Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Gingerbread Hex

Hans died yesterday. I shot the manikin that did it in the head. I watched its mess of cheese for brains fly all over the ground. It was dead—again—but that didn’t bring back my brother. I spat on my cleaning rag and wiped at a stubborn spot on the iron housing of my six-chambered Benz .44. The gun packed just enough punch to put the bastards down and meant I had six shots and room to carry two. The barrel was chased with silver and inscribed with my name. Its mate read; Hans.
Hans is dead. It was my fault, I knew that. I’d pushed the witch into the oven and her ashes spread all over the land. Those ashes fell to earth and sank into the ground. Everywhere they touched plants died. Animals died. People died. Those that died didn’t stay dead. They became manikins. Dead living at the beck and call of the witch.
Except she was dead four years now and the manikins were spreading out all over. We couldn’t keep hold on anything these days. We kept getting pushed and pushed. This pocket of living free-men lived in the remnants of the town of Harrisburg. We called ourselves the Gingerbread Men in honor of Herr Backer, the man who struck down first of the manikin.
He was dead now too. I had no idea how many pockets of resistance were left. The telegraph lines were cut and we hadn’t anyone to risk in the repair. We’d enough trouble keeping up with the repair on our armory. One of our two Gatlings was jammed, a cannon had exploded last month and killed three of us. We had to burn them.
We always burned them.
“Greta, it’s time,” Gaspar called.
Time to burn Hans. I closed my eyes and put away the gun. “I’m coming, Gaspar.” The chair creaked as I stood, the floor beneath my feet groaned. The town was rotting away. The witch’s ashes had that effect. Towns closest to the epicenter were husks, broken bones of civilization.
I walked out onto the dusty street and joined the small procession walking to the center of town. We’d built a brick oven there. It was shaped like a tomb with three chimney stacks on the top and a cast iron door at the front inscribed with the words, Das Leben gehört den Lebenden an, und wer lebt, muss auf Wechsel gefasst sein.
The old blacksmith had been fond of poetry, taking the line from Goethe. He’d been one of the first to burn. Hans was wrapped in burlap. I could see the stains where his wounds had been. Gaspar, the oldest man left, tipped his hat to me. His large worn hands clutched a gingerbread man, he pressed it into my hands.
“For Hans.”
“Thank you, Gaspar.” Gaspar’s eyes were always so kind. I don’t know how he could be so kind in the face of all of this. I walked to the burlap corpse that had been my brother and knelt down to place the Gingerbread Man into the wrappings.
The fire was already hot, and the iron door open. It was a glimpse into hell. It was the fate that awaited us all. I got up off the ground, brushing dirt from my trousers, and stepped back.
“Do it.”
The oven’s tenders picked up my brother and pushed him into the inferno. The door closed with a final bang. I could not watch. I turned around and walked away from it, horribly reminded, as I always was, that it was my fault all of this had happened. To save Hans I had killed that witch, but it had not changed anything. Hans was dead anyway.
I should be dead.
Stop it, Greta. Feeling sorry for yourself won’t help anyone. I needed a distraction. I walked to the Wall, the twenty foot tall enclosure that surrounded the small town. There were two ways out. A main gate and a tunnel—in case things went bad. In case we were overrun. There hadn’t been hordes of manikin for months now. No one really understood why. I think they preferred to hope it was because we were winning.
I took a ladder up to the walkway that ran along the top of the wall and peered over. I could see four or five manikin from my vantage point. They were Shufflers, slow moving and brain-dead. They only attacked when provoked and we tended to leave them be. Partially because the presence of Shufflers seemed to ward off the more dangerous manikins.
There were five different types that I had seen with my own eyes and at least three others that were spoken of but rarely seen. Every animal manikin behaved the same. Watchers. Spies. For what, I could only speculate. For the past year there had been rumors of something other than manikin in the forest where the witch had lived.
A remnant of the witch perhaps.
Watchers and Shufflers were the least dangerous. There were Runners, faster than men with claws for hands, Smokestacks, they gave off poisonous smoke and seemed to burn inside, the last I had seen were Juggernauts. Huge and impervious to most damage, it took a cannon to make a dent. I had seen one beheaded, that seemed to work, but it had been done with a logging saw and four men died.
The last types were more legend than fact. Hearth stories to scare children. Tales of witch manikin with hypnotic eyes and hair that could ensnare you. Skeleton manikin that moved like spiders and built webs. Perhaps the most frightening stories were of Doppelganger manikin. Those that mimicked the ones you loved.
The landscape beyond our walls was desolate. The manikins killed what they touched. I could see little islands of green amongst the gray dust. Trees so old they were immune to the manikin’s touch, for now. Like a smear on the horizon, against the orange sky, the witch’s forest stood. It was mostly dead the last time I saw it.
What if the witch is still there? If any part of her remained—was it possible that part controlled the manikin? The theory had been bandied about before. There had been expeditions into the forest. We had heard about some of them. One had even come from this outpost.
No one returned.
