Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 3
Stories
Dream Engine
by Tim Pratt
The Adjoa Gambit
by Rick Novy
Xoco's Fire
by Oliver Dale
Small Magics
by Alethea Kontis
Fat Town
by Jose Mojica
From the Ender Saga
Cheater
by Orson Scott Card
Audio Bonus
Cheater
Read by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Hats Off
by David Lubar
Running Out of Air
by David Lubar
Senior Paper
Special Software Bonus
I-Wei's Amazing Clocks
by I-Wei Huang

Fat Town
    by Jose Mojica

Fat Town
Artwork by Jin Han

Let's face it, Herb was fat. He was thirteen and he was big. Not exactly Michelin man big, but a close relative, a cousin maybe -- you could definitely see the resemblance. And the seatbelt was killing him. He'd been wearing it for nearly fourteen hours. It made his stomach look like a human white cell engulfing a foreign substance.

His skinny, soon-to-be sixteen-year-old sister, Fran, was surely having an extremely-cool-to-the-max trip. Or so she had said non-stop since they had left. Not him. He'd had to go to the bathroom six times already and each one had been followed by a lecture from his mom. The first lecture had been about how eating vegetables and fruits, instead of Quarter Pounders, was good for the digestion, and the last one had been about how with gasoline prices so high, it would be nice to cut down on any extra weight.

Fran had been kind enough to add, "Don't you want friends for once? If you don't care about your reputation in school, at least think of mine."

She also got to sit in the front the whole way.

The only one here who liked him was his five-year old sister, sitting next to him, Beck. But she didn't speak much. Not because she'd had some type of speech impediment, or because she'd gone through some horrible childhood experience. Speaking just wasn't her thing. Her thing was smiling. She'd had a big smile from the second Herb first saw her when she came home from the hospital.

Of course, Fran said Beck only smiled like that because she was stupid. "Stupid people smile a lot because they're too stupid to know other people think they're stupid, so they have nothing to feel self-conscious about, so they have nothing to worry about, so they smile." But she'd only said that because Beck would never play with her. She only wanted to play with her big brother Herb. Her Herbie.

The only other person who liked him wasn't invited to come, on account of the divorce. It had barely been a day and he already missed his Dad. He'd wanted to stay with him in Michigan. He'd begged to stay. Now, he probably wouldn't get to see him until Christmas. On top of that he'd have to meet a new set of people. Everyone would pretend to be nice on the outside, but on the inside they'd be comparing him to his sister and mom and humming, "One is not like the others," from Sesame Street. And in a week, high school would start. Ninth grade.

His stomach made a loud rumbling noise.

"Thunder!" Beck said, startled.

"No Beck," Herb said. "It was Herbie." He put a hand on his sister's head to comfort her. She was afraid of thunder.

"We're here," his mom said.

Outside, closest to his side of the car, a billboard seemed to appear out of nowhere. It read: "Welcome to Sunken Valley Virginia, The Sweetest Place On Earth."

He'd thought his mom had made that up about going to live in the sweetest place on earth, but it was right there on the sign.

Under the town's name was a picture that looked like a still from a Hallmark movie. It had a family, dressed in their best Sunday clothes, holding onto each other tightly. If the background hadn't been of a nice summer day, he'd guess they were trying to keep themselves from freezing to death. That's how tightly they seemed to be holding onto each other. They faced a church. On the top left corner, covering a portion of the church's cross was the picture of a lady. A skinny lady, with thick blond hair, tanned skin, and blue eyes. A perfect face. Except for the nose -- it was just a little crooked at the top. She was smiling, but in a way that didn't look right. Something about her smile and her eyes didn't go together. Under the lady's picture was written, Mayor: Endora Blair.

Herb's stomach made another loud rumbling noise. Beck jumped and he patted her head to calm her down.

They drove through the small town of Sunken Valley.

"It's perfect Mom," Fran said. "I totally love all the little shops. They're so awesome."

He never knew what his sister was talking about. Awesome? For one thing all the stores were closed, and it was only five. There wasn't a single person walking around. He hadn't seen a video store yet, or even a fast food restaurant. All he could see were clothing stores, and shops with little figurine stuff. But that wasn't the worst part. He had already counted three dentists within a few blocks of each other.

"When I get home I'm going to work on a new cheer," Fran said. "Do we have any paper to write on?"

His sister had been on the cheerleading team the last two years, ever since she had gotten skinny. She'd been almost his size before that. The whole family had been. But then his mom had gone on a diet when she turned forty and Fran had joined her. Dad hadn't and Herb, well, he wasn't sure why he hadn't, except he really didn't like the way his mom tried to motivate his dad -- by nagging, yelling and calling him names.

