagging, a product of the dust swirling around my coffin-like confined space and the repulsive sound of Fiehler’s voice. But the tense silence that has fallen on the room is deafening, and any noise I make now would give me away. Finally, after several drawn out moments where I’m almost tempted to lift up the floorboard and peak out to make sure I’m not being pranked again, I hear Gretchen clear her throat and speak.
“Well, mother is away tonight with family, but is there anything we can help you with? Perhaps tea? Please, join us in the living room for a moment.”
“No, that’s alright. We won’t be long.”
I hear them take a few more steps deeper into the house. The door closes behind them, followed by the rustle of a jacket.
“You know, the woman I entertained for much of that night was very interesting, to say the least,” Herr Fiehler continues. “Quite flattering, though she spoke critically of my accomplishments, expressed her views of German politics and the like. An extraordinarily educated woman.”
I smile. I admit, I had my fun with Fiehler before making my attempt on his life. My father was a prominent figure around Vienna before everything, a well known businessman with status and position with the local government. He took pride in ensuring my education was on par with the other boys my age, even exceeding in most cases, and every day at breakfast he would discuss current events with me before heading off to work. That was before my step family. That was before he was taken away.
“She seems lovely,” Lorelei comments, disdain and jealousy saturating her tone.
“Seems. Yes. Quite the foxy minx, as it turns out. See, I had to step out for a moment at one point, and when I returned, she was gone. Disappeared without so much as saying goodbye, but not before leaving this behind.”
My heart freezes. What did I leave behind? Not the vial, surely. I disposed of that in the river on my way home. The wine? I watched them dump it out.
Then, I realize what he must have taken from his pocket, what he’s showing my step-sisters right now, and I feel my stomach drop down to my toes. I touch the necklace resting on my chest as I lie staring up at the dirty planks of wood, already certain of what I’ll find. My father gave me a necklace with a locket attached to it when my mother died. It has a miniature photograph of her inside, one of my most valued possessions and something I keep well out of reach of my step-sisters and well maintained. Though, nowadays, the hinge has come loose, and I’ve been waiting for the cover to accidentally fall off for months now. Sure enough, when I run my finger along the locket, I feel the smooth surface of the tiny photo rather than the cold touch of its metallic cover.
Normally, this wouldn’t bother me. But as it happens, there’s a bright and bold Star of David on the cover. On the cover that Herr Fiehler is currently holding. Herr Fiehler, Prince of Hell. Enemy to the Jews.
I can tell the blood has drained from my step-sisters’ faces, just as it has drained out of mine. All I can hope for is that they don’t make their anxiety too obvious. My life is on the line as much as theirs are.
“Fräuleins, I have to ask. What is a nice German family like yours doing in this part of town? A Jewish Ghetto? You must be quite the minority here.”
“We’ve lived here since before the Great War. Our father built this house himself. We just can’t bring ourselves to leave it.”
“Ah yes, your father. Stefan Shäfer. The war hero.”
There’s another pause, and I’d almost be annoyed with how much time he’s wasting with drama at two in the morning, if I weren’t so utterly terrified.
“You know, he made quite a legacy for the Shäfer family name. Paid the ultimate price. Gave himself for his country, and for his family. It would be a shame if his sacrifice were to go to waste.”
“We try to honor his name,” Gretchen says with a wavering voice. I can tell her jaw is trembling the way it does every time she’s angry or scared.
“Indeed. Then I’m sure you’d be more than happy to help me find the rest of this, wouldn’t you? I would very much like to locate the owner, and I’m sure there’s only one perfect fit for it. I can’t imagine a better place to begin our quest than with the only guests from that night who have your…legacy.”
He knows. He knows about my father, about his heritage, his faith, about the marriage of convenience, about me. Will they give me up now? Or are they so oblivious to Fiehler’s blatant innuendo, his clear attempts at disguising accusation, that they don’t know they’ve been cornered?
“Of course we would. How can we help?” Lorelei asks in a voice little louder than a whisper. I exhale silently, waiting to see how her response will be received. It can’t be enough. Not to convince anyone of their innocence.
“Search the house,” Fiehler finally commands, presumably to the owner of the other set of boots I heard coming in the house.
“No, please!” Gretchen pleads, and I hear her take several urgent steps forward. “It’s late. I’m sure you have other places to be.”
Silence again. I’ve stopped breathing, as I’m sure Gretchen has too. This was obviously the wrong move, most likely a fatal one. If Fiehler had any doubts before coming here tonight, I’m sure they’re gone now. Then, I hear a soft chuckle, a deep, condescending laugh that’s almost a growl, an omen of things to come. His next words hardly come as a surprise.
And that’s when I realize I’ve been a terrible fool. And soon, I’ll be nothing more than ash.
When Jacob Smith discharged from the army, he took with him only a foreign sidearm he had claimed as a war prize, a gold ring presented to him when he has passed out and many memories of his valour. There was nothing else in his life; not a wife nor a girlfriend, no job or home. With his parents already dead, the only family that remained was his estranged brother, Milo.
Milo lived on the wrong side of the tracks. The broken suburbia – with its dilapidated shop fronts, constant sounds of yelling and sirens and the underlying threat of violence that hung in the air like a poison cloud – reminded Jacob of many of the war-torn villages he had visited during his tours of duty.
When Milo answered the door, his dilated pupils took a moment to register his brother.
‘’Sup, bro?’ he drawled.
‘I’m out,’ Jacob announced. He’d never been one to mince words. ‘Need a place to stay. Can you put me up for a while?’
‘Not yet,’ Jacob answered.
‘Nah, dude,’ Milo said. ‘Gots to pay your way in this world.’ And with that, he closed the door in his only brother’s face.
Stifling his frustration, Jacob left and began to wander the neighbourhood. He doubted there was a hotel in the area, or at least a reputable one. Anyway, he did not have any money to pay for his lodging. After a while he found himself in the local park. Chains of the broken swings groaned in the twilight. Half a seesaw sat abandoned and useless. The roundabout lay rusted and unmovable.
‘You look troubled, friend.’
Jacob turned to the elderly man hobbling toward him. He was wiry and bent over, a charcoal cloak over his shoulders protected him from the chill in the air. Old as he appeared, his sapphire eyes glistened with life.
‘In need of some help, are ya?’ the old man asked.
‘What is it you offer, sir?’
The old man shook his hand dismissively.
‘No “sir”, if you please,’ he said. ‘My name is Theo and you can address me so.’
Jacob smiled, despite the strange air the man exuded.
‘Of course, Theo. And what aid can you offer, I wonder?’
Theo grinned devilishly. His eyes shone in the gathering gloom.
‘Riches beyond counting.’
Jacob fought to keep his laughter in. What riches could this man, a homeless man if ever he had seen one, give to Jacob? Rather than providing an honest source of income, he was more likely to enrol Jacob as a peddler of drugs or inform him when the local shop was most vulnerable to being robbed.
