John Kenyon issued a challenge in December and I’m taking it on today. On his blog, Things I’d Rather Be Doing, he asked for fairy tales updated as crime stories. The top winners get free books. How could I resist? Here’s my entry in his contest:
HENRY, GINA, AND THE GINGERBREAD HOUSE
"Get in there and fess up, you little hoodlums." Vanessa shoved Henry and Gina toward the door of the Gingerbread House. "And quit sniveling, Gina. I know you're faking."
Gina leveled a cold laser stare at her stepmother. And quit sniveling. It hadn't taken the bitch long to figure her out, Gina reflected. The fake crying had only worked for about a month or so. Henry had had the same luck with his stomach aches. Except Gina knew those were real. That red-headed she-devil could give anyone a stomach ache.
A bell, shaped like a heart, tinkled innocently as Vanessa flung the door open and pushed the children inside the candy shop.
The blowsy bleached blond owner, Brenda Pritchard, ambled through the beaded curtains from the kitchen and squinted at them.
"Can I help you?"
Her voice was light and thin. Gina thought it was a nice contract to the heavy, thick goodies in the glass cases, Brenda's heavy, thick body, and her heavy, thick glasses.
Vanessa put on her sweetness-and-light face, but it almost cracked under the thick makeup from the effort. "Yes, you can. The children would like to tell you something."
Both women waited and stared at the kids. Gina considered trying the snivel again. Henry bent over slightly with a pained look on his face.
Gina grimaced and stepped forward. "We shoplifted some crap. The old lady wants us to tell you that."
Brenda's eyes grew large in her smooth, bland face. "Such language from such a young child," she said.
Not all that young, thought Gina. She and Henry were ten, after all. Not babies.
"Yeah, well...." Gina jerked her head toward Vanessa. "She made me say it."
Gina could almost detect the steam rising from the top of Vanessa's red hair.
"I did not tell you to--never mind. The children stole from your store and need to make restitution."
"What did you take?"
Gina thought Brenda gave Henry a look of pity. He was bent over even further, pressing his small fist into his belly.
"Just some chocolate shit, a couple truffles," said Gina.
"And?" prompted Vanessa.
"Some turtles," Henry said through clenched teeth.
"You had half a dozen truffles left when I found you with them," sneered Vanessa. "And at least that many turtles."
"Yeah, well, you enjoyed ‘em, didn't you?" said Gina. She ducked, expecting a slap, but Vanessa apparently didn’t want to abuse them in public. It was the first standard Gina had discovered in the woman. What had her father been thinking, bringing that bitch into their home?
They'd been devastated by their mother's death to cancer, but the three of them had been getting along all right. They would have been okay eventually. If Vanessa hadn't shown up. Then their father shipped out to the latest war zone and abandoned them to her. That's when the stepmother had shown her true, wicked nature.
Brenda put her nose next to the glass case below her and peered in. "I kind of wondered where all those truffles went."
"How much do they owe you?"
"Quite a bit," said Brenda. "The truffles are three dollars each. I use only the freshest ingredients and everything is made by--"
"And how much for the turtles?" said Vanessa.
"They're even more. I buy the pecans shelled to ensure freshness and have to--"
"How long will it take them to work it off?"
"Work it off?" Brenda frowned.
Gina noticed, when she lowered them, that she did actually have eyebrows, but they were awfully thin and light colored. "I...I don't know. I'm not sure--"
"I'll be back later," said Vanessa, and banged the door shut on her exit. The little heart-shaped bell clanged and swung crazily.
Gina thought, at first, that Brenda would be a pushover, an easy mark. She was blind as a bat so they ought to be able to get away with anything. There had been worrisome stories about children entering the candy shop and never being seen again, but Gina never believed them.
Brenda set them to polishing the glass on the display cases first, then told them to scrub the metal counters in the kitchen. When Gina announced she was done, Brenda ran her hands over the counters and told Gina to start over. Gina had to pick the sticky goo off with her fingernails. Henry was given a bucket and a heavy rag mop and told to swab the kitchen floor. It was even worse than the counters. He ended up on his hands and knees, scouring with a wire pad after Brenda checked his work, again with a sweep of her lily white hands.
A huge stone fireplace with a raised hearth took up a corner. Gina eyed it, afraid they might have to clean it out, but it looked like it hadn’t been used in ages.
The siblings plumped down on the bench against the wall when they’d finished the counters and floors, proud of their work. Brenda was in front with customers, telling them how fresh her ingredients were, so they took a break for a few minutes and admired the immaculate surfaces. That was the last time they rested that day.
When Brenda came back to the kitchen and saw them sitting, she turned into a light complexioned version of Vanessa. Her shrill screech was even more annoying that Vanessa’s nasal whine.
“What are you brats doing sitting there? When you finish a task, you come to me and find out what your next one is.” She took them each by an ear. “Do you understand?” She shook them so that Gina thought her ear would be pulled off.
Brenda pulled a stool next to the sink. Dismay tore at Gina when she climbed up and saw the deep sink filled with greasy, gray water and full of crusted baking pans.
To Gina’s amazement, the old witch sat Henry at the counter and put a plate of cookies in from of him. “You’re too thin,” she said. She took his hand and felt his fingers. “Much too thin.”
When he finished the cookies, she gave him a piece of coconut cake, thick with white frosting, and a tall glass of chocolate milk.
Gina muttered to herself as she scrubbed away at the sink until time for the shop to close. She smiled when she peered through the beads and saw Brenda flip the sign over and lock the front door. At last, their day of labor was over. They could go home to their own beds. Even with Vanessa there, it would be better than this labor camp.
