Balloon Girl froze in mid-pose.
Stitch Mouth asked, “What?”
“I’ve been here,” I said again. “The table. The chandelier. The spiral stair case. Only, when I was here, it was different. Everything was plastic. The entire house was made of white painted plastic. And there was no front door.” I turned and pointed to where we had come through, now just a white wall. “Right there, right in that spot on the wall, something was written. It said there was a hole here.” I walked beyond the girls as they watched and listened. “And the home. It was just like this. Almost exactly the same. But again, it wasn’t the same at all.” I stopped at the spiral staircase, frightened to take a step, as though doing so would resurrect a curse.
Stitch Mouth came over to me. “That home was only the representation of how the witch remembered this place.”
“But why was it all plastic?”
Stitch Mouth guessed with a pleasant chuckle, “Because the witch has a super bad imagination.”
“So, this is Balloon Girl’s house, as Balloon Girl remembers it, but not the witch?”
“Yes. We have changed her world with our return.”
Balloon Girl placed a hand on Stitch Mouth’s shoulder and asked a question. Stitch Mouth responded, “Of course.” She interlaced her fingers with Balloon Girl’s and helped her climb the spiral stairs. Balloon Girl’s stiff bone legs permitted little bend. I followed behind the two of them with my hand on Balloon Girl’s back to support her.
Standing at the opening to the hallway, even more details were different than they had been in my dream. A long carpet stretched the length of the hallway, patterned with golden swirls. Intricate lanterns hung from the ceiling. There were numerous doors on either side of the hall, but not half as many as had been in my dream where the doors were countless and the hall was endless. I was grateful to see there was no music box.
Balloon Girl guided us to the other end of the hall and pressed the last door wide. In the center of the room, against the wall, was a king-sized bed covered over by a white silken canopy, and at each side of the bed were tables. Stationed on each were lanterns made of glass and polished bronze. A large dresser six drawers wide and six high was positioned at the wall opposite the bed, and Balloon Girl went to it. Reaching over the tall edge, Balloon Girl grabbed for a picture, though it took her a few attempts to secure a grip at the frame. She held the picture for a while, gazing at it. Then she returned to us and handed the picture to me.
The image was faded. Black and white. Three people standing together in front of two front doors. A tall, dark haired man, holding a cane in one hand, smiled beneath his thick mustache. Wrapped in his other arm was a woman in a white dress. Stunning. Fair. Her eyes were piercing, warm with deep affection for the man beside her and the girl who stood between them. The girl. Her beauty and blond hair had been passed down to her by her mother, a hint of mischief in her smile. With one hand, she touched the wrist of her mother, and with the other she pinched at the coat of her father. She looked ready to skip away, dragging her parents along with her.
I said, “That’s you.”
Balloon Girl nodded.
“Those are your parents.”
Balloon Girl touched the faces of her parents in the picture.
“I’m sorry.” I already knew the story that would be told. I suppressed the coming sadness and handed the picture back. Balloon Girl pinned it to her chest, swaying back and forth. Then she went to the dresser and returned the picture where it had been.
Back in the hallway, I closed the door behind us, preserving the memories inside. We went into Balloon Girl’s bedroom, which in my dream had been the room full of boxes. I glanced towards the stairs before entering, as though expecting tatatatatatat.
Balloon Girl went to her closet, sifting through countless dresses. I could tell she wanted to be alone.
Stitch Mouth and I slid to the floor. “What happened?” I asked. “To Balloon Girl and her family?”
In curved reflection, Stitch Mouth’s red eyes revealed Balloon Girl as she moved about the room. Stitch Mouth didn’t answer at first. Just content to watch her friend. She said, “Before being abducted by the witch, Balloon Girl and I had known each other, just barely. Our families were very different. My family and I were poor, and as you can see, Balloon Girl and her family were wealthy. My father and mother had warned me about playing with the naughty, frolicking, golden-haired girl who was often in trouble in town.” Stitch Mouth laughed a moment. “The witch once lived in this town as well.”
“Really. Everyone thought well of her. Spoke well of her. Even after Balloon Girl and I were taken – and a few others – no one guessed the witch had done it.”
I couldn’t imagine it. “But she’s so awful.”
“She’s awful now because she can be. But back then, she was beautiful and kind, smart and charming. And it should be of no surprise that when the first few children went missing, the witch even tried to help find them. Of course, she only led searchers away Want to hear something else surprising?”
“The witch was Balloon Girl’s nanny.”
My jaw dropped. “The witch was a nanny? Here?”
“Yes. What better way to make people think you care about children than to care for them?”
My expression soured even further. “That’s disgusting.”
“Yes. But the witch could only hide her true nature for so long. You see, no one ever knew where she came from because she lied about everything. The witch carried cunning lies with her everywhere she went, and she used them well. What the people in town never knew, was that before the witch came, she had lived in the mountains. In those mountains, she had a husband and two children. But during a very bitter winter, she lost her husband to fever. One night, when her two small children would not stop crying because of how hungry they were, she drowned them in a moment of insanity.”
