“Such a delicious tale—Sweetmeats is Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel’ flavored with Guillermo Del Toro and a dash of Miyazaki, all wrapped up in a modern-day setting and served with a distinct and compelling voice. I absolutely devoured it.”
—Heidi Heilig, acclaimed author of The Girl from Everywhere

The mark is on the inside of our elbows. Marlie’s on the left, mine on the right. Stacked triangles inside a semicircle. The police can’t figure out how we got the brand and neither can the doctors. We weren’t cut or burned or tattooed, but the black outlines on our skin appear to be permanent. The reporters have their own theories; everything from satanic cults to sex traffickers. Most of the headlines say that Marlie and I were taken from our bedrooms.

That’s not what happened.

We weren’t kidnapped. We ran away. Right before summer vacation started, right after I fucked up my audition for Interlochen Arts Academy and my mother asked me in front of my violin teacher why I was wasting his time and her money if I couldn’t even bother to try.

We were running away to New York. I had a plan, and years’ worth of red pocket money collected at Chinese New Year dinners from aunts who told me to save the money for plastic surgery. You should at least do your eyelids, Mei, and maybe your nose, such a shame you didn’t get your mother’s face. The plan was to busk in the subways. While other little girls played house, we played opera. I had to practice violin after school every day, and Marlie would sit with me, harmonizing while I ran scales and drilled études. She didn’t need any sheet music, she did it all by ear. She hates getting on stage even though she’s the best singer in her church choir, but there won’t be any stages in the subway, no spotlights, no one watching for our mistakes, just me and her performing our opera for nonjudgmental commuters. Someone might film us and we could go viral. People get famous like that all the time.

We didn’t even make it to the Greyhound station before the witch got us.

“You keep referring to your abductor as a ‘witch.’ Why do you say that?” The detective taking our statements squints at me after every question he asks.

“Because that’s what she is,” I tell him. “A witch who eats girls. She kept giving us cake and candy to fatten us up.”

“You said there were other girls with you. What happened to them?”

“I told you,” I repeat, “the witch ate them.”

He squints harder. “How did the two of you escape?”

“The door wasn’t locked that day, we ran out of the cabin and through the woods until we got to the road.”

I tell him the truth, exactly what happened, but the detective looks to Marlie and waits. She stares at the floor tiles and scratches at her elbow, at the mark. She says nothing.

“What did the witch look like?” the detective asks.

“The most beautiful woman in the world,” I answer.

They tell us we’ve been missing for weeks, but I swear we were only gone for a few nights. We sit next to each other in the police station until our parents show up. Marlie’s father thanks God over and over, mine is silent. Her mother cries and cradles her, mine can’t look me in the eyes.

Marlie and I have been neighbors our whole lives. Literally since birth. We were born on the same day in the same hospital. Our bassinets were side by side in the nursery, and we were wrapped in matching pink muslins. My mother hosted a joint Zhuazhou ceremony for us when we turned one. It’s this birthday ritual where you line up a bunch of stuff in front of the baby, and whatever they pick up predicts their future. Stethoscope for doctor, textbook for teacher, paintbrush for artist, spatula for chef. Allegedly, Marlie’s parents loved it. They make a point to tell us all the time how they find Chinese traditions ‘so charming.’ I don’t think they realize how many hurtful comments they’ve made about our food—how are you supposed to eat fish that’s looking up from the plate with those giant open eyes!?—or the fact that we don’t go to church. During the Zhuazhou ceremony I went for the toy violin and Marlie started chewing on a karaoke microphone. Born to be musicians, my mother would say when she talks about it at block parties. I’ve probably heard it hundreds of times, but I never get tired of watching my mother tell that story, the way her face glows with pride.

Neither of us has siblings, but it doesn’t feel that way. We have each other. Boys would pick on Marlie for her large ears, her freckled face, the baggy corduroy skirts her mother dresses her in, and I would get in trouble for kicking those boys in their knees. She’s a few hours younger than me, it’s my job to look after her.

Marlie hasn’t said the words “it’s your fault,” but New York was my idea, and if I hadn’t come to her window that night, she never would have put on her backpack and climbed out.

* * *

It’s the first week of high school and there are rumors about us spreading all over campus.

“Aren’t those the girls who escaped from some serial killer shack in the woods?”

“Someone should make a movie about them, they’re like, real-life Final Girls.”

