“Where the hell is this place?” his mom cursed. They had been driving forever in the foggy streets of South San Francisco. “Carmel Cookie Lane, Pumpkin Pie Road,… What nut picked out these names?”
Hans looked out the window. More boring white houses with strange roofs that came half way down the outside; they looked like boxes wrapped in shingles. Some had lawns, bushes, even trees in the front yard, but nothing fun. He didn’t see any playgrounds, schools, or even a Mini mart. Just houses as far as the eye could see. Which wasn’t very far as the fog had rolled in and covered the neighborhood under a white cotton blanket. The car turned again and their mom sighed.
“Finally, Gingerbread Lane. Okay, you two, remember this is the first daycare center with room for two. I want you on your best behavior!” She gave Hans and his sister, Greta, the no-nonsense look over her shoulder. She opened her door, Hans let himself out and waited for his sister to climb over. He studied the yard in front of the house.
Flowers of every color filled plastic pots; some as big as a bath tub and others, small as a coffee mug. In between the blooms wound strips of unnaturally green grass, clipped very short. Little gingerbread statues and garden gnomes guarded the entrances and peeked out from between the bushes. A colorful flag hung from a pole proclaiming “Lil’ Gingerbread Daycare.”
Greta groaned. “It’s babyish.” She whispered so their mother would not hear. He nodded, still studying the bushes. The leaves and the flowers looked unreal; especially the roses. Ahead, their mother pushed the doorbell and a digital tune sounded from the other side of the door. She turned and frantically motioned them to her side. The door opened.
“Welcome to Lil’ Gingerbread Daycare, you must be Mrs. Angstrom.” said a tall, skinny woman through her teeth. Chills ran down Hans’ spine. “Please come in.” She gestured them inside.
The overpowering aroma of gingerbread scented air freshener intermixed with bleach assaulted his nose. He looked around and immediately spied three girls sitting on a candy-striped couch on the other side of the room. One gave a little wave with her hand and then replaced the hand on her lap. All three looked younger than Greta and Hans, but not babies. Possibly five to seven years old, he thought. Greta was already studying the room.
He paid attention to only snippets of the adult’s conversation.
“As I told you on the phone, Mrs. Angstrom, we were just heading out for the Museum. Another five minutes and you would have missed us.”
“Yes, how do you transport the children there?” Asked their mother.
“I have a van; it’s in the garage. We will have to make this visit short, as I have a schedule to keep.”
“Yes, you can take both my children? Greta and Hans are nine-years-old and we just moved back here from Virginia.”
“Yes, I can take two new ones, for the summer. In the fall I may have to reconsider.” Her eye wandered over to Greta. Hans saw his sister flinch.
“Where do the children play?” Their mother prodded.
“Play? Oh, I have a playground in the back, but I really cannot show it to you right now.”
Hans wanted to see the backyard but he couldn’t take his eyes off the room they stood in. The theme was candy; cushions on the couch shaped like hard candies in wrappers, framed photographs of chocolate bars, m&ms, and licorice filled every inch of the walls, and candy canes and holly sprigs marched across the floor on the carpet under their feet. Their mother honed in on three objects immediately; giant crystal vases piled high with candy. Sweeties, Rolos, Hersheys, Reeses, Heathbars, PopRocks, and more filled these urns; each topped with a matching cut glass lid.
“Mrs. Heksen, my children are not allowed to have candy, except on special occasions.” she said as she eyed these impressive temptations.
“No, no. I rarely give the children sweets. This is Halloween Candy collected over the years. I only offer the children the food they bring with them.”
Hans and Greta’s eyes met. She stole candy from kids? They both thought. Greta glanced at the children on the couch and Hans did too. One of the three girls stared back, another one chewed on her lower lip, never taking her eyes off the daycare lady. The third, just looked at her nails, painted with the tips peeled or chewed off.
“Can we see the rest of the daycare center?” Pressed their mother.
“Yes, feel free to come another time. We really need to be heading out the door. The only reason I and the children were still here is because the mother of two little boys stayed longer than we expected. Their mother will be letting me know this evening at 5:00 if she wants the two spots.”
Greta was making faces at one of the girls and did not pay attention, but Hans heard what the woman said to their mother. Their mother’s new job started tomorrow and they didn’t have anyone to look after them. Schools let out a month ago, and so everyone had their summer camps, daycare centers, or nanny’s lined up; or so their mother told them. She had spent every morning for the last two weeks making phone calls, using the computer, and cussing.
“We will take the slots. Can they come tomorrow?”
The woman looked down at Hans, he wanted to hold Greta’s hand, something he had not done for years.
“Well, I suppose you could bring them by in the morning. Remember drop off is only between 8:00 am and 9:00 am and pick up from 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Any later and you are charged my standard fee every minute. Please pack a lunch; nothing that requires refrigeration or heating.”
As the daycare woman talked, Hans glanced over at the girls on the couch. The one with the painted nails shook her head at him and mouthed “No!”
In a minute he stood outside in the front yard with their mother.
“You just bring them by tomorrow morning. That will be Tuesday, bring payment on Friday evening; cash only.”
Hans saw a wire climbing up the stalk of one of the roses. They were fake plants. He looked at the rest of the yard and noticed even the dirt was not real; black rubber matt cut to fit around the plastic plants sitting in plastic tubs.
“Let’s go, you two!” His mother called, and they climbed back in the rental.
It took another twenty minutes for them to find a road their mother recognized. Once she merged into the steady flow of traffic, she began to talk to them through the rearview mirror.
“I know it’s not the best place. As soon as I find another place, we will move you. It’s just been so hard! I can’t believe the Y didn’t even have room in their summer camps!”
Greta looked at Hans, he nodded. “It’s okay Mom, we’ll make do.”
“You tell me if she gives you candy. I don’t want you guys getting spoiled there.”
Hans thought back to the three scared girls on the couch and didn’t think anyone got spoiled at Lil’ Gingerbread Daycare.
The next morning was crazy. Their mother wanted to get to her new job early, which meant she wouldn’t be dropping Hans and his sister off at the daycare; it would be their Dad. As first, everything went smoothly, they woke up, got dressed, had breakfast, and then kissed their mom goodbye.
“Good luck on your first day, Mom!” said Hans.
“Good luck on your first day at daycare!” She answered back and was gone in a flash.
