Gretel O’Brien stared at the blinking cursor for two tortuous minutes before she finally minimized her mostly empty Word document and clicked over to her web browser to look at something else, anything else. She started by scrolling through the latest celebrity gossip, breezing through articles about Emily Blunt’s childhood crushes and Jennifer Aniston’s newest mystery man. Her brain officially turned to mush by the time she finished reading about Meghan’s backstage kiss with Harry at a London charity event, but a new, undesirable headache didn’t matter in the least; Gretel leaned back in her office chair, chugged her chardonnay straight out of the bottle, and began reading the article again. She loved stories about princesses. About royalty, both in and out of Hollywood. And nothing used to rattle her creativity bones more than a modern-day happily ever after.
Soon after the six-figure sale of her young adult novel Aurora, the first in a trilogy that moved the protagonist of Sleeping Beauty from a giant castle in France to a four-story mansion in Beverly Hills, Gretel became the most successful author alive writing fairy tale re-imaginings. The third Aurora book sold so many copies Gretel was inundated with outrageous, desperate offers from multiple publishers to write a fourth, but instead of chugging along in a popular series that had already paid back her student loans, bought her a house in Encino, and made her as famous as Angie Thomas and John Green with young readers around the world, Gretel came up with a compromise: no more tales of Aurora Ames, but instead new stand-alone YA novels, each one updating a different fairy tale. She wanted to start with three, her heart set on Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Snow White, but her publisher pushed her into signing the dotted line to write five in total, one a year.
She had a blast updating Cinderella and Rapunzel, both books delivered on schedule and released to top-of-the-chart numbers and great acclaim, one critic from The New Yorker proclaiming O’Brien, “a new creative wizard of modern-day fairy tales that makes Gregory Maguire look like an old fogie.” She thrived on the success, watched the sales numbers climb, read every review, even participated in the screenplay for the adaptation of Aurora to be directed by Ava DuVernay, but about halfway through the first draft of her Snow White update, her lame tentative title The Pretty One somehow making it all the way to the finished book, she hit a wall, one that didn’t crumble even after a night of endless brainstorming, two bottles of merlot, and one long, contentious phone conversation with her literary agent. The problem wasn’t so much that she didn’t know where to take the story—whenever she hit the occasional writer’s block, all she had to do was re-read the original fairy tale to find what the next scene should be. The problem was that, for no particular reason, one day she fell out of love with these princesses, and all the insipid romance, a predictable, passionate kiss always ending every one of her books. She wanted to take on a project that didn’t merely rely on old stories, but only concerned her with new ones, something unique and ambitious and wholly original.
Unfortunately, the epiphany hit Gretel at the worst possible time. She was already two books into her five-book deal, at a point where breaking not only the contract but the momentum she’d been building with readers over the past decade would have meant death to her career. And she knew it, too. She’d read Misery. She’d heard writer friends’ horror stories about changing genres, subverting reader expectations. Her agent begged her to finish the Snow White update, write two more fairy tale re-imaginings, and then, and only then, would conversations of a new kind of book be entertained. So she finished a mediocre draft of The Pretty One her editor managed to transform into something sellable, and then Gretel spent a painful, anxious year updating Little Red Riding Hood into something that vaguely resembled the inspiration and storytelling skills of her original Aurora trilogy.
When her editor officially accepted her lackluster Riding Hood re-imagining, Gretel called her agent and demanded she be released from her contract. Four was enough. If she was going to continue writing, she needed to try something different, attempt a project that scared her in all the best ways.
“I’m not that stupid,” her agent Lauren said over the phone, her voice awkwardly deep and hoarse for a thirty-seven-year-old. “And you shouldn’t be either.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Gretel asked. She hated when her agent spoke the kind of riddles her own characters often did.
“Your books are getting increasingly worse, Gretel. The magic is gone. If the Aurora books were a ten, A Girl Named Red is a negative three.”
“Gee, thanks, Lauren. You’re always my biggest advocate.”
“But you see, that’s the thing: it doesn’t matter. Not to the fans. They’re still clamoring for these books; they still love you. A Girl Named Red is six months away, and the pre-sales are already through the roof. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Gretel asked. Her agent liked to speak in riddles, but mostly she liked to treat her client like a moron.