His mom took a deep exaggerated breath and let it out with a loud slow hmm. "This. This is what I wanted. Now, we're getting somewhere."

"Can I call Dad to tell him we're here?" Herb asked, but his mom ignored him. She took another deep breath and sighed.

They turned on a street that headed away from the shops and entered a neighborhood. The houses were all white with two stories. Herb saw little kid toys in front of the houses: balls, Big Wheels, cars. The backyards had sandboxes or swings, and almost every garage had a basketball hoop. But where were the kids? Where was everyone? On a Wednesday afternoon he hadn't expected to see a lot of people, but he'd expected to see at least one.

Outside one of the houses was a short, plump lady, holding a stack of folders against her chest with one hand, while waving furiously with the other. His mom turned in the driveway where the lady was standing. The car stopped and everyone got out.

"I'm so glad you made it," the lady said. "My husband didn't think you'd make it until eight at the earliest, but what does he know? And who do we have here?" She paused to look at each of them. "I want to meet everyone, don't be shy. Call me Aunt Marcy. Okay? I live five minutes away."

"Kids," Mom said, "This is Mrs. Lenheart --"

Mrs. Lenheart cleared her throat.

"Sorry," Mom said. "This is Aunt Marcy. She's the lady who sold us the house."

Mom introduced each of them. "...and this is the little one, Beck."

"Oh my," Mrs. Lenheart said. "What a beauty." She crouched in front of Beck and stared at her.

Beck took a step back and reached for Herb's hand. His hand felt so big around hers. It was like her hand was a ballerina, and his hand was the snow globe around it.

"I've always wanted a little girl just like you," Mrs. Lenheart said.

"Beck, don't be shy. Say hello to the nice lady," Mom said. But Beck squeezed Herb's hand tighter.

Mrs. Lenheart got up to her feet. "Sorry. Bill and I…Anyway…Come, come, I want to show you the house."

Herb stayed behind with Beck while the others rushed inside. Fran did a cartwheel on the way in.

Someone, next door, was looking at him from behind closed blinds. He thought he'd seen fingers sticking out between the blades and now the blinds swung from side to side.

"I want to call Daddy too," Beck said. Herb had barely processed Beck's words when he heard a scream from inside. The two of them hurried inside. Herb hated running. He felt out of breath just doing this little bit.

The inside was furnished. He'd been expecting it to be empty. On the couch, he found Mrs. Lenheart fanning herself with her own hand and his mom holding the other hand. Fran was kneeling in front of Mrs. Lenheart asking her if she was okay. She was enunciating each word slowly so that it sounded like, "Are. You. O. Kay?"

Mrs. Lenheart didn't look okay. She was crying. "They told me they were going to clean the house," she said.

"It looks fine," Mom said.

Fran repeated it. "It. Looks. Fieeene."

For once he agreed with his mom and sister. It did look fine. In fact it looked better than fine. It had furniture and a big screen TV. Then he noticed something on a smaller couch across from them. There were people cookies. Two gingerbread cookies. One looked like a woman cookie and one like a man cookie. They had been propped up against the back of the couch as if they were watching television.

"Do you mean these?" Herb asked. He walked over to the cookies. Mrs. Lenheart cried louder.

"No problem," Herb said. He picked them up and took them to the kitchen. The kitchen cabinets already had plates in them. He considered taking a bite out of one of the cookies before putting them on the plate. But there was something about biting a cookie that looked like a person. It was the same as biting the ears off a chocolate bunny. It wasn't his style.

He put the two cookies on a plate. Those were some detailed cookies. They were practically works of art. The man had shorts on and a t-shirt. The man cookie was even wearing a watch on his left hand. The lady cookie had a dress with flowers, and a necklace, in the shape of a heart. He'd never guessed they could put that much detail on a cookie.

When he walked back, Mrs. Lenheart was still sobbing. "How does she expect me to do this? I knew the Thompsons."

She pulled a Kleenex from her purse and blew her nose. Then she stood up and, holding Mom's hand, walked with her over to the dining room with the folders of papers. There were a lot of papers for Mom to sign. When they were done Mrs. Lenheart said goodbye and walked out of the house. Before the door closed, she said, "I forgot the most important thing." Mrs. Lenheart reached into the trunk of her car and pulled out two large bags. They were the biggest candy bags Herb had ever seen. Each looked like a transparent pillowcase, filled with all kinds of hard candies, candy canes, and chocolates.

"Endora's Sweet Creations. Courtesy of Mrs. Endora Blair herself. She's the mayor…And the judge…And the school principal." She handed the bags to Herb. "Don't forget about Friday," was the last thing she said as her car pulled out of the driveway.