“Um, so where is this place?” Their dad mumbled and picked up his cell phone. His brows knitted as his eyes studied the tiny screen through thick lenses.
“Dad, should I wear shorts or pants? Do you think we will be outside or inside all day?”
“Hmm? Oh, shorts, it’s South San Francisco; it’s always hot there in the summer.” he resumed playing with his phone. Hans had a sinking feeling when his father flipped through screen after screen.
“Um, Dad, maybe we should head out. We don’t want to be late.” Hans suggested as he watched from the side.
“Oh, we’ll get there just fine. It’s in the Cauldron Neighborhood.” Hans noticed his father had switched from the phone to his tablet and now read the news.
“We need to pack lunches!” Greta yelled as she ran into the room wearing a pink tank top, flowered shorts, and glittered sneakers. Hans repeated what his sister said.
“Okay, okay. Grab something from the freezer.” He motioned vaguely towards the kitchen, still engrossed in the article.
Greta roller her eyes and explained they couldn’t have heated up food there. Hans headed over the kitchen and found the lunch boxes. He put in an apple for Greta and an orange for himself. He found two CapriSun’s in the fridge and got out some crackers. Greta came to his side and pulled down a box of energy bars.
“Did your mother say you can have those?” Their father asked with only half his attention.
Greta quipped, “She bought them for our lunches.” A grunt across the room told them he didn’t quite believe them but was not going to fight it. Hans threw in some cheese sticks and watched Greta add another juice pack in each.
They zipped up the boxes. Greta eyed her brother. He wore jeans with a tear on the left knee and frayed at the hem, a t-shirt with a ghost image of the Incredible Hulk from too many washings, and blond thick hair sticking up in all directions. She shook her head. “Do you want me to comb some of that goo in your hair? It’s really bad this morning.”
He shook his head. “It’s summer; I don’t care.”
“Do you think I should bring a sweatshirt?”
“Definitely.” She paused and then ran to her room and came back with a black, hooded sweatshirt with “San Francisco” embroidered in silver across the chest.
“Dad, we’re ready. I think we should go, now.” pleaded Hans.
“Just a sec, buddy. We have plenty of time.” The twins looked at the stove clock; it glowed 8:10 am.
Hans opened his mouth to explain the trouble Mom had had getting to Gingerbread Lane but his sister stopped him with a look. Greta busied herself by grabbing her backpack and putting their lunches, a few books, a pad of paper, and some pens in the bag. Hans took turns watching his sister and watching the clock. He grew more impatient as the minutes clicked by.
Finally, their father, muttered. “Okay, kids. Let’s go.” But they didn’t leave for another five minutes, as he carefully put away his electronics, checked and rechecked the apartment, the toaster, the coffeemaker, and the locks, until they finally sat in the rented car. Hans loved this car. It smelled new and had cup and snack holders everywhere. He and Greta had found another pair last night, when he pushed a black panel behind his dad’s seat. They sat up high and looked out over cars and could see the sky through the moon roof.
“Dad, can we buy this car?” He asked, admiring the futuristic-looking knobs for the radio and the AC.
“God, no. I hate this tank.” Hans heart sank. “If we get a daycare closer to our house, we won’t even need a car.” He tried to imagine life without a car. Would that mean they would never go skiing or camping again? He was going to ask, but heard his dad yelling at another driver, using words they weren’t suppose to use. Hans’ Dad only cussed in the car. Sometimes his mom cussed when she hurt herself or she was listening to the news, but his dad never did; just at drivers. Maybe it would be a good thing if they didn’t have a car, he thought.
They arrived at Lil’ Gingerbread Daycare at 8:58. His father still muttering under his breath at the mapping software on his phone. They stepped out of the warm car and into a frosty morning. Fog dripped from the eaves and coated the fake flowers and plants. Hans turned and looked down the cul-de-sac, clouds flowed ominously down the street, obscuring the other houses. His father rang the doorbell, the music chimed on the other side.
“You’re late. Mr. Angstrom.” snapped the daycare lady. Greta slid her hand into Hans’ while their father made apologies and explained the errors in the mapping system.
The woman’s only response, was “Your wife had trouble yesterday. I recommend you buy a map; a paper map.” Their father shut his mouth and nodded. Then he did something remarkable, something he hadn’t done since they were toddlers. Their father crouched down and hugged them both at once. “Take care and look after each other. I or your mother will be here at 5:00 to pick you up.” They nodded and Greta blinked back tears. He rose, turned, and looked at the daycare lady and left.
As the door closed, Hans watched the SUV drive away, once he was out of sight, the daycare lady spoke.
“All right you two, let me have your lunches.” She stuck out her hand, it looked more like a bony claw, something that belonged on a bird of prey. Hans unzipped his sister’s pack and handed her two lunches. Her nails dug into the nylon as she trotted off to another part of the house. Hans stood and looked around the candy room. The three girls sat on the couch in the same spots but wore different clothes. Soon, the daycare lady came back.
“I am Ms. Heksen and you are to call me that, if you speak at all. If you want to eat, you will not call me, understand?” Her raptor eyes trained on the tallest girl on the couch. “Madeline, take the children to the room and do not bother me! Understood?” A quiet nod from the couch and Madeline stood up. Hans could see the girl was taller than he, but much skinnier. They walked out of the room and up stairs carpeted with thick, orange rug. At the top of the stairs, they turned right and into a small room with black curtains, a television on a wheeled cart and six metal cafeteria trays stacked neatly in the corner. Madeline went over a turned on the TV, Sponge Bob Square Pants came on at a low volume, casting eerie blue and green light across the dimmed room.
Greta peeked in the closet; Half of the space was packed with toilet paper and the other half held an assortment of cleaning supplies, including several gallons of bleach, on rickety wire shelves. Two folded pale green blankets sat on the top of the cleaning supplies. Another door lead off the room. Hans turned the knob and pushed. Within was a sparkling clean bathroom, equipped with a tub, no shower curtain, a sink, a toilet, and no towels, mats, or other decorations. He opened the cabinet under the sink and saw it hadn’t been touched since installed. Saw dust sprinkled along the back of the white board covering the base of the cupboard. He left the room and glanced at Greta. Her finger was to her lips. He eyed the other girls; all of them had the same gesture and note of desperation in their eyes.