“You should be embracing this genre, not abandoning it,” Lauren said. “You should be writing sequels to these books, the way you did to Aurora. You could be a multi-millionaire. You could be the biggest author in the world, you dumb thing! And as long as there’s a contract in place, as long as I can still force one more fairy-tale book out of you, trust me, I’ll make your life a living Hell until you deliver what you promised.”
Gretel cracked her knuckles as loud as she could. “One more?”
“One more. And I’ve got the perfect fairy tale. The one you have to write.”
“Oh, God. What?”
“Think. Just think for a minute. Who are you?”
More riddles. More confusion. Gretel turned her chair around and shoved her elbows against the corner of her desk. She stared at her five-tiered bookshelf against the wall. The one that used to be filled with her favorite books from childhood, from all her English classes she savored in college and high school. Now the shelves were filled with her own books, the name O’Brien plastered across the spines of too many hardbacks to count.
“I’m… Gretel. I’m an author.”
“Exactly,” her agent said. “An author of modern-day fairy tales. And in all these years we’ve never talked about the irony of your first name.”
“What about it?”
Silence ensued on the other end, long enough for Gretel to assume the call had been dropped. But her agent was still on the line, breathing heavily into the phone, clearly waiting for the idea to click with her dumb thing of a client.
“No,” Gretel said. “I’m not doing that.”
“Why not? It’d be the perfect finale. After eight books, the real Gretel finally writes about the fictional Gretel readers have adored for centuries.”
Gretel closed her eyes and bit down on her tongue. Her agent’s words sounded so corny, so written, like she’d read them off a notepad. But she did have a point, as lame and childish it may have been. Her ancient name always rubbed Gretel the wrong way, enough that she momentarily debated changing it to Gretchen, or even Grace, before her first book was released. The name had the flavor of a ninety-year-old grandmother from the barren hillsides of Germany, not a California-born author extraordinaire in her early thirties. It was her agent who said not to worry about the name, and she was right, of course, not a single young reader caring if the author of Aurora was named Gretel, or Gary, or Gasbag. Her readers wanted a great story, one she’d failed to give them the last couple of times.
“Hansel & Gretel? Seriously?” she asked, both to her agent on that phone call two weeks ago, and again to her blank computer screen now, no voices currently distracting her, her phone on vibrate, total silence surrounding her. The Wi-Fi was shut off, her scrambled eggs and toast had been consumed. She had no more excuses. And yet she couldn’t get a single word down.
Gretel had done everything right leading up to this moment. On Friday she fled the insanity of her fast-paced Los Angeles life for the peaceful forest oasis of Graeagle, California, a tiny haven her parents used to take her to during her summers as a child. Gretel could write anywhere, had composed sections of her recent novels in hotels and airports and conference halls. But she needed a change for the new book. She needed a return to the experience of writing the first draft of Aurora, back when there was no agent or publisher, when she was spinning a yarn for herself and no one else. If she was going to be forced to write a Hansel & Gretel re-imagining, she thought the least she could do was go back to that place of joy, at least for a few weeks, to see if her creative juices might somehow return.
And so she did return, renting a small cabin in the woods a mile away from the nearest paved road and five miles from the main Graeagle diner and grocery store. Nobody was around to bother her, and she should have been writing ferociously by now, drafting pages and pages to her heart’s content. Her fridge and pantry were stocked with snacks. She had taken a hot shower and put on her comfiest writing outfit, a tank-top over gym shorts.
Yet all of these steps had merely led to a blinking cursor on her laptop screen, the death trap for any author, that ugly, silent tease. She clicked back on the Word document, vowed to write at least five double-spaced pages of prose before she looked at another gossip site, but twenty minutes passed, and all she managed was an opening sentence to chapter one she’d revised seven times. Gretel had never outlined a novel before, and she thought maybe she could spend the day jotting down notes about what happens in the plot. She could attempt character bios for Hansel and Gretel, or maybe just kill Hansel off completely, she hadn’t decided yet. Was it too on-the-nose for Gretel to write about only Gretel and then call the novel Gretel? The concept was too meta, or egotistical, or terrible, one of the three, but she’d only focused on female protagonists in her previous books, and having Hansel be a second leading protagonist didn’t feel right. She could open with his murder, Gretel discovering him in the forest with his throat slit, a few ominous jelly beans and chocolate candies spilling out of his pockets. It could be a murder mystery. Or a full-bore horror novel. There was nothing in her contract that specified Gretel had to make the fairy tale a romance like all her other books. What if she changed gears and delivered something to her agent and editor that was actually scary?
