Something knocks on the door. Esther, dreaming, would like to ignore it. Instead, she blinks awake and grabs her shotgun, because dead things typically call for bullets, not spell work, and whatever wants inside her home is certainly dead.
In retrospect, she should’ve expected the children.
The boy’s feet are stained with grave dirt and tree bark. The girl’s feet are stained with bone dust and blood. They’re weak and exhausted and tightly holding each other’s hands. Only one of them is alive in the traditional sense.
“Well,” Esther says, lowering her shotgun. “Best come in, then. We’ll get you cocoa.”
The children are witches. Neither give their names.
The boy has pale blue eyes, icy white skin, and a mouth so red she’d assumed it was bleeding. He takes cinnamon with his cocoa. His sister, meanwhile, must favor whipped cream: Esther pours a towering dollop straight from the kitchen faucet.
House knows everyone’s favorites, children most of all.
The girl stares at the kitchen table. “We followed the birds,” she says, not touching her mug. “They led us to you.”
Birds. Esther would shoot every one of them out of the sky, given enough time and ammunition. “Things with wings are tricky. You’ll need to be careful, listening to their advice.”
The boy leans forward eagerly. There’s something about him Esther doesn’t know how to read, something underneath his skin, like bark wrapped around his fingerbones. Neither witchery nor death can account for it. “So, you really—you hear them, too?”
The girl swallows. “M—m-mother said the Devil …”
Oh. They had that kind of mother.
“If there is a Devil,” Esther tells them firmly, “he has nothing to do with us. It’s important you understand that. Witchcraft isn’t what you think.”
“What is it, then? M-mother said, but she was, she …”
The girl looks up, eyes large and dark and full of confession. “She wasn’t very good.”
Esther’s own mother hadn’t been very good, either—and her father, little better. Parents are a lingering infection, an ugly wound that only pretends to heal. “Well,” she says, running a spoon through her own spire of whipped cream. “Magic isn’t absolute power or a nonconsensual exchange. It’s not a taking. There’s no perversion of the natural order—"
“But,” the boy interrupts, “I’m dead.”
Esther eyes the jagged scars looping around his neck.
“Somewhat,” she admits. “But your sister called your bones, and your bones agreed to rise. Your sister needed you, so you came back. What could be more natural than that?”
The girl’s mouth is a flat, unimpressed line. Esther can’t blame her: resurrection and reconstitution are very powerful magics, especially for a child twenty-five year’s Esther’s junior. Even she hadn’t been so powerful at that age—deadly, yes, but those aren’t always the same thing.
She tries not to think about that. It doesn’t do to dwell.
You’re living in the wrong house, her mind whispers, if you’re still trying to move on.
She dismisses Peter’s voice with practiced ease. It’s easy to do when he isn’t here to relentlessly repeat the same advice like a sanctimonious parrot.
“How …” The girl looks away. “How did you know that—that I brought him—"
“Feet tell stories,” Esther says. “Best we wash them now.”
She grabs warm washcloths, as well as bandages for the girl, whose skin has bled badly during the long journey through the woods. The two siblings look little alike: the girl is rosy where her brother is ghostly, and chubby where the boy is frail. But when she lifts their feet to clean them, Esther sees what only a witch could see: the same blue staining their heels, the bitter juice of juniper berries.
“Well,” Esther says. “That explains a few things.”
Their story comes out in pieces over the next few weeks.
“I’ve always been strange,” Kit says one night, poking at the pink snowmen that Millie had spun from House’s cotton candy insulation. The girl is asleep now, and her name isn’t actually Millie, any more than the boy is Kit. But Esther doesn’t press; names are a strange magic, and she hadn’t been born Esther, herself. “Even before I was dead, I was wrong.”
“Different,” she corrects. “Never wrong. Your mother—"
“Millie’s mother. She. She didn’t like me much.”
He rubs absently at his throat.
Ah, Esther thinks, and says nothing.
The woman’s dead, though, Esther is almost sure, and the kind of dead that stays silent and still in the ground. Had Millie killed her? Had Kit? Something else, still looking for them?
“How are you different?” Esther asks instead. “How does your witching manifest?”
Kit shrugs. “I just talk to things. And things talk back. They make a lot more sense than people.”
