At first they came for the food. Later, they stayed for the stories.
They appeared one summer morning on the fire escape, munching on some ginger cookies I had left outside to cool. They were dirty. Not the delicious dirt of kids who are given the freedom to explore; they wore the kind of filth that only comes from neglect: matted hair, fuzzy teeth, skin tinged grey from lack of bathing. They were oversized rats nibbling on my treats. I lifted the window and murmured, “Hello. I bet those cookies made you thirsty. Here’s some milk.”
They turned towards me, ready to bolt. Beneath the grime, I recognized the look of children who’ve never had the chance to experience childhood. I slid over two glasses of cold milk. The boy grabbed one and downed it in one gulp while his sister looked on shrewdly, her eyes flitting between me and her brother. I suppose she wanted to make sure I hadn’t poisoned the milk. She picked up her own glass, condensation dripping down the sides.
“What’s your name?” I asked. The boy looked sidelong at his sister while she drank; she nodded almost imperceptibly.
“Henry,” his voice cracked with adolescence. “And this is Grace.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” I said. “I’m Wendy.”
“Like in Peter Pan?” Grace spoke, her face distorted behind the glass.
“Yes,” I was surprised they had read the story. “Did you know J.M. Barrie invented the name Wendy?”
“Huh?” She looked at me blankly.
“The author of Peter Pan.”
“It’s a book? We only seen the movie.” Of course.
“Any more milk?” Henry asked.
“Would you like to come in? It’s more comfortable around the kitchen table.”
They slipped inside and perched like sparrows on chairs while I poured milk and prepared cheese sandwiches. They ate with the abandon of children let loose inside Willy Wonka’s factory. Once their bellies were full, they relaxed. They began to wander around the apartment, marvelling at the wall-to-wall bookshelves lining my tiny space. I asked if they needed to call someone. Grace shrugged and continued running her fingers along book spines.
“Nah,” Henry said, opening a fairytale treasury. He paused and touched the illustrated pages like he’d never opened a book before. “We pretty much do what we want.”
“How old are you?” I asked. My heart ached for them. They were pulling up the ragged ends of childhood like a pair of worn out socks.
“Old enough,” Grace said, defensive.
“Old enough for what?”
“Old enough to go where we want, whenever we want.”
“We’re twins,” Henry volunteered.
“I’m older by eleven minutes,” Grace reminded.
They didn’t stay that first night. It takes time to build up trust with a Wild Thing.
They started appearing daily — each time less for the food, and more begging for a book. As I read aloud, they began acting out the stories. The couch was a raft upon which they travelled down the Mississippi. The open window was a rabbit hole leading to Wonderland.
Some days they appeared as lost as Piglet and Pooh bumbling out of the Hundred Acre Wood. Other times they resembled streetwise urchins who had tumbled out of the pages of Oliver Twist. Their true story unfolded slowly in pieces of conversation made up of offhand comments and flippant remarks. A neglectful father. An abusive stepmother. I was surprised Child Services hadn’t removed them from their home ages ago. But did I pick up the phone then?
They loved bathing in the deep, clawfoot tub which transformed into a hobbit hole, a flying car, Zuckerman’s barn. Scrubbed clean, they wrote words in spiderweb script across the steamed up bathroom mirror: Radiant. Humble. Terrific.
Once, after dinner and a hot bath, we squeezed together on the couch to read Harry Potter. Several paragraphs into a new chapter, I heard soft snoring. The twins sat propped up against one another, eyes closed, pillow wedged between them like a bookmark. I slipped a sheet around them, tempted to kiss their brows softened with sleep.
From that moment, they seldom returned home at night. And I stopped asking about it. What adult would send children back into battle against the Black Thing?
One afternoon they had been chasing around the apartment armed with Nerf bows and arrows that I’d found at a yard sale. I heard Henry bellow, “Let the wild rumpus start!” I had opened the oven to grab a banana loaf when Grace came barrelling through the kitchen and into me. I fell into the oven, screaming as pain seared up both arms. By the time I had turned to reassure them that I was okay, that it was an accident, they were gone.
Please don’t go — I’ll eat you up — l love you so...
For months I placed trays of sweets out on the fire escape. I gazed into mirrors, lingered at tollbooths, split the air with subtle knives. I flung open closet doors, hoping they would burst in full-grown and wearing crowns.
Years later, I’m walking to the library when I notice a young woman working the streets wearing a tight skirt and ratty stockings. She is new to the corner, staring down drivers with an uneasy mixture of longing and scorn. She is there and not there, like a tesseract. Her caked-on makeup isn’t thick enough to conceal her familiar face.
“Grace?” I say. I am stricken, hopeful.
She stares at me blankly. “Go away, witch.”
“I’m not a witch. I’m Wendy.”
“Don’t know any Wendy,” she says.
I start talking about their visits. Treats. Stories. Sleepovers.
“It was an accident,” I say. “I’m okay.” I show her the faded scars on my hands. “How’s your brother?”
She leans down to pick at a run in her stocking.
“Happily ever after is only in stories,” she says.
Believing takes practice, I wanted to remind her.
But with a gust of wind, Grace is gone.
Christina Grant a Canadian, is the reigning Fiction War Fall Champion and has enjoyed this latest battle to defend her title. She is completely immersed in all things bookish as both a writer and teacher-librarian. Her first young adult novel, Being Human, was published in 2015. She is presently working on the sequel, but loves writing within the confines of tight timelines and writing prompts! You can find more of her original work online at cgrantwriter.com
Henry & Grace is a Fiction War Finalist entry.
Please do not reproduce without permission from the author.
Originally published at fictionwar.com. Image credit: @markusspiske