She pushed back from her desk and stood up. She ran her fingers through her long, annoyingly curly blonde hair as she sauntered into the kitchen, weighing the exciting prospects in her mind. Writing something suspenseful and gruesome could be fun, but she also didn’t want to waste her time, her agent and editor likely tossing the eventual manuscript in her face and demanding she start over.
Gretel pulled a white sweater over her tank-top, put in her ear buds, and left her cabin, a pair of dark clouds looming overhead as she stepped onto the squishy bark. She put on her Classic Disney playlist, always the perfect music to inspire her for her fairy tale re-imaginings. She needed a walk, that was it. An hour, maybe longer, with some fresh air, the aroma of sharp pine encompassing her, the occasional river brook along the thin dirt trail forcing her to lean against a sturdy, hollowed tree and admire a real-life fairy tale view.
“A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” from Cinderella began to play on Gretel’s iPod Nano as she stepped away from the cabin, away from her vehicle and wallet and laptop that could all be stolen if a crazed fan were to discover she was out here in this lush middle of nowhere. She wanted to find a music track specifically tied to Hansel & Gretel, but Disney had surprisingly never touched the story; in fact, no film company to her knowledge ever had. Her only connection to the story was in reading it in the third grade for a book report about Grimm’s fairy tales. She didn’t remember much. A brother and sister get lost in the woods. A cannibal witch lures them into her home. They boil the witch alive. Hooray for Hansel and Gretel.
When Gretel reached the top of the first steep hill, a cool gust of wind slammed against her left side, and she pulled her sweater sleeves over her knuckles. She shivered, the air oddly chilly for early May, and she peered back toward the cabin, now a mere speck in the distance, mostly hidden behind a collection of sky-high alpine trees that littered the Graeagle mountains. She wanted to rush back and swap out her gym shorts for a pair of her warm denim jeans, but the climb up that first hill was always the most strenuous, and she didn’t have the energy or desire to attempt it a second time today. Instead, as more black clouds started to proliferate overhead, and as the temperature kept dipping, Gretel stretched out her arms and legs, performed ten half-assed jumping jacks, then jogged down the winding trail toward the roaring stream ahead.
Classic Disney music wasn’t ideal for running—“When You Wish Upon a Star” had always failed to get Gretel’s heart racing, no matter how loud she blasted the melody through her ear buds—but thankfully “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book kicked in at the perfect moment, her dull, impassioned jog transforming into a competitive-like sprint within a matter of seconds. She pressed her arms against her sides and grinned as she ran, treating the occasional rocks and tiny boulders on the trail as parts of a nature-made obstacle course. Within minutes she reached the stream, so idyllic in its quiet beauty, the dirt trail hugging its left side for at least a mile. She ran a little longer, all the way to the end of the trail she still recognized, then finally stopped and took a satisfying breath when the slowest-of-the-slow “Bella Notte” from Lady and the Tramp started up. She wiped away a thin line of sweat trickling down her forehead and sat on a patch of grass next to the stream.
Gretel closed her eyes, continued to focus on her heavy breathing, allowed the romance of the Disney song to overwhelm her senses. She waited for inspiration to strike about Hansel & Gretel. A direction, at least, to take the two characters. Her eyes shot open, and now she marveled at the forest before her, the endless green, the tall trees that consumed her from every angle. She could see her characters existing here, possibly walking hand-in-hand before her on the trail, dropping their breadcrumbs behind them and trying to avoid the gaze of that nasty witch lurking somewhere in the shadows. She rested her palm on her cheek and continued to survey the area, her gaze stopping on a stretch of field about fifty yards beyond the stream. It didn’t interest her on first glance, the yellow grass in the distance an eyesore among all the gems big and small on this stretch of the trail. But before she could look away, Gretel went still, her breath catching in her already dry and tired throat.
