Balloon Girl lay perched atop the canopy of her bed, acting out a story Stitch Mouth told.
“One night, Balloon Girl had a grand plan. It required all eight of us and a sheet. Balloon Girl and I stacked two beds on top of each other. Balloon Girl climbed to the top, holding the sheet.”
Balloon Girl stretched a sheet wide.
“The other children and I were in position. The witch came stomping up the stairs. The door opened. Crying out like a mad baboon, Balloon Girl threw herself on top of the witch, wrapping her in the sheet as they both fell.”
Balloon Girl launched herself from the canopy, landing onto the pillows below, and wrestled and wrangled the biggest pillow into the sheet.
Stitch Mouth went over and began kicking the pillow Balloon Girl had pinned down. “I began kicking the witch. But the other children didn’t help. One child ran down the stairs. Another child crept to the corner, begging to be forgiven. The others stood there, watching. The witch flung Balloon Girl from her back and stood from the sheet.”
Balloon Girl flopped over onto the floor, then rose to her knees, gazing upward, as though the witch was there.
Stitch Mouth ended the story. But Balloon Girl wasn’t quite finished. She began striking herself in the belly and face.
“That’s enough,” Stitch Mouth said.
Balloon Girl continued to play out the brutal beating she’d received. Stumbling back with another hit, she slammed herself against the wall where her head hit hard and she flopped lifeless to her side.
“Stop it!” Stitch Mouth screamed. “Stop it!”
Balloon Girl tilted her head, wondering what was wrong.
“I don’t like that part. That was the first time you were knocked unconscious. I know it doesn’t bother you, but it bothers me. Well, please don’t. Not again, okay? I didn’t like that part at all. I thought she killed you.”
Balloon Girl shrugged her shoulders.
“Yes, I know she killed you anyway. But I still don’t like it.”
“Was it bad?” I asked.
Stitch Mouth turned to me. “It was the worst. The witch was accustomed to Balloon Girl and I doing little things, being obstinate when we could, dancing and singing. But we had never gotten the other children to help us before. Not that they helped anyway,” she corrected.
Balloon Girl’s face furrowed.
“Yeah, that upset me too.”
“Why didn’t they help?”
“They were afraid.”
“Yeah, but they were ready to help.”
“I guess the plans of children change when confronted by a witch. After that, the witch became much more impatient with us.”
Balloon Girl nodded.
I heard the smallest sound downstairs, like a button dropping to the floor. We froze. Balloon Girl placed a finger to where her lips would be and walked quietly to the bedroom door to listen.
“She’s here,” I whispered.
“I know.” Stitch Mouth gaze was pinned to the open door. Balloon Girl was there, peering towards the stairs.
Balloon Girl touched the tip of a balloon to the floor. A girl appeared – her formation was as dazzling as the first time, wonderfully magical and tossed with pink glitter. Balloon Girl pointed the girl in the opposite direction of the steps, and the girl took off. Balloon Girl shut the door silently. A few seconds later, a door slammed shut. The girl had gone into another room. We heard rushing feet. The witch climbing the steps. She ran past our door and began opening and shutting doors in her desperate attempt to catch us, not knowing it was the balloon girl she was chasing.
We edged closer to the door.
“Yeah?” I whispered.
“Can you carry Balloon Girl?”
“I think so. But why?”
“We will need to run, and she is the slowest.”
I lifted Balloon Girl into my arms. “She’s light. I can carry her.”
Somewhere down the hall, the witch gave off a shriek of surprise and fury. She had found the girl – not us – and it sounded like the girl had hit the witch with something hard and metal.
Stitch Mouth pulled the door open and we scampered down the stairs. The sounds of the witch and the girl fighting continued a moment more. Then there was a snap. We went out through the front door, entering the night. I had never been outside in the third circle before. The world was cold and dark and dead. The only sound seemed to be the sounds of our feet and breath, as though everything around us was afraid, even the trees and the darkness.
We ran through the night, making our way across a path that led to another home further away. Street lanterns remained unlit and useless. The darkness swirled around like black mist. I was huffing. Balloon Girl wasn’t heavy, but I wasn’t used to running with her weight. But I kept running, accepting the burning sensation in my lungs and the weariness in my legs as a necessity.