“Birds, stones, rivers.” He hesitates. “Trees.”
Kit stays quiet.
“How about houses?” Esther asks. “Can you hear this one?”
The boy brightens. “I like House. They’re nice. Some houses don’t like me, but most schools do. Churches, too.”
Esther has no particular affinity for churches. They mean well, perhaps, but her ears have never caught more than the faintest whispers, quiet hallelujahs wafting through air that smells of copper and salt. And since … well. She hasn’t been able to face a church in years.
Homes are different, though: attics long to tell her their stories, while kitchens stretch to suit her needs and libraries nudge books in her direction. To be a witch is to be haunted, every spell a conversation, every day a new ghost story.
“And Millie?” Esther asks.
Kit scrunches his nose. “She likes people, couldn’t hear anything else. But she wanted to learn, so I tried to teach her. I don’t think I did it right.”
It’s surprising he did it at all; most folk are witches, or they’re not. But exceptions do happen. Peter, for instance.
“Millie got these fancy plates to listen; they were flying everywhere, but then …” Kit shivers. “She saw. The way she looked, when she asked, ‘Don’t you want, don’t you want …’”
His hand returns to his scars.
Esther has little experience with this. People find her in these woods, of course, mostly lost children, sometimes a cursed woman seeking aid, but none of them have ever been murdered before. She tries to think of something comforting—
—But then, Millie screams.
Esther and Kit find her downstairs this time, stumbling out the front door. They follow her outside to the ancient and gargantuan redwood nearby. Millie is awake but unaware, clammy, horror-struck. “Sap,” she says, kneeling, as Kit wraps his cold little arms around his sister and Esther sinks down, rocking them both. “It, it slid out of her, with the blood and the baby, and then the branches, they burst—"
“Shhh,” Esther says.
Millie’s eyes are blank. “Her belly. Her fingernails. You didn’t see the roots.”
These aren’t Millie’s words. These aren’t her memories; her witching, so weak in the daylight, seems to come alive with the moon. Millie dreams other people’s secrets. Esther isn’t sure who this one belongs to.
Nibble, nibble, little mouse, Millie had whispered just the other night. Who is nibbling at my house?
Decades later, Esther’s breath still catches at those words.
Now she hushes, shushes, and soothes until Millie fully comes back to herself. She doesn’t seem ready to stand, so Esther introduces them to the redwood. Its leaves rustle in the wind, a fond hello, little ones.
“Redwoods are powerful beings,” Esther says. “Cranky, yes, but they give excellent advice. Trees are like witches: each has their own magic. Be mindful of that when you cast. It’s very rude to call on something that can’t offer what you seek.”
It’s Kit who finally asks, “What magic do juniper trees have?”
The wind picks up. The redwood shudders. The birds and the bugs go silent.
“Vengeance,” Esther says. “Violence. Juniper trees are creatures of crossroads and war, and they don’t take kindly to impertinence or maltreatment.” She thinks of Millie’s nightmare, of branches bursting through bellies. Someone must have been impertinent, indeed. “It’s the first rule of witchcraft, the most important: you always ask. You never take.”
It’s the rule, she doesn’t add, that so many witches break.
They go inside. House is awake, of course, eager to provide warmth and brown sugar solace—but as Esther crosses into the kitchen, three spoons fall to the floor.
“Damn,” she whispers.
Esther’s bones ache, heavy with the weight of prophecy, of exhausting inevitability. She thought she’d have more time.
“Company’s coming,” she tells the children, and throws the spoons in the sink.
The first visitor arrives the next night.
It’s the witching hour. Millie and Kit sit at the kitchen table, both shaken from the girl’s latest dream. Don’t you want an apple? she’d whispered, staring sightlessly at her brother. Don’t you want an apple? They’re in the trunk.
House, anxiously shifting at their distress, oozes lines of chocolate and raspberry from its walls.
Esther scowls at this latest, dripping decor. “Witchcraft isn’t …?”
“A perversion of the natural order,” Kit and Millie say.
“Yes. Witchcraft is a way to communicate with that order: it’s asking impossible fruit to grow, or faces to change, or houses to stop creating cavities it doesn’t have to pay for.”
Peanut butter begins seeping too, insolently.
