Gretel–Second part

9:43 pm fairy gifts

For those who are interested, here’s the bit that follows right after the one where Nora meets Gretel.

Like the last bit I posted, this is raw and unedited, and probably bears only the faintest resemblance to what the final version will be like. Please save critique for December, since I’m still just trying to crank out 50,000 words between now and November 30th. (Although, the way this story is going, it’ll wind up taking closer to 200,000 to get the whole thing out. Sheesh!)

I feel obliged to give a small trigger warning; there is nothing graphically depicted except for the aftermath of nightmares. If you’re inclined to get triggered by that, then stop reading when they’re getting ready to go to sleep.

Gretel, part two:

This is the part I made sure not to talk about with Robin. It’s all so confusing, and keeps getting more messy the further I go. I know I’ll have to talk about it at some point, but I think I can keep it to myself until I’m a little more sure about what’s going on.

Gretel settled down, rummaging through my art supplies, and I went into the kitchen to think about something for breakfast. As I looked through what was in the kitchen, I couldn’t help wondering whether she was going to still be there when I was finished. I peeked around the doorway, and yup, there she was–Not my good pastels!

“Wait. NO! Gretel, you can’t mess with that!”

She stiffened. Her eyes were big and I saw a pout coming on. I took a deep breath. “Gretel, it’s fine with me if you color. I just would rather if you used something else, instead of those. Here, I should have gotten you the crayons and paper.”

I went to the shelves, and pulled out the box of ninety-six crayons. Then I pulled a stack of blank paper out of the printer. “You can use these. See, ninety-six colors. It will be plenty. Those ones you had, they’re special for me. I don’t like to share them very much.”

She was still holding onto the pastels, and didn’t look likely to let go. I dug inside, for the patience to deal with it. Come on, I told myself. You deal with little kids all the time. You can be patient with this imaginary little kid, too.

Right. Imaginary, but making a total mess of my art supplies.

“But I can be very careful,” she bargained.

I shook my head, and reminded myself to be patient. “No. I don’t want to share those. But you can use these crayons however you like. I bet you will enjoy them even more.”

A thought occurred to me: How did a fairy tale character even know about coloring? Oh, right. Because she’s a figment of my imagination, and I know plenty about coloring.


I reached over, and took the box of pastels from her. I managed to remember the body language that showed it wasn’t about a fight, it wasn’t worth a fight, because I was the grown-up, and I would win. Not because I was going to use any kind of force, just because I was in charge. Simple as that. If this kid is going to be in my house, I need to remember how to be enough of a grown-up to be in charge.

She glared at me, but I didn’t back down. “Okay,” she shrugged. And proceeded to dump the entire box–the entire BOX–of crayons on the table. I closed my eyes and bit my tongue. It wouldn’t hurt them. And if it did, I could always buy more crayons. Let her do that.

“Maybe I will just put the crayons in a better order,” she said. Something in her glance told me she knew perfectly well how hard it was for me to just let her dump out my carefully-arranged box of crayons. That made me smile. Almost.

I went back to the kitchen. “You can make me french toast for breakfast,” she said. “It is delicious AND nutritious.”

Definitely a figment of my imagination. Definitely not actually a fairy tale character. My imagination just glommed onto fairy tale characters because of that stupid Halloween party, and then talking about all of that stuff with Robin last week. I should be grateful I didn’t walk into the woods and find an ogre with no heart, right?

So, we had our breakfast of delicious, nutritious french toast, and then I had no idea what to do. It was too early to go to sleep, and I couldn’t think of anywhere I could go with Gretel that wouldn’t feel weird. I mean, even if she were invisible as she claimed, she would still talk to me, and presumably, expect me to talk to her.

That night, once again, I tried to figure out what to do with Gretel. She was still here. Would she still be here when I woke up? Mostly, I have to admit, I hoped she wouldn’t be. It’s not that she wasn’t kind of sweet, but she took so much time. I mean, this is why I didn’t want to have kids in the first place–real kids, kids that you could explain having, when people saw you with them…. I glared at her for a second, because she had been wrong that no one would see her. Maisie had definitely noticed her, and so did a few people around town. Plus, I might not have many issues about my weight, but there’s something embarrassing about going into an ice cream shop and ordering two ice cream cones when they can see perfectly well that you’re alone. Next time, I thought, take the car. And leave Gretel in it.