“In here.” Stitch Mouth led us into the other home. It was dark inside. But the darkness helped, hiding us. Balloon Girl wriggled out of my arms. We went to a window to stare out at the path we had just crossed, searching for any evidence of the witch. We breathed, watching.
“Why aren’t you using chalk?” I whispered.
“There’s no need. Not yet.” Stitch Mouth’s eyes were intent, focused on Balloon Girl’s home across from us. It glowed in the darkness, filled with light from the lanterns we had lit. Everything was still.
“Why isn’t she coming?”
“I’m not sure.”
We waited. We watched.
A tiny creak was heard. The back door had been opened. Rushing steps came for us.
We dashed back out through the front door, heading straight towards Balloon Girl’s home again. Stitch Mouth worked at her purse, searching for a chalk as she ran. Balloon Girl was in my arms again. My lungs burned immediately. My heart pounded in pain. I ran as fast as I could. I glanced back, thinking Stitch Mouth was just behind me. She wasn’t. She was winded, dropping further behind. The witch came out of the front door. We were still halfway to Balloon Girl’s home, stuck in the darkness between the two homes with nowhere to hide. The long strides of the witch consumed the distance. I slowed, watching idly as the witch gained on Stitch Mouth.
Stitch Mouth screamed, “Go! Sarah! Go!”
A pale arm lurched through the air and snagged a fistful of Stitch Mouth’s hair, ripping her back so hard she fell to the ground. The witch pounced, swallowing Stitch Mouth beneath her long arms and hair. Stitch Mouth kicked against her, swatting and shuffling away.
Balloon Girl kicked against me and dropped hard from my arms. She flipped to her knees and touched a tip of string to the ground, giving life to a girl who shook off the remnants of her creation and ran immediately at the struggle. Balloon Girl took off after her.
It felt as though I was watching everything from behind glass. Stitch Mouth on the ground. The witch grabbing for her. The balloon girl running. Balloon Girl just behind. Chaos and cries. And in the middle of it all, a girl stood, too scared to move. That girl was me. And I hated her.
I ran. Passing Balloon Girl. Passing the other girl.
Stitch Mouth glanced towards me. “No, Sarah!”
The witch didn’t even notice.
I screamed, “Get off her!” and grabbed the witch’s hair, taking a huge lunging step past her and yanking her from her feet. The witch flopped over in a long-limbed tumble, smacking the ground with her face. She shrieked, clawing at my ankles through her own blinding hair.
Balloon Girl had dropped another balloon, and now two blond girls were at the witch with me. They jumped on top of the witch, pummeling her in a flurry of small-fists.
I went to help, but both Balloon Girl and Stitch Mouth were at my arms, turning me away. I ran with them and we returned to Balloon Girl’s house. Stitch Mouth immediately began drawing a door of escape. From the window, I watched the witch attacking the other two girls. The witch dashed one girl’s head against a rock, and the girl’s body went instantly limp. The other girl fought. Fought with everything in her. But it was obvious. And the witch knew. She took her time, the girl’s throat in her hands. I couldn’t look away. What right did I have? The two girls would die for me. I cried, hating myself even more. When she was finished, the witch stood, looked at me and smiled.
Balloon Girl tugged on my arm. We went through the new door, entering an in-between room. Over and over, we repeated the cycle. I only barely kept up. The adrenaline from moments ago had worn out, causing me to feel lethargic and heavy. But it wasn’t only that. I couldn’t stop replaying the sacrifice of the two girls.
We entered Stitch Mouth’s house, but she led outside into the woods. “We can hear her better from here.”
We passed between the trees, staying close together. Even in the darkness, Stitch Mouth looked unnerved, shifting her attention to various spots of darkness. “Don’t ever do that again, Sarah,” Stitch Mouth said sternly. “Ever.”
Her words stung. “I wasn’t about to let the witch take you.”
“It’s not about me.”
“Then why do you still look so afraid?”
“I never said I wasn’t afraid.” Stitch Mouth turned away, facing the gap between two trees.
My words barely made it out. “I won’t let you. Not like that. Not for me.”
“If I must die at the hands of the witch, then that is something I willingly accept. She could have grabbed you!”