She did a double take. It wasn’t an animal like she first thought. And it wasn’t her imagination either, no matter how much her mind played tricks on her every time she spent a few days away from civilization. It was a man, also wearing white, also breathing hard from an arduous run. His cheeks were beaming a cherry shade of red, and his luxurious brown hair dipped past his shoulders. She could see him from the waist up so clearly, but then he slipped behind a tree and disappeared.
Gretel waited. She sat up straight, dipped her head back, and waited some more. She finally stood up, promptly jumped over the stream, and moved slowly toward the hiding figure, more out of curiosity than anything else, not having seen anyone around these parts since she arrived. She pushed past three thick bushes, the third one filled with sharp thorns that scraped across her right arm, and she might have released a pained, wimpy scream if she hadn’t seen the man again, his face still hidden behind the wide tree but his arms visibly stretching toward the sky. He took a step back, revealing worn tennis shoes and legs dusted with dirt. She was only a few yards away when the song finally faded in her ear buds, offering what was normally a few seconds of silence before the next tune began. But this time there wasn’t silence. Gretel could hear something trickling down the side of the tree. The guy was peeing.
“Oh,” Gretel said.
She meant to think the word, or at least only whisper it. But it came out much louder than she anticipated, and the man jumped backward and revealed himself, all of himself. Gretel’s first instinct was to look away, but she didn’t budge, her eyes momentarily fixated on the private act before her now in full public view.
“What are you doing,” the guy blurted out, more like a statement than a question, and then finally Gretel spun around and closed her eyes, “Little April Shower” from Bambi the worst possible Disney tune to invade her ears at this awkward moment. She switched it to “A Whole New World” from Aladdin, turned the volume down, then waited for the man to finish before she darted her eyes back toward him.
“Sorry,” she said.
“It’s okay. You just scared me, that’s all.” He brought his hands to his hips and smiled at Gretel, not the sharp glare she expected.
“I scared you? Seriously?”
“I didn’t think anyone else was out here,” Gretel said. “When I heard you running, I thought it might be a vicious animal coming to attack me.”
“Oh, I can be vicious,” he said. “Especially when I go for a run and get totally lost. I have no idea where I am, and I can’t find my way back to the highway.”
“The highway?” Gretel laughed, the high-pitched snicker echoing across the open field. “Sorry to break this to you. You’re a long way from home.”
“Really?” He glanced over his left shoulder, a grimace replacing his cheerful demeanor.
“Yeah. A few miles.”
“Crap,” he said. “I just wanted some air to clear my head, and the next thing I know—”
Booming thunder stopped the man in mid-sentence, and it startled Gretel even more than her first sighting of the directionally clueless jogger. It was colossally loud, like an explosion of fireworks, directly overhead and not in the distance somewhere. Black clouds had taken over most of the sky by the time she walked outside her cabin, but it wasn’t until now that she discovered how dark these woods had become, how foreboding.
The jogger didn’t finish his thought. Instead he peered up at the clouds, scratched the nape of his neck, and said, “That doesn’t sound good.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
She watched the man look at the ominous sight above like a terrified three-year-old, not dismissive of the potentially treacherous weather to come but overly concerned, his lips pursing to an absurd extent. He didn’t appear dangerous. He wouldn’t lay a finger on her, and if he tried, she could drop him to the ground before he had a chance to blink.
“Listen,” Gretel said, “how about you follow me back to my cabin? And then I’ll show you how to get to the highway.”
“Really? That’d be awesome, thank you.”
She waved him toward her, like a tour guide about to discuss the local nature scene to an enraptured audience of one. Another round of thunder erupted overhead, and he joined her side, an adorable swiftness in his step. The two stayed silent as they walked in the new direction, both jumping over the stream. The guy’s foot caught the edge of the water, soaking his left tennis shoe, but he didn’t trip or groan, and Gretel avoided another laugh at his expense.
When they reached the dirt trail and started toward the first of many descents toward Gretel’s cabin, the guy said, “So.”
“Uhh, what’s your name?”
“Oh, I’m Gretel. Hi. What’s yours?”
