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Chapter Twenty Two

“…so Snow White married the prince, and they both lived happily ever after!”

 

Granny closed the book. All my cousins and I were sitting on the floor around her rocking chair, surrounded by empty paper plates covered with PB&J crumbs and cups that still bore the stains of hot chocolate with whipped cream and sprinkles. I yawned, and several of the others joined me. A silver moon hung outside the window, surrounded by more stars than I’d ever seen before.

 

The sun had set more than an hour ago. If Mommy and Daddy knew I was up this late, they wouldn’t have been happy. But that didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered in Granny’s cottage were Granny’s rules.

 

“All right, dear ones!” Granny said, lifting herself up out of the chair. “Time for baths, and then to bed!”

 

“But I’m not sleepy!” I protested with another yawn.

 

“Yeah, me neither,” agreed cousin Eric.

 

Our voices rose as one, begging for more playtime even while we struggled to keep our eyes open, but Granny silenced us with a soft clap of her old hands. “If you argue, you won’t get any bubbles in your baths!”

 

That did it. We shut our mouths and scampered away. A bath at Granny’s cottage without bubbles was like a day without Granny’s cookies! I couldn’t imagine it, but the thought terrified me all the same.

 

The cottage was bigger than the outside made it look. The hallway outside the playroom stretched farther than my eye could see, and the doors stood open to let hot steam pour out of them. There was a bathroom for each of us and, even though I’d only been here a day, I instinctively knew which one was mine. I went in to find the massive tub already full of water, with bubbles that towered over me like a giant soapy mountain. I didn’t waste any time shucking off my clothes and doing a cannonball into it. I came back up giggling.

 

“Oh, Amber!” Granny exclaimed. “Look at the mess you’ve made!”

 

I spun around to see her standing at the bathroom door, hands on her hips. My cannonball had sloshed water over the edge of the tub, and now soapy suds covered the floor. I looked down as shame immediately washed over me.

 

“I’m sorry, Granny,” I said.

 

Granny knelt down by the tub and put her hand on my cheek. The water in the tub was nice and hot, but somehow her touch was even warmer, but also still comfortable.

 

“It’s all right, little one,” she said, banishing my sadness in an instant. “Now, let’s get you cleaned up!”

 

I amused myself while she scrubbed me by reaching into the mountain of bubbles, finding that there were all types of toys hidden inside it. Rubber duckies, little plastic boats, windup frogs that paddled through the water. But none of them were as amazing as the bubbles themselves. No matter how many I popped with my curious little fingers, more seemed to rise up out of the water to replace them. I could sculpt them with my hands, making bubblemen, hats, and silly beards. When I blew on them, they took flight, spinning in circles around me and Granny. They flashed every color of the rainbow before popping in a symphony of funny noises that had me laughing like the little girl I was.

 

And I was that little girl. I hadn’t thought about where I’d come from for hours, and I felt no desire to change that now. Or ever.

 

Finally, Granny dunked my head under the water. When I came back up, the bubbles were gone and Granny pulled the drain. I wanted to complain, but found I was too sleepy as Granny lifted me out of the tub and dried me off. A set of silky pink pajamas was sitting on the counter for me, and she helped me into them after I brushed my teeth.

 

“Now, off to bed with you,” she said, giving me a gentle push out of the bathroom.

 

I nodded, eyelids weighing a thousand pounds. “Okay, Granny.”

 

“Thank you, Granny,” said Eric, emerging from his bathroom to my right.

 

Madison stepped out of the one to my left. “Night night, Granny.”

 

“Goodnight, Granny!”

 

“Love you, Granny!”

 

Soon a small parade of toddlers was making its way through the playroom, our toys put away nice and neat, to our bedroom on the other side. Our beds were lined up side by side, but the room was still almost as long as the hallway had been. I found my bed without having to be told where it was—everything was exactly where it belonged in Granny’s cottage—and jumped up onto it. The mattress felt like lying on a cloud, putting the one I had slept on in the ho…

 

Hotel.

 

The memories came rushing back. I’d spent the night in a hotel, then gotten on a bus with Dex to go to find…to find…find what?

 

They weren’t all there, but the ones I did remember were absolutely horrible. Darkness, pain, death. Evil. The exact opposite of Granny’s cottage. They attacked my poor little brain, overwhelming me with their wickedness. And I…

 

I cried.

 

Opening my mouth and squeezing my eyes shut, I let out a wail that made all my cousins look at me in surprise. I didn’t care. I buried my face in my bedsheets, as if I could hide from the pictures in my mind, and sobbed.

 

Then I felt Granny lift up and set me on her lap.

 

“Amber, Amber, Amber!” she said, running a hand through my hair. “Did you have a bad dream?”

 

I shook my head before burying it in her chest. “It wasn’t a dream! It was real!”

 

“Oh, I know it felt real, but—”

 

“It was from before I came here!”

 

All of my cousins went deathly silent, staring at me with wide, horrified eyes. Granny hugged me tighter and whispered into my ear, “Amber, you’re scaring your cousins.”

 

“But…”

 

“We don’t talk about our bad dreams here. That’s all they are in Granny’s cottage. Bad dreams.”

 

As she spoke, I felt those terrible memories slide away again, leaving me feeling scared without knowing what I was scared of. Almost like…almost like they were just dreams, and the longer I was awake the more I forgot of them. I breathed in through my nose, filling my head with Granny’s sweet cinnamon-y smell, and the last bits of my fear melted away.

 

“There, all better?” Granny asked.

 

I nodded.

 

“Good.” She laid me down and tucked me into bed. “The bad dreams will stop soon, Amber. Just remember: you can stay here with Granny forever!”

 

I tried to nod again, but something stopped me. Some sort of yearning, even though my three year old brain didn’t know what that word meant. I wanted to stay here with Granny more than anything in the world, but something about that felt wrong somehow. I needed to…

 

“And in case you have another bad dream,” Granny interrupted my thoughts, “here’s someone to protect you.”

 

She held out a stuffed animal. Made of a dozen different types of fabric, and only slightly resembling anything living, it nonetheless made my heart light up with glee.

 

“Blister!” I exclaimed, grabbing him and hugging him as hard as I could. “Where did you find him?”

 

“Granny has everything her grandchildren need,” she answered. Then she leaned down and gave me a kiss on the forehead. “Good night, little one. You have a big day tomorrow, so sleep tight and have sweet dreams!”

 

“Goodnight, Granny,” I said with another yawn, snuggling up with Blister under my covers.

 

Granny tucked in my cousins one by one, giving each of them a kiss goodnight, but by the time she went to turn out the lights I was already asleep.

 

More importantly, I was home.

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