But Jacob decided to engage the man. If nothing else, he was entertaining.
‘And what would I need to do to earn such reward?’
‘Just two things,’ Theo said, stepping closer. ‘The first is to prove your courage.’
Here we go, Jacob thought. Would pillaging the store be proof enough for you, old man?
Theo continued. ‘I want you to kill...’
Jacob bristled. This had turned dark fast.
Jacob spun in the direction Theo was pointing. Looming from the darkness was a large grizzly. Not stopping to wonder how such an animal had found its way to the outskirts of the city, Jacob raised his stolen gun, aimed with practised ease and shot the bear square through the forehead.
‘Yes,’ Theo chuckled. ‘Yes, you are the one. Bravery comes easily to you, as natural as taking a breath.’ He shambled over to the fallen creature. From under his cloak he pulled a hunting knife and a bumbag. He threw the bag at Jacob then set to work on the bear with the knife.
Jacob caught the bag with one hand. It was heavy and sang with the chime of metal on metal.
‘What’s the next thing?’ he asked.
‘Hmm?’ Preoccupied with skinning the bear, Theo seemed to have not heard.
‘Two things, you said,’ Jacob reminded the old man. ‘Two things to earn these riches beyond counting.’
Finishing his task, Theo ripped the hide from the bear and dragged it over to Jacob.
’Yes. Two things, yes. Next, you must see about yourself. For the next seven years you must not wash yourself, nor comb your hair or beard, neither must you cut your nails nor say one paternoster. If you die within that time you are mine, but if you live you are rich and free all your life long.
‘The sack you carry is filled with coin and will not deplete. It will pay your way over the years, but more is available should you succeed.’
Jacob zipped open the bumbag and pulled out a handful of coins. There was all manner of money, different sizes and denomination and nationalities. He dropped the coins to the ground and scooped out another fistful, and another and another. Sure enough, the bumbag was not emptying; for every penny, doubloon and yen he retrieved, another took its place.
Reaching up, Theo draped the still-warm bear hide over Jacob’s shoulders.
‘This will keep you warm. Wear it at all times ’cepting at night when you must sleep upon it and no other bed. Do so, and you shall be named Bearskin.’
‘Seven years?’ Jacob asked. Despite the scent of bear which now engulfed him, he still wasn’t certain this was actually happening. He expected laughter to come from the darkness as men with cameras revealed how he’d been punked.
‘Aye, seven years,’ Theo said quietly. ‘Meet me here in seven years and the riches will be yours.’
Bearskin found a place to stay for the night, a rundown hotel which charged by the hour. It took him a while to pull out only sterling coins from the bumbag to pay for his room. He soon realised though that the more he was successful, the more pound coins were in the bad. Soon it contained nothing but English currency.
Disregarding the bed with its stained and faded quilt, he threw the bear hide on the floor and lay down upon it. It was warm and soft and offered the most comfortable night’s sleep he’d had in years.
Bearskin spent the next year shuffling around the neighbourhood. The homeless population was high here, perhaps the greatest concentration in the city, and he helped out where he could, overflowing their begging cups with coins. It did not take long for him to became a welcome and praised sight, and the street people would offer prayer for this kindness and wish him eternal health.
During the fourth year, with his hair long and matted, his beard covering much of his face and nails sharp enough to slice steel, he chanced upon a skirmish in an alley. A middle-aged man was being accosted by three men, all bigger and younger than him.
‘I can get the money,’ the victim stammered.
‘Too late,’ spat the hoodlum wearing a brown jacket. ‘Shoulda thoughta that ’fore you borrowed from Sharkey.’
‘B-but my b-business needed a b-boost.’
‘Buh-buh-buh,’ mocked the second, his trainers a gleaming white. ‘Nobody wants to buy your tatty furniture any way, old man.’
‘I have daughters to feed.’
The last assailant, dressed all in black, stepped forward. ‘Maybe we need to meet these daughters,’ he snorted menacingly.
Bearskin had heard enough. He marched forward, a deep rumbling growl sounding in his throat.
The three youths turned and paled at the size of Bearskin. As one, they fled quickly, squealing like scared little pigs.
The recused man looked up at Bearskin, fear all over his face.
‘Do not fret,’ Bearskin said. ‘I am not here to harm you. Now, take me to this Sharkey.’
Despite Bearskin’s assurances, the man still looked afraid and, unwilling to anger his saviour, led the way to the loan shark. He took Bearskin to a small laundrette, the façade withered and peeling.
‘He works out of the back,’ the man explained.
‘Wait for me,’ Bearskin commanded, then disappeared inside. He returned a few moments later, a great smile on his face. ‘Sharkey will bother you no more.’
Blood drained from the man’s face. ‘What did you-’ he began.
Bearskin laughed as he realised the man’s fear.
‘No, I did not hurt him,’ he said. ‘I have simply paid your debt and released you from his clutch.’
‘Thank you, sir, bless you, sir,’ the man muttered.
‘And now, to your place of business.’
‘Yes, sir, of course, sir,’ the man replied, and took Bearskin to his shop: Wilhelm’s Wo derful Wor d of icker.
Bearskin looked at the place – the crack in the door panel, the dust on the display shelves. ‘Are you Wilhelm?’ he asked.
The man nodded silently.
‘Then the first thing you need to do is replace that missing lettering.’ He took Wilhelm inside and poured out enough money onto the counter for the shopkeeper to completely refurbish the place.
Over the next few months, Wilhelm’s trade began to boom. He was so grateful for Bearskin’s help, he invited him to tea.
‘Though I can offer nothing material as my thanks,’ he said, ‘my daughters are all wonders of beauty, so choose one of them for a wife. When they hear what you have done for me they will not refuse you.’
Bearskin thought it odd that, in this day and age, a father would pimp put his kin so, but he had grown fond of Wilhelm’s company and accepted for the chance to sample a homecooked meal. When they reached Wilhelm’s home, the man called out to his daughters:
‘Amalia. Bettina. Christiane. Come and meet the man who has saved this wretched family from ruin. Come and decide which of you should wed him.’
Amalia entered the room and looked at Bearskin. His monstrous hair and unruly beard; the hide that covered him, now reeking and worn; the talons at the ends of each of his fingers. With a shriek loud enough to break crystal, she turned and ran away.
The next girl to enter was Bettina. She glared at him, the revulsion clear on her face.
‘How can I take a husband who has not a bit of human countenance?’ she scoffed. ‘I would rather marry the rat that infests our kitchen cupboards, for at least it seems used to living inside.’ And she promptly left.
Christiane came in last. Looking on Bearskin, she shuddered involuntarily and gulped a few times before speaking.
‘Dear father, this must be a good man who has assisted you out of your troubles; if you have promised him a bride for the service your word must be kept.’
Bearskin felt his heart break for this angel of a woman. To put her pride aside and place her loyalty to her father above all else, he knew she would make him a kind wife. And, once his deal with Theo was completed and he was able to hack and wash away the years of hair and filth, he knew he would make her a fine husband. For the first time in his life, Bearskin could envisage a happily ever after.
