Hansel and Gretel
she killed the old lady, my sister became obsessed with ghosts.
Searching the grey Midwestern landscape for weeks, we finally found
the most haunted place we could imagine. Rosebud State Asylum
looked like it had grown up out of the forest of some maniac’s
Its crumbling brick face was overgrown with the kind of florescent
greenery that threatened to spread and choke the barren yellow fields
surrounding it. Wet roots twined over the bottom edges of
windowsills like huge eyelashes, and the loose floor tiles slid over
the threshold like a broken tongue. The whole place should have
tumbled to dust years ago; something stronger than swollen oak and
rusting steel must have been holding it together.
Once we passed through those doors, I felt trapped, as if I were sealed inside a tiny box full of hot breath. I wanted to run back out into the cool emptiness of the dead fields, back to the rotting orphanage, back; at least there, I knew what to be afraid of. But my sister wouldn’t go back. Her entrance was irrevocable, like that part of her soul that had burned up in the hot fire pit along with the old lady’s dry bones. And for kids like us, the best way is never to go back to the beginning.
The best way is to forget what you did, who you were. For some people, it’s hard. Gretel says there must be hundreds of ghosts stuck here, bodiless murderers and pedophiles and lunatics who can’t forget what they did. She says she can see their hollow faces, can feel their rotten teeth scrape her ears. She says the ghosts tell her what to do, how to go on now that she’s done something most people only dream of doing, something that most people, once they’ve done it, want to take back. She doesn’t say anything about how I should go on, though I can hear her drop my name into the middle of the barren, rancid rooms, like a stone into a shallow pond, a question into the stale air. She says they don’t answer when she asks about me. But I think she’s lying.
No matter what story you’ve heard, she was always the clever one. The one with the last chicken bone, the pebbles smoother than pearls. I was the one with the impractical stomach, the taste for breadcrumbs and gingerbread. She’s always been my saving grace, telling me when to stay put and when to run.
Last night, she folded herself into a cramped, polyester-lined casket in the mortuary viewing room, her dirty arms crossed over her chest. I think she was pretending she was already a ghost. “Tomorrow,” she whispered, “we’ll look for the boiler room and get warm for good. They’ll never find us.”
I didn’t want to go to the boiler room; the razor-cut air already clawed, wrapped itself around my throat, making it difficult to breathe. Gretel didn’t seem to notice, her face smoothed into blankness as soon as she closed her eyes. I sat in a corner of the room, sweated, and waited for sleep to come. I found papers moldering in a gunmetal cabinet and read about the people who used to live here, the things they did to be called insane. Gretel always says people don’t have to be insane to do insane things. She says everyone’s capable of madness, of death. It’s just that some people get caught.
My sister is curled beside me, cool hands smoothing my hair behind my ears and rubbing my temples. Suddenly her breath is a muggy ghost on my cheek, her hand a poker, jabbing me into a mountain of steamy ash. I open my eyes and my gasp is lost in the yawning cavity where her face used to be. “Follow me, Hansel,” the non-face of my sister says. And just when I feel her fingers curl around my throat, she disappears. And I’m alone. Tucked into a sharp corner of this damp room for the dead, trying to catch my breath somewhere in the sticky air. It’s barely dawn, the tiny pebbles of starlight shifting through the half-torn blinds.
I stumble to the viewing casket, jerking and frantic through the cloying smell of formaldehyde floating in the air. It is empty, yet the polyester bed is blistered, as if the body within had suddenly burst and scorched it to become the ash, now dusting the floor in feet-shaped cakes. I follow the ashy footsteps into a hallway, puce paint peeling away from the red muscle of the walls, windows gnashing glass teeth. The window yawns wide, opening onto a brick courtyard where carelessly tossed bones simmer in a cement pool half-filled with putrid green water. On the lip of the window I find a stone, almost perfectly round and black as onyx. I roll it in my fingers. It’s warm from the hand that dropped it here, not long ago.
I see another black stone, glinting at me like an eye in the far corner of the hall. I don’t want to go further into this house of ghosts. I don’t want to be swallowed by their hollow faces, drowned in an inferno of hot breath.
I’ve followed Gretel all my life, through scab-kneed jeans, behind dumpsters hiding from whatever monsters the orphanage decided we belonged to that month, into the death of that old witch that stole us away, and here, where black teeth bite and empty faces swallow until there is nothing left.
I stand in the hall, bleeding walls and shattered glass closing in, and even though I’ve always followed, I feel a pulling at the base of my skull, telling me that the way out is through the fields, into the woods, not through these decaying rooms, not inside the hot belly of this place, the warmth of the boiler.
And before I can decide, I hear my sister’s voice telling me to follow. And I run.
Bio: KL Pereira is obsessed with the creepy, creaky underbelly of life and whatever lies beyond. She holds an MFA from Goddard College. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have been published in Bitch Magazine, Jabberwocky, The Pitkin Review, The Hub Journal: Boston’s Literary Occasional, and other fine publications. Pereira is hard at work on a collection of flash fiction fairy tales.