At least it was finally late enough to go to sleep. Wait… I am single, and I don’t have all that many guests. The number of guests who have slept over since I’ve moved in would add up to the fingers on neither of my hands. Candace is about the only person who would visit, but with the baby, if we want to get together, it’s only fair for me to drive up to see her.

But going to sleep would solve what to do with Gretel for the next seven or eight hours, minimum. How long do kids sleep, anyways? I never slept much that I can remember, but I think little kids sleep a lot. So. Seven hours of peace and quiet and not trying to figure out why a figment of my imagination seems to be making such a mess of my life.

Wait, though. Where can Gretel sleep? There’s the bed…

Okay. No. Creepy to sleep in the same bed, definitely. “Gretel, would you like me to make you a nice soft bed on the couch?”

“NO! I have to sleep in YOUR room. I have to be safe, and you did not make the living room safe for SLEEPING. You only just made it safe for AWAKE time. I might get DEAD or something if I sleep in the living room.”

Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out.

“Can I bring the cushions from the couch, and make you a nice soft bed on the floor of my room?”

Gretel narrowed her eyes. “Why don’t YOU sleep on the floor? Maybe there are monsters on the floor and you hope they will eat me all up in tiny pieces and then you will throw the pieces away in the garbage and I will not be here any more.”

“There are no monsters in my room. Do you want me to make a special anti-monster spray and we can spray everywhere on the floor, and you can keep the spray with you all night long?”

Gretel looked at me, trying to figure out if I was serious. “But maybe your bed is comfortable, and the floor is lumpy. I am your visitor, so you should be very polite and give ME the bed.”

I closed my eyes. “Gretel. NO. The bed on the floor will be very comfortable. I will make sure it is. But I am the one who sleeps in my bed. Me. The person who bought the bed, the person who sleeps there every single night. It is my bed. Got that?”

“What will you put the monster spray in? Do you maybe have a big gun we can use?”

“No, I do not have a big gun.” I looked in the pantry, and yup, I still had the spray bottle that I used on the plants before I let them die of neglect.

I pulled that out, and I pulled out the little box that had my bottles of essential oils. Hm. Lavender is good for sleep, and… cinnamon, maybe. Tangerine oil smells nice. Oh, and sage. That will help make it better for killing monsters.

What? What on earth do I mean? I’m just making a spray. This is just for helping her calm down and go to sleep, right?

I shook my head. “Here, can you fill this most of the way with water?”

Gretel’s eyes were round. “You definitely are a magic person, right? Probably you are a fairy godmother. I always hoped I would get one of those.”

“I am not a fairy godmother. I am a very wicked witch, okay?”

Gretel narrowed her eyes again. “No, you are not. I know ALL about witches. You definitely are not a wicked witch.” But she went to the sink and filled the spray bottle. She brought it back, and I opened the bottle of lavender oil. I thought for a second, and decided Gretel would be more impressed by the spray if I made a ceremony of it. But she would be the one to do the stuff, since I don’t want yet another person–imaginary or not–thinking I’m a fairy godmother.

I handed her the bottle of lavender, and said, “Sprinkle in ten drops of this, and say Monsters are not allowed.”

She did.

“Now, sprinkle in five drops of this, and say I will be safe all night long,” I said, handing her the cinnamon, and thinking quickly.

“Okay, sprinkle in ten drops of this and, um, imagine monsters getting burned with every drop that touches them.”

Gretel counted the drops, and then screwed her face up, imagining.

“Now, repeat after me, one drop for each word.” Gretel took the sage, and watched me. “Monsters” drop “are” drop “NOT” drop “ALLOWED” drop. I put away the oils, and screwed the top onto the spray bottle.