“That’s unsanitary,” Esther tells House, but waves a relenting hand. Kit attacks the raspberry; being dead has had little effect on his appetite. Millie kneels down and uncertainly prods the peanut butter.
“The house doesn’t listen to you,” she says.
“House always listens. It just doesn’t always agree. Its whole purpose is to spoil children. That’s what it was built for. In a way.”
House anxiously shifts again. Bourbon caramel this time, her favorite.
Esther smiles fondly. “It’s all right. That’s been over a long while now.”
Millie frowns. “What’s wrong? Is the house—"
Someone knocks on the door.
It’s familiar, insistent, the impatient rap of a policeman. It speaks of authority, among other things.
“It’s okay,” Esther tells the children. “You’re safe.”
She grabs the shotgun anyway before opening the door.
Peter stands there, bony arms crossed tight across his chest. “Dramatic,” he says dryly.
“You’re the one prowling the woods in the middle of the night. Couldn’t sleep?”
He laughs, almost. “Sleep? Do people still do that?”
“You know people better than me.”
“Well, if you’d just—" Peter cuts himself off, sighing. “You gonna let me in?”
“Why don’t you ask House?”
He rocks back slightly, jaw tightening. “You have the kids,” he says finally. It’s not a question: Peter can read footprints and faces the way she can read hands and feet. He can find just about anyone, has been chasing down people since he was fifteen. How would their lives have gone, if he’d been this human compass when he was ten? Who might they have grown to be, if she hadn’t listened to those fucking birds?
But then, she wouldn’t have House.
“They don’t belong here,” Peter says. “You don’t, either.”
Esther sighs and beckons him inside.
Kit’s in the kitchen doorway, standing protectively in front of his sister; Millie’s crouched down behind him, peeking out carefully, a paring knife in one hand. “It’s okay,” Esther says. “This is my brother, Peter. He’s very tiresome, but he won’t hurt you.”
Still, she doesn’t let go of the shotgun.
Peter says hello, smiling kindly; neither child responds to it. He doesn’t push, though; he’s good with people. Ought to be, considering how many he’s taken from her—but that’s unfair. Esther helped House reshape their purpose: no longer a lure, but a waystation, a safe harbor for the lost, the seeking, the desperate. People aren’t meant to stay forever.
She ushers the children back to the table, gives them bowls of feathers and buttons and paper birds. “Ask them to float, see if they’ll agree. We’ll be in the other room if you need us.”
In the other room, Peter hands her a case file.
“Your strays are missing persons in a murder investigation. One woman is dead. Her body …”
Her body has been impaled on the branch of a juniper tree. Mouth open, skin grey. Wood splinters burst from her left eye. Esther can’t tell much from her feet—the angle is wrong—but she can see they’re covered in blood. It’s dripping from her toes: down, down, down into a hole in the ground beneath her.
Something had been buried in that hole, something that had clawed its way back up.
“My guys think it’s the husband,” Peter says, “but his face isn’t right for it.”
Esther examines the woman again. Dark hair, high cheekbones. A thin, hooked nose. Millie looks just like her.
“The boy—" Peter says.
Esther may not be able to read faces like her brother, but she can guess. “Grave dirt on his cheeks?”
“And a jawbone made of wood.” Peter shakes his head, wondering. “I’ve never seen a face like it. It’s not just the resurrection, is it? He was born different.”
Sap, it slid out of her, with the blood and the baby …
Esther crosses her arms. “He didn’t kill her.”
“Do you really know that?”
“No,” Esther admits. “But I know she killed him first.”
Peter winces. “I hoped I was wrong. It’s harder to read the dead than the living, but … there was abuse. Not sexual, but emotional and physical. We found a trunk in the cellar. There was blood inside, and on the rim, too.”
Don’t you want an apple?
Esther can see Kit there, kneeling over the trunk. She can imagine his stepmother behind him, hands on the lid. Kit’s scars wrap around his entire throat. How many times would it have taken before the woman—before Kit’s head—
Esther rubs the back of her neck. “And the father?”
“He didn’t know.”
Didn’t know? Or didn’t want to see?
There are people who are afraid to leave, fearing only worse harm will come; people trying to break through years of psychological conditioning, of financial dependency. Parents terrified their babies will be taken away. And then there are those other people who close their eyes because they can, who convince themselves not to intervene, who never wanted the burden of responsibility in the first place.
