A retelling of a favorite fairy tale.
Cadmium blue. Emily Ray lowered her binoculars and studied the children. The girl’s aura was a brilliant, cadmium blue.
The leather of Emily Ray’s utility belt creaked as she glanced over her cruiser’s back seat and checked the empty Alsuma streets.
Satisfied, she lifted her binoculars and studied the children once again. They sat beneath a rusted ‘Bus Stop’ sign. The boy was nothing special, virtually no aura at all, but the girl…
Dropping her police cruiser into gear, Emily Ray pulled up to the bus-stop and stepped out of her car.
In the bleak, February wind, the children snuggled beneath the protection of a stained, Hulk blanket. Two sets of bright blue eyes and a few blonde tangles poked from above Hulk’s torso.
“Oh, you dear children. Where did you come from?” Emily Ray’s eyes drifted to the Waffle House a half-block up the road, then to the empty carwash across the street. “Is your Momma or Daddy about?
Only a headshake from the smaller of the two gave any indication they’d heard.
Emily Ray stepped around her car and leaned against the passenger door. She studied them a moment, then smoothed down a torn piece of the reflective Sheriff’s Department decal plastered to the door.
“Ya’ll don’t talk much do ya?” Emily Ray said.
The two sets of blue eyes looked to each other before the older of the two let the blanket drop to reveal the rounded and dirt-smudged face of a stocky boy no older than twelve.
“W…w-we are…we are not s-supposed to talk to s-strangers.” He spoke at a halting, stuttered pace that made his words seem too big for his mouth. Once he’d had his say, he slipped beneath the blanket and, once again, peered over the top.
In that brief instant, Emily Ray recognized something different in the boy’s features.
“Have your parents told you about the police?”
“And are the police good guys or bad guys?”
There was a time when the question was a no brainer. Nowadays, it seemed almost a tossup.
“The good guys!” the smaller one blurted. Her young voice was as sharp and clear as the bright, winter air.
“That’s right, we’re the good guys.” Emily Ray squared her shoulders and smiled. “I’ll bet you two are cold. Am I right?”
Another shared glance, and a nod from both.
“Would either of you like a muffin?”
Their eyes widened.
Fast, wide-eyed nods from the girl and a narrowed, suspicious gaze from the boy.
Emily opened the cruiser’s door and leaned in to retrieve a rumpled paper sack from the back seat. She crinkled it open and took out a blueberry muffin.
“I’m sorry I don’t have more.” She handed it to the boy.
The blanket dropped into their laps as he peeled away the wrapper, pulled off a piece, and handed it to his sister. Though their faces differed, their blue eyes and blonde hair virtually guaranteed they were related.
The girl, maybe seven, had the same towheaded hair as her brother, her long curls crushed beneath a stocking cap. Her thin face stuck out from a down-jacket easily three sizes too large. Borrowed from her brother Emily Ray guessed. The boy, his clothes just as dirty, wore two layers of sweaters over a pair of holed jeans.
As they devoured the snack, Emily Ray studied the empty streets.
“Well, I can’t leave you two out here on your own.” She looked at the children and smiled. “Now can I?”
The boy rose from the bench, muffin crumbs plastered to his chin. As he spoke, he said each word with purpose.
“I am..I am her b..b-brother,” he pointed a finger at the girl, “and I am the one t-taking …taking care of her.”
The boy’s thick, studied words, and peculiar features suddenly clicked. He was retarded.
“Aww, look at you out here,” Emily Ray said. “A little retarded boy taking care of his sister.”
His face darkened as color bloomed in his cheeks “I am…I am a d..d-down syndrome p-person,” he said. “I am..I am n-not retarded.”
Emily Ray took a step back, smiling.
“Oh, my.” She looked to the girl and winked. “I apologize Mr….” She straightened and placed a finger aside her chin. “You know, we haven’t been properly introduced. I’m Deputy Emily Ray of the Alsuma County Sheriff’s Department.” She looked at the girl. “But you can call me Miss Emily.” She offered her hand to the boy. “And what’s your name?”
He looked to his sister then to Emily Ray’s outstretched hand. His grip was soft and moist.
“I am…I am Hans G..G-Gunderson, and this is my little s-sister, G…G-Greta.”
She gave Hans’s hand another shake then crouched down beside the girl.
“Hi, Greta. I’m Miss Emily.” She offered her hand. “Do you know where your parents are?”
“They ran away to do drugs, all right.” Greta lifted her blanket so only her eyes peered out.
Hans shoulder-bumped his sister, his brows knit into a rebuke. “You’re not supposed to s...s-say.” He looked to Emily Ray then quickly away.
“That’s all right,” Emily Ray said. “I guessed as much.”
When she took the girl's hand, Emily Ray's eyes widened. “Goodness, gracious, you’re cold as a pop-sickle.” She took Greta’s other hand and pressed them in her palms. “Aren’t you two freezing?” She looked to the boy. “It’s thirty-eight degrees out, you’ve got to be cold.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Emily Ray said. The children shared a look as she rose and opened the cruiser’s back door. “My police car’s nice and warm, and besides…” She shrugged. “I can’t leave you out here all alone, not without your mom and dad. If I did, I’d get into all sorts of trouble with the Sheriff.” She looked to them shaking her head. “You wouldn’t want me to get into trouble, now would you?”
The girl skootched to the edge of the bench with the blanket bunched in her lap. The boy’s eyes narrowed.
“Did I mention I have lunch?” Emily Ray said. She looked to Hans. “Does a hamburger sound good? Maybe with jack cheese and onions?”
“I…I don’t l-like onions,” Hans said.
“Okay, nix the onions.”
And with no more trouble than that, Emily Ray bundled the children into her back seat and slid behind the wheel. With a satisfied sigh, she lifted the mic from the dash.
“Robert one-oh-two, show me ninety-seven on that check the well-being call.”
“Ten-four, Robert one-oh-two,” the dispatcher’s voice crackled over the speakers. “Time now, thirteen-forty-two hours.”
Emily Ray set the mic in its cradle then slung an arm over the back seat so she could see the children. “I’m gonna run into the diner real quick,” then it’s off to lunch.” She smiled. “So, stay right here, ‘kay?”
Emily Ray pulled up to the Waffle House, took her keys from the ignition, and locked the doors. She strode up to the front door and stepped into a warm rush of breakfast-scented air.
“Hey, Gail,” Emily Ray waved to a waitress at the far end of the counter. “How’s it goin’?”
“Emily, how are you?” A stout woman with jet black hair and a sleeve of tattoos slapped a dishtowel over her shoulder and stepped around the counter. She pulled Emily Ray into a hug.
“Girl, I ain’t seen you in a month ah Sundays,” Gail said. She leaned past Emily Ray and looked into the streets. “You here about them kids?”
“Yup, we got your call.” Emily Ray turned and looked towards the parking lot. Only the cruiser's hood and front tire were visible from the window. “Two kids, right? A boy and a girl?” She turned and followed the waitress’s gaze. “Did they say anything before they left?”
“Not much.” Gail produced an order pad from her apron, flipped it open, and began to read. “Hans and Greta Gunderson.” She stuffed the pad in her apron. “Seven and twelve years old.”
She shrugged. “That’s all I got.” She leaned against the counter and sighed. “It was pretty busy and the next time I looked up, they were gone.”
From her breast pocket, Emily Ray produced her own notepad and jotted down the names.
“Can you describe em’?”
Gail’s eyes drifted skyward in thought. “Blonde, both of em’. Towheaded, you know?” She met Emily’s eyes. “The boy was maybe five foot tall, heavy. The girl …” She shrugged. “I don’t know, forty, maybe fifty pounds…skinny. Didn’t look like they’d had a good meal in days.” She paused a second in thought. “Oh, an’ the boy’s special needs. Down syndrome, I think.”
“Uh, huh.” Emily nodded, scratching on the pad. “Anything else?”
“Yeah.” Gail leaned against the counter and frowned. “I think they’re abandoned, runaways maybe.” She crossed her arms and sighed. “I noticed em’ starin’ in the front windows around ten or ten-thirty, right before the lunch rush. They came in and sat down at the bar. The boy wanted to know how much they could get for fifty-seven cents.” She shook her head. “Sad really. I gave em’ some eggs and pie but couldn’t get much out of em’. Just that they’d been staying at the Holiday Express up on Highway 9.”
Emily gnawed her lip as she imagined the rundown Motel at the edge of town. The Holiday Express was known for two things, one-night stands, and meth.
“Any mention of parents?” Emily Ray asked.
Gail frowned. “Nope.”
Emily Ray closed her notepad and stepped to the counter. “Thanks, Gail, you've been a huge help.” She eyed a stack of donuts beneath a glass cake-cover. “How about a couple of donuts for the road?”
Emily Ray slid into her cruiser and turned around. “Well, I see you guys met Gail.” She removed the donuts, wrapped each in a napkin, and handed them back.
“She was nice,” the girl said.
“Mmm, hmm,” the boy agreed, his mouth filled with donut.
Picking up the mic, Emily Ray dropped the cruiser into gear and headed down the road. “Okay, now be quiet, then it’s off to lunch.” She met their eyes and smiled.
Emily Ray keyed the talk button, “Robert one-oh-two.”
“Robert one-oh-two, go ahead,” the dispatcher returned.
“Robert one-oh-two, show me ten-eight off this call. Negative contact, break.”
“One-oh-two,” the dispatcher acknowledged. “Go ahead.”
“Show me ten-forty-six at my residence,” Emily Ray said.
“Ten-four.” The dispatcher's voice was mellow and slow. A jazz voice, Emily Ray thought. “Are you sure, you don’t wanna drop by dispatch?” the voice asked. “We’ve been ordering low-fat meals and walking on our lunch hour. Natalie’s already lost five pounds, and I’ve lost two.”
