We’d never met our grandmother, but we’d heard stories – the candy house, the cannibalism. There were no directions to her house. You had to get lost, mom said. She’d told us a million times we were never to try. The stories were about woods, but our grandmother lived somewhere near the Brewery District now, with the students and the bums. You’d think it’d be easy to find a candy house, but that shit was camo. Black licorice like iron railings, blown sugar curtains. When my brother and I found it, we were all, Is it or isn’t it? Then she came out to check the mail, and we knew. She looked just like our mom, even the bun with the bangs in front. Only difference that hers was white, and our mom’s was not-as-white. And she was frail, face wrinkled into a sneer. She pulled letters from the box and looked out at the street, saw us and registered nothing.
Candy houses were the rage in those days, some bourgeois extension of edible lawns, throwbacks to a childhood the owners had never had. Most weren’t really edible. They were laced with adhesives and preservatives, bonding agents and moisture repellents, and even so, fell apart shortly after their one year warranty. There were mold issues. Rodent issues. Security and vandalism issues. Which is to say that these fad houses were all in some stage of decay, including ours. Only our grandmother’s still looked brand new. Some sort of witchcraft, we figured, that she used as a topcoat.
“Grandma,” my brother yelled. She turned, looked at him.
I kicked him, and he shrugged. “Nice house.”
She nodded once, curtly. “Get off my lawn.”
“Our mom doesn’t know we’re here.” Grass, or what passed for grass, crunching under my brother’s feet.
She descended the steps, and I felt myself drawn closer until my brother and I stood before her. She put a hand under each of our chins, tilted our heads up.
“Mary,” she said. “Joseph.”
Her thumbnail dug into my chin. Then she let go abruptly.
“Get off my lawn.”
I told my mom everything straightaway, and she grounded us for a week. Then she disappeared all night and the next day. We woke starving, so fed off the house even though we weren’t supposed to. You could usually snack a little off the baseboards without anyone knowing. Our mother had gone into the candy house real estate business when it was still booming, but ours had succumbed to the same fate as all the rest, and now that sales had slowed, we were stuck with it. We didn’t have a dad, or any family other than the grandmother. Everyone else had disappeared into the forest, or so the story went. When people had too many mouths to feed, my mom explained, they did what they had to do. If you were a lucky kid, you got sent away. My mom had been a lucky kid.
She didn’t say what’d happened to her brothers and sisters.
Mom didn’t like to cook.
When she hadn’t returned by the next night, there wasn’t anything we could do except shave a little off the closet walls and get ready for school the next day. We were so hungry we could hardly stand it, fell asleep with drool in our mouths.
Sometime that night we woke to the sound of cooking. Thank god, we thought, running to greet her.
Our grandmother stood at the stove, stirring a bubbling pot. “Greetings, children,” she said. “Hungry?”
We couldn’t wait for the soup to cool down. We burned our tongues and the backs of our throats. But it didn’t burn long. By the time we looked up from our emptied bowls, our mouths felt numb.
“Who’s talking to Grandma?” It felt like my lips made the words in someone else’s mouth.
“The neighbor?” said Joseph. “I didn’t hear anyone came in.”
We looked into the living room. Grandma sat on the toffee couch alone.
“Grandma, were you talking at the door?”
“Why no, dear.”
We looked out the kitchen window. Across the fence, through the neighbor lady’s dining window, we saw her on the phone, and could hear her though the windows were closed. She sounded like she was in the room with us. “I haven’t seen those kids’ mother in days.”
Grandma stood from the couch. “Done already?” She scooped the last of it into our bowls. “You little ones don’t eat enough.”
By then our scalded throats had numbed. We slurped easier. Our stomachs gained the good ache of fullness, then we didn’t feel a thing.
Her face looked puffy.
“What did you say?” I looked at Joseph.
His was puffy too. And red.
He went to the mirror. “Why didn’t you say so? We allergic?”
I tried to mouth the words, I didn’t say anything.
Yes, you did. Joseph’s lips never opened. But I knew at once his thoughts at once.
Her back turned to us, Grandma put the pot in the dish rack. You have to get lost. She sounded like she was in a vortex.
Get lost, Grandma?
“Come now.” She led me and my brother by the hand to the couch. “You’re fatigued from your hunger.”
My fingers felt almost wooden. Even her hand felt wooden.
“Come wait. Your mother will be with you soon.”
The marshmallow cushions felt like wood. Or perhaps I couldn’t feel exactly where I put my hand. Perhaps the preservatives and repellents in the baseboards had finally got to me. I couldn’t tell if I was in my body. My breaths pricked with pins and needles and then evaporated.
All the while, I felt the presence of others so close they seemed inside me, or I inside them.
Joseph, you there?
Yes. Why you sound inside my head?
When I gained my bearings, I seemed to be looking out a window. I felt farther behind my eyes, recessed so that I could make out the silhouetted rims of the eyelids. They blinked. And it seemed like the blinds flashed Morse code.
We no longer had control of the use of our head. The head seemed in control, with a mind of its own. We looked out, wherever the head turned. We could no longer lift our own hands. We walked as if by remote control down the street.
Beside me, or just behind my right shoulder, I sensed my mother. I felt her sigh. Joseph seemed above me. Others crowded around the same eyes, all of us trying to figure out where we were.
The body that contained us stepped off the curb. The mailbox came into view. A hand went up and pulled open the box.
Joseph’s fear told me he recognized the dimpled, puff pastry knuckles.
Kelly Magee is the author of Body Language, winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction, as well as the collaborative books With Animal (Black Lawrence Press 2015) and Your Sick (Jellyfish Highway Press 2016). Her work has appeared in Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review, Crazyhorse, Ninth Letter, Passages North, New South, and others. She teaches at Western Washington University and can be found at kellyelizabethmagee.com.
Maria Ridley grew up at Fish Point Village and is a member of Lummi Nation.