Our greetings were becoming shorter each night.
“We have to go. She is close.”
A frantic scratching scraped at my window. I glanced behind. The witch was there. Her eyes widened at the sight of me.
We escaped through the door, even as the breeze from the opened window brushed our heels.
But while we had spent a few nights in relative peace, something changed. The witch picked the correct door twice in a row. Then she picked the correct door again. Stitch Mouth barely had opportunity to sketch a new escape for us before the witch could be heard opening the door we’d just come through. We dashed along, racing through single countless doors thrown against the black walls until two full pieces of chalk eventually crumbled to nothing, and still, the witch remained just a couple of doors behind.
A pink door opened to light. Stitch Mouth and I darted through. Balloon Girl remained behind in the in-between room to keep the door closed to the witch. Balloon Girl ricocheted against the door, her bone heels dug in, holding the witch back as best as she could. The witch shrieked, banging again and again.
“Ready?” Stitch Mouth called out to Balloon Girl.
Balloon Girl nodded.
“One – Two – Three!”
Balloon Girl tottered to us as fast as she could. The witch burst into the in-between room, reaching through the darkness. Balloon Girl stepped through and Stitch Mouth crushed the chalk against the wall. The glowing outline vanished. The pink door disappeared.
“Phew!” Stitch Mouth exclaimed, brushing chalk dust from her hands. “That was super close!”
“No kidding,” I said. “Balloon Girl, are you okay?”
She brushed her hands down her dress and gave a very resolute nod.
“Will you tell me a story?” I loved her stories. The good ones. The fun ones about her family, the tall tales about all the ways in which she and Balloon Girl worked tirelessly to make their stay together in the home of the witch as enjoyable as they could.
“Sure. Shall we sit?”
Stitch Mouth told a story.
“There was once a small girl. There was nothing special about her, and maybe nothing special about her family, but they loved each other very much and that was special enough for them. They lived in the woods and were very poor. Because they were poor, this girl often thought about the toys she saw in town in the shop windows. One day, while holding her ragged doll, the girl thought about those toys, and became bored and petulant. She told her mother she wanted nicer things, newer things, and her mother told her she had what she needed and to be thankful. Then the girl complained that her brother had eaten the last of the raspberries, raspberries she had picked herself. So, when the little girl wouldn’t stop bothering about the raspberries, her mother shooed her away and told the little girl to come back when she was ready to have a kind heart. That little girl stomped her foot to prove she wasn’t ready for such a thing, and stormed away while her brother ate the last of her raspberries. Her brother knew how to upset her very well, so he smiled at her with his raspberry reddened face. The little girl went to the other side of the home to get away from her mother and brother. Later, when her mother called for her to come help make dinner, the girl pretended not to hear. Her mother had shooed her, so that’s what she was doing, staying shooed.”
Stitch Mouth continued rocking slowly in her chair.
“The littler girl continued along the forest edge, when she heard a voice, Come here, pretty girl. I have a gift for you. A woman stepped out from behind a tree, looking proper like the women from town. When the woman called to the girl again, the girl remained where she was, minding her father’s warnings not to go into the forest without him. The woman said, You are very wise, child, and obedient. I mean you no harm. Here. I have a basket for you and your family, that is all. Your mother is an old friend of mine. This gift is for her, and for you. The mention of the girl’s mother reassured her. And when she saw the basket was filled with breads and fruits, even fresh raspberries, she wanted to return with it to her family because the basket held many things they had not enjoyed for a long time. But the girl told the woman, I’m not allowed to go into the woods. The woman raised a hand to her eyes, as though the sun were, and said, The sun hurts my skin and eyes, child. But stay where you are, I will come as close as I can. She took a few steps closer, holding the basket out. When the girl reached for the woven handle, the witch snagged her wrist and pressed a hand over the girl’s mouth to stop her screams. The girl fought as hard as she could, grabbing at trees and branches to keep from being taken further. Between the trees, the girl could see her mother walk up to her father. They began calling for their daughter. What they didn’t know was that the little girl was already being taken into the shadows of the woods. And the girl never saw her family again.”
Stitch Mouth stood from her chair. I knew she would walk away.
Balloon Girl reached out to take Stitch Mouth by the hand. Stitch Mouth looked at her and smiled. Then Balloon Girl touched the socket of her eye and traced her finger down, as though a tear were there.
“I know it’s okay to cry.”
Balloon Girl continued to hold her hand, saying more.
“I just want to be alone for a little while. It would be nice to spend time with my family, in a way.”
Balloon Girl released her hand.
Before she left again, I said, “I’m sure it’s not easy. Being here.” I wiped away my tears.
“No, it is not easy. Yet, returning here has been a gift, a gift wrapped in thorns.”
Her words circled my heart, rising to my thoughts. “Goodnight,” I said.
Stitch Mouth walked to the door beyond the kitchen. From what I could see when the door opened, it was her brother’s room.
I rocked slowly as Balloon Girl rocked beside me. The subdued sounds of Stitch Mouth’s sobs could be heard coming softly beneath her brother’s bedroom door. Taken by the sounds of her sadness, I cried, hating the witch with all my heart.