“No thanks, Tina,” Emily Ray said.
In the rear-view mirror, she spotted Greta poke Hans in the ribs eliciting a yelp. Emily Ray scowled and held a finger to her lips. “I’d love to, but I’m swamped. Maybe next week.”
A chuckle came over the speakers. “Okay, Robert one-oh-two. Ten-four. But watch out for those home-cooked meals, they’ll catch up to you one of these days.”
Emily Ray lived deep in the woods at the edge of Lake Thunderbird Falls state park. After pulling out of Alsuma, they took Highway 9 to the north gate park entrance and bounded along the rutted, gravel track, leaving behind a cloud of gray dust to mark their passage.
“Forgive the mess.” Emily Ray said as she helped the children from the car and escorted them onto the front porch. "But I wasn’t expecting guests.”
The door opened onto a dim, open space with a Navajo patterned couch and a rough-wood coffee table. The kitchen was situated against the back wall with an assortment of overhanging copper pots above tan marble countertops, and gleaming stainless-steel appliances. But what caught the children’s eyes and froze them in place, were the paintings.
Above the stone fireplace, hung a squared canvas eight feet tall. On it was painted a brilliant, sunset-colored rose. The flower’s pink and purple-shadowed petals stood out in almost 3-D clarity atop a green stalk that breathed with life, and despite the room’s shadows, a dozen similar paintings lit the space to brilliance with their joyous and bright colors.
With the children left gawking on her couch, Emily Ray flitted to the coffee table and scooped up an empty plate and a half-filled glass before rushing into the kitchen.
“We’re gonna have so much fun,” she said, “you just wait an’ see.”
With a clatter of pans and several dives into the pantry, the smell of frying burgers and battered fries soon filled the air. In minutes, she'd set an open-faced bun with a cheese-topped patty, a pile of fries, and a scoop of chocolate pudding in front of each.
“All right, my dears.” Emily grabbed the remote and flicked the TV to Nickelodeon. “While you two eat, I’ll get everything ready.”
Though they eyed the food hungrily, neither ate. The girl looked from her plate to the boy, who looked, in turn, to Emily Ray.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “I thought you were hungry.”
“W...w-we don’t have any m-money,” Hans said.
“Don’t worry about that.” Emily Ray waved a hand and chuckled. “You and your sister are now wards of the state.”
The children exchanged a confused look.
“That means you’re my responsibility until we find your parents.”
They still looked uncertain.
Emily Ray laughed. “It also means your burgers are free. So go ahead…eat all you want.”
It was all the encouragement they needed. As they ate, Emily Ray pulled out her phone and tapped across the screen. Satisfied with what she saw, she dropped into a chair, crossed her legs, and watched them eat.
“Do you know.” Emily Ray uncrossed her legs and reversed them. “That I’ve rarely seen such a beautiful aura.”
The boy tucked the last bit of burger between his lips, a sheen of grease on his chin. The girl had only taken a couple of bites of burger, focusing her attention instead on the pudding and fries.
At Emily Ray’s words, they looked up.
“W…w-what’s an aura?” Hans asked.
Emily Ray’s eyes narrowed as they flicked to the boy. Ignoring his question, she leaned closer to the girl. “Do you know what an aura is, sweetheart?”
Greta’s curls, freed of the dirty cap, bounced when she shook her head.
“An aura’s a person’s spirit. Their soul.” She leveled a finger at Greta. “I can see a person’s spirit.” She nodded as Greta’s eyes widened. “I can see your spirit.” She leaned back, once more crossing her legs.
“The lord’s blessed me with synesthesia, have you ever heard that word?”
They shook their heads.
“It means I can see colors other’s can’t.” She waved a hand to the windows and the winter-grayed world beyond. “I see colors in the wind, in music.” She smiled and met Greta’s eye. “And sometimes in people too. Like your spirit, Little Miss, is cadmium blue. No doubt about it, a brilliant, cadmium blue.”
Greta squared her shoulders and looked to Hans.
“I’m cabinet blue,” she said with a wide, gap-toothed grin.
“Cad…me..um, Sweetheart,” Emily Ray corrected, “Cadmium blue.”
“W-what color am I?” Hans asked.
Emily’s smile faded. “I’m sorry, little man.” She reached out and patted Hans’s knee. “You don’t have an aura like real people.” She pushed out her lower lip. “You’re just a muddy ol’ gray. Nothing special ‘bout you at all.” Her eyes drifted to the window. “Like a dreary February day.”
The boy’s face fell, and he looked to the floor.
“Oh, don’t fret. It’s some people’s lot in life to be a burden to others.” She patted him again. “It’s not your fault, it’s just the way the world is.”
“Well, now. “Emily Ray pushed to her feet. “Enough sad talk, I’ve gotta get back to work, and of course the Sheriff has rules against unsupervised children wandering the streets.” She pursed her lips and hands-on-knees, bent down to face them. “We can’t have you roaming around all cold and hungry, now can we?”
“But.” She clapped her hands. “Even though you’ve got to stay here, we’ll have so much fun you won’t even notice you’re locked up.”
She took Greta’s hand and lead her down the hall. Hans followed a pace behind. “I’ve never had two children with me,” she looked back at Hans and smiled. “The Sheriff’s quite strict on how we house our little boys and girls.” She met Hans’s eye and winked. “So, we’ll have to bend the rules just a little.”
At the center of a short hall, a bedroom opened on one side and a bathroom on the other. At the end of the hall, a third door stood ajar.
“This will be your room, sweetheart.” She laid a hand on Greta’s shoulder and guided her in. “At least until we find your parents.”
A twin bed with fluffy pastel pillows and a dancing kitten comforter sat beneath a set of sunflower-yellow curtains. On a bedside table beside a mini-fridge, sat an X-Box controller, games, and mounted on the wall, a 56” flatscreen.
“The toilet’s in here.” She opened a door beside the bed and revealed a sink, toilet, and fiberglass tub with smiley-face shower curtains.
“And a closet.” She opened a second door, but it was empty. “Don’t worry, I’ll pick up some clothes, and tonight we’ll get you all cleaned up.” She closed the closet and met Greta’s eyes. “Do you have a preference in PJs? Unicorn, princess, super-hero?”
“Princess PJs please.”
Emily Ray smiled. “Princess PJs it is.”
Emily Ray stepped to the room's mini-fridge, opened the door, and frowned. Inside, sat a half-empty Dr. Pepper, two bottles of water, and a jar of strawberry jam.
“I guess it’s been a while since my last guest.” She crouched in front of Greta. “But tonight, we’ll make a list and fill this thing with anything you want.”
“Anything?” Greta asked.
“That’s right, sweetheart, anything at all. You just name it.”
Hans stood at the doorway, loudly clearing his throat until Emily Ray turned her eyes on him.
“Yes,” she said through gritted teeth, “what is it, Hans?”
“P-Papa, said we shouldn’t eat too many s-sweets. It’ll r…r-rot our teeth.”
Emily Ray’s eyelids fluttered and she took a breath. “Well, this is a special case, don’t you think?” She looked to Greta nodding. “Isn’t that right?” When the girl mirrored her nod, she turned back to Hans.
“How about I get her a fancy new toothbrush and she can brush to her heart’s content?”
Hans looked a little confused but nodded anyway. “I g..g-guess that’d be okay.”
Emily Ray looked past him into the living room. “Finding a place for you might pose a challenge.”
As they turned to go, Emily Ray held out a hand to stop Greta from leaving. “Not you, little angel, you’ve got to stay here.”
Emily Ray poked her finger into a latch in the door’s frame and pulled a pocket-door from the wall. The pocket door, a set of thin metal bars, slid to cover the doorway while at the same time allowing the bedroom door to be shut from outside. Emily Ray withdrew a key and locked the bars with a click.
Greta rushed to the opening and pressed her face against the bars.
“W-why…why do you have bars on G-Greta’s room?” Hans’s brows furrowed as he looked from his sister to Emily Ray.
“That’s because we’re a bit like a jail,” she said, “but a fun jail.”
Emily Ray took Hans’s hand and lead him into the living room. When they stepped out of view, Greta shrieked and reached out for her brother. Hans rushed back and they hugged each other through the bars.
As they cried, Emily Ray checked her watch. “Okay, that’s enough,” she said.
When their wails only intensified, she pulled the baton from her patrol belt and clattered it across the bars. “I said, enough!” Her red face punctuated the ring of wood on steel and the children looked up in surprise. Emily Ray’s features softened.
“I said…” She tilted her head and forced a smile. “That is enough. There’s no need for tears.” She laid a hand on Hans’s shoulder and drew him away.
“Don’t worry,” Emily Ray said to Hans’s concerned look. “she’ll get used to it soon enough. They always do.”
“Bu…bu…but you can’t l-leave her there.” He turned and stared down the hall.
“If I were you.” Emily Ray extended a bony finger. “I wouldn’t worry about my sister.” At the word ‘sister’, she poked Hans in the chest. “I’d be worried about myself.” She jabbed him again and Hans’s eyes widened.
“You and your sister.” She poked Hans and backed him against the wall. “Are my responsibility.” Jab. “And you will do exactly.” Jab, “As I say.”
Hans's eyes grew moist and he rubbed at his chest. “Do you understand?”
He stared up with wide, frightened eyes.
"I said, do you under-stand?"
“And do you see those cameras?” Emily Ray pointed to one peering into the hallway from a spot on the wall. She pointed to a second, looking like a cue ball on a block. It sat beside a stack of books in the living room shelves. She pointed out a third floating cue-ball in the kitchen atop the fridge.
“Besides those, there’s a camera in your sister’s room, my room, and outside.”
She waited for Hans’s eyes to complete their tour before going on.
“I can see and hear everything.” She nodded towards the front door. “And when I leave in the morning, no one’s coming in or out.”