“Hank. It’s nice to meet you.” He shook her hand.
“You, too,” Gretel said. “So what’s your story? What are you doing in Graeagle?”
“Actually, I’m getting ready to open a winery. I opened my first one in Truckee a year ago, and I’ve been looking to branch out a bit.”
“A winemaker, huh? Wow, that must be fun.”
“It is. Can be exhausting at times. And boring at others. Do you like wine?”
Gretel opened her mouth to give him the obvious answer, but a third jolt of thunder ignited, and this time, the angry clouds delivered more than harsh noise. Raindrops came down so hard, and so suddenly, Gretel’s first reaction was a loud chuckle, the absurdity of the situation too difficult to ignore. All she’d wanted to do was take a brisk, uneventful walk, and now she was stuck in the pouring rain next to a stranger, more than a mile away from her cabin.
“What do we do now?” the guy asked, moving his arms above his head to block the rain.
“I have an idea. Run.”
One second Gretel stood on the trail, her hair already soaked, any noise from the stream beside her masked by the roar of the falling rain, and the next she sprinted forward, far away from the stream and through the endless patch of her trees to her right that gave more cover. Hank followed after her, speeding fast but never able to fully catch up as Gretel charged down one hill, and a second hill, leaping over boulders and bushes, the dirt trail still within her sights on the left. The trail seemed to disappear for a few seconds, and Gretel slowed down for the first time, the rain not letting up, Hank breathing heavily behind her and sounding like he might collapse from exhaustion. But then the trail re-appeared, in a zigzag pattern in front of her, providing an easier path to run on for the remainder of the journey. She stepped back onto the trail, which had in a few minutes turned soft and muddy, and she picked up the pace again, not bothering to look back to see if Hank was still following her. The hill started to ascend, and her lungs began to burn, and her feet were already stinging, and all she wanted to do was dive under the nearest tree and take a thirty-minute nap. But this rain was so extreme, pelting her body all over, that she sprinted forward even faster.
When she reached the top of the hill, Gretel finally slowed down, leaned over, and started coughing uncontrollably. She had pushed herself beyond anything she was used to, but she had no chance to relax because Hank brushed against her side and kept moving forward, his index finger pointing at something in the distance. “Your cabin!” he shouted. “I see it! Come on!”
“Wait!” she shouted back at him, but he didn’t hear her, his focus clearly on the small wooden shack ahead.
She wanted him to stop because this cabin, a total dump that looked a hundred years old, didn’t belong to her. It had a porch with a lone rocking chair, a boarded-up window next to the front door, and a brick chimney on the left side. Her first thought was that the place was abandoned, up on this random hill that was so much farther from Graeagle than her place of residence, but the sight was unmistakable, even through the pouring rain: heavy smoke was billowing out of the chimney.
Gretel sighed and reluctantly walked forward, not in the mood to meet a second stranger today, but also not comfortable spending another minute in the cold rain and developing a severe case of pneumonia. By the time she reached the bottom step of the porch, Hank was standing in front of the door, his arms tightly crossed.
“Hank, hold on,” Gretel said. She ran to the top of the porch, nearly tripping her left foot over the rocking chair.
“What’s the matter?” Hank asked. “Did you lose your key or something?”
“No, this isn’t my cabin, I was trying to tell you before you ran off. I don’t live here.”
“You don’t? Then… who does?”
The door swung open behind them, a shrill creaking noise invading Gretel’s eardrums in an instant. Hank moved back next to Gretel, and they both watched as a tall, elderly woman stepped onto the porch. She must have been six feet tall, painfully thin from top to bottom, her cheeks pale and sunken, her long frizzy hair a mix of white and gray. She wore a dark gray sweater and black jeans, a pink polka-dotted apron covering most of her clothes. She could have been sixty-five or eighty, Gretel couldn’t really tell.
“Jeez, get in, get in,” the woman said. “You two must be freezing out here. This rain just won’t let up!”
“Great,” Hank said. “Thank you so much!” He walked inside with zero hesitation, not bothering to ask who this woman was or why she lived in this ancient cabin in the middle of nowhere. But he was under a roof now, and dry, and the rain was still pounding against Gretel.