“How are you?”
I turned to look at Wulfric. He was close to my age, a year older, handsome and strong. There had been a time when that meant something to me. Sometimes I wished it still did. It would be nice to be able to get married and have children, but who would bring children into a world like this? No, it was better to keep Wulfric at arm’s length.
“As well as can be expected.” I shrugged. “Excuse me, I have things to do.”
“Do you? Or are you avoiding me?”
“What do you think?” I looked him in the eye. His eyes were so blue. Like a memory of the sky before all of this. The sky had been blue once. I missed that.
He stepped in front of me and put a hand on my arm. “What do you plan to do now?”
“I—” A moment before, and I would not have known, but my answer came to me like a lightning strike. “I am going to the witch’s forest.”
“Are you insane? No one has ever returned. Are you trying to kill yourself?”
His eyes reminded me of Hans. Hans and I shared the same blue eyes. Losing my brother—I might as well have lost my right arm.
“I’m going to fix what I did. There is nothing left for me here.”
“Nothing left?” He pulled me in and kissed me violently. I let him. I went limp and he broke away. “Nothing?” There were tears in his eyes.
“Nothing,” I repeated. “Goodbye, Wulfric. If I turn, make sure you put me down, burn my body and bury me with my brother, all right?”
“Greta…” He dropped his hand and walked away. I’m sorry, Wulfric.
“I’m sorry.”
Preparing for the forest was no different from preparing to go scavenge or hunt. I braided my hair tightly to my scalp first off. I changed into warmer clothes and hunting boots. It was a day from here to there, not counting any encounters. I packed medical supplies and dried rations, extra ammunition and three grenades. I would have gotten more grenades, but we were short on supplies and I would not leave the town in hardship for my suicide.
The last hint of any military action had been a year ago when a regiment had stopped in town and supplied us. I don’t know if there is any government or military left. Our last news was three months ago. The telegraph had been down since then.
Hans had been trying to fix it when we were attacked suddenly by Runners accompanying a Smokestack. The manikins seemed to know what we were trying to do. If a person stood outside the walls, doing nothing, the manikins didn’t care. The moment we started towards the telegraph pole, however, there were inevitable attacks.
I checked each of my guns before holstering them and then putting on my coat. I had inherited the coat from my father. It had been too big once, but I had altered it to fit when I got old enough to fill out the shoulders.
Father had died in the first month the manikins appeared. His new wife, my step-mother, had disappeared soon after. I never saw her again. The last thing I put on was a flat river stone, bored through with a hole and strung on a piece of string. One of the rocks Hans had used to guide our path home.
That seemed a lifetime ago.
I waited until dawn before climbing up the wall and taking a rope ladder down over the side. Manikins were less active during the day, and so it had become habit for most to sleep during the hours just before and after dawn. There were guards on the walls, but other than an odd glance, they did not disturb me.
One even pulled up the rope after I had gotten to the ground.
I took a breath and determined my direction. There were no manikin in sight right now, but I could not let my guard down. I pulled my hat from my pocket and put it on. The hat would keep my hair from catching the light and attracting Watchers. They may not have been dangerous on their own, but they could and did attract other manikins.
I kept one hand on a gun and started walking. I am going to finish this. One way, or another.
I saw few manikin throughout the day, but managed to avoid notice. The closer I got to the forest, the harder avoiding them became. I also had to find somewhere to stop for the night. If I was going to make it into the forest, I had to survive the night.
If I remembered correctly, there was a cave nearby that should be fairly defensible.
Ducking a pair of Smokestacks, I made it the cave and hunkered down for the evening. I could not risk a fire, it would draw attention. I closed off the entrance to the cave as best I could with branches and stones to limit the possibility of anything getting in after me and rigged it with bells.
I ate a small meal and set myself up to sleep at the back of the cave, gun in hand. I dozed in fitful shifts. It had been years since I slept a full night. I just couldn’t. I checked my watch—something I had gotten off a dead man—and sighed. The night wasn’t even half over and I couldn’t seem to sleep anymore.
I stared at the cave entrance and listened to the ticking of the clock mechanism.
It was too much time to think. I wanted to get to the forest and get this over with.
Someone was calling to me. No, not someone. I knew that voice.
It was—Hans. Could it be, the stories of manikins mimicking those you loved was true? My brother was dead, and I was not sentimental enough to hope for his return.
Greta, please, it’s Hans.”
“My brother is dead, creature.” I checked my gun and stood up, sight trained on the cave entrance. “What do you want?”
“I want nothing. My mistress wants you, Greta.” It’s voice was still Hans’, but I tried not to let that get to me.
“Your mistress?”
“Yes. She wants to see you. You shall have safe passage through the forest.”
Safe passage? I drew closer to the entrance and peered through the crack in the branches and stones. “How can I take her word?”
“Perhaps you cannot. But do you really think you will get into the forest without her help? She sees everything, knows everything. There is no part of these woods she does not control.”
So it was true. There was something in these woods. Something controlling the manikin.