“You.” She jabbed him again. “Will not touch my cameras or I will be very, very, upset. Do I make myself clear?”
“Good.” Emily Ray stepped back and her features softened.
“I don’t like being the bad guy,” she cocked her head. “but sometimes I must. You understand?”
Hans nodded again.
“Good.” Her face brightened and she opened her palms. “See, we’ve come to an understanding already.”
Brushing her hands on her thighs, Emily Ray looked around.
“Well, I supposed I’d better get back to work.” She looked to Hans. “But what to do with you.” She scrubbed her chin and looked about the room.
“Do you know how to sweep? You do? And mop?” She smiled at his nod. “Excellent.”
She lead him to the pantry where a mop and broom hung beside a bucket of cleaning supplies and a vacuum cleaner.
“This should keep you busy until I get home.” She looked at Hans and nodded. “And tonight, besides a list of goodies for your sister, I’ll make a list of chores for you." She checked her watch. "After dinner, you and I will have an in-depth discussion about rules.”
Tears sparkled in his eyes. “Bu…bu..bu.”
“Bu, bu, bu, what?” Mocked Emily Ray. “Spit it out for God’s sake.”
A tear drizzled down his cheek and patted on his shirt. “B-but I . I . I want g-goodies too?”
Emily Ray laughed. It was a hearty, full laugh.
“And why waste money on you?" She stepped to the door and smiled. “If I gave you something, you’d only forget it a few minutes later.” She reached down and tucked him beneath the chin. “That’s almost like throwing it away.”
Emily Ray closed the door and the deadbolt ground shut with a 'thunk.' Not sure of what to do, Hans rushed to the front window and drew back the curtains. They were blocked by black, steel bars bolted to the wall. Beyond them, he watched Emily Ray pull out her cellphone before climbing into her cruiser. A second later and he heard her voice, tinny and clear over the camera’s speakers.
“Get away from that window and get to work,” she said.
Hans looked around until his eyes landed on the bookshelf camera. The ball swiveled its electronic eye and glared.
“Come on, chop-chop,” Emily Ray’s disembodied voice said.
The car started, the scrunch of gravel dwindling as it pulled away.
“Get to work,” Emily Ray said once more, “You don’t have all day.”
That night, Emily Ray returned with an extra-large dog crate, a padlock, and an armful of cushions for Hans’s bed. She crafted a list of everything Greta wanted, and a shorter list of chores to keep Hans busy while she was away.
Their lives ran to the relentless tick of Emily Ray's clock, and over the next several weeks, they settled into the routine. At 5:50 A.M. they were awakened by the chuffing of Emily Ray’s automatic-coffee maker. At six, the grinding buzz of her alarm announced the beginning of another day.
She released Hans by seven and was out the door by seven-thirty. At noon, she returned for lunch, sometimes carrying a bag of burgers, or a box of pizza, but usually only a set of barked orders on what Hans should make for lunch. At five, she returned, changed into jeans and a baggy shirt before allowing Greta from her room. She and Emily Ray would play checkers or watch TV as Hans prepared their meal. At eight, Emily Ray put them back in their cages and disappeared into her backyard shop. Greta could see the shop through her bedroom window but never figured out what Emily Ray was doing in there.
In the moments between the coffee maker firing up and Emily Ray scuffing sleepily out her bedroom door, the children talked. Greta sat at the bars with her legs tucked beneath her. From his crate, Hans could hear her breathing. Just knowing she was there made him feel better.
“Rise and shine,” Emily Ray called from the kitchen. She filled her mug and puttered into the living room. At the grumble of distant thunder, she pulled aside the shades and peeked outside.
“All right, out cha go.” She unlocked Hans’s crate and nodded towards the kitchen. “Breakfast isn’t going to fix itself.”
He scrambled eggs, fried bacon, and buttered toast as Emily Ray ducked into her bedroom to dress. When the high-pitched whine of Emily Ray’s water pipes announced her entrance into the shower, Hans crept back to Greta’s door. He knew from painful experience they had until Emily Ray’s hairdryer fired up to talk.
Crouching beside Greta’s bars, he considered her as she waddled over and dropped down beside him. She’d gained so much weight since Emily Ray took them in that he wondered if Papa would recognize her.
“Hans.” She slipped an arm through the bars and took his hand. “How much longer do we have to stay?”
Hans studied his sister’s face and shook his head. Her once thin cheeks were plump and rosy, her fingers and arms round. On a steady diet of cake, pop, and pizza, her skin glistened with the effort of holding her all in.
“I d..d-don’t know.”
From behind Emily Ray’s door, the sound of a dresser being closed. The squeak of a faucet and the splash of water in the sink.
“M-Miss Emily is a good g-guy,” Hans said. “We just have to…have to wait un…un.until she finds Papa.”
Greta let go of his hand and stared at her fingers.
“Papa’s never taken this long.” She raised her eyes as a tear crept down her cheek. “What if something happened to him?” She leaned closer, her voice only a whisper. “Hans, I think Miss Emily…” Her eyes cut to Emily Ray’s door then back. “I think she’s bad.”
Hans’s eyes narrowed.
“Bad? But, she’s a p-police.” He shook his head, the concept of Emily Ray being bad was impossible to accept. “Miss Emily has a ….a badge an’ an’…an’ a gun, an’…an’…an’ she drives a police car and everything.” He said this last word louder than the rest and his eyes darted to Emily Ray’s door.
“I know she said that,” Greta whispered.
From Emily Ray’s room, a blow-dryer hummed to life and propelled Hans to his feet.
“But, Hans. She lied.”
That day, Hans thought hard on what Greta had said. He began as he always did, with the dishes. Next, he swept and mopped the kitchen, and scrubbed the hallway bath until its fixtures gleamed. He tried recalling all the stories where good guys had gone bad. Then he remembered Star Wars. Hadn’t Anakin become Vader? Anakin had been good. Then his mother died, and he’d been so angry. Hans wondered if something happened to make Emily Ray so angry too.
He mulled this over as one by one he dusted each painting lining Emily Ray’s walls. There were fourteen in all, copies according to Emily Ray; all except the big one over the mantle. That painting was of a giant, pink rose so wonderfully realistic that sometimes Hans thought he could smell it.
Of all her paintings though, Hans liked Candice the best. Like all of Emily Ray’s work, each was named after a missing child, and on each, she’d stuck a photo. Hans recognized the Candice flower from Papa’s garden back home. It was a Tiger Lily with six orange petals against a vague background of woodsy green. Tiger Lily was a fun name, Hans thought, and he liked the way Candice smiled at him from her school picture at the corner of the frame. She had blue eyes and was missing her front teeth, just like Greta.
Emily Ray said that after helping children at work, she liked coming home and making paintings for all those who were lost. She told Hans she donated most of the money she made from her paintings to the Oklahoma Society for Lost and Exploited Children. It sounded very important. She told him the painting above the fireplace would bring more than seventy-thousand dollars when it went to auction in the fall. Hans hadn’t ever seen that much money, but it sounded like a lot. He figured Papa could fix things again if he had money like that.
As he dusted, Hans studied the grinning photo at the bottom of each painting and wondered what they were like. Candice and Joseph, Allison and Crystal, Ethan with his crooked smile, and Olivia with her bright, dark eyes and head of black curls.
He was jolted from his thoughts by a crack of thunder and flicker of living room lights. When Greta cried out, despite Emily Ray’s rule to never talk with his sister while she was away, Hans dropped his duster and raced into the hall. He found Greta crouched beside the bars crying.
“It’s dark outside, Hans.” She took his hand in hers. “What if there’s a tornado.” Her eyes darted to the window. “There’s tornadoes coming, Hans, I saw it last night on TV.”
“D..don’t worry,” he reassured her. “Remember what …remember what Mama always says. You can’t have r…r-rainbows without a s-storm.”
They sat in silence as the sky darkened, and with a sudden, jagged crack, it opened up and rain sheeted down.
“I don’t like Miss Emily,” Greta said. The pale light from her window sparkled on a tear caught on the roundness of her chin. “She’s never letting us go.”
Greta’s words bound the warning in his heart with the conflict in his head. With a lightning-flash of clarity, Hans understood. Emily Ray had trapped them. He was the older brother. He was supposed to take care of Greta but instead, he'd failed.
“I’m s-sorry, Greta.” His eyes grew hot. “If I wasn’t so s..s-stupid, stupid, stupid!”
With each accusation, Hans slammed his head against the bars.
“Hans quit! Stop! Stop!” She reached up and held him as tears streaked his cheeks.
“You’re not stupid! You’re not!”
Thunder boomed and with a pop, the house was sunk into darkness. All the sounds Hans had overlooked, the hum of the X-Box, the electric click and gas-hiss of the water heater, the refrigerator’s purr. All of it was gone. What remained was the sound of their breathing and the steady exhalation of the storm.
Cowed by the silence, Greta whispered into Hans’s ear, “You’ve got to get us out.”
“But G-Greta? How? Emily Ray’s w…w-watching.” He turned and looked at the camera.
“She can’t see us now,” Greta said. “There’s no power.”
Hans studied the kitchen camera. Its red light was gone. “S-so, they don’t w-w-work?”
Greta shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
Hans rocked back on his haunches and looked down the hall.
“W-what should we do?”
“Can you get outside?”
Hans shook his head. “N-n-no. Emily Ray t-t-takes the key to the front door and the backdoor’s p…p-padlocked.”
Greta rested with her chin on her knee and considered. Outside, the monsoon dwindled to a steady shower.
“What about the garage?” Greta asked. “Can you go through there?”
Hans hugged himself and rocked back and forth.
“Oh, n-n-no.” He shook his head refusing to meet her eye. “I c-can’t.”
It was their first week when Emily Ray lead him to the garage door. She’d pulled an odd, yellow gun from behind her back and snapped off a black square at the end. Hans recognized it as one of the guns Emily Ray wore on her police belt.