But Brenda phoned Vanessa and it didn’t sound good. “Yes, there’s plenty more they could--You think I should keep them? Where will they sleep?...Well, that will be all right, I guess...Oh no, there’s lots more to--Maybe a week, would that be okay? Oh, then I’ll wait to hear from you.”
Gina and Henry stared at each other. They had to stay here a week? Maybe more? They’d be dead by then.
Brenda gave Gina some stale bread and a glass of water, but fed Henry left over bon bons and fudge. She then handed them two threadbare blankets and locked them both in a bare pantry off the kitchen for the night. The stone floor was cold, hard, and slightly damp. They huddled together for warmth and comfort.
In the morning, a pattern was established that lasted for the rest of the week. Henry stayed locked in the pantry, fed every two hours or so. Sometimes it was actual food with vegetables and meat, but a lot of it was pastry and candy, even milkshakes and ice cream. Gina had thin gruel for breakfast and lunch, with stale bread for supper, and always water to drink.
Every evening, Brenda would unlock the pantry door, open it just a slit, and have Henry stick his hand out so she could feel his fingers. “Not fat enough,” she muttered every night. Then she shoved Gina into the pantry and locked it tight.
One night, when they’d been there over a week, the two of them whispered together, trying to figure out what was going on.
“Why does she want me to be so fat?” said Henry.
“I can’t imagine. Maybe she wants you to match her?”
“She licks her lips when she feels my fingers. It’s disgusting.”
“I see her eye that big fireplace while she does it, too. She had me stack firewood on the hearth today.”
They couldn’t see each other in the inky darkness, but they grabbed each others’ hands.
“Do you think--“ started Henry.
“--she wants to--“ said Gina.
“Is that what happened to all the missing children?” hissed Gina.
They clutched each other tight and sobbed for a good ten minutes.
“OK,” said Gina. “Let’s think. She wants you fatter. If you don’t get fatter, she won’t eat you.”
“How can I not get fat when she feeds me all that stuff?”
“Don’t eat it, silly.”
“She checks all the corners with a bright flashlight every time she comes in here with more food. At lunch today I didn’t finish all my fried chicken and she sat here until I poked it down.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t thrown up yet.”
“I’ve felt like it!”
Gina thought for a moment and picked at the cold floor beneath her. An idea began to form. “I wonder if any of these stones are loose.”
“Let’s find out,” said Henry, sounding happier and more energetic than he had since they’d arrived at the Gingerbread House Candy Shop.
They picked at the spaces between the stones on the floor until late at night. Then they started in on the walls. When Gina was halfway up the outside wall, she drew in a sharp breath.
“What is it, Sis?” whispered Henry and scooted over to her.
“I think I found something. Help me.”
They both picked at the loose grouting around the loose stone until they were able to remove it. As near as they could figure, a window had once been in the wall. It must have been sealed with stones, but there was an opening between the stones and the boards where the window had been.
“There’s plenty of room to hide your food here,” said Gina.
“And you can help me eat it at night.”
Gina could tell there was a smile on Henry’s face.
They wrapped their arms around each other and slept on the hard floor, hope in their hearts at last.
The next day, after her latest task, Gina decided to move things along.
Brenda told her to bait the rat traps behind the shop, next to the trash bins. She fastened a chain around the girl’s ankle and secured it to the back door so she wouldn’t escape.
“Be damn sure you don’t get any of that poison in the kitchen,” Brenda said. “I don’t want any dead customers.” She left to whip up some divinity while Gina took great care to put the poison into the traps without getting any on herself. She didn’t want to end up dead, either. But she knew someone she did want dead.
Two days later Brenda doubled over with a terrible stomach ache in the early afternoon. She flipped the sign to “closed” and shoved Gina into the closet in the middle of the day. Gina heard the lock turn in the door, then heard Brenda tromp up the stairs to her apartment over the shop.
Gina and Henry worked at the loose stones, unafraid of being overheard. They were able to dislodge three more, enough that Henry could squeeze into the space and work at prying the plywood loose. Meanwhile, Gina got three more stones removed. It took until dusk, but they were finally able to crawl out of the pantry.
“Now what?” asked Henry. “I don’t really want to go home.”
“I don’t think I do either.” Gina grinned. “I fixed it so we can get back inside.”
Henry gave a frightened glance at the window of his former prison.
“No, not there,” said Gina. She led him around to the back, where she had left the door unlocked after emptying wastebaskets earlier.
The next morning, after Gina and Henry washed up at the sink, Gina flipped the sign back to say “Open”.
“Let’s run the shop,” she said.
Henry grinned. “Let’s.”
Vanessa never returned for them. They figured their father might have gotten killed overseas. Or maybe Vanessa told him they were gone when he returned.
Brenda kept to her bed, wasting away on a diet of arsenic. Gina had a lawyer draw up papers deeding the shop to them if she should die and Brenda, too weak to protest, signed them.
The shop was a huge money maker. Henry’s thumb was a little heavy on the scale. Gina substituted some ingredients that may not have been the freshest, but still tasted all right, and kept the prices where they were, doubling, then tripling their profit margin.
By the time Brenda passed away, and after they sold the shop, they had enough wealth to fly to Acapulco where they stayed for several years. They eventually opened a bar on the beach in California, when they were old enough to get a license. Henry poured the drinks a little light and Gina made some errors making change, always in their favor. They never thought about returning home.