Madeline pointed to the base of the door leading to the hall. A shadow blocked the weak light from the hall filtering into the room. Sponge Bob prattled on in a grating but familiar voice, as the five children waited for the shadow to pass. The smallest girl eventually became engrossed in the show. Hans envied her, he wish he knew what was going on. At first he was mad at the crazy daycare lady, but then he thought Madeline was being a little dramatic. What were they scared of? What happened if they turned on the lights and made noise? He wondered if Ms. Heksen might prefer they play outside, out of her hair, rather than cooped up watching cartoons.
A creak next to the door sounded and his heart leapt. The knob turned and swung slowly in. Ms. Heksen blocked the door with her bony frame with the daylight streaming in from the rooms and doorways behind her. She said nothing and he studied her for the first time.
She had pale, reptilian eyes, as cold as Antarctica under a crop of black curly hair that crowned her head like a motorcycle helmet. Her cheeks stuck out and her chin ended in a point, yet her mouth was large enough to fit huge, white teeth. She even had fangs that would have looked more at home in his uncle’s Mastiff. She looked like a skeleton with skin stretched over the bones but there was nothing frail or sickly about her. In contrast to her ghoulish profile, she wore a pink sweatshirt with a kitten playfully batting a butterfly airbrushed on the front. Black stretch pants and pointed black flats completed the ensemble. She spoke in a hoarse whisper.
“Good children. Sit nice and quiet and do not make a sound. You have your TV and you have water from the tap. Remember, you are not to disturb me. Usually the children miss lunch their first day here. Why don’t you twins show me how good you can be.” Ms. Heksen did not wait for a response but shut the door, slowly and quietly. Madeline pointed furiously to the door. The shadow did not move.
Greta crossed to her brother’s side and held his hand. He squeezed hers. They waited in the dark for the shape under the door to leave. On the television, Sponge Bob changed to Johnny Neutron. After a while, not just the littlest but all five children sat on the floor and watched the show. Madeline lay on her stomach with her legs up in the air behind her. Greta and Hans noticed she checked the door often. The shadow shifted now and again but did not move until Barney came on.
Hans moved to switch the channel, this time all the children stopped him, even Greta. Their faces told him this was a very bad idea. He backed down and turned on his back. Tiny white puff balls floated across the ceiling and met the white, chalky, walls that reached down to thick and beige with brown speckled carpet. The television, a thin black screen on black round stand, sat on an old plastic and metal cart. The plastic parts made to look like fake wood. Two cords snaked out the back; one for cable and one for the power. He studied the rest of the room and noticed there were no other power outlets. In his apartment, every wall had at least one if not more. His eyes wandered over to the window. He studied the drapes and a chill ran through his body; they were stapled to the wall. Not with the dainty little brads his teachers used to keep their papers together. No, these were the biggest staples he had ever seen. More than a half an inch wide and almost as thick as a nail. Ms. Heksen did not want the children looking out at something.
Madeline whispered. “She’s gone. She usually stays until Barney during the first day. We won’t see her until it’s time to go home; if we’re quiet.”
“What about lunch? What about the playground in the backyard.” Hans protested.
The other girl, this one with blonde hair but not the youngest, answered. “There is no playground in the backyard.”
“And we never went to the museum. I don’t even think the witch owns a car.” Said Madeline. “Look, I’m sorry to break it to you, but your parents put you in the worst daycare in the world.”
Greta sat down and pulled out her backpack. She withdrew her pad of paper and pencils. The other girls’ eyes popped.
“Don’t let her find you with those! She’ll put you in the oven!” whispered the blond.
“If I don’t make a mess, she won’t find out.” Greta answered. She pushed a paper towards the youngest. “I’m Greta, what’s your name?”
“Sophie.” she said it so quietly the others barely heard her.
“Sophie and I started on the same day, May 27th. Sierra came later, on June 5.”
“Why don’t your parents find a new spot?” asked Hans.
“The witch has convinced my mom no one will take me because my mother’s credit is bad. My parents divorced and it’s been hard on my mom. I try not to complain too much. She has her work; this is my work.”
“That sucks.” said Hans.
“You’re not supposed to say ‘sucks’ Hans, remember what Mom said.” Greta reprimanded
“Okay, that really bites it.” He offered, she didn’t seem to mind that phrase and let it stand.
The five children talked about their lives before the daycare and what their schools were like. Quickly Hans and Greta forgot to be quiet and their voices grew louder, until Sierra flew across the room and shoved a hand over Hans’ mouth.
“She’ll put you in the oven!” He rolled his eyes.
“Did the witch tell you that?” He asked this as quietly as he could.
“She has done it; to Madeline.” Greta and Hans looked at the girl; she nodded.
“Tell us about it.” Said Greta. Madeline just shook her head and tears formed at the corner of her eyes. Sierra crossed over and put an arm around her friend and patted her. His sister caught his eye, he read his thoughts in her face. Madeline was not play acting; she had been in an oven.
“Did she burn you?” Sierra glared at Greta after she asked this.
“She doesn’t want to talk about it, okay?” the blond whispered harshly. But Madeline had shook her head.
She croaked, “She said she would, since I was so fat.”
“You’re not fat! If anything you’re too skinny!” Hans blurted. He said it a little louder than he intended and all four girls hushed him. His face burned and he buried his head in his arms.
The girls whispered back and forth to each other for a while and finally, Greta nudged him on the shoulder.
“Hans, let’s play Twenty Questions.” The five took turns asking each other questions and guessing. The minutes flew at first. After a while they dragged.
Madeline showed them how to drink from the sink or the tub; no cups were allowed. She explained that they shouldn’t expect lunch today. The witch rarely brought them their lunches and even then, she carefully picked out anything sweet or fattening.
“Never make PBJ’s; she tosses those. If you pack meat, it has to be deli turkey or ham, all by itself, and lettuce. She even tosses carrots, but celery she keeps.”
Little Sophie began to cry around the time the Avatar: The Last Airbender series began. “I’m hungry, Madeline. I know I shouldn’t be, but I am.” She whimpered. Greta unzipped an inner pocket of her backpack and brought out an energy bar. She tore it open, broke off a piece and gave it to the little girl.”
“Drink lots of water with it Sophie. It will make you thirsty.” She warned. The girls nibbled on their tiny lunch and took turns drinking water. Greta watched Madeline and Sophie carefully mop up every drop of water from around the sink after each drink. She had a feeling they did this for the witch as well.