The old woman nodded and waved Gretel toward her. “Come in, child. I’ll give you a blanket and something to eat.” Another nod. Then a cheery smile, the kind Gretel’s grandmother used to give her when it was time to bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies. This woman appeared nice enough, that flour-stained apron sealing the deal that she had only good intentions.
“Okay, thanks,” Gretel said as she moved past the door. She didn’t want to meet the cockroaches and spiders probably crawling over every surface inside, but the opportunity to take shelter and wait out this vicious weather was too desirable to pass up.
Gretel stepped foot onto the cabin hardwood, and then she froze in place. This wasn’t a run-down shack after all, no sign of bugs, or cobwebs, or even a hint of dust. Unlike the exterior, which appeared in ruins, the inside of the cabin was immaculate, with two modern leather couches, a wooden table, a stocked five-tiered bookshelf, an oversized fireplace, a charming kitchen nook with a sparkly silver backsplash. The unmade bed in the back corner looked no bigger than a twin, but Gretel’s focus soon became not on the delightful features in the cabin but on the sweet aroma emanating from the kitchen. It smelled of warm maple doughnuts, or possibly fresh cinnamon rolls, something too gooey and sinful to imagine.
“Take a seat on the couch,” the woman said after she shut the front door. She pointed to the black leather sofa next to the fireplace. “There’s some blankets on the floor, grab any you want. You two hungry? I just baked a chocolate pecan pie that’s to die for.”
A pie, that’s what the smell was. Gretel licked her lips, hungrier than she realized. She glanced at Hank, who was staring toward the kitchen, already drooling.
“It’ll just be a minute,” the woman said. “Go sit, please.”
Hank hurried over to the couch, then grabbed a red velvet blanket and draped it over his shirt and pants, all the way up to his neck like it was the world’s largest bib. Gretel sat next to him and tossed two blankets onto her lap, but she didn’t feel the need to cover herself because a fire was roaring only a few feet away.
A timer dinged in the kitchen, and Gretel watched the woman lean down beside the refrigerator, steam rising toward the ceiling as soon as she pulled the pie out of the oven. She cut the pie into eight slices, then slid two of them onto red dinner plates. The aroma was incredible, the smell of milk chocolate and brown sugar and tart pecans wafting past her. When the woman set the plates on the wooden table before them, along with two tiny forks, Gretel wondered if the pie would taste half as good as it smelled.
“Thank you so much,” Gretel said and picked up her plate.
“You’re welcome,” the woman said, taking a seat on the couch opposite theirs. “Enjoy.”
Gretel raised the slice of her pie to her nostrils and took another pleasurable whiff. She turned to Hank, who was already inhaling his slice, delighting in every bite. Gretel smiled at the woman, and as she dug her fork into the front of the pie, she darted her eyes around the room once more, noticing how the fire was raging under the chimney, and how the oven was still wide open in the kitchen. She glanced at the bookshelf beside the fireplace. There had to be at least two hundred titles stocked from top to bottom.
“I like your bookshelf,” Gretel said, raising the forkful of pie to her lips. “I take it you like to read?”
“Oh, I love to read,” the woman said. “Especially after I’ve had my dinner.” She leaned forward and licked the top of her lips. “I can’t ever read on an empty stomach.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Gretel said. “I can’t do anything, really, if I haven’t eaten—”
She stopped talking, and stared at the pie resting on her fork, with the blackened pecans, the flaky crust. What caught her attention the most was a swollen yellow finger poking out of the gooey chocolate.
Warm vomit rose up Gretel’s esophagus, but she swallowed fast and managed to keep it down. She looked at Hank, who was almost done inhaling his slice.
“So good,” he said. “It’s got this incredible crunch to it. I like that.”
Gretel opened her eyes wide, and her mouth even wider, but she didn’t have time to say a word before he enjoyed his final bite.
“I’m glad you liked it,” the woman said. “Human fingers and toes. That’s what give my chocolate pecan pie that extra little zip.”