#

Friday came. There was a town picnic that afternoon in a big park within walking distance. His mom always said things were walking distance now matter how far they were to try to get him to exercise.

"Try not to embarrass me," Fran said in her pajamas on the way to the bathroom. "Mom, should I wear my black mini-skirt or my pink shorts?"

His room was nearly put together. His poster of John Candy, his dad's favorite comedian, had survived. Only a couple of his assembled Lego creations had gotten broken. He put them back together and put them on top of various pieces of furniture. From his bedroom window he could see the equivalent of his bedroom in the neighbors' house. If there was someone there, watching him, he didn't know -- it was too dark to see. All he had left to put away were his winter clothes.

"You can take the winter clothes to the attic," he heard his mom say on her way to her bedroom.

He heard a loud thump coming from the bathroom, followed by yelling. "Mom!" Fran shouted. Mom rushed to the bathroom door.

"What's wrong, sweetie?" Mom said.

Herb set the box of winter clothes down and listened.

"Stupid scale!" Fran shouted. Followed by another thump. Herb now recognized the thump as the sound a scale would make when it came into sudden contact with the floor. "Stupid scale!"

"Let me see," Mom said. The door to the bathroom opened and Mom went inside. "What's the problem?" The door closed behind Mom. Herb walked closer to it.

"Go ahead, let me see…" he heard his mom say, followed by, "Wow. That much?"

"See. See, what I mean." Fran said.

"Let me try it," his mom said. "You're right. It's broken. There's no way we've both gained five pounds in two days."

But Herb knew there was a way. He'd been watching them since they got here. The bags of candy were gone before he or Beck could have a single one. The only sweets they had not eaten were the gingerbread cookies, which was surprising considering the rate at which they had consumed the rest.

The door opened and Herb picked his box back up. His mom came out of the bathroom, carrying the scale with her. His sister followed. She glared at him. He ignored her and walked over to the attic. Beck had apparently heard Mom say where the winter clothes went. She was dragging a box bigger than her by the flaps, full of her winter things.

"Do you want me to put those up there too?" Herb asked.

Beck nodded and smiled.

"I might need help," Herb said. He didn't really, but he wanted the company.

Beck shook her head. "Spiders," she said.

"I understand." He picked up the boxes and went up.

It was cleaner than he'd expected but there were a few spider webs, which he cleared off by using the smaller box as a shield and waving it in front of him. As he made his way around the beams he noticed a shoebox wedged between one of the beams and the roof. He set the boxes down and reached for the shoebox. The top read, Pictures. Herb opened the box. There was a single picture inside it. It was the picture of a dad and a mom and two little girls. The girls were riding piggyback on each parent. It looked like a nice summer day. There was water from a sprinkler in the background. But there was something else. It was hard to see with the little bit of sunlight in the attic. Herb walked over to the light. Behind the family, a few houses back, he could saw two other grownups. It was their expressions that caught his eye. It was as if they were glaring at the family whose picture was being taken. Did they know they were going to be in the picture? They looked so angry. They almost ruined the picture.

He put the picture back in the box and climbed downstairs.

"I thought you were going to wear a mini-skirt or shorts?" Herb said.

"Try not to embarrass me," Fran said and walked downstairs, wearing a pair of sweats instead.

Before leaving for the park, Herb grabbed his mom's cell phone to try to call his dad. But there was no reception. Dead. The regular phones had not been installed yet, either. And even though the cable company had come already, internet was not a service they provided.

They walked over to the picnic.

"I can't wait to meet some guys," Fran said. "Mom, you should meet someone too."

"It's too soon," Mom said, and Herb felt relieved. He didn't think they'd get back together any time soon, but the thought of his mom running around this soon trying to find someone, and what was his sister doing suggesting it? Didn't she care at all about their dad? What had he done to them except not go along with their stupid plans for conformity?

"I'm just saying, how could they not fall for you?" she said.

When they reached the park, Herb felt like he was going to die from all the walking. He was breathing so hard, if he shut his mouth he'd explode. He was really out of shape. But dying before seeing what he saw next would have been a shame because he would have missed the expression on his sister's face. Everyone, from child age to the elderly here, was overweight. Sunken Valley was fat capital of the world.

#

Herb walked around with Beck in hand. None of the food was the typical picnic food and yet, it all was the typical picnic food. There were burgers, but they were not made out of meat. They were chocolate burgers and the buns were honey buns. The hot dogs were actually gummy worms shaped like hot dogs. And on every table there were treasure boxes filled with chocolate coins with the picture of that lady he'd seen on the sign, Endora Blair, the mayor, and principal, and whatever else Mrs. Lenheart had said.