The witch did not come with their lunch, but twice during the day the shadow would block the light from the hall. Once, Sophie had been doodling on the paper with a pencil; happily playing. She froze when the witch came. Silently, Madeline slipped the paper from under her arms and the pencil from her hand and handed them to Greta.
Greta slowly put the paper back in to her pack, making sure not a rustle could be heard. Then, one tooth at a time, she closed the pack. Then Greta, seeing Sophie was still terrified, reached over and laid a hand on her narrow back, startling the girl. She rubbed in little circles just like her mother did to her. The thought of her mom made tears appear in her eyes and lump in her throat. An obscene commercial for a sugary cereal blared on the screen, but all ten eyes stared at the shadow under the door.
Once the Super Friends began, Madeline and Sierra began cleaning and wiping down the room. “It’s almost time to go. The cleaner the room is the quicker we can go down to the candy room and wait for our parents to pick us up.” She explained as she used toilet paper to dust the TV and the stand. They neatly stacked the cafeteria trays in the corner, sat and waited.
The door knob turned and the witch closed it behind her. Sophie cowered behind Hans. This time he held her tiny hand.
“Hmmm, let us see how clean we are today, shall we?” Her eyes searched the dark room, the TV, the screen, the cart, the trays. She strolled over to the closet and slid back the door searched the interior and then over to the bathroom. “Hmmmm.” She murmured, bringing her face close to the counter and behind the faucet.
She turned, crossed to the door and opened it. “Go to the room, and sit on the couch. Do not touch anything.” She snarled.
The four girls and the boy slipped past her. Sophie clung to Hans. They made their way down the stairs and to the brightly decorated room. The glare from the windows blinded them. All five sat on the couch, Hans in the middle with Greta on one side and Sophie on the other, Sierra and Madeline took the ends. The witch strode to the front; looked out the window and then whirled around.
“Now, Greta and Hans, you are probably dying to tell your parents what a horrible place this is, correct? Well, I wouldn’t do that if I were you. For, if you do not show up tomorrow; things will not go well for the girls here. In fact, I will start by putting little Sophie here in the oven.” Her cold eyes pinned the poor girl. Hans held her hand firmly. He nodded, something told him speaking was not wise right now. “Good, I see we understand each other.” The witch left and came back with empty lunch sacks for each child and put it on the table near the door.
Greta and Hans watched their mother drive up first in the SUV. Although they both wanted to leave, Hans did not want to leave Sophie alone with the witch. He did not rise, when his mother rang the doorbell.
“Hans, Greta, your mother is here.” Said the witch as she opened the door. Greta rose to greet her mom, but Hans did not. He stayed but waved to his mom.
“Can we stay until Sophie’s mom comes?” He asked. His mother looked at her watch. He thought for sure she would say no, but instead she said. “Sure, why not?”
Sophie gave his hand a little squeeze. Hans avoided looking at the witch. Fortunately, they did not have long to wait. A small white car pulled around the circle and a woman with long black hair pulled back in a barrette and a colorful dress got out. She clicked up to the house in high heels.
“Sophie.” was all the witch said. The girl slid off the couch, her face lit up with a smile for her mother.
“Sophie!” Her mother sang and embraced her in a rich, warm hug. “Thank you Ms. Heksen.” She called, waved and headed to her car.
“All right, Hans, shall we go?” Hans looked over at Sierra and Madeline. They both nodded. He left with his mother. A single look passed between Greta and Hans assuring each other they would not talk.
Sometimes a child not talking tells a parent more than a babbling tot. That night Hans and Greta carefully avoided all discussion of their day. Their father asked them more than once. To his surprise, both children wanted to walk to the park that evening and play. He followed them down the block and through the alley to a patch of grass they had renamed “Dog Poo Park.” However, the four-legged pets could not reach the trees, and this little oasis in San Francisco had some prime tree-climbing cypresses. He let them play until the sun began to set behind the hills.
“Come on, you two. It’s late, past 8:30.”
As they made their way back to the apartment, Greta asked, “Can we have a snack before bed, dad?” He nodded.
The next morning, Greta packed the lunches, remembering Madeline’s advice. She suspected the witch might check her backpack that morning, so she took out the lining around the frame and wedged more energy bars between the cardboard and nylon. She could only fit three.
While Greta prepared for their day, Hans researched the internet. His father assumed his son was checking his Club Penguin account through Disney or trading Pokemon. No, first he entered ‘report bad daycare’ into the search engine. There were lots of links to places to help parents spot bad daycare. He didn’t need that; he knew she was bad. He did see ‘how to report bad daycare.’ He clicked on that and scanned down. Most of the steps did not concern him or his sister. Making a list of issues and discussing them with Ms. Heksen sounded ludicrous. But then, this was for parents.
He finally found a link that led to another and another and soon, he realized the agency was in Washington, D.C. He didn’t think they would send an agent (if that was what they were called) all the way to San Francisco to save Sophie, Madeline, Sierra, and he and his sister. So, he went back to the search engine and entered ‘report bad daycare in san francisco.’
Bingo! He found a number for reporting child abuse and went to write it down. But froze, what if the witch went through his pockets? An 800 number for child abuse and he would be in the oven. He looked around, frantically thinking. He couldn’t write it on his hand or leg, they might get washed off. He looked down at his shoe. He took the left van off his foot, it was gray with black skulls printed on it. He took the pen and wrote the number on the inside of the tongue. Now, he would need a phone. He tried to think of how to steal his father’s phone. His mother had already left for the day. Hans got up and his father called.
“Time to go Hans, Greta. Grab your stuff.”
Too late, he watched his father slide his cell phone in his pocket and begin his methodical routine of preparing the apartment for the day. This time, Hans and Greta arrived at 8:45. The witch greeted them at the door, took their lunches, the three girls were already waiting on the couch. As if they had done this all their lives, the five children marched up the stairs and into their cell for the day.
“Good, you’re learning.” purred the witch as she shut the door, leaving them in darkness. Madeline flipped on the TV and they all made a pretense of watching Sponge Bob while the shadow lingered near the door.
