“Hansel, Gretta, you’re here,” their father craked out in his thick German accent.
Gretta took her father’s hand and knelt beside his bed. “Of course, Vater. We would have come sooner, but we were not told about your condition,” she said, trying desperately not to turn her head to give Roberta the Evil Eye. Hansel was not as nice.
Gretta moved away so that her brother could speak with their father. She turned her head, eyes filling with tears. Their father had come down with a painful, degenerative disease, he didn’t have much longer to live. She was so glad they found out now. Roberta wouldn’t have called them until it was too late.
“I’m sorry, Vater,” Hansel whispered and began speaking quickly in German.
Though Gretta wasn’t listening, she knew what he was apologizing for. Hansel didn’t like Roberta, or how she treated them and wasn’t afraid to let it be known. But their father loved Roberta- despite her self-centeredness – and felt Hansel never gave her a fair chance. When they got married, Hansel left, Gretta following soon after. And Roberta got what she wanted- their father all to herself.
Gretta spared Roberta a look, making an ugly expression. The woman was a good twenty years younger than their father. She seemed to have a natural beauty to her, but it was all covered up by layers upon layers of caked-on makeup. Roberta was thin, with dark Eastern European looks to her, not the typical paleness that was common here. She dressed in the latest fashions and only wore the best materials. The woman loved herself and spent hours in from of the mirror, doing “her face” and hair. She’s spent a good portion of their father’s money “fixing up” the house- which meant tearing apart their homey country cottage and replacing it with a cold stone mansion. She kept the home only because their father loved living in the country, but often urged him to move to the city where “the civilized people were”.
Roberta hated kids, that much was obvious. The witch had moved in when they were still a handful and quickly grew to hate them. Maybe it was because she had no children of her own and never learned how to deal with kids, or maybe it was just them, but the woman never missed a chance to yell, scream, or hit them if their father wasn’t around. When Gretta was young, Roberta would even lock her in a bathroom because the little girl was “in the way”. Other time, she would “forget” to cook meals for them. It was no wonder Hansel had left as quickly as he could.
Roberta looked very unhappy the moment the two of them showed up at the doorstep earlier this morning, and had been wearing a pinched expression ever since, almost like she was smelling something gross. She also looked very uncomfortable with all the emotion in the room.
“I am sorry, Vater,” Hansel apologized again, switching back to English. He was sitting on the bed now, eyes rimmed red. Their father was crying, too, just happy to see his children before he died.
“How sweet,” Roberta crooned in a tone that said she thought it was anything but sweet. “Now, don’t you think you should let your father rest now? Can’t you see your surprise visit has tired him?” Her words seemed clipped and tense as if it physically pained her to be in the same room as them.
“Roberta,” their father said softly, almost pleading, “just a little longer.”
“The doctor-“ Roberta quickly chided, but Hansel cut in, rubbing gently at his eyes.
“It is alright, Vater,” he told him gently, patting the hand that the held. “We will stay at the house for as long as you want us to. We will come back when you feel better, I promise.”
“See,” Roberta chirped, “even the children agree with me.”
Gretta winced at being called “the children”. They weren’t children anymore, not by far. Gretta had just graduated from an American university and Hansel ran one of the biggest corporations in Germany. “Children” was about the furthest you could get from describing them.
But Gretta didn’t say anything, she knew it would just hurt her father. Instead, she gave her father a kiss and promised to be back tomorrow.
"She’ll be gone the moment the will has been read,” Hansel spat, dropping his sister’s luggage on her bed before disappearing into his own room to drop off his suitcase.
“Vater is so blind,” Gretta agreed, “she is only using him."
Hansel stepped back into the room. “She is still in there talking to him,” he told her, “so much for the resting.”
Gretta shook her head and muttered unpleasant things about the woman.
There was a soft knock at the door and Roberta stepped in before they even acknowledged her.
“Here,” she said sharply, pushing an envelope into Hansel’s hands. “A present from your father,” she said bitterly.
“What is it?” Gretta asked.
Hansel looked inside. “The deed to his plane.” He looked up at Roberta and scowled. “What is this?”
