Short Story – The Gingerbread House

This was a challenge to re-write a fairy tale.  It was inspired by an idea by Heather S.

There once was a lowly factory hand and his wife, who was a cleaner.  They were poorly educated with few skills but worked hard to build a life for themselves. One day they decided it was time to add a baby to their little family.  They knew it would be hard to give a child all that it needed and wanted, but were sure they could manage, even when they discovered they were having twins.  Life was hard, but they coped.  When the twins approached high school age, they were determined to give their children the finest education they could, as well as every gadget all the other children had, so they took second jobs and worked every hour of the day.  They were happy to do it, to give their children the life they never knew.

As a consequence the twins, Han and Greta, spent a lot of time at home alone.  They were never lonely, they had each other, but they missed their parents and often felt isolated.  So they escaped as often as they could onto social media and into playing online computer games.  One day they came across a game called The Enchanted Forest.  Other kids they knew were playing it and once they registered with the site host, were given a white bird as a guide to help them progress through the Forest and the game.

They spent hours playing the game; solving puzzles, answering quizzes and talking to the white bird to move from one level to the next; battling ogres or vanquishing hordes of evil pixies to move deeper into the woods.  The aim of the game was to make it to the middle of The Enchanted Forest, where, once they had defeated a wicked witch, they would find a wonderful gingerbread house, a goal very few actually achieved.  Each time they made it through a level they would update their Instagram and Facebook accounts with their progress and share tips with their online friends.  However, it seemed the game was constantly changing, as their tips didn’t always help friends through the levels they had already won.

One Saturday afternoon, months after they began playing The Enchanted Forest, Han and Greta were excited to find themselves preparing to fight the wicked witch herself.  They had made it to the final level and the gingerbread house was within their reach.  The white bird was on hand to help and guide them through the clash as usual.  It was their toughest game yet, but in a little under an hour, they did it.  They defeated the wicked witch and the gingerbread house was before them. They turned the gobstopper door handle of the house and made their way inside and found an invitation with their names on it.  They discovered the gingerbread house wasn’t just an in-game creation. It was real. A bakery on the other side of town, and they had been invited there to celebrate their victory with a banquet.  But there was a catch. The banquet would only be held that day, at five p.m., after the bakery had closed to the general public.  That somehow made it more special though.

Knowing their parents wouldn’t be home for hours yet (and weren’t allowed to accept non-urgent phone calls at work), and knowing also that they only had left-overs to re-heat in the microwave for tea, the temptation of a whole bakery full of delicious treats at their disposal was too much for Han and Greta. They decided to go.  But without their parents’ permission, their adventure would have to remain a secret.

They were confident in using public transport and were outside the door of The Gingerbread House at five o’clock.  Now, they weren’t stupid children, they were well brought up and could spot danger as well as the next child their age, so were excited, but wary too.  Therefore, it came as a relief that when the owner of the bakery came to the door, she was a pleasant looking elderly lady, with snow white hair wound up in a bun.  She wore an old fashioned floral apron and greeted them with a smile and twinkling eyes.

‘Welcome to The Gingerbread House,’ she said as she ushered them inside.  ‘You must be Han and Greta, and what worthy winners you are.  Very few children have what it takes to claim this prize.’

Han and Greta entered the shop with eyes wide and mouths agape.  Shelves and counters were full to the brim with every sweet treat they could imagine, cakes and buns, biscuits and slices, tarts and pastries and pies.

‘Thank you,’ said Han.  ‘We’ve really enjoyed playing the game.’

‘Oh good, good,’ smiled the shop keeper and she beckoned them with a curling finger.  ‘Come this way, out the back, I have a special treat for you both.’

They followed her behind the counter and through a work room where goods were baked and decorated and found themselves in a large dining room, the table bedecked with treats even more mouth-watering than those they saw in the shop.

‘This is all for you,’ the old woman said, spreading her arms wide to indicate the feast.  ‘Clever young things need reward. That’s why we decided to sponsor the computer game with a prize for the worthy few.  And you look as though you can do with some fattening up.  Sit down, sit down,’ she said as she pulled out chairs.  ‘Now what flavour milk shake would you like?’

The children ate and drank until they could eat no more and slumped in their chairs, almost unable to move.

‘Have you had your fill, my dears?’ asked the white haired woman gently.

‘Oh, yes, thank you,’ sighed Greta.