“This is the only door outside that's not double-locked,” she’d told him. “Do you know what happens if I find out you’ve opened it?”
Hans shook his head.
“This.” Emily Ray pulled the trigger. The gun clattered like an alarm clock without a bell as tongues of lightning flickered across the end. When she slammed it into Hans’s shoulder, every muscle ignited in pain. His jaw, his arm, his whole body locked as electric fire jittered through his limbs.
When he opened his eyes, he was laying on the floor with Emily Ray staring down. Her eyes were hard as glass. “If I find out you’ve opened that door, that’s what will happen.” She smiled. “But not to you.” She pointed to Greta's room. “To your sister.”
Hans shuddered at the memory.
“Whaddya mean you can’t?” Greta asked.
“Emily Ray said if I open that d..d-door, she’ll h-hurt you.” Hans’s heart thundered like the storm. “Greta.” He squeezed her hand. “She’ll hurt you b...b-bad.”
Greta sighed and pressed against the bars. When she looked up, her face was set, her jaw tight.
“You’ve got to do it anyway.” She took his hand, drew it through the bars, and placed her cheek in his palm. “You’ve got to get us out, Hans.” She looked up and met his eye. “We’ve got to find Papa.”
Hans took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay, G-Greta. I’ll try.”
His legs were wobbly as he pushed to his feet.
“Wait a second,” Greta said, “I’ve got something to help.”
She raced to the toybox and threw back the lid. She scooped out toys by the armload and dumped them to the floor. With a, “got it!” she rushed back to Hans. In one hand, she held a flashlight. Sponge Bob and Patrick were printed on the side. In the other, she held two walkie-talkies: one with an image of Princess Elsa, the other with Princess Anna.
She handed Hans the flashlight. When he flicked it on, it threw a dim, yellow circle on the wall. She clicked on the Anna walkie and handed it through the bars. Hans frowned.
“Greta, we got the same toys from Santa l-last year.” He shook his head and took the walkie. “These things are c..c-crap. Don’t you remember?”
“I know.” She dropped down beside him. “But it’s all we’ve got.”
With a staticky hiss, she clicked on her walkie. She smiled and spoke into the mic, “Ten-four, ten-four, can you hear me?”
With the flashlight in hand and the walkie in his pocket, Hans crept through the silence until he found himself standing at the garage door. He rubbed the spot where Emily Ray Tazed him and looked over his shoulder.
“Don’t be scared,” Greta called. “I’m with you.”
Hans turned the deadbolt and opened the door. He stepped quickly into the garage and shut it behind him. It was warm and stuffy, but despite that, Hans trembled. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, the first thing he noticed was the smell of gasoline. Light seeped around cardboard blinds nailed over a pair of rectangular windows in the garage door and through a lace-curtained window at the back. Hans flipped on his flashlight and cast the beam across the floor.
The space was mainly empty except for a scuffed dresser beside the back door. Two rows of shelves above it were lined with paint cans, spray cans, ceramic pots, and a red jug of gasoline. Hans jumped as the walkie chirped in his hand.
“What do you see?” Greta asked.
“It a g-garage.” He stepped across the concrete floor and cast the flashlight’s beam onto the shelves and dresser. “But m-maybe there’s t…t-tools we can use to g-get you out.”
With a grinding squeal, Hans opened the first drawer. Inside were neatly folded stacks of old towels, rags, and a heap of ancient magazines. The second drawer was filled with old paintbrushes.
Hans keyed the walkie. “Greta, wha..what kind of tools should I be l-looking for?”
After a brief pause, she said. “I don’t know. Something to break the lock or cut the bars. Like a saw or something.”
The rain had let up, though the growl of thunder grew nearer.
“G-Greta,” Hans said after a thorough examination, “There there’s n-nothing we can use.”
“Can you get to the shop?”
Hans made his way to the back door. He unlatched the eyehook and pulled it open.
Water drizzled from the gutters in a line along the garage’s outer wall, and the air was charged with an energy that had the hair on Hans’s arms standing on end. Beyond lay Emily Ray’s shop.
It was an old building, constructed of horizontal wood slats, and ancient, curled shingles. It had a white wood door with a window beside it. Though the rain had stopped, the clouds remained. They circled overhead like water in the drain. Hans thought the dark strands of clouds reaching towards the ground made them look like a giant, swirling octopus.
“Greta, I’m scared,” Hans said over the walkie.
“I know,” she said. “Me too.”
He heard a shout and looked to his right. He spotted Greta’s arm waving at him through the window.
“See,” she called, “I’m with you.”
Feeling less alone, Hans squared his shoulders and crossed the yard as fat, chilly raindrops patted onto his shirt, his arms, and head. At the shop door, he paused. A latch secured it, clamped shut by a huge, rusty padlock. He checked around back, but there was no other entrance and the windows were barred.
Hans cupped his hands and peered through the grime-fogged glass to the darkened space within.
“G-Greta.” He turned to where she peered through the window. “It’s l..l-locked.”
“Maybe she hid a key,” Greta called. “Remember how Grandma Tammy kept a key under the pot?”
Hans scoured the ground searching a line of loose bricks which might have once bordered a garden. He checked beneath a cracked pot which was now a nursery for weeds and Bingo, there it was. Rushing back to the lock, he fitted in the key. With a click, the hasp sprang open and Hans pulled it from the latch.
He looked to the window and waved. “I’m g…g-going inside.”
Greta waved back. “Be careful.”
Placing his fingertips on the paint-blistered door, Hans pushed, and the door creaked open. Light trickled through the doorway and revealed a smooth, concrete floor, and a stack of cardboard boxes beneath the window. A second window, on the far side of the room, cast a glow across a cluttered wooden desk. Atop it, sat rows of glass jars, many stuffed to overflowing with dozens of wooden brushes. A handful of jars were filled with mysterious dark fluids.
A wooden, swivel chair with a faded, blue pillow seat was pushed in front of the desk, and beside it, a thick row of stacked canvas’s leaned against the wall. A pair of green propane tanks were set at their base to hold them in place.
“What do you see now?” Greta’s voice hissed over the receiver.
“Sh-she has an art s…s-studio,” Hans said.” And lots an’ lots of p…p-painting stuff.
Hans’s breath caught as a skitter of movement and a thump turned his eyes
“G…G-Greta,” he whispered into the walkie. “I th…th-think someone’s here.”
Slow as a minute-hand, Hans guided the pale beam of his light across the brush stuffed jars, past a broken easel leaning against the wall, past a huge iron cauldron perched atop cement blocks. The light fell, at last, upon the dark form standing in the corner. A chill shot up Hans’s spine and he clasped his hand over the light and dropped behind the desk.
He turned the walkie’s volume to near zero then keyed the mic. “G…G-Greta.” His mouth was dry, his heart pounding. “There’s a w…w-witch.”
Hans held the walkie to his ear. “Are you sure?” Greta asked.
Hans peeked over the desk and stared into the darkness. The witch stood in the corner, unmoving. She leaned against the cauldron with a conical witch’s hat perched atop her head. She wore a long, black cloak, and had spindly, broomstick arms.
“Yes. I c…c-can hear her m..m-moving.”
“What does it sound like?” Greta whispered.
Hans listened. Beneath the storm’s scattered rumble and the patter of rain, there was a scratching noise. Almost familiar.
“It s…s-sounds like…” Hans lifted his head and peered over the desk. With a nervous chuckle, he stood. This sound was the same scuffing noise his hamsters Cuff and Link made inside their cages back home. When they had a home. Fear drained from Hans like water from a tub as he flicked on his light and marched it across the floor. The witch’s cape became a faded green tarp. Her spindly arms, a push-broom and mop leaning against the wall. And her tall, conical hat? Three nested traffic cones sitting atop the shelf.
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s n…n-nothing.”
Hans searched for a light switch, but only found a pair of buttons near the door where a light switch should be. They clicked heavily when he pressed them, but nothing happened.
Next, he checked the boxes under the window. The top one was open and filled the air with the smell of jasmine. Inside he found several neatly stacked bars of soap. Each was wrapped with an image of a beautiful yellow rose and the name, ‘Candice’, scrawled beneath. It was the same rose and Candice from Emily Ray’s painting. The other boxes were sealed, but their outsides were stamped with the same yellow rose.
Hans began his search of the desk by pulling out the slim middle drawer in front. It was filled with razor blades, rulers, erasers, and a stack of blank pages.
Before he could open the next drawer, a howl arose in the distance. Hans turned and eyed the open door.
The yowling dwindled slowly, slowly almost to the point he could no longer hear it over the rain. Then it rose once again until it’s plaintive cry rang in his ears.
His walkie crackled as Greta’s voice spilled over the airways, “It’s a …” <staticky hiss> “ alarm.” More static followed.
“G-Greta? I c-can’t hear you.”
Hans rushed to the window. Day had become night beneath the canopy of clouds. Peering into the darkness, he spotted Greta’s pale arm waving from the window.
“Hans, get out!” Her voice was tight with fear over the walkie’s tiny speakers. “A tornado’s coming.”
Hans rushed to the door and tilted his head skyward. The air had grown cool, and dark, wispy fingers groped down from the clouds, but he saw no tornado. He returned to the desk, and from the drawer, lifted a leather-bound book. The leather was pale and fleshy with several folded pages stuffed in back. When he flipped open the cover, he saw a pencil drawing of a flower.
“I f…f-found her notebook,” he said into the walkie, “but no t…t-tools.”
He cast his light on the witch’s cauldron, a large metal pot the size of a tub. It squatted atop four scorched cinder blocks with the handle of an old oar jutting over the lip and a tarnished, ladle dangling from its side.
