After the weeks I’d spent there, Granny’s cottage was as familiar to me as Blister’s patchwork fur. Even though I spent most of my time in the playroom, I’d been out and about enough to know every nook and cranny of her deceptively massive house. Tonight, something struck me as different. Maybe it was because all the lights were off. Maybe it was because all the other kids…I couldn’t call them my cousins anymore…were asleep. Whatever it was, Granny’s cottage suddenly looked dark and ominous as she carried me through it.
With the return of my memories, my natural instincts were coming back too. They were telling me, for the first time in weeks, that I was in danger. But there was something else. An almost overwhelming desire to ignore those feelings and just cuddle up against Granny. Let her comfort me, rock me until I’d calmed down, and then put me back to bed. And I wanted to. More than once, I found myself leaning forward to rest my head on Granny’s shoulder.
But then the memories of what I’d done would come back, and I’d start fighting to get free again. I didn’t deserve to be held like this. I needed to get free, to run, to get out of here before Granny’s cottage was tainted irreversibly by my evil. But I was still trapped in a little girl’s body, and Granny’s arms refused to budge even an inch, no matter how hard I thrashed.
“L- Let me go!” I cried with tears running down my face.
“Shh, Amber,” she said, stroking a hand through my hair. “It’ll be all right.”
I craned my neck around and saw that we were heading for the kitchen.
“Let Granny make you some cookies, and then you’ll feel all better.”
Thoughts of her cookies poured into my mind like sand in an hourglass. I pushed back as hard as I could, but I could feel myself being crushed beneath them. I couldn’t let myself go back to the happy, contented little girl I had become. Not now that I could remember.
But the harder I pushed, the harder those thoughts pushed back. It was like something outside of me was trying to shove them into my head. The same was true of the other feelings too, I realized. The way my sadness and fear would suddenly blossom into happiness wasn’t natural. Somebody was putting those feelings inside me. They were trying to bury my real emotions and force new ones in their place. But why?
A thought tickled the back of my brain. Something I’d learned in school a long, long time ago. The angler fish. It would lure prey in with its light, making them think they were swimming toward something they wanted, until…
A terrifying calmness came over me, and I glanced up to see Granny looking down at me. She carried me into the kitchen, to the big table where we all sat together for meals, and put me down in one of the chairs. From here I could watch as she walked across the kitchen, to her oven, and turned it on. A bright, blazing fire immediately leaped up inside it. The oven was massive. It had to be for her to bake all the cookies, brownies, cakes, pies, and other sweets she made for us. But, I noticed for the very first time, it was more than big enough to fit a little girl inside.
“Amber,” Granny said suddenly. I looked up, and saw that all the ingredients for chocolate chip cookies had appeared on the counter. “Why don’t you help Granny bake this batch?”
I swallowed hard, fairly certain that I knew where this was going. Still, it didn’t look like I had much choice. Scooting out of my chair, I timidly climbed the stepstool that had appeared beside her.
Run! My instincts demanded. Run, run, run, RUNNNN!
I didn’t, though. In the middle of her house, standing right next to her, there was no way I could escape from Granny. I would have to bide my time, wait for the perfect moment to make my getaway.
Assuming she didn’t throw me in the oven first.
“I’m going to teach you Granny’s special cookie recipe,” she said, smiling sweetly down at me.
I’ll bet you are, I thought.
Under her guidance, together we melted a pat of butter, poured brown and white sugar into it, and stirred. Next came an egg, and a teaspoon of vanilla.
The oven blazed behind me. I could feel its heat on my back.
Then flour, then baking soda, and then the chocolate chips. For the first time in weeks, the sight of them didn’t make me hungry—they made me feel sick. Yes, I was definitely back to my old self.
It occurred to me that this was the same recipe my mom had used. I don’t know what I’d expected, but Granny’s cookies had always tasted like angels tap dancing on your tongue. I would have thought there’d be some special ingredient. Or maybe it had just been Granny messing with my feelings the whole time.
As if reading my mind—at this point I wouldn’t have put anything past her—she leaned toward me and asked, “Do you want to know what my special ingredient is, Amber?”
There is was again. Those alien feelings, signs that Granny was invading my heart and mind. Trying to lull me into a state of contentedness so she could…what? Throw me in the oven? Chop me up and mix me into the cookie dough?
Yes. Yes, I wanted to know. I loved my Granny so much that I wanted to help her bake cookies forever and ever and ever and…
“N- No,” I forced myself to say. It was both the truth and a lie. It felt like I was being torn into two different people. The real me, who ate little girls and murdered for a demon crime lord, and the sweet innocent granddaughter Granny wanted me to be.
Granny frowned, hurt. “You don’t?”
I shook my head. “I think I want to go home now, Granny.”
“Amber, darling,” she knelt down and put her hands on my shoulders. “You are home! You don’t have to be sad anymore. Granny is here to make sure you’re always happy. Forever!”
And I was. I was so happy I thought my heart was going to explode. And that was why I had to get out. This happiness…the more I felt it, the less real it became. A flimsy tissue paper backdrop to cover up the horrible, foul smelling reality behind it. It was the kind of happiness only a child could believe in—which was exactly what she’d made me into.
“Let’s put the cookies in the oven, Amber,” Granny said. I blinked, and the bowl of dough was gone, replaced by a baking sheet with the dough evenly dispersed across it. There was a creak behind me, and the heat from the oven became a hundred times hotter. I looked back to see it standing wide open, the fire inside burning hungrily, like a dragon waiting to swallow me whole.
Oh my, these cookies were going to taste so—no! I couldn’t let her take control again!
“Come on, Amber,” she said, gently pushing me forward. “The sooner they bake, the sooner we can eat them!”
I had no choice but to step down off the stool, getting closer to the oven. I resisted as best I could, but my strength was wavering. I was just a little girl, after all. What could I possible do?
“Trust me, little one. Trust your granny!”
No, I realized with a start. I wasn’t just a little girl. This may have been what she’d turned me into, but it wasn’t who I was.
The oven loomed even closer.
I was Amber Pace. I was twenty one years old.
“The cookies, Amber!”
I had survived a werewolf attack. I had learned to cope when I’d become one myself.
“Amber? Are you listening?”
I had lost my father, my mother, and my best friend. I had killed my first alpha. I had stood up to a corrupt corporation that wanted to use me as a lab rat. I had fought other werewolves, sadistic magicians, demons, giant hyenas, and psychos in black coats.
I was a thief, a murderer, and a monster. Evil was the only word that could describe me. But if there was one thing in the world I wasn’t…
“Amber, obey your granny!”
It was weak!
I found myself staring right into the depths of the oven. Granny put her hand on my shoulder—and I snapped.
“No!” I screamed at the top of my voice—my real voice. In the blink of an eye, I was back in my real body. The strength of a werewolf surged through me, and I spun around, backhanding Granny across the face. She cried out in pain and shock and went stumbling away from me. She hit the counter behind her, dropped her pan of unbaked cookies, and collapsed to the floor.
I stood over her, tall, strong, and proud. “You’re not my granny. And I’m leaving!”
Granny looked up at me in horror, helpless for what was probably the first time in her life. And then…
She began to cry.