“He is so happy you came back,” Roberta said mockingly, “he wanted to see you go on a trip to see your wonderful mother before he dies. I said just to give you one-way tickets to the Bahamas, but no, he wants something ‘meaningful.’ Now go, make your daddy happy and go see mommy.” Without another word, she turned on one expensively shoed heel and marched off. She was heading to her bedroom, which was at the other side of the house- far from their father’s.
“We just got here and he wants us to leave?” Gretta asked, eyeing the deed suspiciously. “That does not sound like him.”
“Roberta had something to do with this, I know,” Hansel insisted and threw down the deed.
“Should we go?” Gretta asked. "It sounds like the witch has already made up his mind for him."
Hansel nodded. “I will talk to him, but just in case, we will arrange some return plans ourselves.”
Gretta agreed. “That nasty woman has poisoned his mind. I don’t trust her as far as I could throw her.”
Their mother lived in a small, small town on the other side of Germany. After her divorce from their father, she decided to live a simpler life.
As it was, they had to fly to the nearest city and hire a private car to drive them to the town. The car took off as soon as they had unpacked their luggage, promising to be back in a week. Riiight.
The week passed quickly and the car didn’t come. But they were prepared for something like this; it was eactly something Roberta would arange. Out where there was no cell reception or internet, there was no way to contact a car service. So they purchased horses to get them into town.
Hansel had already acquired train passes under another name so that Roberta couldn’t find out about them and cancel them.
Soon, they were back at their father’s home, knocking on the door. Roberta looked as if she’d seen a ghost when she opened the door.
“It was so unfortunate that the car never came to pick us up and that Vater’s pilot was under the impression that we were to be picked in a month, not a week,” Gretta said heavily in a fake sigh. “But isn't it lucky that we remembered to bring extra cash? It is amazing how far a little money can get you.”
“You really did not think that would work, did you?” Hansel growled and pushed his way inside. Gretta forced a smile at Roberta and followed.
Roberta growled and seethed, but let them in. She had to.
Their father was happy to see them. He had gotten worries when they hadn’t come home after a week. Gretta just explained the “miscommunication”, he wouldn’t believe Roberta could be responsible anyway. To him, that woman was a saint.
The days came and went. Somedays their father looked better, some days he looked worse, everyday they came to see him –much to Roberta’s dismay.
One day, as Gretta walked around the house after seeing the doctor out, she overheard Roberta and her father talking.
“All this waiting is stressing them out,” Roberta said softly, as if honestly concerned. Gretta wanted to laugh.
“But I have not seen them in years,” her father pleaded. “I want them to stay here, with me.”
“But don’t you see how selfish that it?” Roberta asked, admonished. “You are going to force your children to watch you die when they could be enjoying their youth in the Caribbean Islands? What if this disease is genetic and your children get it? Then they will have wasted their youth watching you die. Do you honestly want that for your children?”
Gretta’s stomach flipped and she suddenly had the urge to run to the toilet and puke. This was too disgusting. How could Roberta say things like that?
“That’s not true, Vater!” Gretta cried, ignoring etiquette and running into the bedroom. “I want to stay with you, too!”
“No, your step mother had a point,” her father said, looking away as his eyes teared up. “You should not be here for this.”
“No!” Gretta shouted, throwing herself onto her father’s bed. “Don’t listen to her. She is a mean little witch. Vater, please! Let me stay.”
Her father only shook his head. “No, Liebchen, you cannot stay. That is final. Roberta, you will go with them to make sure the miscommunication does not happen again.”
Roberta looked shocked at first, then pouted, sticking out her lower lip like a hurt two-year-old. “But, honey, I have to be here for you-“
“No,” he said definitively, “I will not risk losing my children again. You want them to leave me, you will go with them.”
Roberta scowled at Gretta and marched out of the room.
“Papa,” she objected again.
“No, Liebchen, you do not need to watch me die,” he said sadly. “Please leave. I would like to sleep now.”
Gretta nodded and obeyed her father’s decision, running straight to Hansel’s room where she would tell him everything.
“Why is she doing this?” Gretta hissed in German.
Hansel looked over his shoulder to where Roberta sat at the back of the plane, a bottle of liquor in one hand. “Simple. There is not enough money for both her and us.”
Gretta scoffed and looked at her brother with confusion. “I’m pretty sure there is plenty, Bruder. Just a quarter of the inheritance is enough for the three of us.”