Instead of leaving, however, the knob turned and the door flew open. The children jumped, the witch walked right up to Greta and wrenched her backpack from her grasp. “Let’s see what you have in here.” She pulled out paper and pens, pencils, and a bag of cookies. “Aha, I thought you were sneaking food. Cookies are fattening and you, my dear are too fat!” The witch picked up the contents of the backpack and carried them out of the room. They heard her trundle down the stairs through the open doorway.
Hans glanced at his sister and winked. He recognized the cookies from a box tucked in the back of their pantry; they were left by the people who sublet their apartment; and no wonder. They were disgusting. Greta likened them to chocolate covered spit wads.
The witch bounded up the stairs and everyone stiffened. “There will be no food, unless I bring it, hear? Pens stain the floor, pencils mar the walls and paper makes a mess. A mess will land you in the oven, dearie.” the witch hissed and pointed a well-jointed finger at Greta. She turned, shut the door, and stood on the other side, waiting.
Hans wondered why the witch did this. What was the point? Didn’t it take time away from whatever she did when she was not up here? Thinking of the witch depressed him, so he decided to concentrate on the number written on the inside of his shoe. How to get a phone in here? He was sure that was the only way to rescue Sophie, Sierra, and Madeline, was to have a government agent come to the house and see the witch. It would be even better if someone was in the oven when they arrived… they would never let her near children again. His mind schemed as his eyes watched the inane antics of Johnny Neutron.
Lunch came late and it was too little. The witch suddenly appeared their lunch bags. She waited while each child sat on the floor with a cafeteria tray before them. Then she handed each one a bag; getting several mixed up. They ignored this. “Remember, do not make a mess.” she warned as she shut the door.
The shadow did not stay, while they silently swapped bags to the rightful owners. Hans thanked Greta with a smile; he pulled out slivers of turkey and celery sticks. It wasn’t much but it was food. They all hugged her, and Sierra even got choked up when Greta withdrew the energy bars from the lining of her backpack. As they shared the hunks of nuts, oats, and chocolate, Madeline whispered.
“Be sure to hide the wrappers back in your pack. That’s how she found out I was sneaking in food.” Greta nodded.
After lunch, all five carefully tidied the room, including Hans and Madeline picking up crumbs off the rug where Sophie had eaten. They flushed these down the toilet.
Hans tried to see through the thick fabric covering the window. The room faced the side of the house and not the front. Who lived in the other house, weren’t they curious about the black window? Was anyone on the block suspicious of the witch? All day long, he sat in this blacked out room and he never heard a car or a truck in the street or even an airplane overhead. It was as though the witch was the only person alive in the The Cauldron.
He turned and looked at Madeline and Sierra. “Why do they call this ‘The Cauldron’?”
“What, you mean the neighborhood?” Asked Madeline. He nodded.
“My mom says it’s because all the fog from SF flows into it and over the sides, so it looks like a giant bubbling cauldron. She showed me a picture a few weeks ago; it looked cool.”
Greta, now wearing a sweater and jeans, said, “You mean freezing.” They smiled and began a quiet rhyming game. Their words became sillier and sillier until Sierra was rolling on the floor is silent tears of laughter. Hans thought she would burst, so he decided to sober her up quickly.
“I have a plan to get out of here.” He whispered. Everyone stopped and looked at him. He explained the number he wrote down. “The next step is to bring a phone in here.”
Madeline shook her head furiously. “I brought in my Leapster and that’s why she put me in the…” She couldn’t bring herself to say the last word. He nodded.
“How did you bring in the Leapster?”
“Under my sweater. She didn’t notice it, until we were leaving. The next day, she…”
Greta put an arm around Madeline. “It’s okay Maddy. We’re here now.” Maddy trembled beneath her cotton sweater.
“Okay, I won’t bring in a phone that way. Nor in the backpack; she’s sure to feel something that heavy.” They all nodded. His mind searched for another option. Then he remembered when his dad couldn’t find his cell phone. His dad searched frantically throughout the hotel and even called it several times from another phone. Finally, just before they gave up, he sat down and found it. The phone had been with him all along; just hidden.
As if reading his mind, Greta warned. “If you bring it, make sure it’s silenced. The red dot on the side of the phone has to be showing.”
“Yeah, vibrate will not work. She’ll know.” added Sierra.
He nodded. He was pretty sure she wouldn’t look in his hiding place.
As the Justice League began playing, the kids tidied up the bathroom and room again. It wasn’t long before the witch came up and performed her inspection. As she studied the open closet, Hans realized he could see her spine sticking out from her neck at the back; it made him ill. She allowed them to wait downstairs. This time it was his father who picked them up.
“Dad, can we wait until Sophie’s mother arrives?” He asked in front of the witch.
His Dad didn’t pause a second, “Sure, Sport.” His father looked around the room and then his eyes settled on the witch. “Where do the children spend their day, Ms. Heksen. Surely not in this room.”
“Oh, no. We spend most of our days out and about. Today we went to the zoo to see the lions.” She lied through her teeth.
“Really? How did you get there?”
“By the van. It’s parked in the garage.”
“You have a van. What type? How many children does it seat?” Her father asked. The witch looked out the window.
“Oh, here is Sophie’s mother.” The white car parked and the woman stepped out. Today, she wore a matching gray pant suit with a colorful lavender scarf fluttering around her delicate neck. Hans eyed Sophie, a huge grin shone from her urchin face. The door opened and her mother sang out, “Sophie!”
An answering, “Mommy!” and the two hugged sweetly again. Before she stood up from her daughter’s embrace, a faded red pick up truck pulled in back of the SUV. A petite woman climbed down with brown hair cut in a bob and a pale pink suit on. Hans looked over at Madeline. Her eyes gleamed.
“Maddy, I’m early!” Said her mom. Madeline’s mother looked just like her daughter, but more round. The same sharp eyes, brown hair, and faint sprinkling of freckles. As they hugged, Hans noticed they both had the same red nail polish; although the mom’s was not chewed off. The adults greeted each other, and Madeline’s Mom introduced herself. “Well, we’re going to get going. It’s Ladies Night at our house tonight!” She said and she took Maddy’s hand and led her back to the truck, Sophie went with her mom, and soon, it was just Sierra and Hans sitting on the couch.
“You ready, Sport?” Asked their dad, still by the door. Hans shook his head. He didn’t want to leave Sierra alone, too. “Okay, why don’t we all wait outside; it’s beautiful out there.”