‘Fair Christiane, I would not presume to wed you in this state,’ he said as he slipped the golden ring from his finger. He snapped the ring in two and used his nails to carve his name on one half, her name of the other. Tossing Christiane the half which bore his name, he said, ‘In a few years I will be free of my pledge. At that time, I will resemble a man again and then we can marry.’
For the remainder the seven years, Bearskin continued to stalk around the neighbourhood, aiding the unfortunate where he could. He watched Christiane from a distance, sad that she wore nothing but black since their parting yet glad that she was keeping her promise to her father. The day he could return to her was drawing ever nearer.
And so, seven years after first meeting Theo, Bearskin made his way back to the park. He was aching to be rid of the bear hide which was now almost one with his own skin. He longed to bathe and to shave and to lie on a soft mattress.
As he neared the playground – now bright and sparkling thanks to his own generosity – Bearskin heard the old man’s voice.
‘My name is Theo and you can address me so.’
Theo was obviously talking to someone else. That didn’t concern Bearskin. He had no shame in interrupting their conversation to demand Theo make good on his promise of riches.
‘Of course, Theo,’ the stranger said.’ And what aid can you offer, I wonder?’
‘Riches beyond counting.’
The familiar words echoed in Bearskin’s ears.
‘And what would I need to do to earn such reward?’
Fear prickled Bearskin’s spine. He began to run forward.
‘Just two things. The first is to prove your courage. I want you to kill...’
With professional reflexes, the young man tuned from Theo, lifted his weapon and put a bullet right between Bearskin’s eyes.
Castle On The Hill
TARIN wiped the tears from his eyes. His sister flicked his nose.
— ‘‘Ow!’’ He cried.
- ‘‘There was a bug on your nose.’’
He stared at his step-sister. How he wished he could turn her into a pig with just one look.
She shook her head and exclaimed, ‘‘Mother says she needs you to head to town to buy a tray of eggs.’’
Tarin smiled, but then looked down at his feet. His step-mother only took care of her daughter. As for her other child, Tarin, she never took care of him, ever.
She did not even provide him any meals. He had to go dive into bins to check what folks had thrown away from their plates, or bowls.
As he dragged his feet on the muddy ground, he heard the sound of horses neighing. The horses galloped at top speed and nearly charged in Tarin’s direction.
One of the knights on a black stallion had pulled the reins and the horse leaped right over Tarin’s bent back. He gasped in awe at the spectacle.
The knight felt pity for the lad and asked him if he had a home. Tarin shook his head.
And at that moment he went to live in a grand cottage not too far from the castle over the hill. He sighed and looked in wonder at the majestic stone castle on the hill. Maybe he would find a way to at least walk through the gates and see the castle’s interior.
Tarin worked for the knight and one day, the knight said to him, ‘‘I will take you with me to see the King.’’
The lad smiled and felt his heart skip a beat. This was a dream come true.
As soon as they walked into the castle gates, Tarin spotted a figure moving in the shadows. It followed them into the palace and marched to the kitchen.
The King had invited the knight for a feast. Tarin bowed his head and greeted the King. The King laughed and said, ‘‘Thank you for the wonderful respect you have shown. I see the knight has taught you well.’’
Tarin froze in shock at all the food brought out for the feast: a boar that had an apple in its mouth, a grand rack of ribs, an enormous bowl of grapes, a small pack of chèvre, steamed cabbage, & a drum of rum.
The King raised his hands and told the group, ‘‘Let’s feast!’’ Tarin spotted the figure lurking in the shadows. He heard a voice whisper, ‘‘O, King of Mead. See how you lead. Your people are in dread. They plead for more bread. Now take a bite, of the flame from spite. You will see~ once you take it- and be turned into a bee.’’
Tarin rushed to the King’s side and told the King not to drink or take a bite of anything. The knight and the rest of the guests all gasped. Who was this lad to say such a thing to the King?
Then from the shadows, the figure appeared before everyone. Some folks screamed when they saw the face of an old lady who looked as if she had been woken up from the dead. Her face was so pale and she looked like she had no flesh left on her bones. It was just a skeleton and body of skin left.
Tarin pulled a blade from the side of the apple in the boar’s mouth. He dashed at full speed and sliced the blade across the old woman’s throat.
She laughed as she disappeared in a puff of smoke. The smoke grew and covered the whole palace. Folks dropped down to the ground.
Tarin coughed and covered his mouth. But the smoke had already entered his lungs. The King placed his hands on his head.
The moment he dropped to the ground, his crown slipped off his head & rolled to the side. Out of the smoke, another figure appeared.
Tin coughed and coughed. The figure walked over to Tarin and flicked his nose.
#CastleOnTheHill © 02.12.2020
Hans and Grits
“Hans” was named by Darrel Dan, who found him in the trash. His Mama up’n’ left him there ’coz she was strapped for cash. His mewlin’ was all weak and thin, much like his shabby frame. Darrel Dan done bundled him. He cooed and said “for shame...”
But, (doin’ right,) Dan turned him in; Back home our Hans was sent. Back home to Mama’s one-room sty where she turned tricks for rent.
She never bothered naming him, or feeding him, or bathing him. Though now’n’then she’d cuss at him when she wanted to vent. Darrel Dan brought Hans some food whenever he found chance. (He w's always shooed away though when Hans’ Mama caught a glance.)
Then Mama’s gut swelled up again. This time she had a girl. But soon after the lass ’bin born, Mama started to hurl...
Hans remembered blood and guts, and Mama’s frothing mouth.
The cops found Hans holding his sis, both almos’ dead from drouth.
Hans, then 5, named baby “Grits” after his fav’rite dish. The C.P.S placed them apart, against Hans’ only wish. Both were fostered out to creeps who took ’em “temporary.” No-one wanted ’em for keeps. (And some were downright scary.)
Hans started to run away as soon as he was able. He checked on Grits ’most every day; A stringy girl, but stable.
When Grits was 4, she followed Hans to an abandoned school. The windows were all broken in, but Hans said it was cool. Hans and Grits had some fun pets; Roaches, bats and rats. “Much better’n borin’ dommie things, like goldfish, dogs or cats.” Sometimes Hans could spin it so they even had a meal; A salvaged bag of ’tater chips was transformed into veal...
Darrel Dan done found ‘em then, when both w's skin and bone. He took ‘em in, and fed ‘em up, till they was almos’ grown.
But “Double D” was workin for a pretty shady fella. Men come one day to make him sing (it weren’t no acappella.) Hans and Grits were took away. This time inside a van.
They w's bound and gagged with duct tape, but Hans’ hands found a paint can. He sprayed out dots of yellow paint through rust-spots on the floor.
Van stopped. A hooded thug got out and rolled open the door. As they was being lead out ’twards some middle-nowhere stalls, Grits turned round and bit thug’s hand then kneed him in the balls.
