into the woods

Into the woods – Lost Children: Hansel and Gretel revisited

Once upon a time, there lived a brother and sister; the brother was called Hansel, and the sister was called Gretel. They lived in a small cottage with their father deep in the woods. Their mother was dead, and they were very poor. Their father loved Hansel and Gretel more than anything in the world, and he longed for them to have a mother again. He, too, longed for the touch of a woman again. He remarried out of hope, lost in the ashes of despair and loneliness. But he married a cold and cruel woman. She could not find it in her heart to love Hansel and Gretel, and soon began devising ways in which to get rid of them, to send them deep into the heart of the forest, to leave them alone with lean grey wolves, to lose them so completely that they would be lost forever –

“What are you reading?”

Hannah was startled and shuddered a gasp, her eyes wide. The book on her lap trembled as she looked toward the open window, where she saw Gregory’s face, mild and curious, looking at her.

“Shh!” she said, putting a finger to her lips. She looked quickly at her closed bedroom door, then got up and went to the window.

“Gregory, do you want to get me in trouble?” she whispered.

“No.” Gregory hesitated. “I came to say hello.”

“Hello.” Hannah said, “Now, goodbye, goodnight.” She turned away from the window.

“Wait -”

Hannah closed her eyes. She liked Gregory a lot, but she knew that if her step-father caught him here, like this, in the middle of the night – she didn’t want to think of the consequences.

“What are you reading?”

“Gregory, please, you need to leave.”

“Why won’t you call me ‘Greg’? Only my grandparents and my teachers call me Gregory.”

“I like the name Gregory -” Hannah stopped, “Whatever. We can talk about this another time. You are going to get me into serious trouble. If anyone wakes up -” Tears came to Hannah’s eyes; she bit her lip.

“Hey… hey, I’m sorry. I thought you might like the surprise.”

“I don’t.”

This wasn’t going at all like Greg had planned. He thought she might find his visit romantic, or something. What did he know, he thought. He was twelve years old and in love. Was it love? If it wasn’t love, then what was that weird feeling in his stomach when he thought of Hannah, of her long golden hair, of her soft voice. The wild, sweet smelling roses in his hand were wilting, and he suddenly squeezed the bouquet so tightly that one of the thorns bit his palm and trickled blood into his hand.

“I’m sorry.” He held the flowers into the open window. “Really I am.”

“Oh.” Hannah said, surprised, looking from the roses to Gregory’s face. He was blushing deeply.

Her hand reached out to accept the gift and for a moment, she held the bouquet in both hands, bringing the flowers close to her face, brushing the petals against her lips so she could inhale their scent, before her bedroom door suddenly opened.

She froze for an instant, then quickly threw the flowers out of the window. Greg saw her eyes flash, the way he imagined a doe would look as an oncoming car advanced, stock-still with fear, unable to defend herself against the crash. Her step-father stood at the doorway.

Greg crouched low. His heart was beating so fast, so loudly inside his chest, he was sure he would be found out.

Hannah was right, he shouldn’t have come. He didn’t want to get her in trouble. He didn’t think about that. He lived with his grandparents, and they didn’t care what he did or where he went. His mother was a teenager when she had him, and she left him with his grandparents when he was born. No one knew who his father was; he was a grey shadow. And all he knew of his mother was that gave birth to him, and then she left him; his grandparents said that she was lost.

“Get away from that window.”

Hannah’s step-father staggered across the room and grabbed her arm. He smiled at her, a cold, cruel smile. Then he let go of her arm and touched her hair, letting it run through his fingers.

“You know what I want. Get into bed.” Hannah began to cry softly.

Greg heard her crying. He didn’t know what was going on. Her step-father closed the light but he didn’t leave the room. Greg was afraid to leave, he was afraid to stay. He didn’t want to make a sound.

All was silence, more silence, then silence broken by sobs. And then sounds that he wished he never heard; sounds that he never should have heard. Rose petals and thorns were scattered on the ground around him. The scent was so sweet, so sickly sweet, he felt his stomach heave, and then he ran, he ran and ran, across streets and houses and into the woods as far as he could, before the nausea overtook him and he fell to the ground, shaking and in tears.

Night passed, and Greg awoke to the dawn chorus of birds and the first weak rays of the sun. He went home.

Grandmother and Grandfather were at the kitchen table, eating breakfast. They didn’t acknowledge him. They didn’t even know he had been gone all night. He went straight to his room, and tried to go back to sleep, back to blessed unconsciousness, but he couldn’t. He tossed and turned the nightmare of the previous night still vivid in his mind. Hannah. He had to do something. He had to help her.

The next morning he went to Hannah’s. Her mother greeted him at the door. She was wearing a grey dress. She smiled.

“Yes, Hannah’s home, Gregory, come on in.”

Greg walked into the hallway and stood there awkwardly as Hannah’s mother called her name several times.

“Hi Gregory.” Hannah appeared shyly.

“Hey, want to go for a walk or hang out at the park or something?”

“Umm, I …” Hannah’s face turned red. “I can’t right now.”

Hannah’s mother turned to her. “You’ve been stuck in that room all day. Go outside. It’s summer.”

“I’m reading.”

“Go outside.” Hannah’s mom said firmly. “Take a walk with Gregory. Go to the park or something, just be home by dinner. Remember, I have an overnight shift tonight.”

Hannah looked quickly at her mother. “But I thought you said no more overnights.”

“I know, I know. But we need the money, sweetie. You won’t be alone. Your dad will be here.”

“He’s not my dad.” Hannah said, her voice edging anger.