Stepping closer, Hans shown his light on a plastic tarp sitting beside the cauldron. The whole area had a cold, baconey smell that made his skin crawl. Hans nudged aside the tarp to reveal a toolbox beneath.
When he flipped open the lid, he found what he’d been searching for…tools. On top, sat a saw unlike any he’d seen before. It had a black-plastic grip and a wide, silver blade. What made it unusual was the saw’s wide, nickel-plated body. Beneath this, were a set of knives inside a stained leather case, three pairs of pliers, as well as an assortment of screwdrivers, and a hammer.
Hans examined the saw. It wasn’t like the ones Papa kept in his shop for cutting steel. No, this saw had big teeth, not the small, fine ones needed to cut metal. He set it back in the box. The tool was meant to cut something softer than steel. It would never work on Greta’s bars. Then he lifted the hammer.
Now, this. The smooth, wood grip and solid heft felt good in his hand. This he could use. Hans thought back to when Papa broke his fist punching the wall. He’d been drinking with Carla, Papa’s girlfriend after Momma died. Hans couldn’t remember what started the fight. Once they started drinking, they didn’t need an excuse. He remembered yelling and a deep thud that rattled the walls. Papa’s cries of pain soon followed along with a trip to the ER. But it wasn’t Papa’s broken hand that caught in Hans’s mind. It was the fist-sized hole he’d left in the wall. Hans stuffed the hammer in his back pocket, the handle leaning awkwardly from his pants as he looked back to the house. A hammer could make a hole in the wall. One big enough for Greta.
Outside, the tornado alarm rose and fell in waves.
“Greta, I f…f-found something.”
Lightning splashed shadows across the walls.
“Hans, it’s Miss Emily!” Greta’s voice crackled over the speakers. “She’s back!”
Hans spun with indecision turning to the desk, the toolbox, the front door.
“G-Greta. W…w-what do I do?”
Hans heard it now, the distance scrunch of gravel. It grew closer with every breath.
“Grab what you can,” she said, “and get out. Get out now!”
Hans stuffed the leather book in the back of his pants and pulled his shirt down to hide it. He was surprised at the baby-smooth softness as it pressed against his skin.
With the flashlight in one hand and walkie in the other, Hans set the workspace like he’d found it. He rolled the chair into place and covered up the toolbox. At the front door, he paused. The grassy lawn between the shop and house was gone, replaced by a shallow, rain-ringed pool.
“Hurry,” Greta’s shouted from her window. “She’s almost here.”
Hans latched the door then returned the key to its place beneath the pot. He splashed across the yard sending up horsetails of water as he went. When he reached the back door, he could hear Miss Emily’s car. He stepped into the garage and closed the door behind him. With shaking hands, Hans lifted the hook securing the back door and fit it into its ring.
It was too late. Emily Ray was home. She pulled up to the garage door and stopped. Hans stood glued to the floor with his rain-soaked sneakers puddling beneath him.
As Emily Ray opened the car door and marched up to the garage, one thought echoed in Hans’s mind: She’s gonna hurt Greta.
The certainty of it filled him like a scream. The garage door rattled, and Hans felt his bladder let go. The heat of his terror pooled in his crotch and streamed down his leg.
But the garage door did not open. Instead, the footsteps marched to the porch. The returning shadow flitted across the line of light at the garage door’s base before the car door opened and closed again. The engine revved as the driver backed down the drive and disappeared into the distance.
Hans dashed inside and slammed the door behind him. “G-Greta, are y-you okay?”
Greta hugged him through the bars, laughing and crying in shared relief.
“B…b-boy, that was a c…c-lose one.”
Greta smiled and ran her fingers through her hair. “It sure was.”
Then her eyes widened. Hans heard it too. The crush of gravel and gritty skid of a car racing up the drive. Hans sprang to his feet as a car door slammed shut outside.
“She’s back,” Greta whispered.
Hans looked along the hall where his waterlogged footprints cut a trail of guilt across the floor.
“Hide this.” Hans passed Greta the hammer, notebook, walkies, and light then stepped into the living room.
His heart clawed its way into his throat as the front door rattled. The deadbolt turned, and Emily Ray stepped in. She wore a rain-soaked slicker with the word POLICE in yellow letters across her chest. In her hands, Emily Ray held a toaster sized cardboard box with the word: FedEx, printed on the side.
“It’s here!” Emily Ray’s face was alight as he raised the box over her head.
She stalked into the room coming straight at Hans. He fell back against the wall as she slid to a halt before him. He flinched as she reached down to tousle his hair, then turning for the hall, she spread the good news to Greta. Hans looked to the front door where Emily Ray’s damp passage had obliterated his tracks. Tears of relief crowded his eyes as all signs of his adventure were erased.
When Emily Ray strolled back into the living room, box in hand, she paused to flick the light switch toggles then turned around and sighed.
“Well, the first thing to do is light some candles.” She pulled the flashlight from her belt and flicked it on.
Hans lifted a hand against the glare as she pinned him in its glow.
“You disgusting thing.”
She stepped closer and focused the beam on Hans’s crotch. “Did you piss yourself?”
Hans’s eyes drop to the stain of his fear.
“There was a t…t-tornado.” He looked up, squinting against the glare of Emily Ray’s scorn.
“You may be okay living like an animal.” She flicked off the light and headed for the kitchen. “But that’s not how things are done. Not around here.” She dug into a cabinet and pulled out a box of candles. “Now go change your clothes then get to work mopping those floors. Someone has to make dinner.”
Hans changed then returned to the kitchen. He found Greta at the table while Emily Ray busied herself at the stove. Though the lights were out, the stoves’ blue flames danced cheerily.
“As I remember.” Emily Ray bent over and looked to Greta with an elbow on the counter and her chin in her hand. “Your favorite dinner is roast pork.” She turned to the refrigerator and removed a cylinder wrapped in white paper and tied with a tan string. She set it on the counter. “Mashed potatoes.” She opened a cabinet door and with a groan, hefted a machine with an attached silver bowl. She set this on the counter as well, along with a five-pound bag of potatoes. “And peach cobbler.” Emily Ray stretched on her tiptoes and with a crystalline clatter, removed a glass pie pan from the pantry’s top-shelf.
“Did you get ice cream too?” Greta asked. “And bubble gum?”
Emily Ray leaned down to Greta’s level, her hands on her knees. “Of course, little angel.” Greta drew back as Emily Ray chucked her under the chin. “Strawberry ice cream and Double Bubble, right?”
Emily Ray unwrapped the pork then turned to the spice cabinet and sifted through the bottles.
“I've got everything your heart desires.” She looked over her shoulder and smiled. “Tomorrow’s a big day for you, kiddo.” She turned back to Greta and wiped her hands on a towel then cocked her head. She frowned, pursing her lips as if talking to a toddler. “It’ll be a hard day too, but we’ll get through it together.” She leaned over and patted Greta’s hand.
Greta looked to her brother. “Does Hans get dessert too? You said it’s my special day.”
“Of course.” Emily Ray smiled. “It is your day, honey. If you want to waste dessert on your brother, that’s fine by me.”
Hans’s eyes drifted from Greta to Emily Ray.
“But until then.” Her eyes darkened as he considered him. “I suggest he get back to work.”
Dinner was soon over, and Greta pushed back from her plate with a satisfied sigh. Despite, or perhaps because of the day’s events, she found herself more famished than ever. She’d been so hungry, that after two helpings of pork, she’d still found room for cobbler and ice cream. It had been like that ever since they’d arrived. It seemed the more Emily Ray fed her, the hungrier she got.
With the table cleared and Hans at the sink doing dishes, Emily Ray, instead of inviting her into the living room for their pre-bedtime episodes of Andy Griffith and Perry Mason, instead pulled an amber bottle from the cabinet and set it on the table.
“I usually don’t drink, especially in front of minors.” She removed a glass from the shelves, then with a rattle of ice from the fridge's dispenser, filled it to the brim. “But at this point, does it really matter?”
Emily Ray opened the bottle, filled her glass, and dropped into her chair. The ice made a glassy clink as she swirled it, her eyes never leaving Greta. She took a sip and the questions began. Who were her friends at school? Who was her favorite teacher? Did she like sports?
It was strange, this new, interested Emily Ray. Gone was the Emily Ray Greta had known for the past several weeks. The predictable Emily Ray who woke at six, returned for lunch at noon, then home at five for dinner. Rarely did she utter more than a few barked commands before waltzing out to the shop. The more this new Emily Ray drank, the chattier she became.
Hans set the last of the dishes in the rack and stood behind them drying his hands.
“I all d…d-done with the dishes.”
Emily Ray rolled her eyes and rose from her chair grasping the seat-back unsteadily.
“This looks all right.” Her eyes scanned the dishes stacked neatly on a towel. “Why don’t you get into your crate and call it a night.” She looked back at Greta. “Your sister and I are having such a nice conversation, I thought I’d let her stay up a bit longer.”
With a look to his sister, Hans slunk into the living room with Emily Ray behind. After the metallic rattle of Hans’s cage and the hard snick of the padlock, she returned and poured herself another drink. For a long while, Emily Ray stared into the distance, the sound of the refrigerator fan and the clink of ice as she raised and lowered her glass were the only sounds.
“Did you know I once had a little girl?” Emily Ray dropped her eyes to Greta. She slurred like Papa did when he’d been drinking. “A perfect angel…juss…like…you.”
She refilled her glass with ice and dropped into the chair. “You remind me of Jessica, ya know?” Emily Ray sighed. “All of you remind me of her, but you.” She lifted a finger. “You most of all.” Emily Ray cocked her head. “It’s something in your aura, a certain…” She circled a hand in the air. “Energy. That’s …that’s what it is. A certain energy.”
Emily Ray leaned closer, took Greta’s hands, and squeezed them between her gnarled, tree-branch knuckles. Emily Ray’s breath was sour with liquor and Greta turned away.