“He’s sorry,” Peter says, but Esther isn’t sure which shitty father he’s apologizing for.
“Right,” she says, turning away.
“Goddamn it, Esther, can’t you just once—"
“Forgiveness has to be earned—"
“You never let him earn it! You never even tried to understand—"
“Understand?” Esther whirls around. “Jesus, Peter, how broken are you?”
“Me? You ran away to hide in the woods for twenty years! You’re living in the house that tried to eat us—"
The children hover nervously in the archway. House—oh, House is trembling hard.
“It’s okay,” she says, to everyone. “We were just…”
She looks to Peter for help. Even now, she still does that.
“We argue sometimes,” he says softly, keeping his hands where the children can see them. “But we don’t hurt each other.”
Not anymore, he doesn’t say.
“That’s right,” Esther agrees. “And Peter, he’s come to take you back to town, if you like.”
Immediately, the siblings step back.
“You’re not in any trouble,” Peter says. “I don’t need to know exactly what happened that night. But this, this is no place for children.”
House trembles harder.
Peter pretends he doesn’t feel it as he takes back his file, papers clenched between his fingers. “You should be in school with other kids, with parents who take care of you—"
“Our parents didn’t take care of us,” Kit says.
Peter nods. “I know. I’m sorry. But your stepmother can’t hurt you anymore, and your father’s in custody right now. If he gets released, if it’s safe, you could be together again.”
Millie looks up. Kit doesn’t.
“Where would we go now?” Millie asks.
“We’d find a family to place you with,” Peter says. “A good family. I’d make sure.”
He would, too. That, at least, Esther can count on.
“A witch family?” Kit asks, still turned away.
Peter hesitates. “I don’t know.”
Millie shakes her head. “No,” she says, as Kit slumps in relief. “No, I don’t want to go. Esther, can’t we stay?”
Yes, Esther thinks, but you’ll change your mind eventually.
“Yes,” she says. “If that’s what you both want.”
For now, at least, it is.
She escorts Peter outside. His shoulders are hunched, too much salt in his hair. He needs to eat more, like always.
“Peter. You know it was never House.”
He nods, eyes distant. “Some things are hard to separate.”
Truer words, Esther thinks, watching him.
“Esther? I’m so—"
“I know,” she says, because he’s said it before, a hundred times over. “I forgive you.”
And it’s true. She forgave him a long time ago. She’s always understood. But—
“But you don’t trust me,” Peter says.
She doesn’t want to lie to him. Can’t, because the shotgun is still in her hands. “I love you.”
“Yeah,” Peter says, smiling sadly. “I love you, too.”
“But you can’t forgive me,” Esther says.
Peter must not want to lie to her, either, because he just shakes his head and walks away.
The next day, Kit, Millie, and House surprise her with pancakes. They all sit in bed, eating and continuing their abandoned levitation exercises. Millie has no luck until Esther remembers the handful of chicken bones she’d been saving for a shielding potion; then, they swirl easily through the air. Bone speaks freely to Millie, no matter the time of day.
Occasionally, the children glance at each other, unsubtly.
“House was sad yesterday—" Kit finally begins, only for Millie to poke him in the arm.
“Esther was sad!”
“I know that!”
“It’s not just things that matter! People—"
“House isn’t just a thing—"
“We were both sad,” Esther interrupts, before their bickering escalates. “Peter brings up difficult memories.”
Kit crosses his arms. “House doesn’t like him.”
“Peter’s not very fond of House, himself.”
“I don’t like him. House says he hurt you.”
“And has House ever hurt anybody?”
Kit frowns, uncertain. House stays very quiet.
“People haven’t been kind to you,” Esther says. “It’s easier, sometimes, trusting things without mouths. But you don’t need a mouth to lie to someone, and it’s not just people who make terrible mistakes.”
“You’re saying … House is bad?”
“Not at all. But truth isn’t objective. Everyone has their own.”
The children stare blankly.
Esther sighs. “When we were young,” she says, “our parents abandoned us in these woods. Mother’s idea, but Father went along with it. There wasn’t enough food, you see. Children get so hungry. But I could follow the birds, and this place was like a dream, a house we could eat. Only the witch who built it was hungry, too, and her appetites were … unusual. Mad.”
