Chapter Twenty One
I stepped back as the gigantic shadow took a step toward me. The light from the mid-day sun fell on it, and…I blinked in surprise when I found myself looking at the last thing in the world I expected to see.
“What’s the matter, Amber?” it—or, rather, she—asked. “Don’t I get a hug?”
It was…I shook my head, unable to believe what I was seeing. It was an old lady! Her hair was a mix of white and gray, her face was covered with wrinkles and laugh lines, and she wore an old fashioned dress and heart-patterned apron that still had a light dusting of flour on it. If she hadn’t been a freaking giant, I would have been hard pressed to find anything the least bit intimidating about her.
She bent down, putting her hands on her knees, and smiled invitingly at me. “Amber, darling! Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten your poor old granny!”
“Y- You’re not my…” My words trailed off. Was that my voice? That high pitched, squeaky thing? It was like…like I had just huffed an entire tank of helium. Either that, or…
Slowly, I brought my hands up in front of my face, and gasped. They were my hands. The way my fingers wiggled on command proved that. But they weren’t my hands. My hands were big. The skin was rough and cracked from years of violence and hard labor, with dirt so far under my nails that I’d long since given up scrubbing it out.
The hands I saw in front of me right now were small, the skin pink and unblemished, with stubby little fingers that looked more suited to popping bubbles than strangling villainous lowlifes.
And then suddenly it all made sense. My hands. My voice. The size of the door and the old woman who had come through it. Everything else hadn’t gotten bigger. I had gotten smaller. I was…
A little girl. Not even four years old, if I guessed right.
“What the hehhh—” My throat clenched up. “What the hhh…the hhhhhh…”
“Amber, you’re not trying to use naughty words in front of Granny, are you?”
“What’s going on?” I demanded in my humiliatingly high pitched voice.
“You’ve come to visit me,” the old woman said with another smile. “And you’re just in time. All your cousins are in the playroom! Why don’t we go join them?”
She reached for me, and my first instinct was to back away again. I didn’t, though, and her large, wrinkly hand took my smaller one as gently as if she were picking up a timid butterfly. She smelled like cinnamon and sugar. Warmth blossomed in my chest as soon as we touched, and I didn’t resist as she led me inside.
What are you doing? the voice in my head demanded. Run!
I didn’t. It wasn’t that I couldn’t. The old woman’s hand was holding mine so gently that I could have easily slipped free and run back down the garden path if I’d wanted to. The thing was, though, I didn’t want to. As soon as we touched, all my fears and worries seemed to melt away. It was like she really was my granny, and I was really a little girl whose only hope was to get some milk and cookies out of this visit.
Still, it would have been stupid to let my guard down too much.
“What is this place?” I asked as she led me deeper into the house.
She beamed down at me. “This is Granny’s cottage, Amber! It’s been so long since you’ve visited. I’m not surprised you don’t remember it.”
The inside of the cottage looked exactly like what the outside suggested. Hard wood floors that had been polished to a gleam. The smell of fresh baked cookies wafted from nearby. Pictures of children hung from the white painted walls, all of them around my age—my new age, I should say. I didn’t know any of them, but when I looked I could feel a strange sense of familiarity stirring inside of me. Like I was looking at people in my family that I had seen once, but had been too young to fully—
“N- No,” I made myself say, shaking my head. It all felt so real that I was having a hard time keeping my thoughts straight. “I’m dreaming!”
“Oh?” Granny chuckled. I jumped a little when I realized that I’d already started thinking of her as my granny. “Is it a good dream?”
“I…I guess,” I said. “But I know it’s not real. I’m on a…a bus. With…”
I paused and scrunched up my face, thinking. The memories were there, I could feel them, but they were slow to come back to me when I called them.
“With…Baxter?” I asked. “And we’re…going…to…”
They slid a little further away.
Granny led me to a door at the end of the hall. “Granny has to get her cookies from the oven, Amber. Go inside and tell your cousins about this. I’m sure one of them will want to play pretend with you!”
I looked up at her sharply. “P- Pretend? That was…”
She pushed open the door, and the sound of…fun…erupted from it. Laughter, the kind that only a little kid who had been spared the horrors of life could make. Despite myself, I peeked into the room. Over a dozen children were in there, all of them my age and all of them playing. A little boy was pushing a toy firetruck back and forth on a big, soft carpet. Three little girls were dressing up as princesses, two more were playing with dolls, and a small crowd was gathered around a tv that was playing Sesame Street.
“Doesn’t it look like fun in there, Amber?” Granny asked.
I swallowed hard, but didn’t answer. Yes, yes it did look like fun. I didn’t know why. I’d grown out of all this shi…cra…crud years ago. But suddenly it was all I could do not to run inside and grab that adorable little baby doll in the corner with the pink dress and give her a bottle and…
I shook my head. “I- I can’t. This is a dream, Granny! If I go in there, I’ll wake up crying.”
Granny groaned softly as she got to her knees and turned me to face her. Her eyes were shining with the kind of love only a grandmother can show to a grandchild.
“Amber,” she whispered, but somehow her voice became the only thing I could hear, “you’ve been through so much. My heart broke when he told me about it.”
I perked up. “When who—”
She put a finger to my lips. “Shh, dear one! You don’t have to worry about that now. Things are always wonderful and fun at Granny’s cottage!”
To my dismay, I felt myself slipping. The longer I looked into Granny’s eyes, the more my old life seemed distant. Like a bad dream I had just woken up from, and my wonderful grandma had picked me up and rocked me in her arms until I’d forgotten all about…about…
What had I forgotten about?
“I’ll be back in just a few minutes,” she promised me, putting a warm hand against my cheek. “I’ll bring chocolate chip cookies and milk.”
The thought of cookies filled my head. Hot, gooey chocolate chips. Nothing in the world sounded better. I knew without even having to think about it that nobody in all the world made better chocolate chip cookies than Granny. But…
I looked up at her. “But I can’t eat choc—”
“Shush now. You can eat whatever Granny says you can eat. The rules from the big, bad world don’t matter here. All that matters is that Granny loves you!”
With that, she pulled me into a hug. Before I knew what I was doing, I hugged her back. It was only natural, right? Grandkids have to hug their grandmas. It’s, like, the law or something.
“I love you, Amber,” she said, stroking my hair.
“I love you too, Granny.”
She let me go and gave me a gentle push toward the playroom. I walked a little ways in, and heard Granny shut the door behind me. I looked around. Most of the other kids didn’t look up from their games, but a few did and their eyes lit up when they saw me.
“Amber!” a little boy yelled, waving frantically. “Hi! Hi, Amber!”
I waved timidly back. There was still a part of me—small, and getting smaller by the second—that knew none of this was right. I didn’t belong here. That tiny voice was all that kept me from giving in.
But I wanted to give in. By God, I actually wanted it!
Slowly, I wandered over to the baby doll I had seen earlier and scooped her up in my arms. Her eyes were a sparkling blue, not like a doll’s but like a real human baby’s. Lifelike golden hair curled around her head, framing her rosy little cheeks. I hugged her to my chest, and…
No, no! that little voice in my head screamed. This isn’t right! Fight it, Amber! Fight…
I squashed that stinky little voice like a bug and hurried over to the girls who were playing dress up.
“Hi!” I said breathlessly. “Can I play too?”