“I don’t care! Stop pretending it doesn’t bother you! Look at you. You’re still trembling. And I saw you!” I accused. “You – you were horrified! You were kicking at the witch just to keep her away. But it wasn’t working! It was only a matter of time!”
“I didn’t say it was what I wanted. But if I had to choose between myself and you, I would choose to be taken a thousand times of a thousand, Sarah. And I would regret nothing.”
“Can’t I feel the same way about you?”
My question humbled her. “Balloon Girl and I were sent to protect you. Not ourselves. We do not matter.”
“That’s so stupid! You do matter! You matter to me!”
“But that’s not why we are here.”
“You know what? I don’t care if you were only sent to protect me! Maybe that’s not what I want!”
Balloon Girl raised her hand, then lowered it, telling us to keep our voices down.
Stitch Mouth and I nodded our understanding.
“Sarah, you are the only one who is allowed to kill the witch. So, you are the one who must be kept alive.”
My voice lowered and calmed as I said, “When the witch was on you, a part of me wanted to keep running. My body told me run. But I froze. It felt like I was watching everything from the outside. I could see the witch. I could see you. I could see Balloon Girl and the other girl running to help. And then, I saw another girl. A scared girl. She was just standing there. That girl was me.”
“Listen. I saw myself. I saw how selfish my fear makes me. And if I had listened to it, you would have gotten hurt. But I didn’t want to lose you. I had to do something, even if it meant I would get hurt. You say I’m not allowed to do something like that. But if you’re allowed to do that for me, then I’m allowed to do that for you. You’re not the only one who’s allowed to care about someone else.”
Stitch Mouth was determined to counter everything I said, but Balloon Girl interrupted her by holding up three fingers, which she then closed together.
“What did she say?”
Stitch Mouth hesitated to tell me. But Balloon Girl made the motion again, directing it towards Stitch Mouth more than me.
I said in realization, “When we fight the witch together, we can beat her.”
“For tonight,” Stitch Mouth said.
“Now, you’re the one being stubborn!” I declared.
Stitch Mouth shook her head, smirking. “No, I’m not.”
“Yes you absolutely are!”
She admitted, “Maybe a little.”
“I want you to say it.”
“Okay, I’m being stubborn.”
I rolled my eyes. “Not that.”
“Okay,” Stitch Mouth said. “We were able to beat the witch because we fought her together.”
“We can do this. We can beat her,” I said, almost believing my own words. “I mean, we just did, right? You’re safe. We’re all safe. So, there’s no reason for you to give up.”
“I didn’t give up.”
“Whatever. You told me to leave you there.”
Stitch Mouth nodded her head. “Thank you, Sarah. For saving me.”
I hugged her. “Please don’t thank me.”
“Now I’m not even permitted to thank you? When did you become so demanding?”
“Just a few minutes ago.” I winked. “And that’s right, you’re not allowed to thank me again. Ever.”
“My life just got so much easier,” she joked.
“Ha-ha,” I said flatly.
I suddenly felt the touch of something on my wrist. Realizing what it was, I flung away sticky strands of black hair I had torn from the witch’s head. “Gross!” I shouted.
The hair sailed and landed onto Balloon Girl’s skull face, plastering itself there. Balloon Girl shook her head violently, as if spiders were crawling on her. Flicking the hair away, Balloon Girl then stomped it into the soil with her foot.
I cried out, “Oops! Sorry!”
But Balloon Girl continued to throw a fit, pacing back and forth between two trees with her hands going this way and that in fury.
Aghast, Stitch Mouth suddenly said, “Balloon Girl! Those are very naughty words! Very naughty! No, I am not your mother, but that does not mean I cannot tell you not to say such things. My goodness! Such filthy words from such a little girl! Yes, I am aware that you are a skeleton but that gives you no right to speak such things! Now you’re saying those things just to be mean! No, dying does not mean you can speak however you like. Fine! Talk however you want! But don’t say such words when you are with me! Yes, I am aware you have no one else you can talk to. Goodness. If your mother or father could hear how you are talking. Fine! I’m through with scolding you. Fine? Fine!”
With their argument ended and our laughter over, I said again, “We can do this. We can kill the witch together.”