Have you seen this boy?
The flyers are plastered so closely to the telephone pole that their edges bleed into each other, fraying in the wind. Hollow-eyed children, bleached by the sun, seem to stare into the woman's soul as she walks past.
It's always been a sad town, thinks Gretel. From the first time she saw it, holding her twin's clammy hand from the safety of the backseat, she'd known; this is a place that crushes happiness into powdered sugar, dissolves dreams like cotton candy in a hurricane.
Her heels click steadily over the cement, missing a beat here and there as she navigates over debris and around the stubborn prickers that insist on reaching to the sky from every gap in the sidewalk. The wind whips her skirt into the nearest clawing plant. She turns to untangle herself, hissing at the sharp pricks on her hands and the new holes in the dark fabric, when she sees it.
"Don't leave us here," Hansel cries. All Gretel can do is watch, tears pouring down her face, as Stepmother rolls up the windows. Hansel is banging on the car now, his hands still smeared with chocolate from the sweets Stepmother gave out to keep the children quiet. "Please-"
The old, blue-green car lurches forward, sending Hansel stumbling into the street. He doesn't make a sound as his hands scrape the pavement. As she drives away he stays on all fours, tears and snot dripping off of his face. All Gretel can do is stare after her, blinking away tears as she's blinded by the sun's glare off the back windshield.
It's not the same car. Gretel pulls herself out of the memory, yanking the fabric of her skirt the rest of the way out of the bushes for good measure. The holes at the hem are noticeable now, but that's fine. This skirt used to be her favorite-- the deepest sable black, deep pockets and an adjustable waistband, matching perfectly with her good white blouse.
That blouse is long gone, just like Hansel.
Gretel passes another pole. This one has a little boy's face on top, maybe seven or eight. His hair has a cowlick in the front, freckles shining dark on his cheeks as he beams his gap-toothed smile at the camera.
If she had been able to make posters, would it have helped? If she had gone to the police office when she first realized he wasn't right behind her? If she had had a picture to show people, if she had asked "have you seen this boy?" with an actual photo of him, would anyone have answered differently?
Gretel feels her throat tighten, her eyes burn. She can't breathe. Almost there. Her right pocket feels heavier, somehow.
She passes by the intersection where she lost him without looking. It's as though his ghost is still there, her eight-year-old brother begging to look through the window at all the brightly colored candies even though they couldn't afford dinner that night. Why, why, had she walked away without taking his hand first? Why hadn't she been just a little more patient?
The next block passes by in a blur of faded sepia memories; first with her brother, stealing what food they could, sleeping in whichever corner was darkest, then those three days of frenetic searching. Have you seen this boy? Another sepia door slams shut. She jumps.
She slips her hands into her pockets, feels the paper in her left hand and the metal to her right. What was that address again? She checks it, leaving a new batch of sweating fingerprints on the threadbare scrap of paper, then puts it back in her pocket.
The house was probably painted a deep mustard twenty years ago, but now it's a lightly caramelized pastel. The door is candy-apple red, red licorice where it's been chipped. Gretel takes a deep breath, puts her right hand in her pocket, and rings the doorbell.
The woman who answers looks like she was born old. She grins at Gretel with three teeth the color of butterscotch, wrinkles crinkling behind her glasses, spun sugar hair desperately clinging to her mottled skull.
"Would you like some candy?"
Gretel takes the gun out of her pocket.