A Fairy Tale, Seven Years Ago
Strangers never walk down this road, the sisters thought in unison as the man trudged toward them. Certainly not strangers in business suits—there was just no reason for them to be out here in the middle of nowhere. Yet here one was, clouds of dirt rising around his feet with each step before settling into the cuffs of his impeccably pressed slacks. The older sister raised an eyebrow and stepped up to the white fence, while the younger sister finished a cherry Popsicle already half melted from the afternoon sun.
The man nodded his head in greeting as he finally came to a stop in front of them. “Hello, little ones,” he said, voice smooth. The sunlight glinted off the man’s slick blond hair and created thin shadows on his face where wrinkles were just beginning to form.
“I’m eleven,” the older sister answered boldly, lifting her chin high.
“My mistake! Young ladies,” the man corrected with a chuckle.
The older sister twirled in response, pretending not to study him as her party dress bloomed like a red mushroom around her. As the man watched her, his smile faded. His eyes grew darker, his smile more forced, and he licked his lips in a way that made the older sister’s stomach tighten. She stopped midturn and grabbed her sister’s sticky hand, snatching away the Popsicle stick and gripping it tightly, like a weapon.
“Is your mother home?” the man asked, the pleasant expression sweeping over his face once again.
“Our mother doesn’t live here,” the little sister declared, kicking at a dandelion. “You have weird eyes,” she added, squinting in the sun to look at the stranger’s face. His irises were dark sienna, the red-brown shade of autumn leaves.
“Shh, Rosie!” the older sister scolded, backing away.
“Ah, it’s all right,” the man said, stepping forward. “The better to see your lovely faces with, my dears. Your father is home, then? Brother?”
The older sister shook her head, black curls scattering over her shoulders. “Our grandmother is here, though.”
“Would you fetch her for me?”
The older sister hesitated, sizing him up again. She finally gave a curt nod and turned toward the little cottage behind her. “Oma March! There’s a man here!”
“Oma March!” she yelled louder.
The door swung open, slamming into the rows of gerbera daisies planted just outside the cottage. Oma March stepped outside, her daisy-patterned apron dusted with flour from the cake she was making for a neighboring boy’s birthday party. Sounds from the television drifted through the yard, the Price Is Right theme intrusive against the songs of sparrows in nearby trees.
“Scarlett, love, what’s wrong?” she asked calmly, never one to be easily riled.
Scarlett yanked Rosie toward the house. “There’s a man—a stranger—here,” she said, a note of warning in her voice as she brushed past her grandmother in the doorway. Rosie plopped down in front of the tiny television in the kitchen, but Scarlett lingered behind Oma March’s broad back, fingers still gripping the red Popsicle stick.
“Oh,” Oma March said as she regarded the stranger in surprise and tugged her apron off to reveal blue jeans underneath.
“Good afternoon, ma’am. I’m here as a representative of Hanau Citrus Grove. We’re trying to expand our business by selling citrus fruits door to door. Pay on delivery in three to six weeks. May I show you our catalogue?”
“Citrus? You mean like oranges?” Oma March asked in her German accent. She waved the man forward; he unlocked the white gate and strode toward her, hand outstretched.
“Yes, ma’am. Oranges, grapefruits, tangerines—” The man clasped Oma March’s palm in his, the sleeve of his navy suit jacket sliding back to reveal a curious black mark on his wrist.
Scarlett narrowed her green eyes to get a better look. It was an arrow that didn’t look so much like the tattoos the woodsman down the road had, but rather as though it was a true part of his skin.
Oma March followed Scarlett’s gaze, and suddenly her mouth became a firm line. The air stilled. The salesman’s sparkling eyes clouded with the same eerie expression they’d held when he’d regarded Scarlett outside.
“We don’t need any. Thank you, sir,” Oma March said, her voice suddenly hard.
No one moved at first, and it reminded Scarlett of the way dogs stand perfectly still before lunging in to fight. The salesman licked his lips again and stared at Oma March for a long moment before a slow, creeping smile pulled at the corners of his mouth.
“You’re sure?” the salesman said as Oma March shut the door.
As soon as the latch clicked, she wheeled around to face them, face blanched and eyes pale green disks. Scarlett backed up, afraid to see her grandmother wear such a foreign expression. The Popsicle stick clattered to the ground.
“Versteckt euch!” Oma March whispered hoarsely, pointing urgently toward her bedroom in the back of the cottage. Hide. Hide now.
Rosie abandoned the television, grabbing her sister’s hand nervously. Scarlett opened her mouth to ask Oma March to explain, but before she could find the words, a guttural, ragged howl erupted on the other side of the front door. Scarlett’s blood ran cold.
Oma March slammed a wooden beam across the door, then swung one of the bright yellow kitchen chairs over their heads and propped it up at an angle against the doorknob just before the knob began to turn furiously.
“Schatzi, my treasures, I won’t let him have you!” Oma March murmured under her breath, like a prayer. She dashed for the telephone and began dialing.
“Charlie? Charlie, one is here. Outside,” Oma March whispered frantically to Pa Reynolds, the woodsman who lived down the road. “Oh god, Charlie, hurry,” she pleaded. She slammed the receiver of the avocado-colored phone back down and threw her weight behind the couch to slide it in front of the door as well.
Another low, growling howl, followed by frantic scratching at the door.
Oma March snapped her head toward her granddaughters, eyes watery and pleading. “Scarlett! Don’t worry about me. Take Rosie and hide,” she begged.
Scarlett nodded and squeezed Rosie’s hand, yanking her into Oma March’s room and slamming the door behind them. A tangle of legs and arms, they scrambled into the corner between the bed and bookshelf, breathing in the cool scent of laundry detergent and musky old philosophy books. They heard scraping from the other room as Oma March struggled with the couch. Another low, growling howl, then a sharp bang and a rainlike sound as splinters from the door poured down onto the floor.