The following weeks went by in a blur. I’m not even sure how many weeks it was. More than ten. Less than twenty. I think.
My cousins and I spent most of our time in the playroom. Granny’s toy chest seemed to have no bottom, and the toys were enough to elicit gasps of wonder from us whenever we pulled them out. Some days I played dress up with the Margaret and Guadalupe, the two I had met on my first day. Sometimes I just laid down on the cushy carpeted floor and watched movies all day long. They weren’t movies I’d ever heard of before, but every single one of them kept my ditzy three year old brain entranced until the credits rolled.
But then, every few days, something really special would happen.
The day after I arrived, we woke up to find that Granny’s garden was covered in snow. After Granny had bundled us up, we raced outside and spent the day building snowmen and making snow angels. Granny would bring us inside every few hours for hot cookies, apple cider, and soup that chased the cold out of our bones. Cousin Toby and I started a snowball fight, and before long everyone had gotten involved. Some people chose sides with either me or Toby, but most of them just threw snowballs at whoever they wanted.
One snowball, thrown by Henry, the biggest of my cousins, hit me right in the face. It hurt, and I started to cry, but Granny was there half a second later to pick me up and rock me until the pain was gone.
You wouldn’t have been caught dead crying like that before, the voice in my head told me. I ignored it.
The snow was gone the next day and the weather was warm and bright again, but none of us were disappointed. Disappointment didn’t exist in Granny’s cottage. We went outside barefoot and swung on her swings, dug in her sandbox, and climbed on her monkey bars. Just after lunch, we went back outside to find that a pool had suddenly appeared, complete with a diving board, water slide, and one of those mushroom fountain things. We spent the rest of the day swimming.
I jumped into the water, and suddenly all I could think about was being held under a frozen creek by a monster ten times my size. It was gone in the blink of an eye, though, replaced by an overwhelming urge to join the game of Marco Polo the others were playing.
About a week later, the playroom had turned into a magnificent stage. We all sat crosslegged in front of it while puppets came out to dance and do funny skits. They were all life size, but none of us could spot so much as a single wire to support them. Granny made us popcorn with her special recipe that made it taste like whatever we wanted it to. Each bite was something different for me. Chocolate. Bacon. Fresh killed—
Pie. Apple pie. I blinked in surprise. What had I just been thinking?
Margaret and Guadalupe were hardly ever not by my side. We ran around the playroom in our princess dresses—I’d picked one that made me look like a mermaid cuz mermaids are awesome—baby dolls clutched under our arms, giggling up a storm at whatever mischief we could get up to. Guadalupe like to pretend to be in love with the boys, which never failed to make them blush and run away. Margaret had a fondness for knocking over other people’s block towers. I’d tried to make her stop, until I realized that the blocks would just restack themselves when she kicked them over. They were special, just like everything in Granny’s cottage.
Just like Granny.
And you know what? It was great. I could feel Granny’s love for us in every breath I took. For the first time in…I couldn’t remember how long…I just let myself go. I was a child. Children were supposed to play, and so I played, and played, and played. I went for days—weeks—without thinking about my bad dreams even once. Granny was always nearby. Always watching us. That made me even happier. I couldn’t imagine what life would be like without her. I was so glad Mommy and Daddy dropped me off here to visit.
I hoped they never came to get me.
Finally, after weeks of nonstop fun and sweets, Granny tucked me in with a kiss on my forehead the way she always did. My skin tingled from the hot bath I’d just taken, my pajamas were as soft as a sigh, and I had Blister clutched to my chest. I waited, eyes closed, for Granny to tuck in the others and leave. As soon as she did, my eyes popped back open.
“Amber?” Margaret asked, sitting up in her bed. “Are you awake?”
I sat up too, nodding. “Guadalupe?”
“I’m up. Let’s play!”
Tiptoeing across the room as quietly as we could, the three of us made our way back to the playroom. The rest of our cousins were already asleep. I could feel my own exhaustion trying to pull me back to my bed as well, but I ignored it. We could all nap tomorrow if we wanted. Right now, though, we had the playroom all to ourselves!
We eased the door open, and then closed it behind us, holding our breath in case somebody woke up. When no one said anything, we pressed our hands to our mouths to suppress our giggles and scampered off to play.
All three of us made for the same thing: Granny’s Barbies. She had a massive collection of them. I bet there was enough to fill a hundred million dollhouses. But we never got the chance to play with them, because cousin Valerie always hogged the entire collection to herself. We never fought for them—that would have upset Granny—but now that stinky ol’ Valerie was asleep we could play with them as much as we wanted.