“What did she eat?” Kit asks.
Millie, suddenly pale, jumps up and is noisily sick in the bathroom. Kit won’t meet Esther’s eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she says, confused, when the girl returns. Esther’s past is a horror show, and Millie’s the more sensitive of the two, but to have a visceral reaction like that …
“It’s o-o-o—” Millie squeezes her eyes shut. “Keep going.”
Esther does, reluctantly. “The witch was House’s mother, and they loved her dearly. But House didn’t like hurting children. So, when the witch asked—"
“House said no,” Kit says.
“But she broke the rule, anyway.”
“Repeatedly. A lot of witches do. Bad witches always rely on luck, demanding whatever they want from weaker, vulnerable things. They’re certain they’ll have the upper hand because they’ve always had it before. But eventually, luck must turn.”
“What happened to the bad witch?” Millie whispers.
Please be bigger, be hotter. Please don’t let her out.
“She died,” Esther says.
Kit crosses his arms again, mulish. “So, House helped you.”
“Yes. And I forgave House. I love them very much.”
“Then Peter should forgive House, too. It’s been fifty years!”
“I’m not that old,” Esther says dryly. “And forgiveness can’t come with a clock. You ask. You never demand.”
Very gently, Esther reaches out and touches the boy’s jagged scars. “Would you forgive the trunk?” she asks. “Would you feel safe, leaning over it again?”
Kit begins to cry. He runs and Millie runs after him, leaving Esther alone with a handful of crumpled paper birds. And House, but House is still too quiet, lost somewhere in their own memories. Everything smells faintly of black licorice.
No one here likes black licorice. No one alive, anyway.
“It’s okay,” she tells House, “if you still love her. Parents are … we can talk about it.”
But House says nothing.
The second visitor comes on the full moon.
It’s been a tense few days. Kit has barely said a word to anyone, only murmuring his secrets to the rocks. Now he’s pretending to read as Millie huddles near Esther on the bed, clammy and desperate. These memories, for once, are Millie’s own.
“He was all pieces,” she whispers. “First his head, rolling. M—m-mother said I pushed him t-too hard. And I believed her, I thought that I’d—that I’d—and then. In the kitchen, into the pots and pans, so many pieces—”
“You’re safe now,” Esther says. “You’re both safe.”
“He ate him. Daddy ate him all up.”
“There’s no Devil, sweetheart—"
And then bone against oak, the sound echoing in Esther’s ribcage: once, twice, thrice.
There’s no Devil, but the living don’t knock like that.
It’s too much to hope that there’s a dead brother the children have forgotten to mention. Esther tells them to stay, then grabs her shotgun to meet the corpse from Peter’s file.
But it’s not Millie’s mother at the door.
The dead woman wears a torn, dirty sundress. Underneath it, her belly is huge and pale; twisted branches grow from it, angling in all directions. Tree roots have burst from underneath her fingernails, and spill out the corners of her eyes.
Oh, Millie. Sweetheart, why didn’t you tell me you called more than you meant to?
Esther looks at the woman’s fleshless feet, sculpted only from bark and bone. “You’re Kit’s mother.”
“Deborah,” the woman agrees. Her voice is the hushed wind between trees. “Or I was. I’ve been in the ground too long. We’re different now. We think together. Rooted.”
Deborah blinks slowly. “It needed an acolyte.”
Juniper trees are creatures of crossroads and war, Esther remembers, dazed. If you can’t come to the crossroads …
Well. It’s not like she’s never spoken with trees before. This one just borrows human skin, and feasts on the bones and blood of murderers and fools.
Esther grips her shotgun tighter.
“If you’ve come for food,” she says carefully, “you’ll find none here. I wish you luck on your hunt, but I’m not interested in being a sacrifice, and the children are not yours to eat.”
Deborah laughs, or the juniper tree does. “I seldom eat children unless they’ve been rude, and the boy was always kind. He is of my fruit. I would like him back.”
“Of your …?”
The tree-witch holds out her palm.
