Where I spent much of my time as a kid was a magical place.
It was a pirate ship. It was a castle. It was a barracks and a spacecraft.
But mostly, it was a rock.
I’m sitting on it now, smoking a cigarette. It feels like a rock.
Coming home is odd. Smoke in the woods is more odd.
Not my smoke, of course. I’m used to that. The smoke over there, in the distance.
I snub out my cigarette, thoroughly, and leave it on the rock. I head for the smoke. The wood becomes dense and the light, thin. I walk for longer than it takes to write about.
A hut sits in a clearing. Fat and frosted.
Dark, dark smoke rises from the chimney. I go up to the door, cautiously. I knock. The sound is more of a thump. The door is almost soft. I frown.
“Hello!” I call. A moment later, the door slides open. A face. A broken twisted face. More like a boxer and less like a witch.
“What do you want?” the old woman asks, pleasant enough.
I look behind her into the hut. Warm air flows out.
“I uh, saw the smoke.”
“Yes it’s fine, I’m trying to cook some children.”
I feel my chest swell with a bit of fear. But, I stand my ground.
“What do you mean, children?”
I grip a pen in my pocket. Ready for frantic stabbing.
“You know, kids, offspring, little ones,” the old woman sighs and steps aside, “come in and see.”
I hesitate at first but, not taking my eyes off her or my hand off the pen, I step slowly in. The inside of the hut is less sinister than I expected. A table, a kettle, a pair of children, boy and girl, sitting on a musty couch, noses to phones.
In fact the oddest thing in the room is a newspaper, laying open on the table. “Mengel Factory Strike Is No Small Thing,” the headline reads.
The woman bustles around me and clicks on the kettle.
“Tea?” she asks.
I shrug. I look at the children.
They stay silent.
“Hey, guys, are you okay here?”
The girls makes a noise. “Uh.”
I turn to the old woman. She is looking at the children, a deep sadness in her eyes.
“I used to be terrifying to children,” she mused, mostly to herself. She glares at the kids.
“I am going to eat you!” she screams, shrill and menacing. I step back and grip the pen harder in my pocket. But, the little boy only lets out a belch, the girl scratches her ear. The old woman slumps into a chair at the table. She puts her face in her hands.
“They’ve been here for two days,” she moans, “I thought,” she continues, “I thought maybe when their electronics died, they’d do something. But, the little girl has a bag full of portable batteries. A whole bag! They just sit there.”
She begins to cry. I never know what to do when someone cries. I feel sympathy welling inside of me. I awkwardly pat her on the shoulder.
“No, no,” I say, “it’s like, it’s like that documentary about how McDonalds genetically modifies all their birds. It shows this video of them all beakless and sad and you just don’t want to eat chicken again for a long time.”
The old woman sobs louder.
“But!” I say quickly, “they have free range birds now. It’s a thing. They are a bit more expensive, but you can find them. That’s what you need, some free range kids.”
I frown at my own words. My consoling has gone into autopilot.
The old woman looks up at me. “You really think so?”
I smile and nod.
“Well, what am I supposed to do about these ones?” she asks, snot dribbling from her crooked nose.
I look over at the kids. I shrug. I walk to where they sit and snatch both phones from their hands. The effect is immediate. They begin screaming. The hut shakes. The old woman covers her ears. I quickly drop the phones back into their laps.
“You see,” The old woman says, dejectedly, “I’m stuck with them. If they were clever they could have gotten away. If they were foolish they’d have been eaten. That is how things are. That is how it is supposed to work. But, this!” she shakes her head, “this is all wrong.”
“The world is changing,” I say, attempting philosophical comfort.
“No, it is not, it is ending.” She takes a deep breath. I stand, unsure of what to do.
Then, she smacks her hand on the table and stands up, straight and tall, “I will die how I was meant to. I will not live in this absurdity any longer.”
Her tears have all dried up. She looks proud and fierce. She walks over to the smoking oven and flings open the door. She turns to me.
“Find some free range children and eat them,” she smiles, “for me.”
I frown, “I’m not going to do that.”
She sighs, “the world has lost its magic then.” She climbs into the oven.
There is no sound, only more black smoke. I turn around to the children. The girl is looking at me, a smile on her face.
“I got to level seven!” she says, then puts her face back into her phone.