“My cousin said they were being auctioned off to rich pedophiles in Russia.”

“Did you see the satanic symbol on her arm? They were totally supposed to be human sacrifices.”

I don’t care about the gossip, but Marlie shrinks whenever someone looks her way. She wears long sleeves all the time, and waits for me outside of my classes so she won’t have to walk down the halls alone.

“Don’t listen to those assholes,” I tell her on our way home. We still hold hands when we cross the street. Her fingers are always freezing.

“Mei,” Marlie says, clinging to my arm, her nails digging in through my sweatshirt. She’s staring at something on the other side of the road. I look, and my breath stops in my throat.

There’s a woman standing across the street. She’s in a white dress that reaches past her ankles. Long black hair falls over her face. I can’t see her eyes, but I know she’s looking at us.

I take a step forward, and the woman does, too. I take another step, and the woman follows. Marlie’s grip on my arm tightens, and I start walking quicker, pulling her with me. Across the street, the woman breaks out into a run after us. Marlie screams. I grab her hand and we sprint, our feet slamming against the pavement, our schoolbags swinging, we run for our lives, the way we did when we fled from the witch’s cabin, all the way up the front steps of my house.

“Hurry,” Marlie gasps, “the door!”

I scramble for my keys and pull them out of my bag, but my hands are shaking so much I can’t fit them into the lock. I look over my shoulder. The woman is standing on my lawn now. She reaches a hand up, and pulls all of her hair off.

It’s Bryan Haywood. He grins and holds up the wig.

Bryan is a year older than us—rich, handsome, and heartless—a trifecta of qualities that kept him popular since nursery school. He never got over the fact that I gave him a black eye in the fifth grade for making Marlie cry. His dad is a cop, he must have heard about the witch from him.

Bryan’s girlfriend Clara pulls up in Bryan’s new car, a shiny Bimmer he got for his sixteenth birthday. “Quick, get the door before the witch eats you!” Clara calls out, snapping her gum. Three boys from the lacrosse team lean out of the backseat windows and chant: “Run, run, run!” Bryan whips the wig around over his head like a helicopter propeller and jumps into the car with his friends. They’re all laughing so hard they can’t sit up.

The next weekend I spot his car in the mall parking lot, and I run my keys down the entire driver’s side from mirror to bumper.

* * *

Marlie goes to her pastor for counseling twice a week, but my mother doesn’t believe in therapy. She doesn’t believe in post-traumatic stress disorder or witches who eat children.

She doesn’t believe me.

She thinks if I go back to my routine everything will be normal again. She sits with me as I practice, counting aloud to the metronome, but all I hear are the hard clacks of her shoes as she walks out of my ruined audition. My hand cramps up and I trip over the same series of arpeggios like they’re raised road spikes on the page.

“Again, from the beginning,” my mother says. “Again. Again. This is your favorite concerto, why can’t you play it right anymore?”

It’s not my favorite, I think. It’s yours. I lift my bow, inhale, and mess up at the same spot.

My father was married to someone else once. He was still married when he met my mother. They were both soaring on their respective rising stars, my father an assistant conductor to the city symphony, my mother the lauded prodigy. When I was little my father called me baobei—precious—and sat me on his lap while he worked. We’d share a pair of headphones, one bud each, the cord dangling between us, music pumping like blood between two halves of one organ. He was my refuge when my arms grew weak from stretching in order to reach my mother’s expectations. Until I overheard him yelling at my mother, accusing her of having me despite their “agreement.” Afterwards, I noticed he sometimes looked at me the way a child looked at the sheets they’ve soiled. A dirty mistake. I stopped going into his study to sit with him, stopped our ritual of sharing compositions we enjoyed, stopped smiling at him, and then one day we stopped talking altogether. Now he gives all his attention to Xiao Long, the dog he purchased from a breeder in Australia and treats like the son he never got to raise.

I try to tell him what happened to me.

“Mei, there is no cabin in that part of the woods,” he says. “The police searched the whole area.” He picks up Xiao Long and coos at him as if he’s trying to comfort the dog instead. “You were taken by a bad person, but you’re home now.”

He doesn’t believe me.