“Okay. Why don’t you go into my room, and check under the bed and in the closets, and anywhere else you think there might be monsters in there. I’ll get the cushions from the couch and set up your bed.”

Monsters. I have a figment of my imagination crawling around on my bedroom floor, looking for monsters. I am pulling the cushions off the couch for the benefit of a figment of my imagination. I’d better not tell anyone about this, since I know I’d get locked up in a padded room.

CRASH!

I dropped the cushions and ran into my room. Gretel was standing by the window, her face round and terrified. The curtains and curtain rod were tangled halfway between their usual place and the floor.

“What–”

Gretel’s hands were up, protecting her head in a way that made my heart pound.

“So, I bet you were looking behind the curtains for monsters, right?” I made my voice as cheerful as I could.

Small nod from Gretel.

“And that curtain rod isn’t up there very securely, is it?”

Shake of the head.

“So it fell down on accident, and it wasn’t really your fault. And we can fix it. Nothing even got broken, did it?”

Guilty look from Gretel, as her arms came slightly looser.

I went to untangle the curtains and the curtain rod. I gently moved Gretel to the side, dumped my half-clean clothes off the chair where I drop them while I decide whether they can stand to be worn again, and climbed up to replace the curtains.

“See, everything’s fine. No harm done.”

Gretel shook her head, then looked away.

“What is it?”

“You do not have to pretend to be nice. I was BAD. I was VERY bad. Probably you should throw me away in the garbage even before those monsters come to chomp me into little pieces.”

“How were you bad? It was an accident. I told you to come look for monsters, and you were making sure to look everywhere.”

“But…” She tightened her lips. Her arms folded tightly over her ribs. She glared at me, like there was something absolutely obvious that I was missing.

I thought. “Okay,” I said. “You were bad to do exactly what I told you to do. You punishment is you will sit on that chair for enough time for me to go get the cushions for your bed on the floor. Then you will help me check the rest of the room for monsters. How is that?”

Gretel looked suspiciously at me as she slowly backed towards the chair. She scooted up onto it, crossed her ankles, and folded her hands.

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. Why is this so hard? Why can’t I imagine her to be easier, if I’m going to imagine her at all?

Gretel seemed surprised when I came back in with the cushions. I watched her out of the corner of my eye as I arranged them on the floor. A strange thought came into my head… she’s checking to make sure that I don’t have anything but the cushions with me. I shuddered a little, remembering… No. Don’t go there. Block it out.

We both took a deep breath when I had the cushions arranged into what would hopefully make a comfortable nest. For Gretel. It was altogether too short for me.

“Now it’s time to check the room for monsters. I need you to show me where else to look, since you already did a pretty good job, I bet.” Still fighting to make my voice light, even, calm. Not shaking with terror that made no sense.

She pointed at the closet. I picked up the bottle of “monster spray” from the floor, where it had dropped when the curtains fell. I opened the closet door, and turned on the closet light. I sprayed the floor, I turned over all of the shoes and sprayed them. I sprayed all of the clothes. I was about to close the door when Gretel whispered, “You forgot the shelf.”

Oh, right. I rolled my eyes as I assessed the shelf. I spritzed a few drops upwards, and mentally crossed my fingers.

I glanced at Gretel. I could see the fight going on inside of her: Does she continue being good, in the hope that I won’t suddenly explode, or does she insist that I be thorough in my search for imaginary monsters?

Being good won out. She nodded meekly, and climbed off of the chair.

I opened the trunk where I keep extra linens, and pulled out sheets and a comforter. Gretel silently helped me spread them over the cushions, and meekly accepted a pillow from my bed. She stood beside the cushions, rubbing one bare foot against a still-grubby ankle. Somehow, over the course of the day, I’d forgotten about what she was wearing–she was still in the ragged dress I’d found her in.

Clothes. I thought for a second. “Would you like something to sleep in? Something clean and comfortable?”

Gretel’s shoulders tensed, then she nodded. I pulled a t-shirt out of the drawer and handed it to her. “Okay, why don’t you go into the bathroom and change into that? Wait. I’ll go in with you, and find a toothbrush and some toothpaste. Then you can get ready for bed.”