"Help yourselves," a woman said as she walked past him. "Don't be shy."

He grabbed a plate and started loading it with everything he saw. The best part was that no one was watching him. No one was looking at him as if he were some type of wanted criminal. As if he were single-handedly responsible for the kids on TV not getting enough to eat. He put everything he could fit. Then he grabbed a large glass of fruit punch and sat down. Before taking a bite he noticed that his sister, Fran, and his mom were doing the same.

Beck stood in front of him. "I'm not hungry," she said. "Can we go play now?"

"Just a sec, Beck, I'm hungry."

"I'm going to go play in the sandbox," she said.

Herb nodded. The sandbox wasn't too far and he could still keep an eye on her. He grabbed the honey bun - chocolate burger and held it. Honey dripped down his fingers. He lifted it up to his lips. It looked so good and it smelled even better. Before taking a bite of it, he looked over at his sister. She was sitting next to a group of high-schoolers. She was eating away and smiling. How did she do that? How did she always manage to become the center of attention? And these people looked different than her. Of course, at the rate she was eating, that was bound to change soon.

His mom was doing the same. Looking happy. Smiling. Eating candy, after candy. She was talking to a group of grownups, each twice her size. Didn't she notice them? Weren't they as unattractive as his dad? How could she say all those things about him and then do this?

Just before driving away, his dad had said, "Just don't say you're doing what's best for all of us."

He set his burger down without taking a single bite.

"Psst."

A girl who looked his age sat next to him and set her plate down too.

"You've got to make it look like you're eating," she said. She was talking from the side of her mouth as if half of it had been glued together. He guessed she was trying to be inconspicuous. "And you can't look unhappy while you're pretending to eat. That's how they know you're resistant."

"What are you talking about?" Herb said without any pretense of being quiet.

Two parents waved at the girl next to him.

"I took them out of the house before the cleaning crew came, and then I put them back so that you'd find them," she said. "And the picture too." Then she shouted to her parents, "Just a minute." She took his hand in hers. Herb felt goose bumps cover his arms. "Here," she said. She handed him something. "Don't eat the candy." And with that she ran back to her parents.

Without looking at it, Herb knew what she had handed him from the texture. His mom had tried handing him a lot of these. It was a carrot. He stuffed it in his pocket as best he could and went to fetch Beck.

Don't eat the candy? The picture. Who was that girl? Her hand had felt nice and cool and soft against his. She didn't look as big as the rest of them.

Over at the sandbox, Mrs. Lenheart, the realtor, was offering a slice of cake to Beck. Beck was shaking her head. Herb rushed over.

"Your sister doesn't like cake?" Mrs. Lenheart said. She turned to Beck, "Becky, you don't like cakey? It's good cake."

Beck reached for Herb's hand and Herb grabbed it. "I think she's tired. Thanks, anyway," Herb said and walked over to his mom. His mom didn't want to go home yet. Neither did Fran. His mom was starting a game of cards and Fran was showing her friends her new cheer.

Herb walked Beck home.

"I miss Dad," Beck said.

"I do too."

"I'm hungry, but I want real food," Beck said.

His stomach was growling. He pulled out the carrot in his front pocket and gave it to her.

"Beck, don't eat the candy, okay. Not yet. Not until I figure it out."

That night he went to bed hungry. The light in the room next door was on and this time the blinds were open. The same girl that had sat with him at the picnic was there. She was his next-door neighbor.

He tried to wave at her but she quickly turned off the lights.

#

He was going to have to do something about food. His stomach was growling something fierce. There was the food they had brought with them from Michigan -- non-perishables. That's what he had been eating all week, he and Beck. His mom and sister had gone through the bags of candy the first two days and now, there were two new bags of candy on the table. They had brought those back from the picnic, along with other leftovers. When he mentioned grocery shopping to his mom she just waved him away and flopped on the couch to watch TV. She was looking, like…Well, she was starting to look like her old self. The self before she'd turned forty and the crazy diets had started. So was Fran. She was sitting on the other couch, reading one of her teen magazines, eating chocolate. He poured a bowl of Cheerios for Beck and sat down next to her.

"Something's wrong, Beck," Herb said.

Beck nodded.

"Promise you won't eat the candy, okay?" he said.

She nodded again.

"I'm going to go find some food. But first, I've got to see something," Herb said. He put his empty bowl in the sink. His pants were falling down. He had a suspicion that for every pound his mom and sister were gaining, he was losing one. He walked upstairs to the attic.

"While you're up there, can you see if you can find my box with my old clothes?" Fran said.