Gretel dropped her plate to the hardwood floor, and as it soon as it shattered, the red mess below appearing like pieces of blood-stained glass, the woman leaped away from her couch, grabbed Hank by his T-shirt and hair, and yanked him toward the kitchen. The woman was so strong Gretel didn’t budge at first, watching the events unfold before her like they weren’t real, couldn’t be real. But as soon as the woman slammed her fist against the back of her screaming friend and he went sailing down to his knees on the marble-tiled kitchen floor, Gretel stood up and rushed forward, an unexpected jolt of adrenaline rushing through her veins.
“Hank, she’s a cannibal!” Gretel shouted. “Oh my God, she wants to turn us into pie!”
“Only you, pretty girl,” the woman said, glancing at Gretel the same time she gripped hold of Hank’s throat and tugged his head toward the oven. “You’re going into my strawberry rhubarb tomorrow. But him… him…” She bent down and sniffed the back of his neck. “He’s my prime rib for tonight’s buffet feast!” She dug her fingernails into his shoulders and thrust the top part of him into the oven.
“Gretel, oh my God!” he shouted. “Help me, please!”
The woman started to pull down the oven door, when Gretel shoved it back open and slapped the old lady across the face. The hit was hard enough to startle her, but then the woman grinned and kicked Gretel hard in the stomach, sending her down to the floor.
“Be a good girl and wait your turn,” the woman said, then she pushed the rest of Hank inside the oven and closed the door. Pounding commenced immediately, loud, vibrating, like it could be coming from within the walls. The woman snickered, her voice deepening, no longer sweet and vulnerable like before, and she reached for the oven knob, still in the OFF position, about to be turned to the highest setting. Her fingers grazed the knob, her smile so wide all of her teeth were revealed, including rotting yellow ones near the back, when Gretel grabbed a pan atop the stove and threw it like a baseball directly at her head.
The woman flew back, her right shoulder colliding with the edge of the sink and her forehead striking the refrigerator. She blinked rapidly and released a low groan as Gretel threw a few more objects at her—two pots, a tea kettle, a cast iron skillet—before she ran toward the oven door. Gretel grabbed the top of it and started yanking it down, but the woman kicked the back of her shin, and Gretel screamed, falling sideways against the wall and collapsing to the floor. Gretel tried to get back up, but she moved too slowly, the old woman crawling on top of her and overtaking her within seconds.
“You stupid girl. I told you to wait your turn!”
“Get away from me, you witch!” Gretel slapped the woman’s cheek again, but then her right hand got caught in the woman’s mouth. Gretel yanked her hand back just in time before the woman clapped her mouth shut and began loudly grinding her teeth.
“You sure you want to put your hand in there? I haven’t yet had my afternoon snack!”
She punched Gretel between the eyes, but then Gretel gave it right back, pounding her fist three times in a row against the woman’s chin. Some blood began to trickle out of her mouth, but nothing compared to when Gretel latched her fingers against the woman’s hair and pulled as hard as she could. The gray-and-white curly hair, every last bit of it, ripped away from the top of the woman’s head in one swift move, instantly revealing a scalp of orange sores, black veins, oozing pockets of blood bubbling on the surface.
“My hair!” she screamed. “My beautiful hair! Give it back!”
The woman swung her fist toward Gretel, but she missed this time and fell to the side, giving Gretel the two seconds she needed to slide out from under her and jump to her feet. Gretel tried to open the oven a second time, but the woman was already sitting up and reaching her hand toward her, so Gretel rushed into the living room area, keeping a tight grip against the mass of stringy hair under her fingernails. She ran for the front door, but the woman charged in front of her and blocked the exit, madness in her eyes, her breathing heavy and erratic.
“I said give it back,” the woman whispered, and this time, her voice was overly masculine, so low and deep it carried through the entire cabin.
Gretel could have cowered in fear at that point, might have dropped to her knees and bawled out her eyes and waited for the inevitable end, but she still had one final weapon within her grasp. She took three steps backward and began tossing the heavy hardbacks from the bookshelf at the woman. Gretel picked up one heavy tome after another and flung them forward across the room, some of the books hitting the woman’s chest, others hitting her legs. One struck her in the face, but no matter—the books weren’t stopping her, the woman still marching toward Gretel, her arms outstretched, her face a splatter of blood and gore.
“My hair! Give it to me now!”