I still dream about the night we ran away, the night we met the witch. I dream about me and Marlie walking down the dark sidewalk, hand in hand. It’s almost midnight and we’re heading to the bus station when we hear singing coming from the woods just beyond our neighborhood. A tune we’ve never heard before but which somehow sounds familiar, innocent and nostalgic, like the childish melody we had once cobbled together and performed for our stuffed animals. The song reaches out and lovingly pulls us in, until we’re standing at the edge of the trees. I see the witch so clearly in my dreams, singing to us, a delicate paper silhouette against the jagged black shapes of the underbrush. Long raven hair falling over white lace sleeves. Little pearl buttons along her throat. Her eyes are hidden behind her hair, her pretty pink mouth smiling.

No more tears, little ones, the witch sings. Come with me, I’ll take good care of you.

We follow her into the woods, the branches closing up the path behind us. She leads us further and further into the darkness until we forget about the bus station, forget about New York.

Do you smell that? Marlie asks, her icicle fingers curling against my hand.

I close my eyes and breathe in. I smell fresh baked cookies and cotton candy.

The witch leads us through the woods to a little cabin with ivy growing along its brick walls all the way up to the crooked chimney pipe. There’s a layer of white dust coating the roof and sprinkled on the banisters of the front porch. It can’t possibly be snow because it’s May.

When I get closer I see that it’s powdered sugar and frosting.

The witch opens the door for us. Come in, come in, she sings. We step through the threshold. There’s a wood stove burning, and the fire smells like warm vanilla and cinnamon apples. We sigh deeply and breathe in again. This time we smell spiced cocoa and caramel kettle corn. Our mouths water. There are confections everywhere, stacked high on platters, overflowing from bowls, stuffed into colorful jars.

Eat, rest, the witch says, poor things, you look exhausted.

We take off our shoes and lie down on the plush cushions spread out on the floor. The witch tucks us in under knit blankets, and feeds us chocolate soufflé with blackberry soda. The carbonation tickles the back of my throat. There are other girls there, stretched out on more pillows, some of them eating, others sleeping. The witch takes one of the girls by her honey-drenched hand and leads her out of the parlor and into the room beyond. They don’t come back.

I look over at Marlie, and she’s eating candied cherries, her mouth and fingers dripping with red syrup. I always wake from those dreams starving.

* * *

Ms. Wilde lets us have lunch in the art room after she sees us eating by ourselves under the bleachers. She tells us about her kitchen renovation project and shares adventures she had backpacking through Iceland. She shows us YouTube compilations of babies getting scared by their own farts, and Marlie laughs for the first time since we came home.

“If anyone says something to make you uncomfortable, let me know, alright?” Ms. Wilde tells us.

After lunch, we walk along the grove of trees that marks the border between the school and the neighborhood. We still haven’t talked about any of it. Marlie doesn’t bring it up, so I don’t either, even though all I want is to ask if she has those dreams too, if her stomach churns so loud it wakes her, if she sees moving shadows in the spaces between trees, if she feels like a part of her never walked out of those woods, if she’ll ever, ever forgive me. Watching her light up with laughter made me brave, so I take the leap.

“Everyone thinks I made it up. Do you think Ms. Wilde would believe us?” I ask, picking at the frayed and split ends of my hair. “She’s probably the only grownup who will. She doesn’t treat us like we’re freaks.”

“She doesn’t actually care. She’s only acting nice because she’s obviously desperate to be a mother.”

I pause in the middle of a step and turn to Marlie. “What?”

It doesn’t sound like something Marlie would say, because Marlie doesn’t say nasty things about anyone, not even about the spineless bullies who torment her.

Marlie shrugs and veers off the path, kneeling to study something in the tall grass. I walk up behind her and cringe when I see the quivering body in the bushes. It’s a baby rabbit. Most of its fur has been stripped off and left hanging like an unzipped bodysuit, pink flesh and white tendons exposed. The rabbit twitches, still alive.

“Mittens strikes again.” I frown. The tabby cat that hunts around the school grounds is relentless in her massacre and happily leaves the mangled remains of her victims for students to find.

Marlie gathers the skinned rabbit into her coat, holding it to her chest.

I scrunch my nose. “Should you be touching that with your bare hands?”

Marlie whispers something into the rabbit’s furless ear. Then she breaks the rabbit’s neck in one smooth twist.

