I froze in shock as tears welled up in Granny’s eyes and she clenched her lips to contain heartbroken sobs. It was all I could do to keep from kneeling down and comforting her. Not because she still had her spell over me—my mind was entirely my own now—but because she just looked so freaking pitiful sitting down there on the floor, crying like a mother whose child had just slapped her.
That wasn’t so far from the truth, I realized with a sickening lurch.
I closed my eyes and shook my head violently. “No! You don’t get to make me feel that way! You just tried to freaking kill me!”
“Kill you?” Granny asked with just as much shock in her voice as mine. “I would never kill you! You’re my—”
“Don’t,” I pointed threateningly at her, “say it.”
I was free. There was nothing to stop me from running out of this house and never coming back. Granny wouldn’t do anything, I could tell just by looking at her. Maybe she couldn’t. Maybe whatever I’d done to break free had taken me out of her control permanently. All I had to do was turn and leave.
So I sat down across from her.
What the hell are you doing? my common sense demanded. Run! Run like the scared little idiot you are!
I didn’t, though. Somehow, just leaving Granny like this felt…wrong. She had kidnapped me, turned me into a child, and despite what she’d said I was still pretty sure she had just tried to cook me alive. But somehow I knew that if I walked away right now, it would haunt my dreams forever.
“Tell me what’s going on,” I said in a low voice. “Everything.”
Surprisingly, Granny composed herself immediately. She wiped away her tears, sniffled one last time, and then looked me in the eyes. My mouth fell open in awe. Nothing in the room changed, but suddenly I saw her for what she really was. The sweet old lady in front of me…that was her. But it also wasn’t. She was so much more than that. She was as massive as all the cosmos, and as small as a fractured atom. As ancient as existence itself, yet still as new as tomorrow. Her powers were so great that if they were limited, she had never found those limits. She was fire, she was wind, she was stone, and sky, and the oceans, and so many other things that mortals can’t even begin to comprehend, much less name.
I drew in a panicked breath.
And I had just slapped her in the face.
Seeing the terror on my face, Granny became just Granny again and reached out to touch my cheek. “Amber, Amber, don’t be afraid! Granny would never hurt you!”
“Are you…” I stammered. “Are you God?”
She shook her head. “I am Granny.”
With those three words, I felt like I understood her as much as any mortal thing could. She had the power to create worlds—universes, even. She could rule over everything with a snap of her finger. Rain down fire on her enemies, recreate reality, mold time and space as she saw fit, and nobody would be able to stop her. Not Hendricks, not Majestic, and certainly not me.
But she didn’t do any of that. For reasons I couldn’t begin to fathom, she chose to do this. She looked out into our world from the cozy little realm she’d made for herself, she saw those of us who had been beaten and ground down by the terribleness of life, and she pitied us. Loved us, even. But rather than smite the wicked and punish the guilty, she took us into her embrace, comforted us, made us happy the way…
The way only a grandmother could to her precious grandchildren.
“B- But why?” I found myself asking. “Why me?”
“He told me,” Granny answered. “All of the horrible things you’ve had to live through. The horror, the pain, the evil. He told me that this would be your last chance for a happy ending. How could I say no, Amber?”
“He? Who is he?”
Granny thought for a second, then shook her head. “I shouldn’t say. He wouldn’t like it.”
I began to shake. “But…But after everything I’ve done? The people I’ve hurt and killed?”
“None of that matters. Not in Granny’s cottage.”
“It does, though.” My cheeks felt wet, and I reached up to find that now I was the one crying. “It matters to me. All this…this happiness. I don’t deserve it!”
Granny wagged her finger at me, surprisingly stern. “Young lady, you deserve whatever your granny says you deserve!”
I felt it again. On the edges of my consciousness, something was creeping into me. It wanted me to give in, stop thinking, forget. Just let my granny pamper and spoil me for all eternity. Instinctively I knew that if I let it take me again, I’d never find my way out of it a second time. I would be happy. By God—by Granny—would I be happy. I would never think about the real world or the terrible things I’d done ever again.
“No!” I was on my feet in an instant, turning to look away from her. “Stop it! I can’t!”
“No, Granny! I’m a monster!” I clenched my fists so hard that my nails pierced my skin. “I’m a murderer and a thief. I don’t belong here with you and all the others!”
I heard her get up, but didn’t turn to look, and she wrapped her arms around me from behind in a gentle hug.
“I know how you feel,” she whispered. “I can hear your thoughts, feel the turmoil inside of you. You don’t have to be like this, Amber. Let Granny take it all away!”
