I. they’re building a parking lot on old mill road. the kids across the brook burnt harold’s old white house to the ground, so all they had to take down were the apple trees we carved our names into. trees were dead anyway. had them cancerous bulbs on the top branches. one toppled over in a storm back in september and nearly took out that bridge on the edge of town.
There was a timid knock on the door, hardly audible over the staticky old television and the lady’s own sickly-sweet snoring.
“Ms. Rachel?” called a small voice. “Ya home?”
“Ms. Rachel,” again, quieter still. Another knock on the peppermint bark. “I, uh…I think we might be in trouble.”
Rachel sighed. She started up out of Jan’s deep, marshmallow recliner — a process her body still hadn’t gotten used to, although the blueberry armchair had stood empty for nearly a year now — and with a low, groaning sigh she hobbled toward the door.
“Whaddya wa—” she began, until she saw those kids from across town standing on her porch, legs all scratched and dirtied with dried mud. They looked up at her, palms out, mouths stained with chocolate. Behind them, the mailbox stood half-eaten. Further still, a trail of breadcrumbs led out into the woods.
II. that old stray we fed every winter had puppies. all but two died. eaten, probably. i think the mother’s been drinkin’ that arsenic water from the lake. she’s all bones now, and her nose ain’t the right color. one day i’ll find her lying outside and i’ll wrap her up and take her in the pick-up. i’ll pick a nice place for her to rest.
Rachel didn’t know much about Hansel and Gretel, but Jan never trusted them. Said she saw them sometimes stealing cigarettes from the gas station as she filled up her truck. Once, Jan said, she caught the boy trying to take her Coke from the cab when she ran into the convenience store to greet Harold. She shouted, “Hey!” in that dark voice of hers and the boy ran off, leaving the soda behind. Jan never liked a thief and Rachel didn’t care for the idea of a stranger in that truck, where so much of their life had happened.
Rachel looked over the children at the strawberry truck, rotting vacant in the driveway. She hadn’t driven it since.
“Uh, ma’am… Ms. Rachel,” the boy started again. Rachel had almost forgotten the children were there. They looked skinny, like they hadn’t eaten a real meal in a while and had stopped even hoping to. Rachel blinked a few times, trying to actualize the figures standing in front of her.
The children lived across town, at the poor woodcutter’s. The parents had reported them missing and everyone in town thought they’d died in the fire at Harold’s. But that was weeks ago. Their mother was hysterical at first, sure, asking the sheriff to organize search parties and such. But soon she stopped calling the station and started calling lawyers, asking a lot of questions about money. Rachel hadn’t heard from the pair’s mother for two weeks, at least, she thought. It seemed she’d stopped looking, like everyone else.
But here they were, dirtying up the porch.
“Come in,” Rachel said after a long pause. “Have something to eat. Let’s fatten you up.”
III. that porcelain doll, the one you brought home for me, all shiny and dressed for an april birthday party. one of her little black shoes went missing. she sold for $3 at the church yard sale.
The children sat at the kitchen table. Gretel took Jan’s chair and Rachel flinched, but the kid couldn’t have known. Jan never would have let them in, she thought. Not after the cigarettes and the Coke and poor Harold…
“There ain’t much by way of lunch food,” Rachel said, carrying over a full pie she’d made days ago but never touched. Hansel didn’t cut himself a slice — just dug straight into the middle of the pie with a spoon, shoveling cherry filling into his mouth.
“You wanna tell me what you’re doin’ here?” Rachel asked. The children didn’t even look up.
“Okay,” she continued. “Wanna tell me what happened to Old Harold’s?”
Hansel hesitated, then brought another spoonful of pie to his lips.
“Listen here,” Rachel said, snatching the spoon out of his hand. “I don’t know what you thought comin’ here, but I can’t help you. I have half a mind to call the sheriff right now.”
The girl looked up at Rachel with these big dark eyes and for a second she saw Jan, how she looked working in the backyard, her face wrinkled toward the sun when she’d bring her out a lemonade on summer afternoons. For a second she saw the wrinkles around the corners, earned from a lifetime of laughter and the purple bags, earned from just as much work. She saw the little gilted flecks that muddied the green like an old lake’s second chance unfurling.
“Listen here,” Rachel said, moving towards the oven. “You wanna Coke?”
Erin Moran is a Philadelphia-based poet, journalist, bookstore babe and recent graduate of Temple University. You can find her editing SUBURBAN SPRINGTIME, an experimental zine and ethnological study about suburbia and nostalgia (@suburbanspringtime), at ernmrn.com, or on Instagram (@ernmrn).