There is no happily ever after for Gretel.
Her stepmother's dead, but the taste of betrayal is still bitter in her mouth. Their father abandoned them in the forest, left them to wither and die. She doesn't understand how Hansel can run back into his arms, crying tears into his beard and pretend that none of this ever happened. There's nothing Gretel wants more than to get her family back, but she knows there's nothing she can do to change what her father did to her.
"It's easier this way," Hansel explains to her. He's munching on an apple. They have lots of apples now since they killed the wicked witch, but Gretel can't bring herself to eat any of them. She didn't want to get apples this way.
"It's not," Gretel says softly, but Hansel doesn't hear her. He's always been too good at pretending, too good at closing his eyes and ears to the truth.
Her father showers her with apologies ("I had no choice," he pleads with her), but Gretel knows that there's always a choice. He didn't have to let them go. He didn't have to abandon them to be eaten by a wicked witch.
"Hansel forgives you. Isn't that enough?"
Her father gives her a sad look.
Life goes back to normal for everybody but Gretel. It's as though her father never got remarried, their stepmother never hated them and more importantly, she never hatched her plan to get rid of them. Gretel can trace the line to the time when she was happy like the breadcrumbs they scattered in the forest.
Back, back and back to the time of innocence and starving bellies.
They have plenty of food now. Good food and glittering gold (and a gingerbread house in the forest that never goes stale – but Gretel refuses to eat that) from the witch's cellar. It could buy them a large house. Her dad raises the topic with her a few times, but Gretel pretends not to hear him. She doesn't want to move somewhere else to pretend that they came by these riches honestly. The gold's tainted, and the gingerbread tastes like ashes in her mouth. They have bowls of it in the house; her father and Hansel can't seem to have enough of it.
Gretel almost wishes that she was still hungry. At least back then she knew her father loved them, that he wouldn't abandon them for the chance at a warm fire and a satisfied belly.
"I still don't understand how you could do that to us," she tells him quietly. She turns the concept around and around in her head, but it still makes no sense. What kind of father would do that to his only children?
"You don't understand."
"No," Gretel says. "It's you who didn't understand. You didn't understand the concept of standing up to her. You were too weak and you left us to die."
Her father bows his head. "It's true."
Gretel can still hear the unspoken question. Forgive me, Gretel. She shakes her head silently and walks away. She can't forgive him. Not now, and perhaps, not ever.
"He didn't know that there would be a wicked witch," Hansel says. "Father told me that he thought that another family would take us in."
Gretel blinks. "In the middle of the forest?" she splutters. "How many families do you know who live in the middle of the forest?" Sometimes she doesn't believe how stupid Hansel is. Even now, he's munching on the gingerbread.
"Well, there is Red's grandmother," Hansel points out. "It would have worked out if we'd found her. She's nice and there's always good food at her place."
"Or we could have been eaten by a wolf," Gretel snaps. "There's been another sighting this year. I'd like to see you trying to fight a wolf."
Hansel puffs out his chest. "I could take on a wolf," he boasts. "I'm strong now." Then he spoils the image by taking yet another bite out of the gingerbread.
Gretel clenches her hands together.
With every day that passes, Gretel feels like she's walking away from all that is right and good in the world. It's been a few months since the death of the wicked witch, and her father doesn't seem to understand now that he did anything wrong. He no longer weeps and apologises to her. Instead, there's talk about converting the gingerbread house into some sort of amusement for tourists.
"Surely, you don't agree?" she asks Hansel.
He gives her a blank look. "Why not? The witch's gold won't last forever. We might as well use the house. Did you know that it grows back?"
Gretel slaps the piece of gingerbread out of his hand. "Did you think that maybe – just maybe – it wasn't a good idea to eat an evil witch's house?"
"You ate it too," Hansel points out.
"That was different and you should know that!" Gretel bursts out, but it's like talking to a brick wall. It's like her brother's gone, and he's been replaced by this thing that looks, smells and acts like her brother. But there's something missing. He isn't her brother. Not anymore.
Gretel's gaze falls upon the bowl on the table. She knows what's to blame. She knows what how to fix it. She knows there's no other choice. She knows what she must do. It's going to be a hard choice – the most difficult one she's ever made – but it's her only choice.
That night, she sneaks into the forest.
In the morning, Gretel packs a small rucksack and leaves before anybody else is up. She needs to leave, needs to seek her fortune in the wide world because there's nothing left for her here, except broken memories. She doesn't know what's out there, but she knows that there's nothing she can't face.
Reaching the end of the road, Gretel stops.
The smell of burnt gingerbread is in the air, like a siren's call, enticing her back. Steeling herself, Gretel walks away from the smell into the future.