Sierra looked gratefully at him, and Hans held her hand and led her outside under the eagle eye of the witch. A weak sun glared through the shifting mists over their heads. Hans breathed in deep and smelled plastic and cleaning solution, but he didn’t care. He was out of that room again and his father stood by to protect him. Greta and Sierra strolled to the sidewalk and were talking quietly. Hans looked up at his Dad. His Dad was checking something on his cell phone. The witch stood in the door, silently glaring at his Dad’s back. She shut the door. Hans sighed.
His father’s eye met his. Hans said nothing and looked down. There was a question in his father’s look, a question, Hans was not ready to answer.
Sierra’s mother drove up in a old Toyota. Stuffed animals filled the rear window and colorful stickers practically blocked the side windows. Sierra’s Mom was young, blond, and wore hospital scrubs. “Sierra, sorry I’m late, honey. What are you doing out here?” She asked, as she hugged her daughter and opened the car door.
“Is Ms. Heksen here?” The mother asked Hans’ father.
He nodded and replied, “We thought it better to wait out here.” His Dad approached the mom and asked her some questions. Hans couldn’t hear them but knew Greta could. Hans wandered over to the rented SUV and opened the door. His stomach rumbled as he slid into the back seat and clicked the seat belt in. Soon Greta and his Dad climbed in, Hans watched Sierra and her mom drive off.
Again, that night Greta and Hans would not talk about their day at Lil’ Gingerbread Daycare. Their mother filled the dinner conversation with her tales of her new job. She worked as a programmer managing web interfaces. She only needed to take a trolley and walk a few blocks to work. She loved the commute but was having issues with one of her coworkers already. Greta asked a few questions, but mostly the kids stayed quiet.
“Can we go to the park again?” Asked Hans as he cleared the table.
“Honey, I’m beat. Ask your Dad.” Said his Mom as she rinsed dishes and stacked them in the dishwasher.
“Yes, let’s go kids. I think we all could use a stroll.” His dad grabbed a jacket.
“Can we go climb the trees?” Asked Greta.
He shook his head. “No, let’s just walk.” On the stroll, their dad brought up the day care twice. First, Greta distracted them by pointing out a street person peeing against a bush. The second time, Hans shrugged and said it was okay. Than he skipped ahead to the next light. They walked over to the campus and between the buildings. The fog found them here as well, but it didn’t seem so closed in or cramped. They looked down the hill and street lights glowed softly. A damp and chilly breeze trickled through their clothes.
“Hard to believe it’s summer.” Their Dad said. The twins nodded, Hans breathed in deep.
Without thinking, Hans said, “But it’s good to be outside.” His father glanced at him, Greta gave him a warning glare from the other side.
“What, Hans?” he asked quietly.
“Nothing.” Hans pushed his hands in his pocket and wandered into the dark.
They arrived home past their bedtime. Greta and Hans begged for another snack. Their mother protested but the dad overrode her. They each ate a peanut butter nutella sandwiches and drank milk before getting ready for bed.
Later when Hans lay in bed with the door ajar, light from the living room streamed in and formed an odd pattern on the pale floor. He heard his parents talking.
“Melissa, I am worried about this new daycare. I really do not trust that woman and it worries me that the children won’t talk about it at all.”
His mother answered, but he couldn’t understand any of her words.
“I’ll check it out.” His dad said. Hans didn’t hear any more that night from his parents, as they went into their own room.
He wondered what his Dad was going to check out; the daycare? Would he force Ms. Heksen to show him the nonexistent playground in the back? What if there was a playground? What would she do to Sophie if their dad took Greta and him away from there. Tears stung Hans’ eyes and he turned over, away from the light. He had never been so worried for another kid in his life. He felt helpless. He turned back and got out of bed. Hans silently opened his door and crept over to Greta’s room. She too slept with the door ajar. He peeked in and saw she was out to the world. Hans made his way back to his bed, feeling more alone and powerless than ever.
The next morning, Greta woke him up early. “Remember, you need to bring the…” Instead of saying the word, she made a pretend phone with her hand; the thumb for the earpiece and the pinky for the speaker. He nodded.
They had breakfast together, his mom already dressed for work in a stretchy, long skirt, black boots, and a black turtleneck. As she sipped coffee, she checked her phone and then slipped the garishly colored piece into her sober, black, leather briefcase. Hans noted the location and waited for the right moment. It came a few minutes later.
She uttered a simple “Oh, I forgot to put on lipstick,” and ran for her room.
Hans wandered over to her bag and slid the smooth, plastic phone into his pocket. He then strolled to the bathroom and closed the door. It did not take him long to silence the contraption and hide it in his pocket; the one his Dad forgot that day. When he entered the living room, his mother gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.
“Hans and Greta, I will find you another day care; soon. I have a lead on one not too far from here.” They nodded silently. Hans felt their father’s probing eyes on them.
He knows something’s up, Hans thought.
This morning, Hans helped Greta pack the lunches. Their Dad normally did not pay attention to this step. But as they separated the turkey and chopped the celery, he wandered over.
“That’s all you’re having?” He asked.
Greta smiled sweetly. “Daddy, we don’t want to get fat.”
“You aren’t in danger of getting fat. You’re kids; kids need food for energy.” They both nodded and he opened the cupboard and began tossing other food into their bags; GORP mix, cheese string from the fridge, and yogurt cups.
“Those are Mom’s yogurt.” The twins said at the same time. Their dad looked down at the label, shrugged and left them in the lunch box.
“She would rather you eat lunch than go hungry. I’ll go shopping tonight and get some real food. Why don’t you make another set of Peanut Butter and Nutella sandwiches?”
Greta looked at Hans, he blurted out, “The bread is moldy!”
“Oh, well, take what you have here. I’ll hit Trader Joes after class.”
Their dad drove them to the daycare. This time, as he saw the children off, he held their lunches.
“Ms. Heksen, I am concerned my children are not getting enough to eat. Please make sure they have time to finish their lunches.”
“Oh, I will. I’m sure their won’t be a speck on their tray when they’re done.” She smiled her toothy smile.
“Also, I would like to pick them up early, today. Perhaps around 3:00?”
“Oh, didn’t your wife tell you? I do not do early pick ups. Only between 5:00 and 6:00. It messes up our schedule and I do not tolerate messes.” her teeth clicked warningly.