Hans and Grits ran fast away to a nearby junk-yard. They cut the duct tape off on an old shot-out window shard. They followed paint (thank breadcrumb-saint!) but rain start’ pourin hard. So they ducked into a bus stop in an alley kinda steep; sat there wait’n rain to stop. They soon was fas’ asleep.
When they woke up all of the paint was damn near washed away. They wandered round the street ends, lookin for a place to stay. ’Twas then they jumped an old stone fence and happened there to find a ginger colored house with an old lady looking kind. She ushered them in through her door for a sweet glass of tea. She served them up some cakes and sweets and watched them carefully.
“Thanks so much.” The two beamed up, with voices weak and weary. The crone grinned as they bit brownies, “You’re very welcome deary.”
But ’soon as they were finished eat’n up their tasty feast, the lady started changing. She transformed into a beast!
“You’re only skin and bones my dears, but bones make lovely stock!” She grinned with her new wolfish snout. They stared at her in shock.
Grits, (who always kept her wits,) whacked wolfie with a plate. She grabbed Hans’ hand and dragged him through the giant palace gate. Stumbling into fairy woods, they came upon a closet. And then the bank teller replied “is that a cash deposit?...”
“I think there mighta bin somethin’ cooked into all them cake..” Hans mumbled as they stagger-ran, grin-frightened, half awake.
They woke up on an empty street. Grits pointed to the road. There was a speck of yellow the rain failed to errode. They followed keenly footed and still even keener eyed, till they were back at Darrel Dan’s.
They found him cable-tied.
He was cold.
Covered in blood.
They knew they couldn’t stay.
They kissed his head and closed his eyes and tore themselves away.
“Well.” said Hans, defeatedly, “Where ’heck do we go now? We’ll have to get some money. But I’m damned if I know how...”
Then Grits remembered something, kinda blurry, bit her lip. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a banking slip. They beamed through tears. Ten-thousand! And a message at the top: “For Hans.” it said. “Keep growin’ boy, and don’t you ever stop.”
Rapunzel, Don’t Let Down Your Prince
Luke was in a tight spot. Doors were slammed. How could he? That was always the newest girlfriend’s refrain. But they were all the same. The same desperate, clingy girls who populate the ghetto like mosquitoes in a swamp, waiting to suck his blood and his future dry.
But he was looking for something serious this time. Someone who knew what it meant to love. He needed a real girlfriend. He left his latest girl’s apartment, his head down and well on his way into the rest of his life.
But then he heard the voice of an angel.
Keisha was alone once again in her bedroom on the twentieth floor, with her Sony headphones and Walkman, singing so that her perfect soprano voice drifted down to the street below.
Her perfect blonde hair, snug in a ponytail that touched the floor, whipped around as she danced to her own tempo. Songs about love that transported her to a different world. She desperately wanted to escape the ghetto. The songs she listened to transported her to the loving arms of a man, relationships that promised escape. To anywhere away from her cramped one bedroom apartment.
She lived with her aunt, who ran a tight ship. She was strict and wouldn’t let Keisha leave the apartment. For her aunt was deeply afraid of the ghetto and what it could do to a young girl like Keisha - especially those young men who roamed the streets like so many lost souls. It was a dangerous world out there, and Keisha needed to be kept safe at all costs.
As it turned out, the cost was significant. Keisha had lost all faith in finding love.
At the moment of Keisha’s loss of faith, Luke looked up. All he had to do was cock his head and he could hear every word. Every angelic tremble of her vocal chords promised him real love, this time.
He had to meet this girl.
He made his way over to the massive apartment building where the voice was coming from. He waited until someone left the apartment and snuck in behind them, and proceeded to take the stairs to the top floor.
But he was disappointed. No one answererd their doors on the top floor. Dejected, he went back to the street and started singing right back at that beautiful voice. He sang in the direction of the girl’s voice, hoping. Hoping for a miracle.
The girl’s singing stopped. Suddenly, he saw a face appear in a top window.
“Hello!” he shouted, smiling up at her window.
She merely shook her head. The men of the ghetto were all dangerous, and he was probably up to no good, wanting all the wrong things from her. Or, maybe that was her aunt's voice, telling her to be wary.
She closed her window, and when her head whipped around to walk away, he saw at least twenty feet of hair swish behind her. My God.
“Wait!” he shouted.
She turned back around, and that’s when he shouted: “Let down your hair!”
Keisha froze. Was this man telling her to loosen up?
Suddenly, Keisha's aunt could be seen creeping up behind Luke in the street. Her aunt was going to throw something at Luke! It was barbed wire, the same wire that kept Keisha from leaving their apartment.
Keisha screamed. Luke turned around, just in time for her aunt to blind him.
Keisha started screaming, "Here! Here! I'm letting down my hair!"
But as Luke was blind, he could only fumble his way forward towards the sound of her voice.
"Sing!" he cried out.
Keisha started singing. She sang the sweet overtones of Duran Duran with her perfect pitch. And Luke followed her voice.
Keisha then let down her hair.
"Pull!" she screamed.
Luke caught on. Keisha pulled him up, ever so slowly, but upwards, towards her bedroom.
When Luke finally arrived in her bedroom, he sat down, and cried. Keisha wasn't sure if he was grateful, or sad, or what. But he then suddenly grabbed her hands.
"Will you marry me?" he asked.
Keisha didn't know what to do. Should she rebel, and marry this man? Should she follow her heart and go away with him?
Could he help her leave the ghetto?
"I will," she whispered.
And with that, she pressed "stop" on her Walkman and the tale came to an end. For, these types of stories cut us off from reality as does barbed wire cut our eyes.
Once Upon A Time in Hamlin. . .
Hamlin is not the kind of town where you set out to live. My family only ended up there because Hackensack had such a drug problem, and, as immigrants, my parents didn’t have the social mobility to rise up out of bad neighborhood. So we moved to Hamlin, a sleepy little town that modeled itself off of Plasticville, USA. It reminded me of the train set in the window of the secondhand store, tiny houses all in a row, little coal refineries that blew real smoke, and, unbeknownst to my parents, a drug scourge that was so large it could have eaten Hackensack’s for breakfast.
I was only eight years old at the time. People thought I was dumb because I lacked confidence in my ability to speak English. I stuttered, which made people snicker at me or tease me for being dumb. My way of coping was not to speak at all. Perhaps that was why, when I first saw him, I was so mesmerized. I knew with a deep and abiding longing in my heart that no one had a gift of speaking like that without also having a fork in the tongue. I can hear him in my head now, the right-hand man of Robert Whitcomb, the portly real estate magnate set on securing office.
