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mairead

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the woods are for secrets.

mairead knows this. it has been her truth for years. the woods are where she kissed poor tom the carpenter's boy. they're where she buried her brother evan's goldfish after she accidentally killed it (and where she buried its replacement). and they're where—but no.

mairead closes her eyes, presses her fists against her face, rubs her eyelids. she's been here for too long. she doesn't know where her head is at.

she doesn't know how long she's been here, to be honest; the days have blurred together in a mess of hands and lips and breadcrumbs and birdsong. and secrets. she can't even remember half of them. she can't remember half of anything.

she hasn't eaten anything substantial in days, but her mouth tastes of gingerbread.

she reaches into her pocket and pulls out a purple gumdrop, and regards it for a second before popping it into her mouth without a second thought. her stomach is complaining, has been for days; all she can give herself, though, is morsels, not enough to stave off the hunger but enough to stop the dizziness for a little while.

the edges of her mouth sag as she swallows the piece of candy. her eyelids fall closed.

 

 

she wakes up again and the light in her little room has changed, just barely; her pockets are heavy with something. pieces of candy. she blinks and stretches her arms out languidly, tries to remember where she is, how she got here. the memories are a long time coming back.

she sits there in her tiny jail cell (she remembers now what it is), dark eyes looking at the tiny window through which morning shines. soon the witch will come, she thinks. the witch will come and take her memory again, so that she is too drugged on forgetfulness to attempt escape.

 

the door opens after a while. she doesn't know how long it takes. but in comes the witch: all smiles and messy hair and eyes as blue as their father's, the eyes mairead doesn't have. “mairead,” he says, voice deep and soft, as he kneels before her. she looks at him wordlessly. she wonders when the witch will do what he came to do.

“mairead, don't look at me like that,” he chides, and she realizes her face has contorted with desperate anger. “I brought you here to help us. it was for the best.” he touches her cheek with a long finger. “remember? they were getting suspicious. I brought you here to keep us safe.”

her voice is less than a whisper. “I know.”

he kisses her forehead, then her lips. the kiss feels like it lasts for days, and then he pulls away from her bruised lips. she grabs the collar of his shirt, suddenly desperate with longing and the memory of touch. “please,” she says in that same too-quiet voice, cracking with her own desire.

his eyes swallow her whole.

 

 

he leaves later with a promise of return, and a crumb of gingerbread pressed into her hand. she knows what it is. it'll make her forget. she'll eat it soon, she has to, but she won't swallow it yet. she closes her eyes, presses her lids tightly together, tries to think of happier days, when she and evan weren't here in the house of gingerbread, when she didn't ache for loneliness and want of family.

everything used to be so good. it was just mairead and evan and their father, they three, happy in their house by the woods. their father would work late, and she and evan—she and evan--

she presses her shaking fist against her mouth, teeth scraping against her skin, eyes hurting with uncried tears. she and evan. it wasn't right. she'd known that. and yet she had been unable to persuade herself of it, and she had gone with him into the woods too gladly, sneaking among the branches to find a happiness she didn't know she could have. she hadn't had it with poor tom, after all, or with any other boy. only evan.

and things could have gone on that way, she thinks bitterly, despising herself for being happy and yet seeking out that happiness when she could. and then of course her father brought her home, and she had ruined everything. she was suspicious—of the clasped hands, of the trips into the woods, of the way mairead and evan whispered to each other. she'd told their father. and instead of persuading her it was normal sibling behavior, he'd asked, and--

she isn't sure what had happened next. blurs. blurs of “this is filthy” and “ungodly children” and denials and “mairead, come with me”. and she and evan had crept into the woods and run like deer away from the home that had betrayed them.

evan had led her to the gingerbread house, but she'd wanted to go home. she was ready to renounce him. she just wanted to go home.

and so: the gingerbread.

she crushes the crumb even smaller, and then licks the bits of gingerbread off her hand. the bottoms of her eyes grow heavy with forgetfulness.

 

 

the witch comes back that evening, though she's forgotten who he is, and he gives her candy and she cries without knowing why and he kisses the tears from her face. “shh, shh, mairead,” he whispers, and she barely recognizes her own name. “quiet now.” he strokes her upper arm, lays a kiss in the middle of her collarbones, traces the ribs under her skin. she shivers with wanting.

this time, when he goes, he leaves her with a bottle instead of gingerbread. she looks at the white liquid inside with confusion, reads the label: lethe.

she has no idea what it is, so she takes off the cap and sniffs. she smells echoes and regret and absolution and sweet utter oblivion. she tips her head back and drinks the liquid, a swallow at a time. her throat burns. the bottle falls from her loosened fingers and bounces on the leaves she sits on. she sighs deep, and falls asleep.

 

 

the next morning, she wakes up and remembers everything.

and she remembers how to get out of her room.

 

 

she finds the kitchen first on her way to evan, and she grabs a bottle from the counter, glances at the label (phlegethon), and drinks it down. a fire kindles itself in her belly, and she goes with purpose to her brother's bedroom.

he isn't sleeping, but is sprawled out on his bed, reading. she doesn't know what the book is, imagines it's one of spells, but that doesn't stop her from marching to him and roughly grabbing his wrist. he doesn't look surprised to see her. “what is it, mairead?”

“I'm starving, evan. I want food.” it comes out like a whine.

he gets up, takes her back to the kitchen without a word. she doesn't stop him when he takes her hand.

“evan,” she says as he heats up the oven, “come here.”

he looks at the oven, then at her, and she wonders if he already knows how this will play out. but he kisses her anyway, and pulls back after a moment. “are you not sweet?” he murmurs to himself, and pulls her to him for another kiss.

she was expecting to have to push him into the oven. instead, the fire in her belly does the job. it rushes up mairead's throat and into evan's mouth, burning him from inside; he screams into her mouth as she tries to pull away, but he's got a death hold on her arms, he won't let her get away. his blue eyes are wide, alive with pain, staring into hers like he sees the face of death itself.

“evan,” she cries, and finally wrenches herself away as he falls onto his knees, writhing, staring at her and yet completely through her.

this isn't what she wanted. she runs anyway, leaving her brother, the witch, dying on the floor of the gingerbread house, leaving her happiness and misery behind.

she hopes it burns.

 

she stumbles through the forest, over roots and under the canopy of leaves, following glittering white stones until she finds the edge of the forest—and her house. her father is standing outside, talking to a neighbor; he doesn't see her until she comes up the path. “mairead!” he cries, rushing to her, gathering her into his arms.

evan is forgotten.

he asks her that night, once she's bathed and found cleaner clothes, where she's been these past weeks, why she left, but she shakes her head. the woods are for secrets. she'll take this one to her grave.