“Well, then, children, why don’t you spend the day with me? You can attend my class?” He suggested.
The twins shook their heads. “That’s okay, Dad. We have friends here.” Said Greta. Hans wanted to hug his sister at that moment; she was so brave. He also knew that they were thinking the same thing, what about little Sophie?
“We’re fine, Dad.” He added, hoping he sounded as confident as Greta.
Their Dad paused a moment and crouched down again and hugged them. Hans hugged him back and he whispered in his children’s ears, “Be Safe.” And he was gone.
As they watched the SUV disappear into the fog, the witch drawled, “Well, wasn’t that touching. Such a sweet, concerned, and very stupid man.” Hans’ anger boiled and then dissipated when he saw Greta’s hand form a fist. He grabbed her hand and hid her anger. “Up stairs, children. I have a feeling someone will be in the oven by the end of the day!”
Sophie nearly flew up the steps. Greta and Hans marched up and were about to enter the dimly lit cave were they served out their sentence when her gnarled talon snared his sister’s shirt.
“Let’s look in the bag, dearie.” This time, Greta had packed a few books and a pack of bubble gum. The witch snatched these triumphantly.
“Oh, we can’t let you have this, and reading in the dark; that’s bad for the eyesight!” She gave back the pack and turned her beady eyes on Hans.
Her eyes slid up and down his form. Hans felt self concious in his aquarium t-shirt with glow-in-the-dark jellies printed all over and in tiny, blue print “Scripps Birch Aquarium.”
“All right, in you go. Not a word.” She warned, and then she added in a creepy whisper, “I’m listening!”
They shut the door on her and the five children plopped down on the shag rug. Madeline turned on Sponge Bob and they watched like zombies until the shadow left. Even then, no one stirred for a time. Sophie, was the first to move, she crawled over to Greta and hugged her tight. In the green glow of the screen, they saw her eyes filled with tears.
“Thank you for staying.” She whispered, Greta hugged her tight and Hans felt himself choke up.
He thought of the number on his shoe and of the phone. He didn’t trust that the witch had gone away, perhaps for a moment, but something told him she was coming back and soon. She did.
It wasn’t long until the light under the door dimmed, and the shadow had returned. She waited and then whipped open the door. Even though they knew she would do this, they still jumped.
“Oh, scared, are we? Well, Hans and Greta, did you happen to complain about your days here with your father?” Both firmly shook their heads. “Oh, I hope not! He didn’t look very happy this morning. Make sure he LOVES Lil’ Gingerbread Daycare tomorrow, or poor Sophie here will be roasted a live!” Her eyes bulged as she said this and her tongue flicked like a snake between the glistening white fangs. Greta held Sophie even tighter and the woman shut the door. She did not lurk on the other side, but proceeded down the stairs.
Hans rubbed Sophie’s back. “We won’t let her do that to you, Sophie.” He said and he meant it. Any reservations he had about calling the number in his shoes vanished. He went over in his head what he would do.
Madeline suggested he call after Barney, while Avatar was on. “She knows we like that one.”
Hans wondered how Madeline knew this, but decided her reasoning was probably sound. He slid his mother’s phone from the side pocket on his cargo pants. Every boy wears them and hardly anyone uses these pockets. A stack of his favorite Pokemon cards went through the laundry because he forgot he had stashed them in this pocket.
Greta and Madeline gathered around. “Leave it on silent,” Greta suggested.
“Can they still hear me?” the girls all nodded.
He took off his shoe and dialed the number.
They listened to the options and pressed the numbers to get a live person.
“Hello, this is Angelina, how may I help you?”
“My name is Hans Angstrom and my sister and I and three other girls are in a terrible daycare. The lady running it keeps us locked up in a room and won’t give us food. If we are bad, she puts us in an oven.” He looked at the girls, they nodded.
“Where are you now?” He sighed, he was afraid they wouldn’t believe him. “We’re at 999 Gingerbread Lane in South San Francisco, a neighborhood called the Cauldron. The daycare is called Lil’ Gingerbread Daycare.” He whispered into the phone. He hoped the noise did not carry down the hall. He noticed now, that Sierra laid her head next to the door and had one eye trained through the crack.
“We will have the local authorities send an inspector out there as soon as possible.” promised Anglina.
“How long will it take?” he pressed.
“Two working days. Someone should be out there by Thursday, or Friday at the latest.” Responded the woman on the other line.
The children looked shocked.
“But we need help now.” Pleaded Hans.
“Then, I suggest you dial ‘911’.”
Hans didn’t need to be told twice. He cut her off and pressed 911 on his phone. He repeated the information he had just told the other lady.
This lady, asked if the daycare woman was there now.
“Yes, the lady is here. We can’t talk long.”
“I’ll send someone out right away. Where are you in the house?”
“We are in the room at the top to the steps. On the right side.” Sierra jumped away from the door and frantically waived for him to hide it. Greta grabbed the phone, shut it off and handed it back. He shoved his hand in the pocket as the shadow appeared on the other side of the door.
The door flew open and the witch stood there with a nasty look on her face.
“Such naughty children!” Hans shook with terror. She must have heard them on the phone or perhaps she had some way of knowing if one was on up here. Blood rushed from his face. “Aha! You are guilty of something. I can see it in your eyes.” She glared at him. ‘What is it? Hmmm? Tell me boy.”
“I didn’t do anything.” He shook his head.
She screamed, “Liar!”
Sophie jumped and Sierra flinched. The old woman grabbed his arm, her hand like a vise, and dragged him to his feet. “Well, we’ll see, my fat little boy.” She pulled him from the room. He heard Sophie and Madeline whimper and his heart broke and his blood ran cold.
She thrust him into the kitchen. The skinny old witch and Hans stood in a kitchen lined with dark cupboards, sickly yellow counters, and putrid green oven and matching refrigerator. Never taking her eyes off him, she slowly reached for something on the counter. It was a cleaver. The edge glinted wickedly, reflecting the dull fluorescent light flickering above.
“Get in the oven, fat boy.” She pulled the door down and motioned with the blade. He took a step forward and peered into a dark gray interior. The oven racks were missing. “Come on, get in there.” It’s wide flat blade looked heavy in her boney arm as she waved him into the appliance. He noted it was an electric stove, not gas. Hans wasn’t sure that was better.