I still wasn’t sure how old Gretel was, but she seemed self-sufficient enough that I thought I could probably let her do that on her own.

I listened to the water running, some splashing, and then the rustling of clothes coming off and being put on. “Do you need to go to the bathroom?” I called through the door. The last thing I need is imaginary pee all over my couch cushions.

Once Gretel was done, I led her into my room and tucked her into her nest on the floor. Then I felt a little guilty, just putting her down there alone. “Would you like to choose a stuffed animal or doll to sleep with? Just for tonight, not forever. But they are very friendly, and I’m sure one of them would be happy to sleep with you tonight.”

Gretel scrambled up and walked over to my bookcase. She almost reached for the bear, then pulled her hand back. She considered again. Her hand moved towards the pony, then the hippo… Oh, great. Why didn’t I just hand her one? Little kids take forever to decide things like this. Finally, she pointed at the large bunny rabbit at the back, and looked at me. I reached over her head and pulled it out, careful not to knock the other toys off the shelf. I tucked her back into the cushions, and watched as she snuggled close with the rabbit. Then I grabbed a nightgown and went into the bathroom to get ready for bed myself.

I was about to turn off the light when I remembered that some little kids are afraid of the dark. “Do you need a night light?” She looked at me blankly. “A small light, not very bright. Just in case you are afraid of the dark.”

“No. I am not afraid of the dark. I only am afraid of what is in the dark. You can turn off the light.”

I turned off the light with relief. I can sleep with a little light, now, but I’d rather have the room as dark as possible.

It had taken me a long time to actually relax enough to fall asleep. And when I finally fell asleep, I fell directly into a thorny tangle of nightmares. Right as I was about to be grabbed, I heard a scream, and sat up, heart pounding.

“NO! NO! Please don’t! I’ll be good! I promise! I’m sorry, I’ll be good!!”

Gretel. Still here, and obviously sleeping no better than I was.

I turned on the light, and said, “Gretel. Gretel. Wake up. It’s only a dream.” I climbed out of bed and sat near her, making sure not to touch her.

She sat up, saw me, and started pounding me as hard as she could with her fists. “It’s YOUR fault,” she sobbed. “YOURS! You did NOT check for monsters. You were NOT careful. I almost got eaten up in TINY pieces. You put me on the FLOOR so the monsters would get me FIRST. You ARE a wicked witch just like you said! I wish I never came to this place. I wish it ONE HUNDRED!!!!”

I finally got hold of her hands, and held them still as gently as I could.

“Your house is all FULL of monsters. You only came to get me so they would eat ME instead of YOU. You are SO SO SO SO BAD!!!! ” Gretel pulled her hands back and collapsed into a shivering, sobbing ball.

I pressed my face into my hands, and rubbed. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. Breathe in. Hold. Breathe out. It wasn’t helping, much. Nightmare. She’s little. She doesn’t know that I was having a nightmare too. Probably the same one, or something pretty similar. I shook my head, wishing I could shake free the tangle of dreams.

I went into the kitchen, filled two cups with water, and put them in the microwave. Then I reached to the back of the cupboard, and pulled out my special sleep tea, the one I learned to make for the nights when my internal monsters won’t let me relax. If I put in a bit of honey, Gretel would probably be willing to drink it as well.

I went back into the room, and sat next to Gretel, still careful not to touch her. I knew from experience that being touched would make it seem like the nightmare had become reality. “Here. Drink this. It helps. It really does.”

She turned over and sat up, silently looking at the mug. I nodded. She took a careful sip, and then another. I did the same. We both breathed a little deeper.

“I’m sorry,” I said. She looked at me. “I wasn’t careful about that shelf. And I bet there were a few other places that still needed to be checked, but you were scared to tell me.” She nodded. “I knew you were afraid of monsters, but I was in a hurry to get to bed. I didn’t do a good job of keeping you safe. So I’m sorry about that.”

