The house posed as a seductive woman: eyes—hollow black windows, the door—a plywood mouth opened wide, tramp-stamp graffiti painting its torso. Foreclosed, the former tenants left no appliances, and when the crack-heads were through, the copper pipes were gone, countertops stripped, the tile pulled. There was no water, no heat, no light, no food, no life, no nothing.
In the basement, a father watched his children—one boy, one girl—sleeping. His stomach growled, and the walls trembled. His chest caved. His heart: empty like his belly. But there was nothing to do. He sat against the cold cellar wall, staring, their brown faces covered in brown: brown syrup from beans; brown dirt; brown soot from the floor; brown on top of brown on top of brown.
He thought of chances not taken: to leave the trap-house, get assistance—fosters, maybe – the children young enough to entice fosters before their bodies changed, before the baby grew out. But, the children were needed now.
Needed because his wife sold the last ounce of herself to another man. What was left—dusty limbs, plastic nails, dead hair—a trash heap. Nothing worth a penny. She too watched her step-daughter, ten-years-old, shiny, new, priceless.
She was honest. “We don’t have money. She could get us just enough.”
Then lied. “She won’t know what’s happening. I’ll find someone gentle. Someone quick. She’ll never have to do it again.” She said her peace and slept deep.
Cold was in the air. The air stirred, causing an empty space. A voice filled that space, hot and deep, the mix made the world unstable like before a storm. The father rose to the thunder of his own voice.
“They must go.”
Trembling, he stole a bag of chips from another junkie’s coat. Shook the kids awake. Outside, morning had not yet come into being.
The daughter’s belly growled, cracking the forest’s silence. Her hunger latched inside her father’s excavated chest. He clutched his stomach, pain overtook his body. The children pressed their dirty palms together, watching him with sleep-dragged eyes. He gave her the wrinkled bag of chips. “Share.”
Ferociously, the children gorged, dropping bits on the ground. They hadn’t yet learned to be careful with food. They hadn’t always lived in the trap. They were never rich, never would be. But they had food, a place to stay, they shared a bed, but they had a bed, took baths, and people didn’t look at the girl wanting to take every ounce, and the boy would never have heard his father speak, never would’ve known he was being abandoned.
Out from the woods, they came upon the sun and an actual neighborhood. A new-old neighborhood, the homes argued, a cacophony of face-lifted rehabs and sad-faced old bags with wrinkled shutters and drooping porches.
The girl yanked her shirt. Families were everywhere: fathers in suits, mothers packing mini-vans, clean tooth-brushed kids, Cheerio-full bellies, to school, daycare, Starbucks, then grocery shopping and brunch wearing pearls and leather flats. They stared through tinted windows. Wondered who she was, why she was there, what was wrong with her. Cold, exposed, she pulled her shirt to cover up, although nothing showed.
Finally, the father saw it. The Gingerbread House.
What his dead wife, their real mother, called the house: a large Victorian princess with paper-snowflake cut-outs, wraparound porch with icicle rails, spiked crowned roof, and scalloped panels sticking out like ruffles under a skirt. The windows waved, jewel-colored like sour apple Jolly Ranchers you could lick straight through.
He passed this house when Aunt Bess dragged him to church, waving every time they drove by. Passed it when Uncle Leroy dropped him at school, his body warm, the house outside appeared in a snow globe through the smear of his pomade on the window glass. Passed it walking his dead wife, then girlfriend, from school. When they first kissed. This house of their dreams.
The sun-faded sign still said, “Demetra’s Home for Lost Children.”
“Go knock.” The children didn’t move. The girl shook her head, “Why, Daddy?” But he didn’t want to hear it.
Their reluctance made him angry. His anger made him want to use. The sickness of sobriety came on. A hit would be lovely. That first beautiful hit was after they buried his wife. That first beautiful hit made him forget she existed. In the time it took to inhale or traverse a needle’s surface, he forgot. Forgot his happiness. Forgot his childhood. Forgot his wife’s love, so deep, that without her, he didn’t want to live. Forgot to be their father. He wanted to use so bad, blood grit his teeth.
He smacked the girl to the ground. It couldn’t have been stopped. She didn’t get up. She stayed crouched, rocks digging into her hand meat. She should have pain. Should feel this separation, not only in her hands, but her empty stomach, dehydrated head, aching feet. This separation was peeling away an unhealed scab, finding bleeding raw flesh. She smelled it too, seeping from her armpits, where now in puberty she had odor and hair, and the bang of small breasts. Tangible pain. Yet she still owned every ounce.
Her father grabbed her tight. Picked her up. Shoved her. “I don’t want ya’ll no more.”
She tried to run to him, but her brother held her back. “What are we doing?” She said.
The boy worried. Three minutes older, ten pounds heavier, four inches taller, and always less favored than her, he worried. What could happen?
Decorated glass bottles hung from the porch, swaying with a breeze. When they touched, a lullaby rung from hollow emerald glass. Chocolate teased the air. The house so sweet they’d devour it whole and get sick. But they’d at least eat.
They approached the door and knocked. The girl urged her brother, pulled his sleeve— let’s go back to the trap, she said. The boy replied, “No, we’re already better off.” His mouth watered.
Tyrese L. Coleman is a writer, wife, mother, lawyer, and master's student with the Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University. Her prose has appeared in the Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, PANK Magazine Online, the Tahoma Literary Review, and elsewhere. You can reach her at tyresecoleman.com or follow her on Twitter @tylachelleco.