Her life line has been cut in half, literally. Within the wound, Esther can see blood drops, and snow, and small teeth biting into anomalous blue fruit. “I needed the fruit to bear a child,” Deborah says. It must be Deborah speaking now. “I needed a tree to bear the fruit. It told me—I told her—it wasn’t made for that kind of magic, but I wanted what I wanted. I wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Esther eyes Deborah’s hands: motionless, content. “Do you even want what you died for? Are you here for a servant or son?”
“We all serve something. I find pleasure in my purpose. He will, too, likely.”
The tree-witch shrugs.
“She’s done me a service, raised me an acolyte. But she can’t hear my words, and has no stomach for the work.”
Esther thinks of Millie’s mother, impaled, blood dripping into an empty grave. Millie, she thinks, has an iron stomach, considering the things she’s seen—
I asked for the Devil.
—and the things she blames herself for.
“It’s been centuries,” the juniper tree whispers, “since I’ve had anyone to bring me the wicked and delicious.”
“They’re children,” Esther says. “They deserve a family.”
“Is that what you think you’re giving them, here, in this lonely candy house?”
Despite herself, Esther’s throat locks up.
“You look at us and see a monster,” the tree-witch says. “But was it monsters or humans who hurt you most? Monsters never left you. Monsters didn’t hurt that boy upstairs, didn’t beat him down with the Word of God. The trees never ignored his bruises. Witches didn’t take his head. Even the girl was failed by her people: too fat, too anxious and teary. What has the world ever done for them?” Deborah steps closer as gingerbread roof tiles clatter to the ground. “Give them to us. Maybe she’ll grow into an exceptional monster, after all.”
But the children aren’t hers to give.
“Not your call,” Esther says, and points the shotgun at Deborah’s face. Deborah smiles, her mouth wide—
“No, thank you.”
Esther tenses. For witches, the children are very poor listeners.
Kit stands beside her. “Your invitation is kind,” he says, “but I already chose Millie. I will always choose Millie.”
“She can come—"
“No,” Millie says, too quickly. “I choose Esther.”
The words burn. She pushes the pain down.
“We’ll bid you a safe journey, then,” Esther says, but Deborah—and it must be Deborah, still impertinent even in death—crosses the threshold anyway.
“You can’t stop us,” she says, reaching with one gnarled hand, right before her shin bone cracks in half.
Millie steps forward, one fist raised in the air.
“Your bones like me more than they like you,” she says.
The hand retracts. Slowly, the tree in the woman straightens. “Our apologies,” she says, stepping backwards on a leg that barely holds her. “The choice was made.”
“Don’t ask it again,” Esther says, and slams the door shut.
Dawn finds Esther exhausted, sick of bedsheets that tease her with sleep. She gets up, finds Millie scowling ferociously at Esther’s grimoire. Studying potions is a good idea for the girl—memorized ingredients will work as well as instinctual ones, provided they’re agreeable enough—but whatever is inside this cauldron smells … inauspicious.
Millie’s cheeks burn. “I wanted a forgiveness potion.”
“That’s … not really a thing,” Esther says eventually. This particular elixir is for meditation, clarity of thought—things that could lead towards forgiveness, or warn against it. “Is this for you to drink, or someone else?”
Millie is silent. Maybe she doesn’t even know herself.
“Sweetheart. The things your mother did, that Kit’s mother did, they aren’t your fault. Never let other people blame you for their choices.”
“But I made choices, too! I made them, and then Kit was dead, and M-mother was dead, and D-d-da-d—"
Millie shoves the cauldron off the stovetop.
Esther winces at the resounding crack of iron violently meeting wood. Green spills everywhere and House drops the temperature in indignation. At least the cauldron was barely warm. “Okay, let’s just—"
Millie presses a shaking fist to her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry, I’m, I’m, I’m—"
“It’s okay, Millie—"
“I’m mad at him.”
Esther frowns. “Kit?”
Millie shakes her head. “I’m mad at him,” she repeats, “but you said everyone makes mistakes. The house made a mistake, but you love it anyway, right? You forgave it ‘cause you love it?”
“He’ll forgive me, I think. I dreamt he would. Shouldn’t I forgive him, too?”
Esther is definitely the wrong person to ask about forgiveness. She opens her mouth, and does nothing with it.
Millie turns away. “I’m sorry. I’ll clean it all up.”