Pietro was his name. I don’t recall the last, but the media called him Piper. He and Whitcomb were an odd couple. Whitcomb, the beefy-handed, red-faced brash politician, and ever at his side, Piper, with his mellifluous voice and snakeskin shoes. There was a story to their oddness. Whitcomb said that in order to rid the city of the drug scourge, he had brought the child of a friend from his days in the ghetto, and that was Piper. I was skeptical. As the child of immigrants, I knew that Whitcomb had no friends in the ghetto. He carried himself carelessly, unlike the people I knew, who clutched change-purses unconsciously at their belt or chests. He couldn’t differentiate between those of different nations. Latino or Asian, no more specific than that, and that was how I knew it was all a big lie.
But Piper was different. No one really knew what his background was, so it was hard to dispute Whitcomb’s backstory, even though we all knew it was manufactured. Piper’s head was shaved and he had tattoos, three tiny teardrops at the corner of his eye. He had light green eyes that seemed at odds with his dark complexion, and his voice was quiet, like a harp. When Whitcomb shouted, he would lean back, with a look of wry amusement on his face, and his tongue would slip out of his mouth and lick his lips as he whispered to Whitcomb about what to say.
It was all about the drug problem, of course. Hamlin was filled with immigrant families, who just didn’t want to have to tell their children why spoons and needles littered the alley. They didn’t want their daughters to prostitute themselves, and they didn’t want their sons to carry shivs in their socks. So the campaign centered on that, and it was highly successful. Whitcomb was angling for the national stage, having succeeded in politics at the state level. He promised to clean up cities like Hamlin, and my parents’ eyes, for the first time in years, had the light of hope in them.
They spoke about him at dinner. We would eat in front of the T.V. Piper had no fear of any drug lords, and when he met “V,” the drug lord notorious in our neighborhood, he put his arm around him and whispered in his ear. Piper smirked then, and there was something about his smirk that was unsettling to me. Three days later, “V” was found shot to death and bleeding out in an alley near Lassiter Street. No one had stopped to help him. No emergency vehicles had responded.
This I found terrifying, actually. The prospect of being in a new neighborhood, so cold that a person could have the lifeblood drain out of him with no one caring, was a terrible kind of knowledge that I could not seem to distract myself from. What was worse was the graffiti that followed. “Die, wretches,” it read in fuzzy black spray paint on the alley above where “V” had been killed. Then others were found. Minor players, small time dealers, who were suddenly, just . . . gone.
The mood changed drastically in Hamlin after that. It seemed as though the townspeople instinctively knew that without the drug problem, windows wouldn’t be broken, and graffiti would stop. Shop owners invested in cans of paint, and could be seen planting flowers, throwing away trash, transforming the town on the outside to match the cutting of the cancer that had already occurred.
It wasn’t enough though. Where there is vulnerability, domination only lies in wait, and that was when Whitcomb and his henchmen began to comb the town. Piper was nowhere to be seen, but he seemed to have been replaced by two heavies, who made rounds to the stores and collected the “crime-free tax,” for having cleaned the city of its vermin. My mother and father did not own a store, but my mother worked at the bodega. Her hands shook when she had to cover on a Friday night, because that was the day that the “tax” was due. My father said not to worry, but he came home one day with a small handgun, and when I went to bed, I could hear him playing with it, loading and unloading the chamber, testing himself on his own facility with it.
My father said that the shop owners were taking a stand. They wouldn’t pay taxes for protection anymore. The drug problem had been dealt with. Now they wanted to go on about their business. Whitcomb began to comb the neighborhood again, accompanied by Piper. But Whitcomb didn’t seem to be himself. Gone was the confident walk, replaced by a pitch in his voice that gave away a raw nerve, and yet Piper seemed to be only emboldened. He danced alongside Whitcomb, telling him what to say and literally prodding him along with a sharp dig of his elbow.
I remember the day that the children went away. It was like a dream. It was Juarez’s day. We had gone to school filled with joy and hope, for on Juarez’s day there would be fireworks, games, dancing and good food. It was March and the sun was white hot, unusual in the state of New York. Our teacher told us that we would have a special visitor, Senator Whitcomb and his Chief of Staff, Piper, would come to the school for an anti-drug demonstration.
We had assembled in the gym. Whitcomb was onstage in a big pinstriped suit, sweat circles forming even through his jacket. Someone had informed him that it was Juarez’s day, and he and Piper had arranged for a big party in the school yard to follow the anti-drug demonstration. Piper had stepped lightly through the aisles, almost effeminately, passing out handouts and candies. There was something sinister in his walk, in the way he seemed to take joy in prancing up the aisles like that. When he came to me, he took my hand and caressed it with his finger. He saw me draw back, surprised and disgusted, and he stared at me with his piercing green eyes, with a look that seemed to go all the way through my own eyes, and which left cold goosebumps on my arms.
My sister pulled my hand and told me that we were going. I didn’t like this. We were supposed to go right home to help our mother with dinner and cleaning up. But I went. And the rest was a blur. There was music, there were fireworks and there was a haze of sweet smoke at the party. I ate a little candy, it was sweet and indescribable, and the next thing I knew my head was swimming. The other children were gone, following Piper in a line toward his car, where he was handing out something, some sort of sweet treat, I imagined. Then I saw him take one child around the neck, just as he had taken “V.” I knew that something terrible, something unspeakable was about to happen.
A man came and carried the child off, took him to the dumpster, where, even above the thumping music and sounds of fireworks, I heard the child scream, a bloodcurdling, high-pitched involuntary scream. The scream of someone who has not the presence of mind to register despair. It was a scream of shock and horror.
He saw me then, Piper did. He saw my dark eyes widen in fear, and he took me by my neck. I opened my mouth to scream, but no sound came out. I pulled in air again and again and tried to scream, but nothing. He laughed then. He through back his head and laughed the most demonic, hideous laugh I have ever heard. He knew I couldn’t speak. He let me go, watching as I ran as fast as my legs could carry me back home.
I don’t know what happened after that. My mother says I came home white-faced, and that was when my parents took me to the psychologist. It would be a year before I learned to speak. I still have no memory of what happened that day in Hamlin, but I will never forget that silver-tongued liar who showed me that vengeance is a sword with two sharp edges.
A Tree (that) Grows in Brooklyn (The Juniper Tree - the Brothers Grimm)
So this hood mom had felt cheated that her girl wouldn’t get her props
because her husband’s son was older, so she shot him in the head.
After this occurrence, she began to pedal back.
By the time her girl came in, she had staged a little play.
“You take this to your brother,” proffering her a starter pistol.
Now the woman’s natural-born daughter had acquired a healthy helping
of misgiving of her mama due to meth, so she obeyed.
She started toward the boy, but was tripped and heard gun fire,
saw his hat go flying off him but did not remark the line.
Her mama quick had snatched the line that pulled the hat off brother,
told the girl she’d feed him later to her step-dad. Good riddance.
The ribs were never finer, and the daddy ate with fervor
while the girl looked on in horror as she cried away her crime.
She took the bones and placed them under the tree that grows in Brooklyn
in a doo-rag, when a white bird sprang up, much to her delight.