“And what does she want me for? Why me?”
“You pushed her into the oven, started all of this. Who else but you?”
So it was the witch. She would want to see me—whatever was left of her anyway. She wanted vengeance. I thought that would keep her from breaking her promise. Not that it mattered either way.
“Very well.” I wasn’t going to let my guard down. I picked up my bag and slipped it over my head before proceeding towards the entrance, gun raised. I kicked down the blockade and looked for the manikin.
It was standing not three feet from the cave entrance, and looked like no manikin I had ever seen. It had no eyes or nose, only a mouth like a black slit through its head. The head was bald and the color of uncooked dough. It wore the clothes of whatever person it had been before this, a woman I thought, given the dress.
The manikin smiled at me.
“Follow me.”
Wary, I followed the manikin. The light from the ever-orange moon reflected off the doughy head. As we entered the forest, I felt eyes on me. Watchers in the trees and thorny undergrowth. Red eyes staring at me from all sides. I heard the bellowing shout of a Juggernaut, but it was far off.
“Don’t worry,” the manikin said. “They will not approach us.”
That was not reassuring. The trees had changed. There was menace to them now. When I was a child this forest had been my playground. I had come to know stretches of it like the back of my hand. I knew this part of the forest very well. Small white stones still remained here and there. River rocks like the one I wore around my neck.
Without any rain, for it never rained on this forest, the stones had not sunk into the earth.
There was smoke rising in the nearing distance. I could smell sweets. There was no doubt left now. The witch was there. Some part of the witch survived the burning. Her twisted soul perhaps.
Walking into the clearing was just like that day four years ago. The cottage was the same. Gingerbread and peppermint twists. Gumdrops and chocolates and thick white frosting to stick it all together. A child’s dream.
My personal nightmare.
I paused at the end of the candy cane lined cookie pathway that led to the house. The top portion of the gingerbread door was open to the interior, which was bright and cheery. The smell of cinnamon and sugar overwhelmed the decay that filled the rest of the forest.
But it was in this place that I found my hands trembling, the hairs rising on the back of my neck. This was the place that frightened me more than any manikin.
I tried to swallow my fear, and took my first step along the pathway. Whatever was waiting for me, I would face it. This was the end of my story, I had accepted that. There was no turning back.
I opened the lower half of the door and entered the cottage. My eyes went first to the oven at the back and then to the cage where my brother and been kept—waiting to die. It was empty now.
There was a table set between me and the oven. At the chair, back to the oven, a woman sat. I knew her, though it had been years since I last saw her. The woman was my step-mother. The harshly beautiful, dark blond bitch who tried to tear my family apart.
“Do you like my new face?” But her voice was the aged, cracking voice of the witch. “I took her right away. Her heart was so black—it was so easy to inhabit. I have to thank you for that.”
She snapped her fingers and the door behind me slammed shut.
“You’re welcome.” I brought my gun up and aimed for her heart. All I had to do was squeeze.
“So quickly? But we have so much to talk about, Greta. I have so much to thank you for. You made all of this possible. You gave me command over the very world. I was nothing until you shoved me into that oven. I can make you powerful. I can give you part of this world in return. To do with as you would. I can—bring your brother back. Your father.”
She pulled a cloth covered bowl towards her, peeling the cloth away to reveal—dough. “I can mold this and shape it. Bake it and summon your loved one’s souls inside. They’ll be just as they were. You can have them back. Don’t you want that?”
“All you have to do, is swear fealty to me. Be my servant. My manikin, and you can have everything you want. Everything.”
A promise a child would accept, I think. But I wasn’t a child anymore. Her promises were as empty as the promise of this cottage. Sweet and sickly and ending in death.
I squeezed the trigger.
Six shots into the witch. She jerked, collapsing back against her chair until it fell over and she was left to bleed out on the floor.
I drew out my second gun and walked up the witch and put another six shots into her head.
“I’m done with wishes and dreams. They have no place in this world.” I reloaded Hans’ gun. The witch was dead, but I was going to be sure. Both guns went into their holsters and I retrieved a grenade from my pack, exiting the house. A thriving horde of manikins stood outside. All kinds. A Juggernaut tall as a tree flanked my left, eyes glowing green and all six of his arms holding rusted farm implements. Skeletal manikin dangled from tree tops like macabre spiders. Runners waited, twisted long legs bent in preparation to pounce. Dried, rotted Shufflers made up the perimeter, arms outstretched in case someone tried to break through there.
I pulled the pin from the grenade and chucked it behind me.
This was the world now.
This was the end of my story. I fired shots at the Runners and dug into my bag for another grenade as I dove to the ground following the first explosion. I winged the second grenade towards the Juggernaut. Pieces of gingerbread rained down overhead, the smell of burned sugar was nauseating. I pulled myself to my feet and fired into the crowd. I was going to be overrun. I put a smile on my face and grabbed the third grenade.
Hans, I’m coming. 


Happy Halloween folks! 



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