“It was your intensity that convinced me you were special.” She looked over her shoulder towards the living room. “Convinced me it was worth taking your brother too.”
“My Jessica was like that.” Emily Ray rose and disappeared into the living room. She returned with the FedEx box in hand.
She opened the box and removed a clear, plastic container shaped much like a jelly jar. The jar's label was a stylized paintbrush and the words: Shine Paints: Cadmium Blue, beneath. Emily Ray opened the jar and tilted it so Greta could see the clumped, blue powder within.
“This is the color of your aura,” Emily Ray said. “Or at least it will be.” She screwed on the lid and returned the jar to its box. “It may not look like much, but once I’ve added your essence, poof.” She splayed her fingers in a fan. “Magic.”
Greta cut her eyes to the darkened kitchen window and its reflection of Hans inside his crate. He looked at her and shook his head.
“Your daughter’s name was Jessica?” Greta asked.
Emily Ray lifted her head. “Oh, aren’t you sweet. Yes, Jessica. Would you like to see her?” Emily Ray held up a finger, “I’ll be right back.” She rose and disappeared down the hall and into her bedroom.
“Hans,” Greta whispered. “What should I do?”
“J-just keep her t…t-talking,” he said. “An’ try to think of s…s-something.”
Emily Ray returned with her wallet in one hand and a duffle bag slung over her shoulder. She set the bag on the counter and flipped open her wallet. Emily Ray’s eyes grew damp as she removed a two-inch by three-inch photo and slid it across the table.
The girl in the picture was no older than Greta. She stood before the traditional blue-smudged school picture background wearing a dated, green jumper and an enormous, red bow. She stood with her arms crossed and a confident lift of her chin. The gleam in her eye made Greta think they might be friends.
The candle cast flickering shadows across Emily Ray as she sat with her elbows on the table. She stared into nothing as Greta studied the image.
“What.” Greta began in a whisper. “What happened to her?”
Emily Ray didn’t move. Greta looked to Hans’s reflection and snapped her gum nervously.
“What happened to her?” Greta asked again.
Emily Ray blinked and looked around, like a woman waking from a dream. “What happened?” A sad smile played across Emily Ray’s lips. “Bad people took her.” The line along her jaw tightened. “and did terrible things.” Her eyes softened and she looked to Greta with a smile.
“But she’s in a better place, a wondrous place.” She took the picture and studied it before hugging it to her breast. “A place where she can play and be free. Where she’ll never be hurt ever, ever again.” She patted Greta’s arm and smiled.
“You two will be the best of friends.” Her eyes misted. “I can tell.”
She leaned back in her seat. “And I wanted to show you how much good we’re going to do.”
Leaning back in her chair, Emily Ray reached out and snagged the bag’s strap and pulled it from the counter. It hit the floor with a heavy thud. Emily Ray hoisted it onto the table and zipped it open. The bag was filled with money.
The bills were stacked and bound at their center with yellow and white paper straps. Though there were a handful of $20 stacks, most were $100 bundles with $10,000 in blue ink written on their label.
“Christmas was always Jessica’s favorite.” Emily Ray pulled out three blocks, two $100s and a $20 and dropped them to the table. “So, I keep all the proceeds from my sales until then. I make an anonymous Christmas day donation.” She leaned over and nudged Greta in the ribs. “But everyone knows it’s me.”
She picked up the bills and stuffed them into the bag.
“How’s you get so much money?” Greta’s eyes followed the cash as Emily Ray stuffed it into the bag.
Emily Ray lifted her glass and took another sip.
“Mostly from signed limited editions of my work.” With the hand holding the glass, she pointed. “See Joseph over there?”
Greta followed Emily Ray’s finger to the painting of a pinwheel-shaped flower with purplish-red petals fading to a soft orange center.
“Joseph sold at auction for only $8,200.” She took another sip. “And I cooked up a hundred bars of soap.” She raised a finger. “I sell em’ for $100 a bar now, but back then, I could only get $40. So that’s another $4,000. But signed prints.” She puffed a raspberry through her lips and shook her head. “500 signed prints will go for six-seven hundred apiece.” She waved a hand at the painting. “And Joseph was my first. The price only went up after that.”
“A hundred dollars for a bar of soap?” Greta couldn’t believe it. “Why would someone pay so much?”
“They’re desperate and in need of healing.” Emily Ray reached out and patted Greta’s hand. “The reason they pay is because the soap’s special. And the soaps special because you’re special.” She leaned closer, the shadowed profile of her jutting chin and long nose formed a crescent on the wall. “You see, my soap washes away sin.”
Emily Ray leaned back, and her eyes drifted away. “Washes away sin,” she whispered. She sat like that for a long while before announcing, “I need to visit the lady’s room.”
With the photo in hand, Emily Ray rose from her seat.
Greta looked to Hans then back to Emily Ray as a plan formed in her mind.
“Hans has to go too,” Greta said.
Emily Ray clung unsteadily to the back of her chair.
“I might h-have another a..a-accident,” Hans’s voice drifted from the crate.
Emily Ray rolled her eyes before digging into her purse and retrieving her keys. “All right, follow me.” She led Greta into the living room and unlocked Hans’s crate.
“Take him to the hall bath.” Her eyes narrowed beneath her bushy brows. “And remember, all the doors are locked.”
With a final glance over her shoulder, Emily Ray weaved down the hall and slammed her bedroom door.
“I d-don’t have to go.”
“I know,” Greta said. “I’ve got a plan.” She pulled the gum from her mouth and rolled it into a tube. She shoved it down the hole designed for the padlock’s shackle. In the candlelight, Greta prayed Emily Ray wouldn’t notice.
“Okay, get in,” Greta said. “This needs to look real.”
Hans stared at the lock. “B-but Greta. I d…d-don’t under…”
She cut him off by grabbing his arm and pressing him towards the crate. “Hans, we don’t have time.” Emily Ray’s bedroom door rattled open, and Hans hurried in.
“Good night, Hans,” Greta said. “See ya in the morning.
Emily Ray strode up behind them and peered over Greta’s shoulder. Greta looked back and smiled before bending down and squishing the shackle into the lock. The gum proved stiffer than she thought, and Greta pressed her fingers hard against the metal hump of the lock. It stuck but didn't catch.
In the candlelight flicker, Emily Ray bent to examine Greta’s work, nodded in satisfaction, then laid a hand on the girl’s shoulder.
“All right, young lady, bedtime. We’ve got a long, hard day ahead of us and we’ll need our sleep.”
Greta changed into PJs and let Emily Ray tuck her in. As always, she kissed her on the forehead and laid a hand atop the kiss. “Sweet dreams,” she said, then was gone.
The house lay in eager silence as the remnants of the storm tapped on the gutters outside. A rattle from Hans’s cage had Greta sitting up in bed. She heard the creak of his passage as he slipped along the hall.
“G-Greta? W…w-wake up.”
She slipped from the sheets and joined him at the bars.
“We c…c-can’t use the hammer. It’ll w-wake her up.”
“I know.” Greta held out the notebook with its soft leather cover. “Maybe we’ll find something in here.”
She retrieved the flashlight and played it across Hans’s lap. Besides the book, he had Emily Ray’s purse as well.
“Where’d you get that?” Greta tilted her head to get a better look. “Did you find her keys?”
Hans shook his head. “I haven’t l…l-looked. And I got it from the kitchen.” He turned and pointed over his shoulder. “She left it on the table.”
Greta gripped the bars as Hans shone the light inside the purse. He removed a plastic bag holding a glass bottle, Emily Ray’s brown leather wallet, a small floral purse with a silver clasp, and a half-empty pack of Double-Mint gum. He yanked the purse open and looked inside.
“N-no keys.” Hans set the purse down.
Greta searched the wallet while Hans took the floral purse. Other than a few $20 bills, there was nothing.
Greta looked up from Emily Ray’s wallet as Hans examined the plastic bag.
Red lettering on the bag’s outside read:
Alsuma County Sheriff’s Department
Beneath were several lines of neatly labeled categories such as ‘Case No:, Suspect ID:, and others. Each line was filled with a scrawl of neatly penned letters and numbers that made no sense.
The bag had been sliced open at the top, and inside was a jar the size of Mama’s nail polish bottles only a little taller. It had a black top and was filled with clear liquid.
“What is it?” Greta asked.
Hans unscrewed the cap and sniffed.
“It doesn’t s…s-smell like any..anything.” He held it out to Greta. She lowered her nose and shrugged.
“What’s it say on the side?” she asked.
Hans replaced the cap and turned the bottle in his hand.
“G…g-gama hy-hydrox…hydroxy.” He shook his head.
“You try, G-Greta. It’s a really b…b-big word.”
She eyed the label and sounded it out: “Gamma ..Hydroxy.. buty .. rate. Gamma hydroxybutyrate.” She shrugged. “It must have ta do with police stuff.”
Hans set the purse aside and picked up the notebook. When he did, the stack of papers in back slipped out and dropped in his lap.
They were crisp with age and crackled as he unfolded them. The first three pages were stapled together. The broad text at the top read: How to Skin a Hog. Among the black text and rust-colored fingerprints on the paper was a photo. It showed a fat, black hog dangling upside down from a hook. Vertical lines, spaced every few inches, had been sliced along the length of the animal’s body. In the photo, a man laid a knife into the flesh as he made another cut. The next image was of a pair of pliers clamped to the animal's skin. A strip of flesh was ripped halfway along the body revealing the thick, white layers of fat below.
Greta turned away and laid a hand over the page.
“Hans, I don’t want to see it. It’s terrible.”
She watched out of the corner of her eye as he examined the last page then folded the document and laid it on the ground.
“What’s next?” She asked.
The next three pages and the two stapled together after them, all had to do with making soap and rending bacon for fat. They showed, in upsetting detail, how to cut the fat away and prepare a hog for rending. Hans laid these papers atop the first.