"You mean, your fat clothes?" Herb asked.

"Whatever," she said. "What's the matter with you anyway?" She sat up, probably to start an argument. "You don't look like your usual self. Something's different."

She'd noticed too -- he was losing weight. Herb shrugged. Fran lay back down, popped some more candy in her mouth, and turned the page of her magazine.

He went to the attic and pulled out the picture box he had found. His girl neighbor had said something about the picture. I put them back. And the picture too. Them, who was them? And what did that have to do with the picture? If them referred to one of the sets of people in the picture, how do you put them back?

He put the picture in his front pocket and walked back downstairs. Back in the kitchen, his little sister was watching cartoons.

"I'll be right back. I've gotta go next door," he said.

He'd leave after he did one more thing. He opened the closet where the garbage was hidden. The bathroom scale was sitting there next to the wastebasket.

He dropped it on the floor and stepped on it. He had lost five pounds in the last few days.

His mom and older sister were both asleep in front of the TV. He slipped by them without having to explain where he was going. He wanted to see if he could talk to his neighbor -- ask her what in the world she was talking about. Why not just tell him straight out? Obviously she was afraid, but of whom, and what was wrong with the candy, other than Mom and Fran not being able to stop eating it?

There was a knock on the door. A policeman stood on the other side of the screen door. He was overweight, and had a black thick mustache, and was wearing dark sunglasses that covered half his face. Behind him, parked in the driveway was a police car with another policeman inside -- a taller one. The policeman looked Herb over.

"Is your mom around?" he said.

"She's sleeping."

The policeman pressed his face to the screen and cupped his hands around his eyes. Was he in some kind of trouble? He couldn't see how. Had they seen him talking to the girl at the picnic?

"Mayor Blair likes for us to visit everyone new and make sure everything's okay with their transition here."

Herb didn't know what to say. "Thanks."

"How do you like the candy?" he asked.

"Good. It's very good," Herb answered. That might have come out fake.

"If you need more, we can give you more," the policeman said. "Hey, little girl, how are you doing?"

Herb turned to see Beck standing behind him.

"How about you? How do you like the candy?" he said. Herb put his arm around her.

"I'll tell my mom you came," Herb said.

The policeman adjusted his hat. What were his eyes saying behind the sunglasses?

"Try to stay out of trouble," he said. "Have a nice day." And with that he walked back to the police car. "Tell your mom we'll come back later to welcome her to the neighborhood."

The police car drove away.

"Keep the door locked," Herb told Beck. "I have a weird feeling," he said. His stomach was feeling worse than ever. Lately, it seemed right on the fence of holding steady, or sending him running to the bathroom, and it was that state of stomach indecision he hated more than actually getting sick.

He stepped outside and walked over to his neighbor's house.

"Psst," he heard again. He was hoping for this. The girl came up behind him and grabbed his hand. Bad candy or not, this was worth it. A girl was holding his hand. His stomach was doing something different now. It was doing the butterfly thing instead of the getting sick thing.

#

He'd followed her hand-in-hand to the park. Once there, she led him to a bench near some trees. He knew they were there just to talk but being led to the edge of the woods by a girl was making his heart race more than if he'd had to do a whole lap around track in gym.

"Why can't we eat the candy?" he asked.

"I don't know everything, and we can't talk much. Too many policemen. I think they're already watching you. You're losing too much weight. You have to drink a lot of sugar soda. That's what I do. You can't get skinny. You're going to have to do something about your sister too."

"She doesn't drink soda," Herb said.

"Do you believe in magic?" she asked and looked into his eyes.

"Do you mean like the McDonald's song?" he said. But he knew he'd said the wrong thing the second it came out of his lips.

She shook her head. "Look. I know you'll probably think I'm a nut job, but I don't care. I've seen kids taken away and given to other parents. And I've seen kids disappear. Right before they turn sixteen, the police come and take them away."

"I don't think you're nuts. I know something's weird about this town."

She lowered her voice. "We moved here last year. I looked pretty much the same. My parents were very skinny. Always bugging me about my weight. As soon as I came, the lady who lived where you live, sat down next to me, the way that I sat down next to you at the picnic. She told me not to eat the candy. I had just gotten a plate full like yours. But I wouldn't have eaten it anyway. Even if she hadn't told me not to. My parents had said a lot of junk about my weight, and there they were, eating like pigs. I hated that. And you know what? When I first saw everyone, I was so happy. I thought I'd fit in."

Herb knew what she meant. He'd felt the same thing when he saw that everyone was his size. He tried to ask a question but she stopped him. "Then she showed me the picture."

Herb pulled it out of his front pocket.