I jolt back like I’ve been slapped. The shock leaves my mouth in one sharp gasp. Marlie has trouble looking at a paper cut. She sheds tears watching animal shelter commercials. I’ve never seen her crush a trail of ants, stomp a spider, a house centipede, anything.

She looks up at me, her face remorseless, and for a chilling instant I’m staring at a stranger. The moment passes. Marlie blinks her clear green eyes. “It was in pain,” she says. “I freed it.”

I dig a hole under the bushes and we drop the rabbit inside. Marlie stands over my shoulder and watches as I push dirt over the body, her gaze boring into my back.

* * *

My playing worsens. My fingers are clumsy and inarticulate, like they’d been snapped and healed back wrong. The sounds I make aren’t music, just angry screeches and sad wailing.

“Stop it, you’re hurting my ears,” my mother shouts.

At night, my mother moves swiftly through the house, relentlessly organizing the already spotless rooms. I stand in the doorway of the practice room and watch as she takes everything off the shelves and tidies them into boxes. Plaques and trophies, certificates and ribbons. She pauses, holding up a framed photo of us together on stage at my first competition. My first win. The moment is crystalline in my memory. Her hand on my shoulder was the only thing that kept me from coming apart with joy. My daughter, she proclaimed to the crowd, as if anointing me, laying her crown on my head.

I watch as she traces her fingertips over the photo, her shoulder blades sharp against the back of her shirt. “Where have you gone?” she whispers.

Violin is the only thing I’m good at. It’s the only thing that makes my mother happy. If I can’t play anymore, then what good am I?

I rush up to my room and dig out my phone, desperately willing for Marlie to pick up before the tears come.

“Oh, hello, Mei.” Marlie’s mother answers. “I’m keeping an eye on Marlene’s phone, she’s been getting unkind messages and I don’t want her to see things that could be … upsetting. You can speak to her at school tomorrow.”

“Right. Of course,” I mumble, swiping my hand across my eyes. “Sorry to call so late.”

I drop out of orchestra and fill my elective period with Ms. Wilde’s art class. Ms. Wilde compliments my brush strokes even though they’re hairy and uneven. Marlie switches to the same class, and has an easier time than me commanding her paintbrush. She fills her canvases with large swatches of color and bold lines.

Ms. Wilde nods in appreciation. “What are you expressing with your piece, Marlie?”

“Hunger,” she answers, and my gut rumbles.

After class, I run to the vending machine and put in every dollar I have. I tear through bags of chips, stale cookies, mushy honey buns, and two bottles of neon sports drink. Everything tastes like chalk.

Two weeks before midterms, we’re working on a still life, the class sitting around the display in a circle of easels. I’m concentrating on drawing the curve of a vase when Ms. Wilde’s scream pierces the room. Pencils drop and chairs screech against the floor. Everyone looks up.

Ms. Wilde stumbles away from Marlie’s station, cradling her wrist. Blood drips from the cracks of her fingers onto her pants. Marlie is holding an X-Acto knife, the tip of the blade red.

“You stabbed Ms. Wilde!” June Bickel shrieks. The class erupts into panic.

“I’m okay,” Ms. Wilde says, “everyone sit down, please, I’m okay.” Her face is pale.

Nobody sits down, they’re all looking at Marlie, a room full of wide eyes and pointing fingers. I rush to her side and throw my arms around her, shielding her from the stares. She doesn’t let go of the knife.

“Should we call 911?” Someone finally asks.

Ms. Wilde is taken to the hospital, and Marlie is sent to the counselor’s office. Security escorts me back to class after I screamed in the counselor’s face when she wouldn’t let me stay with Marlie. By the end of the day, the whole school is talking about it.

“That girl who was kidnapped tried to cut off a teacher’s hand!”

“Oh my god, what if she starts attacking us in class?”

“Maybe she’s having traumatic flashbacks.”

“Maybe she needs to not come back to school. Ever.”

Marlie is suspended for a week. Her parents try to fight it, but in the end it seems fair for the amount of stitches that Ms. Wilde needed. Ms. Wilde says it’s not Marlie’s fault and she isn’t going to press charges. I bring Marlie her homework and notes for our midterm exams.

“Thanks, Mei. You want something to drink? We only have diet soda, Mom’s trying to cut down on sugar.” She spreads her notebooks and binders out across the kitchen table, like this is just another study session we’re having, like she isn’t suspended for slicing a teacher’s wrist open.