“She killed her own children?”
“Yes. That was how it all began. Then she moved here, holding bitter hatred for everyone around her.”
“She hated their happiness. She hated that they had loved ones and family, while she did not.”
“Even though she’s the one who drowned her own children?”
“Yes. But to her, if her husband had not died, then her children would not have died. It wasn’t her fault, you see. It was everyone else’s because they weren’t there to help her, even though there was no way they could have even known.”
“How did she become a nanny?”
“It’s very simple. Balloon Girl’s father needed someone to care for Balloon Girl, and the witch was there. You see, the witch was always motherly. She could cook and clean. She could sew and mend. She could teach lessons and instruct in the arts. She could sing and play piano. However, it didn’t take long before the witch began to show her true nature. One day, Balloon Girl caught the witch stealing letters from her parent’s bedroom, letters her father had written to her mother. The witch wanted the letters, craved them. But Balloon Girl told the witch to put them back. The witch grabbed Balloon Girl by the arm hard enough to leave bruises, and when Balloon Girl’s father saw the marks, he was furious. He sent the witch away.”
“They didn’t go after her?”
“There was no reason to.”
“What happened next?”
“The witch has always been patient. After a year or so, she began taking children. I was the first.”
“My family and I lived in the woods, so it was easy for the witch to watch us and wait.”
She nodded. “And other children were brought as well. But the witch was wise enough to take children who were prone to running away, or unwanted children left to orphanages who could be enticed by promises of candy and new clothes. But she only took a few children from this town before she traveled miles to other towns to collect whoever she might find.”
“To eat them?” I asked disgustedly.
“No. At first, it was the witch’s intent to create a new family and forget the one she’d had. She had a large bedroom for us to share, with eight beds. We were dressed up like dolls. We had chores. We had songs to sing. Back when it was only me in the house, I had no idea how to be or what the witch wanted. I learned quickly though. If I cried for my family or said I wanted to go home, I was beaten. If I refused to do something, I was beaten. If I was caught sneaking towards the door – or if the witch even thought I was thinking about escaping – I was beaten. I learned to obey. Only after she shut the door and locked it for the night would I cry. I cried myself to sleep each night, wondering if I’d ever return home.”
“How long was it before another child was brought in?”
“I’m not sure. But the witch had a very specific child she was intent upon having.”
“Balloon Girl,” I said.
“Yes. I was in the room, locked away as usual while she was gone, when I heard scuffling in the floor below. I could hear the witch grunting and struggling. When she finally opened the door, the witch was covered in sweat and her hair was all over the place, having been wrenched and pulled at. That’s when I saw the naughty golden-haired girl from town. Balloon Girl was dragged inside, kicking and biting, until the witch flung her to a corner.” Stitch Mouth smiled, watching her friend in a moment of adoration. “The witch left us in the darkness of the room, locking the door. Balloon Girl and I whispered together for a while. Then she stood and said, Let’s do something, I’m bored.” Stitch Mouth paused to smile in disbelief. “Like what? I asked. I want to dance. I couldn’t fathom such an idea. You want to dance? Here? I asked. Of course. And you’ll sing for me while I do, she said. But what if the witch hears us? I asked. I want her to hear, Balloon Girl said. I was more shocked than ever. Why? I asked. I want her to know we’re not scared, she said. But we were just crying a second ago about how scared we were, I reminded her. So? She doesn’t have to know that. And so, that’s what we did. I sang and clapped for Balloon Girl as she danced and twirled. The witch came in. What are you doing? she screamed. I had stopped singing, afraid of the beating I was about to receive. But Balloon Girl kept spinning between the beds and she simply stated, I’m dancing and she’s singing. The witch beat us and sent us to bed. Lying there, Balloon Girl laughed in pain. Why are you laughing? I asked. She was going to beat us anyway, but at least we got to forget where we were for a little bit, she said. I was in awe of her. It was the first night I didn’t cry myself to sleep.”
“Did you do that a lot? Sing and dance?” I asked, unable to imagine ever being so bold.
“No.” Stitch Mouth chuckled. “We could only take so many beatings. But the witch would sometimes leave for days to hunt for children. Then we would sing and dance.”
“When she brought more children, did the other children ever sing and dance with you?”
“No. Some didn’t like that we did it at all. If it wasn’t for Balloon Girl, I would have been just like them. As time passed, Balloon Girl and I became sisters. I loved her, and she loved me. We were scared, but we were scared together. We were sad, but shared tears were not so bitter. For all the witch’s attempts to rip our friendship apart, she only strengthened the love we had for each other.” Stitch Mouth turned to me. “You are now a part of that, Sarah. I hope you know how much you mean to us.” Before I could say anything, Stitch Mouth stopped me with a firm touch of my hand. “You do not need to tell me you feel the same for us, Sarah.”
I placed a kiss on her cheek.
Stitch Mouth smiled warmly. “Enough of old stories. You should rest.”