"That's the one. You found it. These are the Thompsons," she said and pointed at the people standing in the back. "The Thompsons had had an older daughter of fifteen and two younger daughters. Right before the oldest turned sixteen the police came and took her. That's what made them snap. I think it's strong emotions that break the spell. But it's hard because you can't normally feel anything while you're in the trance. Losing their daughter did it for them. The Thompsons stopped eating the candy. And they stopped giving it to their kids. The whole family got skinny. That's how Principal Blair knew they'd stopped eating the candy. Then the police came, took their younger kids away, and gave them to another family." She pointed at the smiling kids in the front of the picture. "But that's not the worst part," she added, "The worst part was that within an hour, their kids had completely forgotten about them. They couldn't remember their old parents. And didn't care who their parents were. They just wanted the candy. Principal Blair is an evil woman."

"Every time I look at her picture I get a stomachache," Herb said.

"She's got powers. She's the one who makes the candy, and when people disappear, they always find gingerbread cookies in their place."

"Why don't people leave? Why don't they just run away?" Herb asked.

"I asked them the same thing. It's the contract they sign when they move in. It's a magical contract. It keeps you here. If you try to drive away, your car suddenly appears on a different road, and you forget where you were going. If you try to ride your bike out, you'll suddenly find yourself going the opposite way. Have you ever heard of people getting lost in the woods? How they're sure they know the way out, but the more they walk the more turned around they get?"

He had heard of that from stories in books -- fairy tales.

They heard a siren come on for a second. A police car drove by.

"We better go home."

"One more thing," Herb said before standing up. "Why us? Why didn't we eat the candy? I wanted to, but then I didn't."

She sighed. "I'm not sure. Maybe because we were already fat. Or maybe because we were always picked on. I think it's because we care. I've seen the way you hang out with your sister. I used to have a little sister too. She died before we moved. I took care of her, like you take care of yours. Maybe it's because we care about someone else."

He liked that answer. He didn't know how he was going to protect Beck, but he had to do something.

They walked back together, their hands almost touching.

"Be careful in school tomorrow," she whispered. "She'll be there. Don't look at her eyes. They flash red. I've seen them from a distance and they made my knees weak. There are no supermarkets. I'll show you how to get fresh vegetables and fruits from places in town," she said and ran up to her house. Before going inside she ran back and said, "My name is Lisa, but my friends, when I had friends, called me Lou."

#

The next morning they had more Cheerios for breakfast. They'd had cereal for lunch and dinner the day before as well. The cereal boxes were almost empty. They'd have to do something else soon.

It was Beck's first day of school. Herb had to wake up Mom in the morning. She'd been doing less and less around the house, and she had nearly gained all her weight back. But he never thought that she wouldn't be excited, or sad, or something about Beck's first day of school. Fran had nearly gained all her weight back too, but she hadn't lost her energy. In fact, she could still do a cartwheel and that was all she needed to do to be excited about the first day of school.

Beck started school after Herb and Fran. Before leaving, Herb knelt before Beck and said. "Remember. No candy. And don't tell anyone that you're not having any candy. Okay?"

She nodded. As he walked towards the bus stop with Fran, Beck stepped outside and waved. She had an extra big smile on her face. She was a big girl now. She knew that school would be scary. She knew they would try to give her candy. And she saw that Mom had gained all that weight back. But she still smiled.

No one better lay a finger on her.

At the bus stop and on the ride to school Fran decided to give him some tips. The proper way to walk into school. How to introduce himself, how to spot losers, and loners, and most importantly how to join the A crowd.

He wished someone would shut up his older sister.

When they arrived at school, Herb had to run to the bathroom. He'd been thinking so hard about not eating candy and about having to see the principal that he never worried about other high school things. Like homework, tests and even though he was still fat enough to not rouse suspicion -- he was nervous. It only took the sight of lockers and the smell of unopened-all-summer school to send his stomach over the edge.

When the bell rang he went to homeroom. He thought this would be it, that Mayor Endora Blair would walk in to greet all the new students. It wasn't it. A short, bald, stocky, Biology teacher walked in instead. For lunch he sat down with Lou. She had brought in carrots and tomatoes and showed him how to hide them between plates of candy stuff.

When the last period came, he began to relax. He was almost home free. This wouldn't be so bad. He could hang out with Lou during lunches and as long as he avoided running into...

"Principal Blair would like to see you," his sixth period teacher said before he stepped into the classroom. He gave her a puzzled expression and she added, "New families orientation." That's why she hadn't been to homeroom, she only met with students that had just moved.