“Marlie, if something’s going on with you, if something’s wrong…” I lean in towards her. “… you’d tell me, right?”

“Of course I would.” She looks up at me. “I tell you everything.”

“Why did you do it?” I ask. “Why did you hurt Ms. Wilde?”

She sits back, perplexed. “I didn’t. It was an accident.”

“But June said she saw you, she said that you—”

“It was an accident. You believe me, don’t you?”

No one believed me when I needed them to. I want to believe her. I have to believe her. I nod my head.

“Ms. Wilde only wants to fix us.” Marlie reaches out and rests her hand on top of mine. “But we’re not broken. We don’t need to be fixed.” She laces our fingers together. Her skin is much warmer than usual. “Besides. We have each other.”

I look down at our joined hands and nod again. “We have each other.”

After the incident with Ms. Wilde, I don’t dream about the witch and her candy cabin anymore. I dream about Marlie. I dream of her running through the woods. She’s all alone, zigzagging through the trees, sharp pebbles and broken sticks cutting her bare feet and slicing between her toes, but she doesn’t slow down, doesn’t look back.

There’s a shadow chasing her through the darkness. Hunting her. Her hair falls out of its usual neat braid, her breath escaping in erratic pants. She stumbles over an outcropping of roots and nearly trips.

The shadow gains on her, something massive and animal, moving on all fours. The sound of wet breaths and snapping jaws are right behind her. She looks over her shoulder and sees only teeth.

The shadow leaps forward, and Marlie’s face twists into a silent scream. Claws tear into her chest, and teeth close around her neck. There’s red everywhere, the smell of it sticky sweet.

In those dreams, I’m never there to save her.

* * *

Exactly one year after the witch led us into the woods, the mark appears on the trees behind the neighborhood. It’s carved into tree trunks, the same mark that’s on our arms—stacked triangles inside of a semicircle.

“It’s just Bryan fucking with us again,” I assure Marlie.

I honestly thought the carvings were another one of Bryan Haywood’s sadistic pranks until the first girl disappears. A fourteen year old from Montgomery Middle School. Then a second girl from Wynter Heights Elementary goes missing. Marlie has a panic attack in biology when our classmates start discussing the Amber Alerts. She gets sent home early, and stays home the next day. I stop by her house after she misses school again.

“Marlene’s been very anxious lately, we think it’s best for her to stay home for a bit, in case she, well…” Her mother kneads her plump hands together. “How about you, Mei? How are you doing?”

Marlie’s mom is short and round, her cheeks always bright red. I still can’t tell if it’s a skin condition or too much blush. Her life’s purpose seems to be to orbit Marlie’s world, providing never-ending warmth and a constant supply of casseroles. The opposite of my mother in every way. My mother who’s stern and frighteningly tall, angular and radiant, like she’s made from shards of stained glass. My mother who sacrificed her career as a violinist for an illicit love that turned out to be unremarkable. My mother who hasn’t once asked me how I was doing since that night she picked me up from the police station.

“I’m okay,” I say. “A little stressed about finals.”

“Bless your heart. Are you going to try out for that music school in Michigan again this year?” she asks.

“No,” I tell her. “I’m not going anywhere.”

I head upstairs and knock four times on Marlie’s door—three hard knocks and a light one, the entry password—and push inside. She’s sitting on the windowsill bench, her legs pulled up against her chest. Her bedroom hasn’t changed since we had our first sleepover. Her walls are still painted yellow and covered in pastel butterflies, her army of stuffed animals still standing guard over her bed. Marlie doesn’t move when I sit down against the other corner of the window.

Her eyes are skimming the treetops beyond the cul-de-sac, her fingers scratching at the crook of her elbow where the mark sits under her sleeve.

“The witch is back,” Marlie says. “She’s going to hurt more girls.”

“Hey.” I reach out and grab her hand, pulling it away from her arm. “Listen to me. No matter what happens, I’ll protect you. No one’s going to hurt you, not while I’m around.”

She yanks her hand back. “You think I’m pathetic, don’t you? It makes you feel good to know that you’re so much braver and stronger.”

Outrage and hurt boil in my stomach. “Of course not,” I snap. “Why would you say that?”

There’s that stranger again, the Marlie that kills rabbits and cuts teachers and says cruel things. Where did she come from?