“I want Beach Party Barbie!” Guadalupe said, snatching the doll out of the toy chest.
“Shh!” Margaret hissed at her. “We can’t wake Granny up!”
I couldn’t help but look guiltily at the playroom door. How would we feel if Granny found us up past our bedtimes? She would be angry for sure, and that was enough to make me want to cry.
But…the Barbies! They demanded my attention.
Margaret chose Cinderella Barbie and I, at the other’s insistence, chose Ken. I wanted to be Barbie too, but we couldn’t play without a Ken, so I agreed.
“Ken, you have to choose!” Margaret whispered, walking her Barbie up to mine. “Who are you going to marry? Me or her?”
Guadalupe giggled. “Marry me, Ken! I live on the beach!”
“But I have the prettiest dress,” Margaret argued.
“I can’t choose! I love you both too much!” I pressed Ken against the other two, making kissing noises and causing all three of us to break down into laughter again.
“Shh, shh!” Guadalupe said, trying to quiet herself down. “You’ll wake her up!”
“Ken, you can’t marry us both!” Margaret insisted. “Make up your mind. Now!”
“Hmm.” I made Ken pace back and forth in thought. “I choose…”
I paused as something tickled the back of my brain. Something buried deep in the dark places of my memories, the place I was happy to pretend didn’t exist until I forgot about it entirely. Not knowing exactly what I was thinking, I looked back down at the dolls.
“I’m not going to marry either of you,” I said slowly. “I’m going to…buy a hippo!”
Margaret and Guadalupe looked at me like I had gone insane. Maybe I had. But now that those words were out of my mouth, the memories were rising higher and higher in my brain.
“It’ll be the bestest pet ever,” I said in a hollow voice, eyes wide and vacant.
“Amber?” Guadalupe asked. “Are you okay?”
Margaret leaned forward. “Are you sick? Should I go get Granny?”
I barely heard them. Voices were speaking so loudly in my head now that they drowned my cousins out.
“I don't want anything to do with you. You're stupid, and you ruin everything. Just leave me alone!”
“Amber?” Guadalupe and Margaret asked together.
Pictures were flashing before my eyes. A Ken doll lying in the snow, its head chewed clean off. A giant wolf glaring down at me. And then suddenly I was the giant wolf, snarling at a little girl, backed against the wall and terrified…
The little girl with her arm ripped off, half buried in the snow and bleeding uncontrollably.
Suddenly, it all came back to me. Every memory that had been buried while I’d been here. I remembered who I was…what I was…what I’d done. I remembered Majestic, I remembered Hendricks, I remembered the Silverpack, and Dex, and where I was going and why I was going there and…
It was too much. I was still a just a little girl, but my brain was suddenly filled up with memories so horrible that it felt like my soul was being stained by them. No, not stained. Like somebody had draped a clean white sheet over a rotting corpse and pretended the corpse didn’t exist, only for the sheet to be whipped off all at once.
With my eyes wide and filled with nightmares, I leaned my head and screamed bloody murder. Margaret and Guadalupe froze, terrified by my outburst. I could hear my cousins jumping out of bed on the other side of the door.
I screamed. I wasn’t the innocent little girl Granny had made me think I was. I was Amber Pace. Thief. Murderer. Monster. And for that I screamed until my lungs were empty and my throat was raw.
The door to the playroom swung open. Margaret and Guadalupe began babbling out excuses, but Granny ignored them and scooped me up into her arms.
“No!” I wailed. “Put me down! You can’t! I’m not—”
“Hush, hush now,” Granny said, rocking me and stroking a hand through my hair. “It was just a bad dream.”
“It wasn’t a dream! It was real! All of it! I killed her!”
“G- Granny, we didn’t mean to, uh,” Margaret stammered. “We- We’re sorry!”
“Both of you go to bed,” Granny told them. “Don’t get up until the sun is up.”
“Put me down!” I begged her. I didn’t deserve to be help like this. Monsters didn’t get held or rocked. She should have carried me by the hair to the door and kicked me out like the no good, dirty, rotten vermin I was.
Guadalupe looked up at me nervously. “Is…Is Amber okay?”
Granny looked down at me, swaddled in her arms, and I saw a strange gleam in her eye that I’d never seen before.
“Yes, I think so,” she said. “She and I just need to have a very long talk."