‘I couldn’t eat one more bite,’ added Han.

‘Good, good,’ smiled the old woman.  ‘Perhaps you’d like a tour of the bakery?  It’s very old, it has been here for almost two hundred years.’

The children dragged themselves from their chairs and followed the old woman as she led them down a flight of steps.

‘This is the original bakery, where the great bread ovens are,’ she said.  ‘See that chute?  That’s where the flour and wood was delivered to slide down here to the basement.  Here is where the bread was baked,’ and she pointed to two huge, arched, red brick ovens with cast iron doors and vast wood burners beneath.

‘What about that big cage?’ asked Han, yawning and suddenly feeling very sleepy.  ‘What’s that for?’

‘Oh, you’ll find out soon enough my dear,’ and now the old woman grinned nastily.

‘What have you done to us?’ queried Greta, now feeling very drowsy too.  ‘Our parents are waiting for us, you know.’

‘Ha! We both know that’s not true,’ laughed the witch.  ‘It will be hours before they even miss you.’

You see, little did Han and Greta know that as they moved through the levels of The Enchanted Forest, they had been leaving a trail of breadcrumbs – well cookies actually. Malicious cookies that had allowed the wicked witch to follow their every move.  To learn almost everything about them.  To follow their social media posts and to spy on their conversations, even in private chats and messages.  She had learnt that they were vulnerable, and more importantly, mostly left on their own.

Greta awoke to find she was laying on hard, cold concrete. She sat up and looked around and discovered she was still in the basement of The Gingerbread House, and there, in the great metal cage, lay Han.  She rushed over to him reached through the bars and shook him.

‘Han, Han, wake up,’ she pleaded. She found the cage door and shook it, but it was locked tight.  She pulled and hit at the lock, but it was no use.  Han only moaned groggily.  Greta ran up the stairs, but the door was bolted tight.  She ran to the chute, stood on the pile of wood at its base and looked up, but it was too steep to climb and she was sure the top would be blocked anyway.

Just then, she heard the door at the top of the stairs open and the old woman made her way down to the basement.

‘Who are you? Why won’t Han wake up? What are you going to do with us?’ cried Greta rushing at the crone.  It was now she realised that the old woman seemed taller and stronger than she had before.  Gone was the kindly face, the twinkle in the eyes and the smile.  She knew this witch wouldn’t be so easy to overcome.  The old crone shot out a hand and slapped Greta hard across the face.

‘Do as you’re told,’ she growled.  ‘We’ve got a lot to do today, they’ll be here at six o’clock.’

‘Who will?’ asked Greta defiant, despite a stinging cheek.

‘My diners of course.  You see, every so often, The Gingerbread House hosts a special feast.  A very different kind of sweet meat, the kind that society tends to frown upon eating, is served.  Tonight there will be two courses and for a change I don’t have to do all the work myself.  Now stack that wood in the furnaces. MOVE!’

Greta jumped as the old woman yelled in her face, but she also noticed a couple of bright and shiny keys hanging around the crone’s wrinkled neck.  With tears welling in her eyes as the realisation of sheer horror before her and Han set in, she walked to the wood pile and began to carry logs to the ovens,  throwing them haphazardly into the wood burners.

‘Stack them properly, you fool.  They won’t get a good burn like that.’

‘I don’t know how,’ sobbed Greta.

‘You stupid girl,’ scalded the witch.  ‘Here, I’ll show you.’

As the old woman bent to stack the logs, Greta used all her might to lift one above her head and threw it at the crone.  As the witch stumbled and lost her balance, Greta heaved open the cast iron door of the oven and grabbing the keys, she pushed the evil woman in and slammed the door shut behind her.

 When the police arrived, they found a small room off the basement full of barrels of acid and human remains.  However, when they had opened the oven it was empty and no trace of the old woman was ever found.  Upstairs they uncovered lists of diners dating back generations.  Servers hosting The Enchanted Forest game and its streams of malware and cookies were found too, as were an electronic wallet of Bitcoins and other cryptocurrency, payments for the human feasts.

As has been stated, Han and Greta were not stupid children and while waiting for the police had had a good look around the bakery.  They too had found a computer screen showing cryptocurrency flowing into an electronic wallet and had had time to transfer quite a lot to another wallet.  A wallet that ensures their parents don’t have to work two jobs, or leave Han and Greta alone every hour of the day.

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