“I’m sorry.” Marlie looks down, the stranger slipping back into the crevices of her kind face. “I’m just tired of everyone acting like I’m this sad victim all the time.” She glances at her elbow. “My mom is this close to ordering an exorcism to get rid of this ‘devil’s mark.’”

“You’re not pathetic, Marlie. And you’re not a victim,” I tell her. “You’re a survivor.”

She lets out a small, dry laugh. “Can we pretend that just this once I’ll be the one to protect you?”

“… Okay.” I nod. “Promise you’ll keep me safe?”

“I promise,” she vows.

I come home from school the next day to the smell of fire. Thick black smoke billows up from behind the house, and I race into the backyard to see my mother standing in front of a raging bonfire. I cover my mouth and cough against the acrid heat. There’s bits of burnt debris floating up from the flames, fluttering around in the hot breeze. I reach out and pull a piece out of the air. There’s part of a staff and ascending sixteenth notes on the half charred paper. My mother stands with her back to me, tossing stacks of sheet music and theory books into the fire.

“Mama, what are you doing?” I storm up to her. “You can’t just burn stuff in our yard like this, it’s totally against the law!”

“Gone, she’s gone,” my mother mutters and feeds another song into the fire. Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in A Minor.

“We have to put this fire out before our neighbors call the cops,” I tell her.

“My baby is gone, ran away in the night,” she mumbles to herself like I’m not there, and throws another piece in. Paganini’s Le Streghe Op. 8.

“Mama, please,” I plead, “you’re scaring me.”

She picks up the black case sitting at her feet and pulls my violin out by its neck. “I pushed her to it, my sweet plum left because of this.” She raises the violin high above her head.

“No!” I shout, but it’s too late, she hurls my instrument into the blaze. Its defenseless wooden body is eaten alive.

I grab my mother’s arm and twist her towards me. “Why did you do that!?”

She blinks at me several times. “You’re not my daughter,” she says, her lower lip trembling. “Who are you?”

“What are you talking about, Mama?” My hand slips away from her arm.

“Who are you?” she demands, her voice cracking with hysteria. She reaches out and grabs me by the shoulders. “What are you?”

It’s me, it’s me, I repeat, but I see no recognition in her eyes, only the reflection of the towering flames as she pushes me towards the fire. The heat claws at the back of my neck, the smoke makes my eyes tear. My mother screams in my face, “What are you? What are you!?

I shove her, hard, and she falls back onto the grass. “Somebody, please,” she sobs, “help me find my baby!” I turn and run as fast as I can away from her, away from the symphonic pyre, across the street to Marlie’s house, and pound on the door with both fists.

Marlie opens the door and I fling myself forward, clinging to her. I try to explain what happened, what I saw, but nothing comes out right, just incoherent sounds, my teeth and tongue refusing to form words.

I stay at her house till nightfall. After the fire truck leaves, Marlie’s mom sits me down in their kitchen and tells me that my father took my mother to the hospital.

“Do you have any relatives nearby you can stay with?” she asks.

I shake my head.

“Well, you know Marlene hasn’t been feeling well, I’m afraid you being here might not be the best for her … let me call our pastor, maybe you can stay with his family—”

“She’s staying here,” Marlie says from the doorway.

“Heaven’s sake, Marlene, cover that up!” Her mother gasps, and I see that Marlie’s wearing short sleeves—she hasn’t this whole year—her thin arms hanging at her sides, the mark on full display.

“She’s staying.” Marlie sounds so sure of herself; there’s no room for compromise in her voice. She’s standing with her back and shoulders pulled completely straight, no sign of her habitual slouch. I’m shocked to discover that she’s actually taller than me.

Marlie’s mom opens her mouth, but Marlie walks right past her. She takes my hand and leads me upstairs, leaving her mother dumbstruck in the kitchen.

We wash our faces and brush our hair, then climb into her bed together, pulling the blanket over our heads. We’re sound in our cocoon, shut off from the world, from mothers as mean as witches, and witches who pretend to be mothers.

“Do you get the feeling that we’re supposed to be somewhere else right now?” Marlie’s voice echoes in our cushy cave.

“This is exactly where I want to be,” I tell her. “With you.”

“Then why did you try to go so far away?” she whispers.

Under the blankets, only the whites of her eyes are visible. I can hear the still-fresh wound in her voice.

“It was important to my mother,” I whisper back.

