Sugar Coated Dreams, By Loralie Hall

he cloying smell of sickly-sweet gingerbread permeates my senses and
coats my tongue. Traces of cinnamon crawl across my skin, the once
welcome flavor burning the back of my throat each time I inhale. I
hear the chatter of children outside my door and my hope rises without
permission.

The sound of my house being dismantled distracts me from the torturous
scents inside. I wonder – not for the first time – how tiny hands can
break apart my home for an insidious afternoon snack, while my girth
and tattered shoes never leave so much as a scuff on the shiny red
hard-candy beneath my feet. High-pitched squeals of delight grow
louder as I cross a shimmering floor of caramelized sugar. The voices
tug at and expose buried memories.

_“I don’t think we should, Sis.”

“But I’m starving, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but it’s not our home. We haven’t been invited. I think we should leave.”

“You’re such a child. Besides, why would there be a candy house in the middle of the forest if someone didn’t want lost children to eat it?”_

I decide it’s time to greet my uninvited guests. Part of me wonders if this is finally it. The remainder of me squashes the hope, too deeply scarred by the past to be anything more than cynical. I wince as the kernels of the doorknob dig into my palm. Time has worn thin spots in
my skin any contact with the popcorn ball causes me pain.

It reminds me of when we first discovered the clearing in the woods. The horrid day my brother and I stumbled on the life-sized confection. The birds didn’t peck at it, and it was untouched by the weather – tasting as though it had just come from the baker’s oven when we
nibbled. I came to realize over time that was just another part of the curse that bound me there. As months turned into years, I recognized that my defiance had made me a prisoner.

If only I had known. I would have run as soon as I saw the house – curling up in a starving ball under a tree would have been better than this. I would have left my brother to die in the witch’s cage. It would have been better than letting him suffer at my hands.

But how could I have known that the vile smell of candies would torment me day and night, nearly driving me to madness? When I pushed that horrid old woman into the oven, I thought I was doing us a favor. It wasn’t until we tried to escape that I started to realize my
mistake.

Though I could open the door, neither of us could leave the house. Each time we stepped outside, we found ourselves inside again. The weeks drew into months, and Hansel continued to dine on the magic home that I couldn’t touch. Whatever curse kept the house intact also kept
me from eating the structure I had enjoyed my fill of when we first arrived.

We both grew sick of the smell, and Hansel of the taste. Living off a strict diet of candied gingerbread lost its appeal quickly. He would alternate between starving for days, and then gorging himself when the hunger became too great to bear. It was easy to sympathize with him
when he chose not to eat, but when his ravenous rampages started, both my jealousy and hunger would remind me in sharp pangs of how long it had been since I’d done the same.

As my body consumed itself from the inside out, his grew more rotund. I would sleep for days, or weeks, wishing I could die and not understanding why I hadn’t yet. It occurred to me one day that the same curse keeping us in the house was preventing my death. I don’t know how soon after that the horrible thought occurred to me, but when it did I could not shake it. I couldn’t control myself. Hunger drove me as I stalked Hansel. At least I still had the wits about me to make his death quick. The taste of his fatty flesh provided temporary respite from my self-made prison.

My self-disgust as I dined on my own sibling struggled with ebbing hunger for dominance. For a brief moment in time, the smells of my torment vanished. However, once my dance with dementia subsided and I realized what I had done, the grief had overwhelmed me. With time,
though, I learned to suppress the guilt. I suspect it helped that no other was a blood relative, but with each lost child who stumbled on and sampled my prison it became easier. My brushes with salvation were rare, and I decided I would not let conscience deny me.

The peppermint stick hinges make no noise as the peanut brittle door swings open. Two pairs of eyes greet me, pudgy faces surrounding the blue saucers.

_“I told you we shouldn’t be here.”

“Hush. It’s just an old lady. Hello Ma’am. We’re very sorry about your
house, but my brother and I were so hungry.”_

I invite the children in, the sweet perfume of their youth already masking the noxious fumes of my home. I can tell they don’t know if I’m a threat or not, and I do all in my power to reassure them until the boy is locked away. With her brother my captive, the girl will do what I tell her. She’ll work to protect him, just as I once did my own sibling.

It has been too long since I last had visitors, making me weak. I take advantage of her unwilling servitude and have the child help me prep the stove. The boy is whimpering in the background, his cries muffled by the chocolate he shoves in his face to help ease the terror. His familiar sobbing tugs at emotions long since lost and I ignore it. I don’t need my memories now; I need relief.

Turning my back from the girl, I bend to check the heat on the cast-toffee stove. It’s an intentional opening, and as I feel two pudgy hands on my backside, a wave of relief overrides my terror.

_“I won’t let you eat us, you stupid old witch.”_

Memories of my own voice echo in my head, mingling with those of the defiant girl behind me. My flesh begins to blister and I don’t care.

_“I don’t care if you burn, you evil woman.”_

I can’t see the child’s face, but I know what her expression looks like. I am positive it matches mine from so long ago. To say my coffin is uncomfortably hot would be an understatement. I feel the stove door push on my rump, trying to force my too-large frame into the compact space. The heat sears me, the skin crisping and shrinking, but it’s a welcome change from the tortured life I’m about to leave behind.

Along with the physical pain, guilt creeps into my bones, and it takes me a moment to figure out why. As the girl tries once again to compress me into the oven, I realize what I’ve just condemned her to. Once again my voice echoes with another inside my head – neither
reaching my ears now that the fire has taken them from me - and I finally understand the words spoken to me so long ago. An apology. Not for the wrongs already committed, but for the one foul deed about to be done.

I try and stop her, try and call out for her to run and never look back, but my lips and tongue are too damaged to form words. My form too confined for me to move.

“I’m sorry.” Despite my condition, the words are distinct and they slip through the crack in the door before my grave is finally sealed. Though I know she's doomed herself to the same fate as the young Gretel I once was, I hope she will find the meaning in my apology
before it's too late.

Loralie Hall is a Technical Analyst by day, donning her secret identity as a fiction writer the rest of the time. Her spouse plays the role of muse, and their three cats are very much their children. She has been writing since she was six, and is ecstatic each time someone agrees to publish one of her short stories.

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