Esther hesitates. “Okay,” she says finally. “Then we can work on your potion together. Does that sound good?”
Millie hums, refusing to look up.
Esther sighs and, leaving Millie with a handful of dishrags, steps outside for a moment alone to regroup. Only Kit’s awake, too, sitting beside the bellflowers. Shyly, they emerge under his cold, welcoming hands.
“Hey,” Esther says, sitting next to him.
“Have you ever been dead?” Kit asks.
She should’ve stayed inside with Millie. “No,” Esther admits.
Kit nods. “I didn’t like it,” he says, after a while.
Esther has to take a breath. “I’m glad you came back,” she says eventually.
“Me too,” Kit says. He glances over, pale eyes wide with wanting. “I like it here. I like it.”
But she can hear what he isn’t saying.
I will always choose Millie.
“I understand,” Esther says. “I made that choice too, once. Chose Peter until the day I had to choose myself.”
Kit frowns. “You’re saying I shouldn’t—”
“No. No, I’d never say that. Just …”
Esther tries not to think of the church cellar. Tries not to think of Peter’s face, before he’d locked the door.
“If there comes a day,” Esther says, “when you can’t choose Millie, or when she can’t choose you … you have to let go.”
Kit frowns harder. “I don’t understand.”
“I know,” Esther says sadly. “I know.”
The third visitor comes at dusk, and he doesn’t come alone.
Esther is teaching the children their times tables—it can’t always be magic, sadly—when the knock comes. It’s wet with something, sweat, maybe. Living, anxious, redemptive flesh.
She doesn’t want to answer the door.
But she is Esther, and House is House, and they will always, always open the door for a stranger seeking something they lost. Even if what they lost is something they gave up.
She grabs her shotgun to meet who’s come.
He’s white, in his thirties, wearing a crisp polo shirt at odds with his dark stubble and haunted eyes. The things he’s seen—the deaths of his wives, the resurrection of his son—are still shaking his bones. He looks at his children and shakes harder.
Kit and Millie, Esther decides, favor their dead mothers.
“You brought him, then,” Esther says to Peter, who’s standing off to the side, fidgeting.
“He never would’ve found his way alone.”
He would’ve, if he tried hard enough. It might have taken years, but he would have. “How helpful of you,” Esther says. “Like a tour guide. Like a bird.”
Peter looks up, hurt etched into his white knuckles. “Do you only care about choices when you’re the one making them?”
It hits Esther in the lungs, the way it was meant to. She inclines her head and steps back, but the man makes no move to step inside, just stares hopelessly at his children.
“Millie,” Millie says, arms crossed and lips trembling. “I’m Millie now. And—”
“He doesn’t need to call me anything,” Kit interrupts. “He never bothered before.”
The man sinks to his knees. “I’m so sorry. I, I should have paid more attention, should’ve realized how much she—I’m so glad you’re okay—”
“Okay?” Kit asks tonelessly. “She killed me. She killed me, and you ate me, and my sister gathered up my bones, buried me under the juniper tree, and you think—”
“No, no, of course not, but I didn’t, I never knew—”
“You knew enough. You knew how she treated me, you knew what she said. But you never did anything. You never looked at me and saw anything but the juniper tree.” Kit tilts his head. “That’s how you’re looking at me now.”
“If I scared you before when I was just a witch, how are you going to deal with me now that I’m dead?”
The man, shaking harder, can’t meet his son’s eyes. He turns to Millie, with her normal mouth and smooth, unscarred neck. “I love you. You know that, right? I made mistakes, terrible mistakes, but I love you.”
“You left us, Daddy.”
“Kit crawled out of the ground,” Millie says, “and his mom did too, and M-mother, she dragged Mother to the tree, she dragged Mother to the tree, and you left us.”
The man covers his face. “Terrible mistakes,” he whispers.
Esther and Peter look at each other.
It’ll be different now, Father swears in her memory. It was your mother, all her idea; I should never have listened—but, but she’s gone now. It’ll be different, you’ll see.
But it had been too different; that was the problem. Esther could never forget Father had abandoned them. Peter could never forget the witch’s face. He was terrified, and she was furious, and they were both traumatized, sparking with magic. They were too strange, too difficult, and one day, too much. One day, they’d woken up to a note in their father’s place.