“You didn’t even tell me you were auditioning.” She sounds miles away. “I tell you everything, and you never told me.”

“I didn’t say anything, because…” I shut my eyes. “It doesn’t matter now. I messed it all up. I got up on that stage and Mama was watching and I couldn’t stop thinking that even if I played perfectly, even if I did get in, Baba still wouldn’t want me, and Mama still won’t get her career back, and you’d never forgive me for leaving you behind, and I choked, I couldn’t remember the first bar, I couldn’t…” My fingers clutch the sheets. “I just wanted her to be proud of me again.”

Marlie leans in and kisses the tears from my eyelashes. “It’s okay.”

“I’m sorry I made you come with me that night, I’m so sorry…”

“Shh.” She smooths a hand down my hair. “You think I’m the one who needs taking care of … but you’re the one who’s terrified of being alone. I couldn’t let you go all alone.”

Marlie sings to me quietly, and I drift off to the humming, a tune I can’t place and yet sounds so familiar.

I jerk awake in the middle of a fitful, shallow sleep, and reach out for Marlie. Her side of the bed is empty, the sheets cold. I sit up. The room is silent, stuffed rabbits and porcelain dolls stare down at me, unblinking, from the bookshelves.

The window is open.

I jump out of bed and climb out without a second thought, without putting on a jacket or shoes. I flip the backyard fence and trample Mrs. Parker’s petunias to get to Bishop Ave, racing through the sleeping neighborhood. A fog gathers over the neatly manicured lawns, dimming the glow of the streetlights and settling over the oversized SUVs parked in every driveway.

I know exactly where I need to go.

The woods lie just beyond the blue house at the end of the street. As I run past the last stop sign, I hear it. A ghostly song floating down the sidewalk, calling out to me through the mist. I remember it now. It’s the song the witch sang to lure us to her cabin made of sweets.

Except this time it’s not the witch singing. It’s Marlie’s voice.

“Marlie? Marlie!” My feet leave the hard asphalt and step onto wet earth. I follow Marlie’s voice into the maze of white pines. The fog is so thick I can’t tell left from right; all I have is the singing guiding me forward. I grasp onto the song like it’s the end of a thread winding its way back towards the spool.

Up ahead, I see the hazy outlines of two people moving through the fog. I catch a flash of Marlie’s blonde hair in the moonlight. It looks almost silver. She’s leading someone behind her, the two of them winding in and out of the shadows, like playful sprites heading to a midnight garden party. The woods grow less dense, and the fog starts to clear. Marlie and her companion slow to a stop in a clearing, long enough for me to catch up, long enough for me to see that the other person is Bryan.

I’m about to step out towards them when Marlie turns to face him. They’re both wearing pajamas; Bryan in a T-shirt and loose pants, Marlie in her thin nightgown. Marlie stops singing. She sinks down to the ground, onto her hands and knees. Bryan doesn’t move, doesn’t speak, just watches Marlie, entranced, and so am I, I can’t look away, my eyes peeled so wide they burn at the corners.

Marlie’s back bows up. Her neck twists. Her elbows bend inwards, the ridges of her spine jut out from between her shoulder blades. Pop, pop, pop. The shape of her distorts into something not human. Her nightgown rips and instead of fair, freckled skin, there is a tough leathery hide. Her face stretches like taffy, her ears and nose pulling longer and longer. A bony tail unfurls between her legs. Her fingernails grow into knives. Her mouth is so, so wide.

Bryan hasn’t moved from his spot. His expression is pleasant; he sways a little from side to side like he can still hear the song in his head.

The creature that was Marlie digs its claws into the dirt and springs forward on sinewy legs. Rows of teeth descend on the tyrant prince’s crown of golden curls. There’s a heavy crunch, and Bryan crumples to the forest floor, his puppet strings cut. The beast bites down and eats like it’s been starved for days. For months.

For a whole year.

I don’t turn. I don’t run. Slowly, I step into the clearing. The smell is overwhelming, and suddenly I’m famished. I reach my hands out, my fingers aching to grab at the gleaming treats spilling from Bryan’s belly. My foot lands on a branch, breaking it in half. The monster lifts its head.

It has Marlie’s green eyes.