“I don’t s-see how this helps,” Hans said.
At Greta’s suggestion, they went on. The last page held several handwritten paragraphs Greta found hard to understand. Most dealt with mixing things together to make oil paint. The notes spoke of linseed oil and alkyd resin and several other things Greta had never heard of.
Near the bottom, several swatches of paint had been dabbed on the paper. Each had notes such as: Pthalo Green + Cadmium Yellow Light 3 to 1. Beside it, was a green dab of color.
Setting the final sheet down, Hans turned the leather book in his lap, then ran a hand over the cover. He met Greta’s eyes and sighed. “M-maybe we’ll find something h-here.”
The first page was crowded with pencil drawings of flowers. They jostled for space in a myriad of designs, some complete, some no more than shadowy lines. The next page held only three penciled flowers. Greta recognized them as versions from the first page. Each showed the same flower but at differing angles. At the bottom of the page was scrawled the name, Jayden.
“Hey, I recognize that,” Hans said. “It’s the painting in the bathroom.”
The next page was an almost perfect pencil representation of the yellow, daisy-like painting hanging in Emily Ray’s hall bath. ‘Jayden – Black Eyed Susan in summer,’ was scrawled at the top.
The following pages were the same. They began with a sheet of doodles, followed by a more detailed study. The final page held a sketch recognizable from the collection of Emily Ray’s work.
“Hans, was there anything in Miss Emily’s shop like what we saw in those pictures?”
She pointed to the terrible pages from the back of the book.
Hans’s shoulders rose and fell in a sigh. “Well.” He cocked his head. “S…s-she has a b-big pot like in the picture where they’re m…m-making soap.” He twisted his lips. “And I remember seeing a h-hook in the ceiling above it.” Then he remembered the toolbox. “Oh, and knives and p..p-pliers in-inside a toolbox.” He lifted his eyes and met his sister’s gaze. “Why?”
Greta shrugged. “I have a feeling, Hans. A really bad feeling.”
Hans turned to the next page of drawings. ‘Blue Butterfly Pea’, was written at the top. The final page held a drawing of a beautiful and unfamiliar flower. Beneath was written the name:
She felt a chill slide down her back.
“That’s your…” Hans eyed the page closely then set it down. “Greta. That’s … that’s your name.”
When he looked up, his eyes were wide. “I don’t …I don’t.” Hans looked down and swallowed. When he looked up, he took her hand. “I don’t think Emily Ray, is a g…g-good guy.”
“Hans. What do we do?”
He ran his fingers through his hair and looked around. When his eyes fell on the plastic evidence bag, he picked it up.
“What if this is p..p-poison?” He reached inside and pulled out the bottle. “M-maybe we can... we can pour it in her c…c-coffee when she goes to take a shower.”
Greta looked to the purse then back to the kitchen. “Hans, go get two glasses and fill one with water.”
While he was gone, Greta went to her mini-fridge and removed a bottle of water. When Hans returned, she poured the poison into an empty glass then poured water in the other until the two glasses held the same amount of liquid. Greta emptied the rest of the water bottle into the sink before pouring in the poison. She handed the glass with water to Hans.
“Pour this back into Emily Ray’s bottle,” she said.
“W-what about that?” He pointed to the poison. “Where ya gonna hide it?”
Greta walked to her bed and shoved the bottle beneath. When she returned, her eyes fell on Emily Ray’s purse and the book.
“We need to put everything back the way it was.” She turned towards the window then back to Hans. “Including her book.”
He nodded, gathering up the papers and shoving them in the back. As he did, the sheet of paint formulas slipped from his hands and drifted to the floor. When he picked it up, Greta’s breath caught.
He eyed the page and frowned. “It’s the s-same as before.”
“No, turn it over.”
What he saw on the other side made his eyebrows rise. Just below the bold red letters: MISSING, a picture took up half the page. It was a photo from when Hans took fifth place at the Special Olympics weightlifting competition. He stood in his black singlet with a medal dangling from his neck. Greta stood with her arms wrapped around his waist and one of Hans’s arms draped over her shoulder. They looked to the camera with wide, goofy grins.
Beside the photo were their names and physical descriptions. Below that, it read:
If you have ANY information regarding these children, please contact:
Onni Gunderson at (555)919-7488
Alsuma County Sheriff’s Dept
Greta’s stomach backflipped after reading the flier.
“Papa’s been looking,” she said.
Hans lifted the flier and his eyes flowed across the page. As he read, color blossomed in his cheeks.
“She d...d-did lie. She did!"
He said the last word so loud Greta grabbed the bars and peered down the hall. Hans panted, clenching and unclenching his fists. Greta felt it too. The sickly flip in her stomach at the realization Emily Ray had fooled them the whole time.
She reached through the bars and took her brother’s hand. “Go put everything away, then get back in your crate.” At her touch, Hans calmed. He met her eyes and nodded. “Okay, G-Greta.” He looked back to Emily Ray’s door. “Okay.”
Despite her fear, Greta fell asleep soon after Hans returned and crawled into his cage. She was wakened moments later by the house coming suddenly back to life. Virtually every light winked on, and the sound of a TV screamed from Emily Ray’s bedroom. Greta looked at the DVD player flashing in her shelf. It was 5:09 a.m.
The TV noise vanished, and a split second later, Emily Ray’s door banged open. Greta stepped to the bars and peered down the hall. She spotted Emily Ray leaning against the door jamb, with a hand pressed to her head.
“Jesus Christ, what time is it?” Emily Ray said.
She lumbered into the kitchen followed by the rattle of drawers and the splash of water. Soon, a hiss of steam announced the coffee maker was running. Then, as she’d had done every day since Greta’s arrival, Emily Ray strolled along the hallway and rapped at the bars.
“Come on over here,” she said. “One last check.”
Greta kicked away her covers. There was no use pretending to sleep, Emily Ray would not be denied her morning routine. At the bars, Greta stuck out her arm and let Emily Ray pinch up a thick knot of flesh. She nodded and let Greta go.
“Good enough,” Emily Ray mumbled on her way back to the kitchen.
A cabinet door opened and closed followed by the sound of coffee being poured. Then there was silence.
Greta rubbed at the pinch’s rising bruise and waited. When Emily Ray took her shower, Hans would pour in the poison.
Then Emily Ray’s gruff exclamation caught Greta’s attention. “What the hell?” Emily Ray said. “Why are the shop lights on?”
Greta rushed to the window and peered out. Sure enough, the shop lights were on.
Emily Ray rushed to her bedroom and emerged moments later wearing scuffed leather boots beneath her yellow dressing gown. In one hand she held a flashlight, and in the other, a gun. She clicked on her light and looked to Greta.
“I’ll be right back.”
When the garage door closed, Greta rushed to her window.
“Hans, get ready. This is our chance.”
Light from the open back door played across the yard followed by the illuminating circle of Emily Ray’s flashlight. As she paced across the yard and opened the shop door, Greta dug beneath the bed and took out the poison. Hans was waiting at the bars.
By the time Emily Ray returned, Hans was back in his crate and the empty poison container hidden beneath Greta’s bed.
Emily Ray closed the garage door and stood before Hans's crate. Greta could see her shadow on the hall floor. With a snort, Emily Ray turned and marched into the hall. To Greta’s surprise, she stopped and unlocked her door.
“Go ahead and get dressed.” Emily Ray said. “This morning, I’ve got a special treat.”
As Greta dressed, the normal sounds of morning activity drifted into the hallway; the clatter of pans, and rattle of plates, Emily Ray’s husky, morning cough, the sound of a chair being pulled out from the table, and a jingle of keys.
Then there was silence.
For long minutes, Greta waited. She crept to the hallway and peered into the living room and the kitchen beyond. There was no sign of Emily Ray. When she caught Hans's eye, he only shrugged. Greta returned to the bedroom and slid the hammer into the back of her pants.
“G-Greta,” Hans whispered at last. “I think w…w-we should check.”
“Okay,” she whispered back. “But be careful.”
A moment later and Hans was back.
“I think it worked,” he said. “She’s l...l-lying on the coffee table,” he said. “And n…n-ot moving.”
Greta followed Hans to the kitchen. Emily Ray was seated at the table with her head down on one arm, and the other jutted out before her.
“D…d-do you th-think it worked?”
Greta’s body tingled and her arms and legs felt like jelly. They stepped to the edge of the kitchen’s flowered linoleum and still Emily Ray hadn’t moved.
“L..l-look in her other hand.” Hans pointed to the table. “Her phone.”
All they had to do was get the phone and call Papa.
“I’ll g..g-get the phone, then we’ll r-run out the back.”
Hans took a step and Greta halted him with a touch.
“Be careful, Hans.”
He smiled. “I w…w-will.”
Step by reluctant step, her brother slunk to Emily Ray’s side. With a final look back, he bent over her shoulder and reached for the phone.
Greta's breath caught as Emily Ray’s outstretched hand curled into a fist. It balled like a question mark at the end of her bony arm.
Through her terror, Greta's warning was only a breathy whisper....“Hans!”
When he turned, Emily Ray sat up and cocked her question mark fist. When Hans turned back, Emily Ray’s punch caught him in the nose. Blood spattered across his shirt and he stumbled back with a yelp.
Before he could react, Emily Ray grabbed a pan from the stove and, with a clang, brought it down on Hans’s head. He crumpled to the floor and lay still.
“You fools think you can win?” Emily Ray’s chair clattered to the floor as she shoved it out of the way and closed on Greta.
Her slap caught Greta on the cheek and slammed her against the wall. As she sagged to the floor, Emily Ray snatched her by the hair and hoisted Greta to her feet. In an instant, her face was shoved against the wall and a handcuff was clicked onto one wrist.