The bird flew round town with a jaunty little sound.
It sang at a jewelry store, and this is what it sang.
“My mama done killed me. My daddy done ate me.
My sissy buried me beneath a tree that grows in Brooklyn.”
The jewelry store owner took a liking to the tune
and demanded that the bird repeat the verse right away.
The bird said it would but it wanted compensation,
so the owner took a string of pearls and gave it that for pay.
The same situation played itself out 2 more times,
The bird got a phone of the Apple iPhone 11 Pro type.
It also got a Bugatti that it carried as it winged,
and with these several items, it returned to the hood.
The daddy heard the song and remarked how sweet it was.
He stepped into the night and got the pearls, to his delight.
The daughter heard it, too. She went outside just to snoop.
A cell phone just for her came to rest within her hand.
The hood mom was distraught. She was highly overwrought.
She stepped out anyway. The Bugatti was her fate.
It landed on her head, so of course she wound up dead.
And when Dad and sis came, they saw naught but heavy mist.
When flame and fire had cleared, there was brother, so they cheered.
’Twas good the tree that grows in Brooklyn knew just what to do.
Hansel and Gretel
This is longer(4255 words), so read at your own risk. I wouldn’t mind if you stopped reading in the middle, but feedback would be helpful if you had any to give. Also WARNING: this contains mentions of drugs, violence, curse words, and more. If you are uncomfortable with the above listed topics, I would avoid reading this piece.
A man, with the last name of Miller, lived with his wife and two children in a run-down apartment. Between working at the dry cleaner and his job packing and unloading crates in the warehouse, he wasn’t home but a few hours to sleep and eat each evening. His wife, a tall, spindly woman with large green eyes accentuated by her nut-brown, hollow cheeks was more dear to him than anything including his children. Their apartment was situated amongst another two-hundred or so other run-down apartments in their apartment building in the center of Queens, NY. It was home to large population of not only other poverty stricken families, but also a large population of rats, drug dealers, and several homeless men and women who sat on the sidewalk in front of the apartments.
One year, a large amount of workers had been moving into the city in search of jobs. Their willingness to work for less money and to work longer shifts allowed them to find jobs. Mr. Miller, although a hardworking man, lost his job at the dry cleaner one day after getting in a fight with a customer when they wouldn’t pay, and they ended up rolling sleeves and spilling blood(some of which happened to stain a wedding dress and a few suits). He hung his head as he walked home, not eager to see the dissapointment of his children, and more importantly, his wife when he would have to tell them he’d been fired. The search for new jobs was unsuccesful, and after several weeks, their meager savings of money had been used. Food was hard to come by and soon he and his wife went hungry, so the children could eat. As more time passed, there wasn’t food enough even for the children.
After being fired, he had more time to spend at home. One night while he laid in bed sleepless due to his former sleep schedule, he rolled over to his wife who croaked, “Won’t you ever go to sleep on time again?”
He ignored her and proceded to ask about the pressing issue he’d been meaning to ask for days, “I ain’t gotta clue what we gonna do for food. I mean we don’ eat so the kids can, and now they ain’t even got food anymore.”
“You ain’t gotta clue? Well, imma tell you what we’re gonna do. Shit, I don’ know why we didn’t do this years ago,” she propped herself on her side, so they’d be face to face. “You gonna take them kids to work with you, and you gonna leave them in the park or somewhere where they ain’t never gonna be able to come back.”
He blinked at her but the darkness around them hid this one significant hesitation. Her words hung in the air as though caught in the cigar smoke flooding their room from the open window where their neighbor often smoked.
“We ain’t gonna abandon the kids,” he stated, “They not even old enough to work yet.” He thought some more and added, “The next time we’d see em’ ’ud be on a front of a newspaper titled: Two Children Found Dead in Central Park. Murder, rape, wild animals... they ain’t know halfa what they need to to stay alive.”
To this the wife suggested, “You know howta get you outta trouble. You teach ’em when as you walk. And they old enough to work. They just lazyass children.”
“They’re only 15. If I can’t get a job, they ain’t gonna be able to either. They gonna starve to death.” Thank God it’s summer he thought, already knowing he was eventually going to give in.
“Give ’em a bit of bread while you walk. Tell the two of ’em to save it for later. Someone’ll come pick um up before they starve. Them cops go ’round there sometimes and other people there all the time.”
With this he couldn’t argue, but he still had a bad feeling. “I still ain’t wanna leave them. I mean they’re our children...” He trailed off. His argument and the willpower to argue his wife’s decisions both growing weaker the longer he talked.
“But baby,” she hummed, “what about me?” She knew this was what would appeal to his emotions. “If we don’t send the children away, we’ll all starve. We’ll all die, and I’ll die first cause I’m so skinny.” She picked up his hand and ran it over her ribs then rested it on her hollowed cheek. Just as she had thought would happen, his moral obligations to his children were forgotten, and he conceded to her plan.
The following morning, he woke the children while his wife was still asleep, and in a moment of weakness and moral conciousness, told them of their mother’s plan. Shocked and appauled, they were filled with disgust for their mother. The father gave them a loaf of bread and ushered them through the front door. The dingy carpet bade them farewell and sparked an idea in young Gretel.
“Pluck off peices of bread as you go, so we can find our way back,” she whispered to her brother.
“I ain’t gonna do that,” he hissed back, “I’m hungry and I wanna eat my food not drop it on the ground.”
“Think about it this way moron, if you don’t wanna starve in the park, I advise you make a trail to follow.”
As they walked, Hansel dropped small pieces of bread. They fell between people’s feet and under people’s feet, getting ground into the concrete. As the sun began to set, rats scurried accross the sidewalk, collecting the pieces of bread along with the other morsels on the roads and walkways. Near Central Park, they ran out of bread, and could not see the path behind them either. They stopped, and their father said farewell to the children, leaving them with nothing but their clothes and each other.
As he walked home, he was overcome with an awful ache. Guilt pressed in on him with each step that brought him closer to home without the children. He knew he had done a terrible thing. So, nearing the middle of his journey home, he made up his mind to head back to the children. He shoved through the crowd, pushing toward the edge of the sidewalk closest to the road where there were less people. His feet moved faster now with worry that the children may not be there when he returned. As he speed-walked in the near dark, a rat ran over the sidewalk and across his path. He managed to step on it’s tail, and the beast shrieked and bit his other ankle. He yelled and lunged off of the sidewalk, getting crushed by a stoned New York City taxi driver.
Meanwhile, the children, in Central park still, were led by the more practical Gretel as Hansel trailed behind complaining.
“I told you it was a bad idea. We ain’t never gonna find our way home in the dark.”
She ignored her twin brother’s grumbling as best as she could so as not to slap him across the face.
“I frikin told you so, and you wouldn’t listen.”
The park was new to both of the two children, but before it grew too dark to see, Gretel had watched people come and go from several specific directions which she supposed to be exits.