Herb walked slowly to the principal's office. Inside, a secretary told him to sit and wait. Principal Blair's office was full of candy. On her wall were several strange pictures. One was a still frame from the Wizard of Oz. It was of a scene where the scarecrow was catching on fire. Another one looked like a magazine photo. It had a whole family inside of a large oven. The title read, "The world's largest oven." On her desk there were many bowls with candies. And behind her there was a model of a house. It was a house completely made out of candy. But what was on the wall on the right made him more nervous than all this candy combined. There was a tall glass cabinet. Herb walked up to it. It was full of gingerbread cookies. Each cookie as detailed as the ones he'd seen in his house.

He heard a noise behind him.

"What are you doing here?" Fran said. "I thought the mayor wanted to see me."

"It's a family orientation," he whispered. He walked over to where she was sitting and whispered. "Fran. I know we don't get along, but listen, you can't look into her eyes."

A woman cleared her throat. Herb quickly sat down next to Fran. A pretty lady stepped into the room. Pretty lady was not a phrase he normally thought of, but there was no other way of describing her. The second he saw her, he felt instantly relaxed. He wasn't even sure why he had been so worried. Her hair looked so soft. He wanted to touch it. He wanted to kiss her. She was way too old for him, but he didn't care. He'd do anything to feel her face. He'd do anything for her. And her eyes. They weren't blue as they were in the picture, they were dark purple.

She smiled at them and said, "Welcome to Sunken Valley. I am terribly sorry I didn't have a chance to meet you sooner. You must be Herb." She stepped closer and reached for his hand. When he shook hers, a shiver went up his spine.

"Nice firm grip. I like it," she said. She then shook Fran's hand. "Fran, you are almost sixteen, aren't you? And Herb, you just started high school. Congratulations. Well, I only have one rule. Candy. Eat as much as you can. A big body is a healthy body." It was those words that brought Herb back to his senses. A big body? She was the only skinny person in town.

She stared at him and he looked down. From the corner of his eye he thought he saw a flash of red.

"Do you need anything? Any tutoring?" Principal Blair asked. Herb shook his head, still looking down. "Your parents feeding you enough?" Herb nodded.

"Well, if you ever need anything, don't hesitate to stop by. Back to class, then," she said.

"Do we have to?" Fran asked. When Principal Blair said yes, Fran grabbed a handful of candy from the bowl and left. Then, Herb felt something ice cold touch him. Principal Blair had grabbed the back of his neck.

She pulled him closer and whispered, "I saw her not eating candy. I fed her one myself. It would be wise for you to eat some as well."

He felt his heart skip a beat. She pushed him outside the door and shut it behind him.

Herb ran out of the school. He didn't wait for it to be over, and he couldn't wait for the bus either. He ran as fast as he could home, which wasn't very fast for him. He had been completely out of breath half way through but he didn't care. He heard the bus arrive at the corner a few seconds behind him.

"Beck," he said. "Where are you?"

"We're here," his mom said. The voice was coming from the dining room. Beck and his mom were sitting at the kitchen table eating a slice of chocolate cake with ice cream on top.

"She's doing better, now," Mom said. "They should let us keep her, no problem."

Beck wasn't smiling. A tear ran down her check and she took another bite out of her cake.

He heard sirens outside. He walked back to the front door to see what was happening. Two police cars had parked in the driveway.

"Mom, we have to leave. Now," Herb said. He meant to run back to the dining room, but he couldn't. His feet felt as if they were stapled to the floor.

Mrs. Lenheart stepped out of one of the police cars with a policeman. Fran was making her way to the house but she looked confused, not her usual peppy self. This scared Herb even more. A policeman came out of the other police car and grabbed Fran.

Herb ran out. "No!" he yelled. The police car with Fran in it drove away. When he turned he saw Mrs. Lenheart carrying Beck. Beck was smiling but tears were coming out of her eyes.

"But, I did what you asked," his mom ran out saying. "She was eating cake. Please don't take her."

The car door slammed shut and the police car went out with Beck inside it. Herb ran after it. A hand grabbed his shirt.

"You can't do anything, now. We need to have a plan," a voice said. He tried to run some more but he couldn't. He just couldn't. He fell to the floor. "We'll get her back." Lou put her arms around him and held him on the sidewalk. "Okay? We'll get her back."

#

Herb followed Lou back to his house. His mom sat at the kitchen table.

"They said they would let me keep her," Mom said. She raised a fork to her mouth with a piece of chocolate cake and stared at it. She put the fork back down.

"How do we get Beck back?" Herb asked.

Lou put a hand on his arm. "I think we need to get Fran back first."

"How do we get Beck back?" Herb repeated.

"I know. But, just listen. Beck is alive and will be alive. Fran. That woman eats people."