Hansel shook his head. “No, for the witch, there will never be enough. She only wants it all.”
Gretta made a face and turned to look out the window of the airplane. “So she is trying to get rid of us until he dies? That isn’t going to make a difference. We are still in the will. She doesn’t have to hurt us like this.”
Hansel shrugged. “Maybe she hopes that if we are not there, she can persuade him to take us out of the will.”
Gretta laughed again. “He would never do that. He loves us.”
Hansel agreed in English. “It is losing a fighting battle.”
Gretta giggled and shook her head. “You mean ‘she is fighting a losing battle’. Your English is good, but I would stay away from the sayings.”
Her comment made Hansel smile.
“What are you children giggling about?" Roberta snapped, coming over to where they sat.
“We’re not children,” Gretta barked back, finally glad at getting the chance to. She had hated having to bite her tongue at her father's house. This woman was too mean to be nice to.
“Where are we going?” Hansel asked, instead of rising to the bait. Roberta chose to answer his question instead of bothering with Gretta.
“We are going to Ilanabora Island,” she answered smugly.
“I’ve never heard about it,” Hansel said seriously. “I thought we were going to the Caribbean.”
Roberta shook her head, an evil grin sneaking onto her face. “I changed it last minute. Ilanabora is better.”
"What is Ilanabora?” Gretta asked, getting frustrated. What was the woman planning? She couldn’t just dump them somewhere, their father made her responsible for their well-being. He would actually suspect something if she returned without them. Just in case, Hansel had booked a flight home. But they hadn’t counted on being taken to Ilanabora, wherever that was.
“Ilanabora is my private island,” Roberta replied with a self-satisfied smirk. “I bought it for mine and your father’s anniversary… though he doesn’t know.”
“You bought an island?” Gretta asked, voice dripping with disbelief.
“You can’t find the extra money for a maid,” Hansel growled, “but you bought an island?”
Roberta just smirked and sauntered off. “Why would I need a maid?” I have you two.” She paused and turned, pointing to Gretta. “Well, I have you. You,” she turned her finger on Hansel, “I have plans for.”
“I’m not going to clean,” Gretta told her, folding her arms.
Roberta shrugged like it really wasn’t her problem. “You will if you want to eat. You should rest though, the cabana won’t clean itself. And you’ll have to air it out before we get there.”
Hansel jumped up and looked like he was going to tackled her, but Gretta grabbed him.
“Hansel,” Gretta said softly, shaking her head.
Instead, Hansel spat something at her in German.
The evil stepmother cackled like the witch she was. “Tsk-tsk. Your daddy raised you better.” And walked back to her seat.
Two weeks had passed, and Gretta had succumbed to the will of the witch, cleaning and scrubbing every inch of the cabana to get a few scraps of food.
"I don’t know how much more I can handle,” Gretta muttered to her brother in German.
Hansel, who was handcuffed to his chair like always, simply agreed.
“What are you whining about now?” Roberta asked not actually interested. “Hurry up, by the time you finish the floor, it’ll be dirty again.” She pulled out a swirly lollipop made out of glass from her bag and hung it on the wall above the fireplace right next to the butterscotch candy clock. Roberta called her house “La Vida Dolce” and took the name literally. Everything was decorated with a candy theme and cakes and sweets could be found lying out anywhere, though Gretta wouldn't dare touch them.
“You like it? I got it from the island across the strait. The indigenous there are so nice. A little poor from lack of tourism, but so nice.”
Gretta muttered something unpleasant and went to go dump out the mop water.
“What are you doing to me?” Hansel asked as Roberta set out food in front of him. The sight of it made his stomach churn. He had been so stuffed with food in the past two weeks they had been on the island, he couldn’t even stand to look at it anymore.
Hansel had gained an amazing amount of weight in those few weeks, his wrists becoming so pudgy the handcuffs cut into his skin.
“Making you fat,” Roberta told him as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Now eat or your sister doesn’t. Gretta, come feed your brother!”
“Why?” Hansel asked, desperate to put off eat more food.
“Well, you know how I said the people on the next island over are pretty nice?” Roberta asked conversationally.
“Yes,” Hansel answer in a clipped voice.
“Well, they’re also pagans,” she said matter-of-factly, “and they need a good fat sacrifice to bring in more tourists.”