“I’m hungry now.”
Gretel was also hungry, but him saying so did not help her mood.
“You’re a fucking idiot you know.”
She turned around with a snap. And Hansel cried out. The boy bounced back, hands already up in fists. Gretel lunged toward her brother, driving her shoulder into him. He grunted and stumbled back a few steps, regained his balance, and took a step forward swinging his fists at her. They hit her jaw and shoulder, pulled back, and were ready to hit her again. He paused when she put her arms over her head and face.
“Geez, man. Sorry.”
“You ain’t sorry. You meant whatchu said. I know it,” she mewled.
“C’mon, Gretel, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. Promise.”
“I’m an idiot. ’N I got us lost here. No food, no water, no place to sleep. Shit, Hansel. We gonna die here.” Her shoulders started to shake and she leaned into her brother.
Not one for affection, he simply patted her head. This time he took the lead, taking only left turns. In Gretel’s misery, she didn’t realize they were making loop de loops through the park, which saved Hansel from yet another scolding. Gretel’s absence from the lead was peaceful, and Hansel blundered ahead inatentive to his sister who was unusually quiet. When he decided to take a break to tie his shoe, a quick scan of the surrounding area told him she was no longer following him.
Gretel had stopped lamenting and decided to let her brother waste their time by making a horrendous amount of left turns and stops to tie his shoes. She had slowed down, each step making her sleepier than the last until she stopped at a bench to rest. She figured her brother would realize no one was following him and stop to take a break with her, but she overestimated him because to her minor suprise, he kept walking. Not that that bothered her enough to do anything about it with her sleep craved mind.
She had fallen asleep, head lolled over the edge of the bench but woke, half-asleep, to someone picking her up. Believing her brother had come back afterall, she rested her head on their shoulder and continued to sleep. The man carrying her, however, was not her brother, and was not bringing her to safety.
Hansel heard a sound like feet to his left, and followed it blindly through the dark. under a streetlight near the edge of the park, he could make out the shape of the man, and the fact that he was carrying something. Either a sudden burst of intelligence, or maybe a small amount of pity from God was granted to him at this moment and told him to continue to follow this man. Out of the park and down a dimly-lit back alleyway, the man trudged and Hansel followed. He followed this man through a few more back alleys, through a door hanging by a single hinge, and down a set of stone stairs.
The man turned on a light in the corner, put Gretel down. The couch on which she was set looked as if had never been cleaned. There were stains of all colors, and reaked even from where Hansel stood, nose scrunched and gagging slightly. The whole room smelled like marijuana and an indescribable choking scent that was the main cause of Hansel’s gagging.
Gretel was still asleep when the man came back and tied her hands together. The movement of her hands ad the light woke Gretel up, and this time she was more awake. Her eyes grew wide, as she soaked in her surroundings, and gagged as the smell caught up to her. With a quick sweep around the room, she noticed Hansel, but didn’t know why he wasn’t tied as well.
Communication in general between Hansel and Gretel had never been great, so their nonverbal communication was not a step in the right direction. What is going on? Gretel asked through wide eyes and a slightly open mouth. This place stinks like dog shit, marijuana, and a sex-ravaged beast’s bed. Hansel tried to say by putting two fingers to his lips as though smoking, a squidged nose, and a puckered mouth. This was not translated well by Gretel who was now confused as to why all her brother was thinking of was smoking. With a slight tilt of her head and creased eyebrows, she asked What are you talking about? Translated by Hansel as: What? He rolled his eyes, pointed at the man who entered the room again through a door opposite the couch, made a kissy face, and pretend gagged, which wasn’t hard to do considering the smell of the room.
Gretel hadn’t noticed the man earlier because she was still waking up, but now her eyes grew once again, and she shrank away from the man, scooting further from him on the couch. He was watching her as he sat down too close to her. She turned her head away, disgust etched in every part of her face. She was now facing Hansel again, and the man looked to where she had her head turned. He stood up quickly. With a flick of his wrist behind his back, he had a knife out in front of him, and Hansel could see the handle of a shotgun in his waistband.
The man inched closer holding out the blade chest height toward Hansel. Hansel put his hands up. “I ain’t got nothin on me,” he mumbled.
“What’s that kid?” The man growled. His teeth, or at least the few left, were yellowed and chipped. Even from four feet away, his breath caught in Hansel’s nose and sat there rotting.
“I ain’t got nothin on me,” Hansel repeated.
“Well then there ain’t gonna be no trouble then is there?” the man hissed through the seven visible teeth.
He grabbed Hansel’s arm and pulled him into the room adjacent to the one the man had previously been in. The grimy walls let in no light except through a barred basement window, the small, yellowed kind that only small animals can fit through. Hansel was tossed in and the door was shut and locked behind him. The man could be heard from the other room only by the low, raspy sound of his speech. Gretel’s high-pitched voice was the same way, only a blur of sound. Hansel knew whatever was being said was not good.
Later, Gretel was thrown inside the room as well, and landed on her hands and knees as Handel had earlier. Hansel was sitting against the floor and had been trying to get the mouse that lived in a hole in the wall to trust him. He looked up as the door clicked open, the mouse scurried away. The raspy voice from the other side chuckled then footsteps could be heard walking away.
“What did he do to you?” Hansel whispered
“Nothing yet,” Gretel answered to her feet. Gretel started to cry, and Hansel looked back at the mousehole wishing for his quiet old company back.
“Well, we gotta find a way to get out of here then,” he suggested lamely.
* * *
Across the city, Mrs. Miller paced through the small apartment fretting over her husband’s absence.
“Oh god, baby. Where are you? You were supposed to be home hours and hours ago.”
“Maybe he was kept late at work.”
“What a shithead. He probably abandoned me for the children.”
“I thought he loved me more than those two sewer rats.”
“To hell with him. I’ll get myself a new man.”
“But what if he comes home and finds me cheating?!”
“Ain’t never gonna forgive me for that.”
She worked evening shifts at a local diner though, so she had to quit her frantic pacing and get ready for the day’s work. On her way to work, she stopped to glance, like she usually did, at the front page of the New York Daily News in the newspaper stand, so she wouldn’t have to buy the copy. Today, she glanced it over, continued walking, and backsteped back to the stand. The title screamed: MAN KILLED BY TAXI DRIVER. Underneath, a picture of Mr. Miller on a stretcher was printed in faded color. The text under the picture and title read: African American man leaped into traffic right before a taxi driver under the influence of drugs and alcohol was caught speeding and crashed into him. The man was killed minutes after he was hit with several broken ribs, a broken neck, and punctured lungs. When he was killed, he was supposedly going back to his apartment: 7th St. 17th Ave. Apt. 124, Queens, NY (as written in his wallet). The man’s name was Mr. Miller and the case isn’t still being investigated as the driver has suffered injuries from the crash and is currently in the hospital...
Her hands flew to her heart, and she stood frozen and unbreathing. That was her address. A sob caught in her throat and she wailed.