I wanted to. You have no idea how badly I wanted to let her do that. But I forced myself to raise my hands and push her arms away.
“No,” I said softly. “I have to see this through. I got myself into this mess, and now I have to fix it.”
She sighed, and I finally turned to look at her. She was crying again, more softly this time, and so was I. But she didn’t argue.
“You know that if you leave,” she told me, “you can’t come back here. Not ever. No matter how bad things get out there.”
I nodded. Somehow I had known that. It didn’t change my mind, though. This had been the most wonderful thing that had happened to me in years. It only made sense, being who I am, that it would eventually end.
I leaned forward and gave Granny a hug, which she eagerly returned.
“Oh, you children grow up so fast!” she whispered.
I squeezed her tighter. “I’ll miss you, Granny.”
And I would. Horribly. But I knew what I had to do, and there was no turning back now. Silently, Granny led me through the cottage one last time—everything looked so small from a grownup body—and toward the front door. I glanced at the door to the playroom, and felt a sudden, painful urge to go say goodbye to my cousins. I forced myself to look away.
They’re not your real cousins anyway, I thought.
We reached the door, and Granny opened it for me. Her garden, lit by the gentle moonlight, was silent as the grave. No birds singing, no crickets chirping. Even the brook that ran past her house had stopped babbling. Was that because there were no grandchildren out here to enjoy them right now, I wondered? Or had Granny’s world gone silent with heartbreak over seeing one of her grandkids leave?
I stepped out onto the garden path, then turned to look at her one last time. “I take it back. You are my granny. And I love you.”
Granny wiped a tear from her face. “And I love you, Amber. Take care out there, in the big, wide world.”
With that, I turned and began to walk. The whitewashed garden gate opened for me without having to touch it, and closed again when I was out. There was a quiet click when it latched shut behind me, but it sounded for all the world like a massive iron door slamming shut, never to be opened again. I wanted to look back, to wave at Granny one more time, but I didn’t let myself. I didn’t know if I’d be strong enough to keep going. And strength was exactly what I was going to need in the coming days.
So I walked, leaving Granny and her cottage behind forever. The closer to the woods I got, the darker the night became. I kept going until I couldn’t see the moon or the stars, the trees, or even my own feet as I walked. I was strolling through a void of absolute darkness and silence, past the border of Granny’s domain. All I could do was keep walking and trust Granny. She wouldn’t have sent me into danger. There was no doubt of that in my mind. Even though I was abandoning her, she still loved me. Everything would…be…
A familiar voice echoed in the darkness around me. I stopped, and I…
“Amber, you in there?”
I opened my eyes to find myself back in the seat of the bus. The windows showed me that it was night, and the passengers were all on their feet, talking excitedly. Outside, I could see the lights of the Chicago bus station. Dex was sitting beside me, looking idly out the window. In his hand he held an empty glass vial, and his fist was clenched so tightly around it that I was surprised it hadn’t shattered.
“Yeah?” I asked.
He spun around, and for a quarter of a second he looked surprised.
“We’re here,” he said, quickly regaining composure. “Come on, we’ve got work to do.”
Looking through the window on the other side of the bus, I took a deep breath when I saw the tall, imposing buildings of Chicago rising up in every direction. They were like mountains chiseled into perfect rectangles. Even from in here, I could hear the commotion of the city. So much noise. It would take a week for my hometown to generate enough noise to cover up a single block here for a minute.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “We do.”
It felt weird getting up. To me, I’d been standing and walking until just a minute or two ago, but my muscles were as stiff and tired as if I’d just slept for hours in a really uncomfortable chair—which I guess I must have, in this world at least.
Dex stood up as well and hurried to the front of the bus, but I hesitated. Raising a hand, I put it on the chair the way you might touch a loved one’s tombstone.
“Goodbye, Granny,” I whispered. “Thank you.”
“You coming, Sugarsnout?” Dex asked, looking back at me.
I nodded and together we made for the door.
“First things first,” he said, “we need to find a place to stay. Luckily, I’ve been here a few times, so I have connections at a couple nice hotels. After that, we’ll start spreading the word that we’re looking for—”
Just before we stepped out, I grabbed him by the hand. He stopped, looking back at me curiously.
“Dex,” I said quietly, unable to even look him in the face, “promise me something.”
“Uh, what’s that?”
“I know you were just trying to help,” I whispered. “And I appreciate that. But…”
I squeezed his hand so hard that he winced in pain.
“Never do that to me again.”