“Go on, I don’t have all day.” She circled to the other side as he put his foot in first and then his knee. The space was tiny; he tried to curl up inside, but couldn’t fit.
“I’ll have to slice off what can’t fit!” She sneered. Tears trickled down his cheeks. He still had one leg out and his head couldn’t go any lower. “ugh, you disgust me.”
The phone rang.
Without hurry, she walked over to a black phone mounted on the wall and picked it up. She didn’t speak, instead, she squinted at the Caller ID. “Hmm, Nancy calling again. I’ll just have to call her back later, won’t I Hans?” Her tone switched from sweet to sneer, “You won’t fit fatso, I’ll have to put little Sophie in.”
“No!” He protested, still trying to fit his head into the oven.
She came over with the knife still in her hand. She held the blunt edge under his chin and forced him to look at her. “Then I suggest, Dearie, that you behave, or I will have you turn up the heat on her yourself!”
She brought the knife down, the blade missing his pink skin by inches.
“Go upstairs.” She ordered. As he left the kitchen, he heard her say, “Nancy, did you call, Dear?”
He opened the door to four frightened faces. Greta ran and hugged him, soon, all the girls clustered around. Madeline had been crying, and Sophie had streaks down her cheeks.
“Are you okay, Hans?” Greta said softly. He nodded his head but couldn’t speak. His body trembled and tears flowed. Her hand ran over his spiky hair and she repeated, “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
The children huddled together in the dark for a time. But even misery is boring, and soon they went back to watching the television.
A commercial for glow-in-the dark plastic whizzing things was on when a shudder ran through the house. Madeline and Sierra stiffened. Hans ran to the door and turned the knob, silently. They heard voices below.
“I am Officer Williams, we have a report of child endangerment, would you please step aside.”
“Oh, my, I’m sure you have the wrong house, Dearie.”
“The sign in your yard says this is Lil’ Gingerbread Daycare, correct?”
“Yes, it is.” Said the witch. “Do you have a search warrant?”
“I don’t need one if I believe there is someone in danger on the premises, ma’am. Please step aside.”
Instead of stepping aside, the witch began arguing with the officer and even went so far to step towards her and shut the door behind her.
Hans bolted from their room and sprinted down to the kitchen. He saw the cleaver on the kitchen counter and he opened the oven.
The door opened again, and another woman’s voice joined Officer Williams. “Ma’am, I am Christine McKenna from Child Services, here to help Officers William and Holt. Can we see the children?”
“No, I don’t know what these fat officers are doing in my home. This is against the law! I am going to,” Her voice grew stronger as they entered the kitchen. Hans did not move an inch. The next words sent his heart to heaven.
“Put your hands behind your back.”
The door creaked open and another voice said softly, “It’s okay, you can come out now. Come out, son.”
The witch protested. “It’s a prank! I didn’t even know he was in there!”
A warm hand helped him out of the oven, this time, Hans was able to get everything but his foot in. It took a little effort to pull himself out. Tears still trickled down his face as he gazed into the warm eyes of Officer Williams; a very heavy and powerful woman. Her broad shoulders and huge arms strained her uniform as she helped him to his feet. He eyed the gun fixed to her belt around her solid waist.
“I got you, son. No one is going to hurt you.”
He whispered. “My sister, the others, they are upstairs.” She nodded and spoke into her radio. He stood up and saw a young woman disappear out of the kitchen. He didn’t see the witch or the other officer in the room.
The next few hours went like a blur. First more police came and more social workers. All five children sat out front in police cars, as a white van pulled up and two young men climbed out with bags and cameras. The first parent to arrive, was Madeline’s Mom in her beat up truck. Ignoring the officers and the social workers, she grabbed her daughter and lifted her off in a full embrace. Then, Sierra and Sophie’s Moms drove up at the same time and not too long after them, the SUV pulled in. Greta and Hans let their mom and dad envelope them in bone crushing embrace.
After the tearful greetings, everyone wanted to know what happened and so now, Greta and Hans talked. They told them about the witch and how Greta snuck food into the house and Hans had brought the phone. They also told them how horrible the witch was to them; how frightened they were of her. They told them everything.
Well, not everything. Not one of the five kids mentioned that Hans came up after being the oven the first time and that the second time he hid there so the police could find him.
After a while, Sophie’s mom came over and gave Greta and Hans a hug. She so pretty, Hans blushed. “Thank you for what you did. You are the bravest children I have ever met.” Then she looked at their parents. “These kids are probably starving. I talked to the officers and they said it was fine if we wanted to take them to a restaurant.”
Sophie ran in the middle and yelled. “Let’s go to Innnut.” The parents looked blankly, and Greta added, “You mean ‘In-n-Out’, Sophie?”
“Yes! Innnut!” She giggled.
The twins’ dad suggested they pick up dinner and meet back at their apartment: the parents could talk and the kids could play. Everyone agreed, and with a little shuffling of cars and some carpooling, the kids ended up back at the apartment. The social worker, McKenna came along too.
Soon, what had started as the worst day of his life turned into a happy ending. That evening, the kids built forts out of the beds, Hans made a huge train track spanning from his room to his sisters and they all added animals to it, presenting it to the parents as an African Safari.
Hans heard snippets of conversation the adults had around the kitchen table. He thought Madeline’s mom was going to murder Ms. Heksen at one point. In another, he heard his mother say “that’s bullshit’ to some comment. Other than that, he spent the night being a kid. He fell asleep late that night frightened but still comforted that he nor Sophie, Greta, Sierra, and Madeline would ever have to go back to that daycare again.
The next morning, Hans rose early and found his Dad all ready grading papers.
“Dad, what are we going to do for daycare? Are we going to your class today?” His dad put an arm around Hans’ waist and drew him close.
“Nope. We’re going to try something new for a while. It turns out that Sierra’s Mom is a nurse and she is going to work the evening shift and stay with you in the morning and through my class. I’ll get home around 2:00 and watch you from there on.”
“Really? Are we going to her house, than?” He shook his head and gazed at Hans over his reading glasses.
“Apartment, she has an apartment like ours just a few blocks from here, but no. We have more room. If it’s all right with you and your sister, we thought that at least the rest of this week, we would have all five of you here. Is that okay?”
Hans thought this was awesome.