It’s better for everyone this way.
“It’ll be different,” the man says, as Millie inches forward, as Kit slumps. He must suspect what Esther has known for years: fathers who leave only come back to disappoint you. But Peter, he’d needed to believe so badly. Even after the note, he’d been so desperate to believe.
I’ll find him; I can do it. He’s just upset. I won’t be any trouble this time, though. I’ll do better. I’ll be good.
Peter, Esther is startled to realize, is crying.
Millie is, too. “Daddy,” she says, stepping towards him—
But Peter’s there, suddenly, kneeling between them.
“Don’t,” he begs Millie. “I was wrong before. I’m always wrong. Don’t make my mistakes.”
“Hey, you can’t—”
Peter ignores them. “If you’re ready to forgive,” he says, “then forgive. But don’t do it just because you love someone. Love is a gift, not an obligation.”
He does turn, then, meets Esther’s eyes. “Choose them if they’re right for you.”
Esther can’t speak.
The man in the doorway stands. “This place isn’t your home,” he says—but only to Millie, always to Millie. “I know you never wanted any of this. We’ll find a new house, somewhere far away. Put all this misery behind us. You can be normal again, I know it. We’ll be happy again. Marlene—”
But Millie steps back, squeezes Kit’s hand.
“I’m Millie now,” she repeats.
“We choose Esther,” Kit says, cutting him off.
The words burn, but only because no one’s ever said them before and meant it.
Later, much later, there’s a knock on the door.
The children are in bed, no nightmares yet. No telling how long that will last. Esther glances at her shotgun, leaves it where it is. Sits beside Peter on the stoop.
The siderails, usually chocolate, are now cinnamon sticks. Peter’s favorite.
He reaches out, wondering … and then shudders and pulls back, bony arms wrapping tightly around his stomach.
It still feels like such a step.
“Thank you,” Esther says.
Peter shrugs, eyes on the trees. “I owe you. More than I can ever give.”
“I owe you, too—”
“No,” Peter says, shaking his head. “You saved my life. You saved me, and I repaid you by locking you up—”
I’m sorry, I can’t let you go. It’s just till I find Father, I swear; it’ll be better. I swear, I’m so sorry—
“I told you,” Esther says unsteadily. “I forgave you for that—”
“The church cellar didn’t like it,” Peter pushes on, breathlessly. “It wasn’t that kind of church; it wanted to welcome people, not imprison them. But you couldn’t hear churches, so I broke the rule. I locked you in, just like—”
“Peter,” Esther says, more firmly.
“I just didn’t want you to leave me. And I couldn’t come back here; you knew I couldn’t come back here—”
She had, and that decision still haunts her, even if it’d been the one she’d needed to make. Esther couldn’t keep chasing their father. She couldn’t keep hoping that he’d change, that he’d remember love was meant to be unconditional. She wasn’t the daughter he wanted. She wouldn’t apologize for it, not ever again. Esther had needed to figure out who she was, who she could be; she’d needed to come back and face what had happened—but Peter hadn’t been ready, and she’d known that. She’d made it impossible for him to choose her.
She’d known he’d be upset, maybe even furious, but she hadn’t expected his devastation, his sheer panic. She’d never thought—
She was in that cellar for days before she finally escaped.
“I was so scared of being alone,” Peter whispers. “I was so scared all the time, and I kept telling myself, I had to be stronger, I could hold us together, if I could just bring him back, if I could just make you both see—”
Esther takes his hand. “I know, Peter.”
“I was the one who couldn’t see. I stole your choice. You shouldn’t trust me.”
“But I do,” Esther says, and it isn’t a lie, not entirely.
He looks at her.
She ignores her own tears. “Some things are hard to separate,” she admits, and he smiles softly at that. “Anyway, it’s better today than yesterday. Isn’t it?”
He nods. “I know you didn’t do anything wrong. You don’t need forgiveness, but I do forgive you, I should, I almost—”
Peter reaches out towards House again, this time making fingerprints in the cinnamon.
Esther’s tired of dwelling. She’s so damn tired of memories, of letting mistrust choose for her again and again.
“Come back tomorrow,” she asks him. “We’ll have dinner.”
And Peter says quietly, “Okay.”