“Come on, you.” Fire shot through Greta’s wrist as Emily Ray yanked her down the hall and dragged her from the house. She kicked open the shop door and jerked Greta inside.
The room was exactly as Hans described it except the lights were on and blue flames jetted from four green bottles set beneath the cast-iron pot. A column of steam rose from the cauldron and roiled across the ceiling as Emily Ray shoved Greta to the floor.
“You just had to make trouble, didn’t you?” Emily Ray snapped the other cuff onto Greta's wrist then turned to rummage in her desk. She returned with a length of rope which she looped around the handcuff chain and tossed over the hook in the ceiling. Hoisting the rope so Greta was forced onto her tip-toes, Emily Ray looped the rope’s other end around the desk’s leg then stretched a plastic tarp beneath Greta’s feet.
“I’m trying to help you, Greta.” Emily Ray lifted her hands in a palm’s up shrug. “Don’t you see?”
Emily Ray took a shaky breath and ran her fingers through her unkempt hair.
“I’m going to go get your brother.” She examined Greta’s restraints then let her eyes follow the rope to the hook then down to the desk. “If you make more trouble, I’m taking it out on him.” Greta tried turning away but Emily Ray pincered her cheeks between her thumb and palm. She forced Greta’s eyes to hers. “You understand?”
“You’re…you’re a witch!” Greta cried. “Why can’t you leave us alone?”
Emily Ray turned. “Leave you alone?” She stepped closer and stroked Greta’s cheek. The numb fire of the slap had receded, and Greta blanched at her touch.
“I’ll make you immortal.” She lifted her arms to the sky. “I’ll reveal your aura to the world.”
“You mean you’re going to kill us!” Greta shrieked.
“That’s right!” Emily Ray jabbed a finger at the pot. “And when I’m done, I’ll stick you in that pot and turn you into soap.” She reached up and patted Greta’s cheek. “And parts of you, little angel, I’ll turn into paint.” Emily Ray clasped her hands over her breast and closed her eyes.
“Let your light shine before men,” she said, “that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
She opened her eyes and smiled. “And your light is so very, very bright.”
After Emily Ray left, Greta narrowed her hands and sagged at her knees, letting the weight of her body drag against the cuffs. The steel bit deep into her skin and soon blood dribbled down her forearm and soaked into her gown. As she tugged, the pain in her wrists gave way to an icy numbness.
At the sound of a slamming door, Greta straightened. She smoothed the blood beneath the cuffs and her skin then threw all her weight into it. She felt a wrist slip halfway out before Emily Ray’s panting grunts had Greta looking towards the door.
The first she saw of Emily Ray was her rear-end as she backed through the shop door. She paused a moment, breathing heavily, then bent down and dragged Hans in. One of his shoes was missing and a sock dangled off his foot. His arms trailed out behind him and his shirt was bunched around his chest.
He was dead! A jolt of terror skittered across Greta’s heart. Then she saw the round, whiteness of his belly rise and fall in a breath. Hans was handcuffed and bloodied, but he was alive.
“Boy, and I thought you were heavy.” Emily Ray reached to the back of her desk and uncapped a half-empty water bottle. “On the plus side.” She took a gulp then tipped the bottle towards Hans. “He’s gonna have lots of fat.”
Greta’s eyes never left her brother. A crimson streaked skid of mud and grass had been dragged with him across the floor and a dark-red puddle expanded beneath his head.
“Now, my dear.” Emily Ray reached into her pocket and removed a vial filled with brown liquid. It was the bottle from the evidence bag.
“If you’d used only a few drops, you might have gotten away with it.” She turned the bottle and watched the bubble inside. “But dumping the whole thing in my coffee.” Her tongue darted in and out and she made a sour face. “That I could taste.”
Emily Ray stepped up to Greta and grabbed her by the jaw. “But I’ll admit. It was a good plan.” Her fingers pressed like a vice and forced apart Greta’s teeth.
“Now just a little taste for you and a little for your brother, and it will be all over.”
As Emily Ray forced open Greta’s mouth and tilted the vial over her lips, a voice arose above the horror.
“L…l-let m-me win…” Hans’s voice was faint and slow.
Emily Ray let go and turned. Behind them, Hans knelt on the floor with his forehead on the concrete and his hands cuffed behind him. Lifting his head, he stumbled to his feet. He wobbled unsteadily as a stream of bloody sputum dangled from his face and drizzled to the floor.
“Let you win?” Emily Ray laughed. She looked to Greta and hiked a thumb at Hans. “Who does he think he is?”
Greta recognized the Special Olympics motto, and with each uttered word, Hans wobbled a bit less, stood a bit taller.
“Let …me…win!” he called again. He was bent almost double, wobbling unsteadily as he raised his eyes and glared.
“But … if I c-cannot win…”
Emily Ray turned from Greta and removed a knife from the toolbox. She turned towards Hans.
“Then let me be b-brave in the attempt.”
Greta let her legs go limp and dropped against her bonds. Pain spiked in her wrist, but her hand slipped free. She felt the pinpricks of circulation come alive in her fingers as Emily Ray gripped her knife and dropped into a crouch.
Hans lowered his head and charged.
Emily Ray stood silent and hard as death as Hans closed the gap.
He didn’t stand a chance. Greta knew it. Emily Ray was bigger. Emily Ray was stronger. But no one hurt her brother. Greta pulled the hammer from her pants and gripped it with both hands. Rising to her knees, she brought it down on Emily Ray’s foot.
With a scream, Emily Ray hopped onto her uninjured foot as Hans blasted into her. She cartwheeled over his back and splashed into the cauldron.
With a shriek, Emily Ray sprang from the pot. She toppled the cauldron as she clambered out sending the propane tanks and their bright blue flames rolling across the floor. She rose before Greta, her face a mask of scarlet boils. Emily Ray’s eyes went wide and rolled up in her head as Greta brought the hammer down on her forehead. Emily Ray slumped to the floor and lay still.
Greta raced to Hans’s side. “Come on!” Emily Ray’s knife jutted from his shoulder and blood pooled across the floor. Pulling the blade free, she grabbed Hans’s arm and hauled him to his feet. Behind them, one of the propane burners came to rest at the foot of the desk. As Greta dragged Hans from the shop, flames licked along the wall and crowded the ceiling with smoke.
Hans's memory of what took place in the shop was hazy, though he remembered how quickly it burst into flames. By the time, he and Greta stumbled back to the house, found Emily Ray’s keys, and unlocked their restraints, the first firetrucks were already on the scene.
Police followed fire, and ambulance followed police until Emily Ray’s driveway was a field of flashing lights. The fire was almost out before anyone noticed the two bedraggled children sitting with packed bags on Emily Ray’s front porch.
By the time he and Greta had been transported to the Emergency Room, Papa was there.
At first, Hans didn’t recognize the man prowling the crisp, hospital corridor, peering into one curtained room after another. His clothes were pressed and his hair neat. The man looked like the Papa Hans remembered and not the pale skeleton who’d abandoned them in a hotel room so long ago.
Hans nudged his sister and pointed. “G…G-Greta, d-do you think that man looks like P-Papa?”
She didn’t need a second look. Greta sprang from her seat and with a shout, raced down the hall. She dove into Papa’s arms and he lifted her into an embrace. Greta said something, and his eyes searched the hallway locking onto Hans with a wide, eager look. In seconds, Papa was on his knees in front of Hans begging the children for forgiveness and soothing them with hugs.
“I can’t believe I found you,” Papa said, “I’ve been looking for months.”
Greta pulled back and met her father’s eyes. “What about…” Her gaze fell to the floor. “What about Carla and ... and everything else?”
“Gone,” Papa wept, “that life's gone forever and never coming back.”
Papa rose and wiped his eyes before considering the uniformed man before them. He was taller than Papa with dark eyes, crinkled at the corners. He wore a simple, tan uniform with a bright, gold star on his breast. He held a cowboy hat in his hands and turned it nervously as they spoke.
“I’m Sheriff Blanks.” He stuck out his hand and he and Papa shook. “Let me start by telling you the children will be fine.” He reached into the crown of his hat and produced a pair of suckers. He handed a green one to Greta and the red one to Hans.
“How badly were they hurt?” Papa asked. Despite his gentle touch, Hans hissed when Papa touched his bandaged head.
“The boy’s got a slight concussion along with eighteen stitches.” The Sheriff held up his hands at Papa’s sharp look of concern. “Nothin’ to be worried about, the doctor assures me he'll be fine.”
“Now Greta here.” He looked at Greta and smiled. “Got out with only a few scrapes. Nothing a bandage or two can't fix. Ain’t that right?”
“Your deputy,” Papa began, “she was going to…” He looked at the children and frowned.
“Come, Mr. Gunderson,” Blanks said. “There’s an empty room down the hall. We can talk there.” He laid a hand on Papa’s shoulder. “Trust me, Mr. Gunderson, the whole county’s ready to do all we can to make this right.”
Papa followed, red-faced, as the Sheriff led him down the hall. They watched through the glass pane as Papa and the Sheriff talked.
“What do you think they're saying,” Greta asked.
Hans squinted through his swollen right eye and shrugged. “I d..d-don’t know.” He looked over his shoulder through the glass. Though Papa was usually rattled around police, he was on his feet gesturing wildly to the Sheriff then back at them. The muffled sound of Papa’s voice drifted down the hallway as the Sherriff nodded, raising his hands from time to time in surrender.
“Hans,” Greta said, “Do you think Papa’s better?” She met her brother’s eye. “Do you think we’ll be okay?”
They traded suckers, Hans taking the green one, and Greta the red. He opened his Hulk backpack and pushed aside the blanket. He laid his sucker atop the stacks of $100 bills within and zipped it up.
“Don’t worry G-Greta, it’s just like in the s-story.” He smiled. “And they lived h-happily ever after.”