Hansel sat silent, stupefied by her words.
“What the…” Gretta gasped, dropping her tub of fresh mop water. “They can’t do that!”
“Well, not publicly, but they hide their secrets well,” Roberta offered with a shrug.
“Why would you do that?” Gretta cried. “You evil woman.”
Roberta just tsked-tsked again. “I get all the candy ornaments I could ever want. Plus, I don’t get all your father’s money if you too are alive.”
“So you’re going to sacrifice me, too?” Gretta asked.
Roberta scoffed. “A skinny thing like you? They’d lose tourists. No, you’re going to stay here and clean the cabana. I will just tell your father you were in a boating accident. It will all work out,” she said, happy to hear her plan aloud.
“Why you little..,” Gretta growled, ready to attack the woman with her mop.
“Witch?” Hansel finished. “I agree.”
Roberta just smirked and flitted about the kitchen, obviously satisfied with herself. “Greta, did you start a bonfire on the beach like I asked?”
Gretta nodded, not trusting herself to speak yet. She had to carry six bundles of wood over to keep it burning for the woman all day.
“Good girl,” Roberta praised, but it was empty praise. “Maybe you can have a dessert with us tonight.”
Gretta didn’t answer as she watched Roberta dance out of the cabana.
“What does she want a bonfire for?” Hansel asked, hoping it wasn’t for more food.
Gretta shrugged. “I don’t ask anymore- knowing is just a tease. No matter what she makes- or makes me make- all I get is a cheese sandwich and juice.”
“I’m sorry,” Hansel said softly, looking down at his distended stomach.
Gretta waved it away and began to finish mopping the floor.
“Gretta,” Hansel whispered softly, speaking in his native German, “what is that?”
Gretta looked up at her brother and followed his line of sight to Roberta’s bag on the table. She had dropped it there along with the other bags. It had fallen over and some of the contents fell out. Under Roberta’s wallet and makeup, something silver glinted.
“Is that…?” Hansel asked, his voice trailing off and growing soft even though Roberta wouldn’t have understood a thing he said.
Gretta inched forward, her head snapping back to look over her shoulder ever second, but Roberta was busy outside. She dug through the purse until she found what was shining. It felt cold in her hand, and sat weightlessly in the middle of her palm.
The handcuff keys. She had the handcuff keys.
She ran over to her brother and released him immediately. He took a moment to rub his wrists before grabbing his sister and pulling her towards the back door, where Roberta had disappeared.
They stopped just behind her. She was bent over the bonfire, poking it with a long piece of wood and dousing the flames with gas.
Gretta exchanged a look with her brother and she knew they both thought the same thing: what do they do now?
They could knock her out and escape now, but left alive, Roberta would just come back to hurt their father more.
Gretta knew what she had to do. She grabbed a heavy metal bucket. “Hey!” She called.
Roberta jumped up, startled, and turned on her heels.
Gretta swing the bucket with all her might. The bucket with the witch’s head with a resounding clang!
Shock registered in Roberta’s eyes before her entire face went slack and she fell backward- into the fire.
Gretta expected Roberta to move, scream, try to get out, but her eyes had closed and she wasn’t moving. The flames licked at her, slowing consuming her.
“What did you do?” Hansel snapped.
“Well, we had to get rid of her,” Gretta said simply, dropping the bucket.
“We could have just knocked her unconscious and left her here,” Hansel told her.
Gretta just gave him a look. “This way she can’t hurt us anymore,” she told him. “C’mon.”
They found Roberta’s boat and drove it over to the next island, which Roberta had loved to talk about to no extent. That island had an airport and they booked the first flight to Germany, which, oddly, they had plenty of.
Their father waited for them, still bedridden but faring better. He was so grateful to see them he didn’t even ask about Roberta until later. They used her story about an unfortunate boating accident. Their father was hurt, but he was just glad they had survived. He had heard about the terrible tropical storms and knew that was why they had taken so long to return. Yes, that had been why, they agreed, but they were so glad to be back. And they were so glad their father was feeling better. He was still not cured- there was no cure- but he felt better, looked healthier, and that made them glad.
Hansel and Gretta chose to move back into the house and the three of them lived out the rest of their father’s days happily ever after.