Gretel stopped throwing the books. She stood up straight, turned to her left, and said, “My pleasure.”
She tossed the curly hair into the roaring fireplace, and within seconds, the fire ignited one end of the hair to the other.
The old woman’s jaw dropped as she moved past Gretel and collapsed to her knees. She dipped her right hand into the fire, yanked the burning hair toward her, and blew fiercely against it, not saying another word, not screaming in any pain from the hot inferno on her fingertips.
But she did scream when Gretel picked up one more heavy hardback and slammed it hard against the woman’s head, catapulting her entire body inside the fireplace. A stunned, raucous wail rang out, the woman engulfed in flames, rolling back and forth inside the fireplace, unable to escape.
The noise dissipated soon enough, and by the time Gretel sat back down on the couch, the screams had softened into a defeated whimper. Gretel looked into the fireplace. There was no body to be seen. No random shoe or burnt sweater. It was like the woman had disappeared, or better yet, had disintegrated into a small speck of dust, never to be heard from again.
Gretel finally took a breath, silence enveloping her for the first time in a while. She glanced down at the hardback. It had a minor blood stain in its upper left corner, but otherwise the cover was in pristine condition, like it’d never been touched before today. She slid her thumbs along its spine, then rubbed her index finger across the six-letter title, the font so much bigger than what she and her agent ever wanted. It was Aurora, the hardback first edition.
“Hello, old friend,” Gretel said.
The pounding from the oven commenced again, and Gretel was thrust back into her current time and place. She dropped the book on the floor, then rushed into the kitchen, opened the oven door, and helped Hank back onto his feet. He was trembling all over, but safe, thankfully, even managing a smile at Gretel as soon as they stepped into the warm air outside, where the sun was finally shining, the rain gone for good. She helped him down the first hill, but eventually Hank’s energy returned, and he was finally able to walk again, keeping close to her side the entire journey back to Gretel’s cabin.
When she reached her front door a half-hour later, she turned to Hank, who was standing still on the dirt trail like he had no interest in saying good-bye.
“You know how to get back to the highway from here?” Gretel asked.
“Yeah, I should be good.” He looked back at the steep hill in the distance. “Do you think we should tell anyone what just happened to us?”
“I don’t know. Would anyone believe us?”
“Probably not,” he said. “I don’t think I believe it myself.”
Silence followed for a few seconds, but then they looked at each other, and then they laughed at the exact same time, which in turn created more laughs, the kind that seemed inevitable and necessary. Gretel opened her front door, then nodded her head toward the inside.
“Listen, you want to come in for a minute? You know, before you head back?”
“Uhh, sure,” Hank said. “I’d like that a lot. As long as…”
“Any food you give me comes out of a box or a bag.”
Gretel chuckled. “I have a better idea. How about we drink some wine instead?”
“Wine?” He smiled. “Oh, you’ve got yourself a deal.”
Hank walked up to her porch and began to slide past her, their chests nearly touching, when Gretel put her arm out and stopped him from taking another step.
“What?” he asked. “What is it?”
“Your name. Hank. It’s not short for… Hansel, is it?”
He narrowed his eyes. “Not that I’m aware of.”
“Good,” she said.
A tender grin flashed across her face, and she let him pass through and find a seat on her couch inside the cabin. She gripped her hand against the doorknob, and when she looked at Hank again, she focused on his luscious hair, his muscled arms. A tingling sensation passed through her, and suddenly there was no doubt about it. She was definitely going to kiss this man.
“By the way, Gretel, I never asked,” Hank said. “What do you do for a living?”
She turned around, gazed one last time at the silent, serene nature outside her cabin, and said, “I’m a writer.”
And with that she closed the door.
Brian Rowe received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nevada, Reno. His short fiction has been published in Bosque Journal, Hashtag Queer, New Mexico Review, and The Saturday Evening Post.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Gretel”:
We like stories that go outside the box, and author Brian Rowe has, in our opinion, done that with “Gretel.” He starts with a seemingly ordinary story line, slowly morphs it into a fairy tale-like one, then gives it closure back in the real world at the end. The result is an enjoyable, amusing, and refreshing take on a classic. And that’s why we chose to publish it.