* * *
Back in the basement room, Hansel sat with his back against the wall while Gretel stood at the door listening like she had the past four days for any sound of the man talking or coming to the door. Hansel sat uselessly against the wall opposite the door, playing with the mouse who he’d named Jamal Paul, PJ for short.
“Ain’t he the cutest little mouse?”
Gretel shushed his from where she stood at the door. She was trying to listen to a conversation the man was seemingly having either to himself or to the phone because there was only one audible voice and that was his own.
“He got brown and white spots ’n everything.” Hansel rubbed it’s belly with his finger.
Gretel turned around with her finger to her lips and shushed him again. With her ear back against the door, she could pick out only a few of the words. Only when Hansel wasn’t talking to her from the inside of the room that is.
“Jamal, my sister ain’t never let me talk much. How are you so quiet, PJ?” The mouse was sitting on Hansel’s front hoodie pocket now tugging at the material with it’s teeth.
“I’m tryna listen, pea brain,” she hissed back at him. The conversation on the phone was unusually long. She kept catching the words: “pick her up” “Yup. In a few weeks” “she’s too skinny now” “I know but men ain’t like them only bones” “fine, fine. Not too much, I know” “yes, she’s fine” “to hell with ‘im” “you’ll make good money with her” “You better fuckin’ believe it” “I ain’t seen many so young and pretty” “found ’er in the park” “yup”. From what she gathered, she could only guess she was being sold to someone else in a few weeks, but only when she was less starved.
She heard the clunking of footsteps then and hurried to sit next to Hansel. The mouse jumped up and scurried away, just as the door opened. A plate of food was slid in and the gruff voice commanded, “Eat! I better not find any left, you hear!”
“Ain’t gotta tell me twice,” Hansel muttered, already at the plate and eating. Gretel sat against the wall. Until they had a way to get out, she was not going to eat more than a tiny morsel each day. Starving herself was the only way to keep them here until they could escape.
The month passed and she grew skinnier instead of plumper which only made tha man angrier. Hansel on the other hand, was well fed and glowing, a prized pig at the fair. Gretel was taken from this room and locked in a room separate from Hansel’s. As much as Hansel disliked Gretel’s constant scolding and mothering, he hated to be separated from her and devised his own plan to be reunited with his sister.
When next the man came to the door and opened it, Hansel ripped it all the way open, noting how careless the man had gotten. The gun was on a table Hansel could see behind the man, and the knife was not in the man’s hand. Hansel punched the man and pushed him over. Stepping on his nose gave Hansel a satisfying crack, and blood began to flow from the unconcious man’s nose. He searched through the man’s pockets retrieving the knife and a set of keys on which he was surprised to find a mickey mouse keychain. The shotgun from the table was slipped into his pocket and he began his search for Gretel.
The basement house was small, so it didn’t take long to find Gretel locked in the kitchen. Tied to a chair, she sat in the room, a delicious smell of cookies mingling with the putrid stench of the rest of the house creating a confusion of smells, not unlike when you spray febreeze in a bathroom after shitting he thought to himself. The knife was slow at cutting through the plastic ropes and gave enough time for the unconcious man to become concious again and to stagger into the kitchen, holding his face.
“Fuck,” Hansel whispered and sawed at the plastic faster. One rope left and he’d be done. He looked up again and the man was right next to him. The rope was almost cut when Hansel saw a burst of colors and felt a pop in his ear. Hansel stumbled and fell over, and the man proceeded to step on his face as Hansel had earlier done to the man.
Gretel pulled at the ropes tied behind her back attatched to the chair. The man sneered at her and walked slowly over. The blood from his nose was smeared over his face like war paint, some even in his eye, dying it red.
Gretel stood suddenly and swung around. There was a splintering crunch, and he was on the floor again. Gretel’s hands were attatched only to a small piece of chair now. She picked up the knife and sliced through the last of the rope, wringing her hands out. The man was not unconcious though, and stood, unbalanced and shaking with anger. Gretel backed away, the oven at her back. He charged at her. She sidestepped, opened the door, and he crashed headfirst into the oven where several trays of golden cookies were sent cascading to the floor.
There was a shrieking emanating from the oven where she held the door as far shut as she could. Minutes passed before a roasting meat smell mingled with the baking cookie and other smells. The shrieking turned to moans which grew steadily quieter until they turned to nothing. Hansel sat up, hands over his dripping nose, and peered at his sister holding the oven closed with legs sticking out of it. He always knew she was scary, but he never knew she would bake someone alive. He added a mental note to stay on her good side as much as possible.
They were suddenly reminded of the possibility of freedom, when they caught a glimpse of light from the semi-larger-but-still-grimy kitchen window above the sink. Gretel gathered some of the food she found in the pantry and refridgerator and bagged some of the cookies as well. Hansel went back to the room he’d been locked in and gathered the mouse into his pocket after taking the gun out and placing it at his waistband as the man had done before. Gretel, after assaulting the kitchen pantry dug through the other rooms and found a large pile of money which she hid under her shirt. They met at the door and were out on the streets again as fast as possible.
* * *
Their mother, had not fared well from the news of the passing of her husband and had had a heart attack after she read the paper.
* * *
The children, back on the streets, had never been happier, but their joy was short-lived as they didn’t know where they would go before dark. They wandered the streets and eventually came upon a newspaper fluttering in the breeze. Hansel picked it up and began reading as he walked, stuttering through the words using the small amount of reading practice he’d had from school.
“Maaan killed by tax-I dr-ih-ver,” he sounded out. “Hey, that looks an awful lot like pa, ain’t it?” He pointed to the picture and showed it to Gretel.
“Shit, that don’t just look like him, it is him!” she gasped. She took the newspaper from him, handing him the bag of food instead. She read bits and pieces out loud while she skimmed the page. “leaped into traffic... under the influence of drugs and alcohol... punctured lungs... the man’s name was Mr. Miller...” She sighed and looked over to study Hansel’s reaction. When none came, she turned her attention back to the paper.
“It’s got our address here!” she hollered. Immediately, she set out to find their location and get them back home before dark. As soon as she found the street signs, they were off. Their feet grew sore, but the fear of being out at night again kept them going, and they made it into the neighborhood they knew well. Their apartment was locked, but the door was easily kicked in.
They soon found out about their mother’s death, but celebrated, much to the surprise of their neighbor who gave them this news. Gretel got a job as a waitress, and with the money they stole from the man in the basement, Hansel was able to go back to school, and continue on to college. Gretel quit her job as a waitress when he went to college, left the apartment, and was accepted into a community college in the middle of the country far from any large city. Each lived happily ever after...
Until, that is, Gretel couldn’t live with the guilt of cooking someone alive and was found by her roomate dead in their oven. And Hansel became a vetrinarian specifically for rodents, but contracted a respritory illness from one of the mice and died soon after. So maybe neither lived very happily ever after after-all.