Hannah’s mother let out a long, resigned sigh. Greg looked at the floor, his mind working. She didn’t know, he thought, her mother didn’t know.

“I’m sorry.” She said, and tried to give her a hug, but Hannah turned away.

“Let’s go Gregory.” Hannah began to walk out of the door.

“Hannah.” Her mother called after her; it was a soft cry, a plea.

The screen door slammed as Hannah left the house and Greg shifted uncomfortably in the hallway, left alone with Hannah’s mother, who seemed on the verge of tears.

“It’s okay. Her father died only a few years ago. It’s been very difficult, very hard on her – but, it’s okay, go… Thank you, Gregory, for being a friend to her. She hasn’t made many friends since we moved here.”

Greg nodded and left to find Hannah; together they walked towards the park.

They walked in silence. Every once in a while he heard Hannah sniff and saw her wipe her eyes. He didn’t know what to do. He wanted to tell her the plan, but it seemed more difficult now that she was there to hear it.

“I want to help you.” Greg said.

“You can’t help me. No one can help me. I don’t even know why you are here.” Hannah began to cry even more.

“But I can help you… I want to. I like you, Hannah. I mean, I.” Greg stopped, took a deep breath, and began again.

“You should tell your mother.”

“No.”

“The way I see it is that there are two options. The first, probably the smartest, is to tell your mother.”

“No.”

“But why not?”

“I said NO.”

“But Hannah –”

“I tried already, okay! She wouldn’t listen to me. She thought I was making it up because I lost my real dad, because we moved here and I didn’t want to.” Hannah was crying, sobbing hard.

Greg watched her helplessly. He wasn’t used to girls crying like this. He wasn’t used to any of this. He wanted to kill her step-father. He wanted to kill him.

“We can go somewhere else. Just keep walking through the woods and come out somewhere new, somewhere people don’t know us. We can change our names.”

“She wouldn’t listen to me.” Hannah whispered.

“You can’t stay there. You can’t.”

“I don’t want to.”

“So that’s the second plan. We’ll run away. We’ll go somewhere else. I promise I’ll protect you. I won’t let him hurt you ever again.”

Hannah’s tears began to subside into small sobs.

“Tonight, we’ll go tonight. After your mother goes to work … I’ll meet you at the window and you can jump. Bring enough to fit into a bag. But you’ll be carrying that bag for a while so don’t make it heavy. Some clothes, some food.”

“Books?” she added.

“Yeah,” Greg said, “whatever you want. Just don’t make it heavy. We can’t take too much because we’ll be walking an awful lot.”

“Are you sure about this, Gregory?” Hannah looked at him with liquid eyes. “What if we get lost? What if we get killed in the woods?”

“I used to be Boy Scout, Hannah. I know how to survive in the woods.”

As the afternoon progressed, so did their plan. Greg had no reason to stay with his grandparents. He knew they didn’t want him around anyway. Hannah needed help. She needed him.

At home, Greg gathered everything he thought they might need. Despite telling Hannah not to make her bag heavy, he knew he was making his a little heavy. He could handle the weight. They needed cooking utensils, the camp stove, a tarp, sleeping bags, and all the dry food he could take from his grandparents’ pantry. He gathered spare rope, his Swiss army knife, matches, and a change of clothes.

What do you take, he thought, knowing you won’t ever return? There was his trophy from the years he spent playing baseball. His collection of baseball cards. His collection of comics. His old stuffed animal that he never slept with anymore, well almost never. A picture of his mother.

No, he thought. Those were child’s things. He didn’t need those things. He didn’t feel much like a child anymore. He double and triple checked his bag. When he left the house, his grandparents were watching television. He said “see you later” and there was no answer, no goodbye.

Promptly at ten o’clock, he approached Hannah’s window. He could see her pacing the room.

“I’m here.” Greg whispered.

Hannah swiftly eased her bag from under the bed. She handed it to Greg and he placed it on the ground beside him. He noted that it wasn’t too heavy. He wondered what she had brought. He watched her as she glanced at her bedroom door and then began to make her way through the window.

“I’m scared.” Hannah said, perched on the window ledge.

“I’ll catch you.”

“No, just – get out of the way. I’m going to jump.”

It wasn’t a far jump. She hit the ground with both feet and grabbed her bag.

“Okay, remember, just like we said. Don’t run. We won’t run. Just walk as normal as possible.”

Greg continued to talk in a nervous but soothing sort of way. The words filled the air between them as they walked steadily into the woods. When they reached the woods they did not even pause, they just kept walking.

“It’s so dark.” Hannah said, moving closer to Greg.

“It’s okay; I have a flashlight, let’s just get in a little further. I don’t want to attract attention with the light.”

Hannah’s eyes strained to see through the blackness. There were no shadows, no shades of grey. Greg had walked these paths so many times, he moved more by memory than anything else. Hannah tripped over some stray branches on the path and let out a cry.

“Are you okay?”

“I think so. I just can’t see anything.”

“Hold my hand … if you want to.”

Hannah reached for his hand. She held it tightly. Greg felt his heart beat wildly. They would walk a little further, and then he’d take out the flashlight. Maybe Hannah would keep holding his hand.

He knew of an old grey cabin hidden deep in the woods; that’s where they were headed. It was rumored that a witch lived there, but he knew that it was really only an abandoned shed. They would have to walk as fast and as far away as possible before Hannah’s step-father discovered that she was missing. He knew that her mother would freak out and call the police. He knew his grandparents wouldn’t notice that he was gone right away, but they would eventually.

He shifted the weight on his back and squeezed her hand. They had a dark, twisting path ahead, and a lot of ground to cover, before they got too tired, before night broke into day, before they were found, lost.

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