I debated about whether to explain that the monsters were inside us, not the house. That the monsters we were afraid of were nothing but memories. Not tonight, I thought. Old as I am, I can barely believe the monsters aren’t real right now. Gretel won’t believe it at all. Monsters make more sense than… No. Do not go there. Keep it back.

We drank more tea. I breathed slowly, loudly, calmly. Sure enough, Gretel slowed her own breathing to match mine. We relaxed, after a fashion. Gretel finished her tea, put the mug on the floor, and shyly reached to wipe a tear from the corner of my eye.

“I’m sorry, too,” she whispered. I looked at her. “It actually was a teeny tiny bit my fault about the curtain. I thought maybe if I moved it super fast, then I would catch that monster and throw it out the window. But there was actually no monster, just a big mess.”

“That’s okay. It was smart, to think of throwing the monster out the window. I don’t think I would have been smart enough to think of that.” Gretel watched me for several seconds, then heaved a deep sigh.

“You can sleep in my bed, just for the rest of the night. We’ll make sure tomorrow that there isn’t a way for monsters to get you on the floor.” That is, if she’s still here tomorrow, I thought to myself.

“I don’t think I can go asleep,” Gretel mumbled as she picked up the rabbit and climbed into the bed. I noticed that she claimed the spot closest to the wall, to make sure that if any monsters did come, I would be the first one they got.

I pulled the battered book of fairy tales from the shelf on my nightstand. “I’ll read to you until you get sleepy, okay?”

The next morning, I woke to unexpected November sunshine. Saturday. Finally. But Gretel was still there. I climbed quietly out of bed, trying not to wake her. I unplugged my cell phone, and tiptoed out, closing the door softly behind me. I went into the kitchen, and called Tavi. His wife is on bed rest with a bad pregnancy, and he made sure everyone at the store knows he needs any extra shift he can get. He was happy to take my Saturday and Sunday shifts. Good. That was taken care of. I’d figure out what to do with Gretel, one way or another, by Monday morning.

I went downstairs to get the paper. Nathan was coming out of his apartment as I came back in. “Are you all right?”

I’ve lived here six months, and I think this is the first time he’s asked a personal question.

I shrugged. “I’m fine. Having some trouble sleeping, but that happens.”

“It’s just…” he paused, thinking. Finally, he said, “I just thought I heard some yelling last night, and…”

I didn’t know why my heart was pounding so hard. He wasn’t in my way, but I felt trapped. It felt awkward to just walk away, so I stood there, forced myself to stay for an uncomfortable conversation.

“I’m fine, really. I’m sorry if I disturbed you.” My voice was stiff, tense. I felt guilty, just like when I was little and the neighbors complained… No. Don’t GO there. Block it out.

“You didn’t disturb me, you’re just usually so quiet, I wondered…” he stepped towards me, reaching out a hand.

The next thing I knew, I was at the gas station where I usually stop to stretch my bad leg, when I’m driving up to Portland. I closed my eyes. Damn. DAMN. It’s been so long, I thought this wouldn’t happen any more. I probed for the memory, and, as usual… nothing. Not a thing. The last, who knows how long, all blank. My knee was throbbing a little, just as though I’d driven for an hour. Which, if I was here, I probably had.

I glanced, and found the car, neatly parked in front of the little convenience store. I limped over, to try to figure out what was going on. Gretel was perched on the front passenger seat, holding a bag of groceries.

“So, where are we going?” I asked her. “And what day is it?” If she’s a figment of my imagination, I don’t have to try to pretend everything is normal. When there is a figment of your imagination sitting in your car, you can be open with them about the fact that you have no earthly idea of what happened, or where you are. Scratch that. I know where I am, thank heaven. I just don’t know when, or why. Or how, come to think of it.

She grinned at me. “We’re on our way to the mountain.”

I blinked. And blinked again. “Why, exactly, are we going to the mountain?”

She rolled her eyes. “I told you, when it was time to get in the car. We are going to the mountain, because that’s where Jimmy is now, and you need to get him. If you don’t get him, probably he will get eaten up into little pieces. He can’t run forever, you know.”

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