The primal hunger in my gut forms a tight fist and squeezes. I let out a hoarse cry and fall to my knees. It feels like I’m being pulled apart at the sockets. My body is clay and it’s molding into something else, meat and organs twisting into different configurations. My mouth drops open as extra incisors push through my gums. My skin wraps taut over my new skeleton.

When I stand again, it’s on all fours.

I join Marlie’s side, reveling in the power of my muscles, the steel in my bones.

Bryan’s still alive under her jaws, half-skinned and peeled open like a ripe pomegranate. He smells so good. I lean in and sink my teeth into the pulsing candy apple in his chest.

We finish our meal down to the last bite, and when we look up, she’s there, smiling at us, a shepherdess who found her precious lost lambs.

“My darling little ones,” the witch glides over, her toes skimming over the grass. She reaches down and strokes our faces. “You’ve grown lovelier than I could have hoped.”

I can see her eyes now, as black as the woods, as black as the sky, an endless swirling void. Eternity.

The witch runs her fingers under our ears and down our backs. “I’ve loved you since the moment I saw you. I heard your broken little hearts crying out to me. If you love something, you set it free, and when it comes back, it’s meant to be.” Her hands trace over the joint of our elbows where we still bear her mark. “I planted the seeds and I let you go, and here you are returned to me, fully blossomed.”

Marlie nuzzles her snout into the witch’s palm.

“This is what you’re meant to be,” she says. “Mine.”

Her words cinch around my neck like a leash. “We’ll be together, forever.”

When she turns, I’m yanked along. The witch walks back into the trees, humming her song. We follow, her bound pets. My will slips with every note, replaced by her voice commanding me to obey. Beside me, Marlie strides forward, the arch of her back confident. Her body brushes against mine. She slides up to the witch, graceful and silent, a sleek line in the dark.

In an instant, she lunges. She grabs the witch by her neck and tears her down.

The witch’s screams sound like roaches scurrying inside my ears. “Stop,” the witch howls, but her shackles hold no power over Marlie. Crimson ribbons spray across her white dress and onto the trees in long arcs. Marlie rips at the witch until there is nothing left but tattered lace and bloody clumps of raven hair.

The chains shatter. My sense of self pours back into my veins, flushing out the parasitic spell congealed in my blood. The gruesome shell encasing me cracks and splinters, my limbs breaking through, emerging from the prison. My arm is bare—all traces of the witch’s mark gone. Marlie crawls towards me, claws becoming knuckles, snout becoming nose, she sheds the beast in pieces, until she’s a girl again. She reaches out and pulls me against her.

“I promised,” she says.

She holds me there, at the edge of the precipice, where the inferno nearly swallowed us both. My monstrous angel unfurls her wings and draws me in, where I’m safe, where I’m needed. Where I’m home. Nothing can hurt me, not while she’s around. Her face and hands are dripping red. Her eyes are bright and feral. There’s flecks of bone on her shoulders, blending into the constellation of freckles.

She’s beautiful.

“Hey,” I murmur against the curve of her neck. “Do you still want to go to New York?”

“If we can find some pants first,” she says.

I wrap my arms around her and laugh into her hair. We huddle together in the grass, naked and glistening, newly born.

I lick at my teeth, at the wetness still coating my mouth.

It tastes like candied cherries.


Ever since my first haunted house experience ended in tears and my mom carrying me out because I was too scared to walk, I’ve had a masochistic relationship with all things spooky. I hate when scary movie trailers come on TV when I’m home alone, but most of my favorite books and movies are horror. There are still panels of Junji Ito comics I can’t look at without feeling nauseous (Google at your own risk), but I adore his work. The undercurrent of terror in fairy tales is something I’m especially drawn to—cannibalism, body horror, twisted parental figures juxtaposed with knights, princesses, and happy endings. A lot of horror is subversive, and I built this story on the premise of a vulnerable knight who’s determined to protect her princess, but in the end the princess saves them both by becoming a monster. The difficult mother-daughter relationships reflect both issues I faced growing up along with anxieties I now wrestle with as a new mom—that no matter how much I want to keep my baby girl safe in a tower forever, she will one day, like me, run away from her mother and straight into those scary woods.

Most of this story was written while listening to the Puella Magi Madoka Magica soundtrack; for a score that encapsulates the atmosphere of ‘Sweetmeats, I recommend checking it out.

{ Edited by Trisha Tobias. }
This new voice is sponsored by David Levithan.