"You said, she'd forget in an hour. You said that in an hour the kids of the people who lived here forgot their parents."

Lou nodded.

"Why did you stop me?" Herb asked.

"I didn't think you would catch up to the car," Lou said.

"Because I'm fat. Right. It's all because I'm fat."

She didn't look at him. "I'm fat too."

He was just a kid. Thirteen years old. That's it. How was he supposed to do anything? He kicked one of the dining room chairs.

"If you want to save Fran, we have to hurry, " Lou said and looked straight into his eyes. "Parents are not going to help us."

"I want to kill her." He'd never felt like killing before. Even with all the jokes, the teasing, and even with his mom having left his dad only because he wouldn't lose a few pounds, he'd never felt like killing someone. Until now.

"I'm pretty sure she's a witch," Lou said. "All the signs are there. Red eyes, crooked nose, candy, turning people to gingerbread. It all fits."

"How do you kill a witch?" Herb asked.

"I don't know. Fire? Water? Dropping a house on her?" Lou said.

"We'll try everything. Except the house," Herb said and Lou gave a nervous giggle. "You can get a container from the kitchen and fill it with water. I'll find the matches."

#

It's not every day two people in their teens decide to melt a person, or set said person on fire, even if they know that person is a witch. So, it's no big surprise that Herb and Lou didn't feel particularly prepared for the experience.

Herb carried a rag he'd drenched in gas from his mom's car and some matches, while Lou carried a pail of water. Together they were as threatening as a brick was to the planet Saturn, but Herb didn't care. No one was eating Fran tonight.

Having lived in town for a whole year, Lou knew the way to Mayor Endora Blair's house. It was the big one at the edge of town. They walked there and neither of them complained about the hike. The sun was up. The sky was clear. It was really a pretty time of the day to be going to the witch's castle. It wasn't really a castle. It was more like a mansion -- the kind you might see in movies, where the mob boss lives.

"How are we going to get over the fence," Lou asked. Herb didn't answer. He didn't have to. As they got closer they saw that the front gate was wide open. There was no guard in the guardhouse. No vicious animal came to greet them either.

Herb didn't like the feel of this. He'd seen too many movies not to know that this was just too easy.

At least they had enough sense not to walk straight to the front door. Instead they decided to crouch and go down the right side of the house and see if there was another entrance. Aside from the house there was another building in the back of the house. A warehouse. Beyond that there was a parking structure for large trucks. The warehouse and the parking structure were well lit. The trucks had a picture of Endora Blair and under it the name: Endora's Sweet Creations. There was a back door.

"What now?" Lou asked in a whisper.

"I don't know. I should probably light this." Herb said. He pulled out his matches and tried to light one. The first one broke in halves. The second one lit, but then burned his fingers so he dropped it.

"Hurry. I think I hear footsteps," Lou said.

The back door opened.

"Are you coming in or what?" Principal Blair stood in front of them, wearing a short, black dress.

Herb and Lou sighed. Principal Blair walked in and Herb and Lou followed her.

"I'm just getting dinner ready," the principal said.

The house was more modern than Herb had imagined. It had a large kitchen. No surprise there and plasma screens in every room. The floor was made out of a tile that looked like flat rocks glued together. Principal Blair walked behind the back of a kitchen island and picked up a knife. She began chopping onions.

"I'm not going to let you eat Fran. I don't care if you kill me," Herb said.

"Eat Fran?" Principal Blair said. "What do you mean eat Fran?" She laughed. "Did you really think I was going to eat Fran?" She shook her head. When the principal said it, it didn't sound as likely as it had sounded before. Maybe he had made a mistake? Maybe --

"I haven't eaten anyone in like five hundred years," she said.

Herb and Lou looked at each other.

"Oh my, what is this?" she said as she looked at each of the kids' hands. "I do believe you had intentions to do me harm."

Herb and Lou raised their weapons. "Where is she?" Herb asked.

"Patience. Young people have no patience. I'll take you to Fran in a second. First, just in case you get any ideas. Bring that rag and that water pail over here, please."

Herb held his ground.

"Fine," Principal Blair said. "Here." She grabbed a napkin from the kitchen counter. Then she turned on the stove and touched one of the burners with the napkin. After a couple of seconds the napkin caught on fire. Principal Blair then pressed the fire against her arm.

"And that's why I'm still around. See, when Gretel locked me in my own oven, not my brightest moment, I'll grant you that, I just waited for another kid to get curious and unlock the oven. I'm fire proof. And as for the water…" She opened the faucet. First she put out the napkin and then ran her arm under the water. "Water proof too. Then I got me thinking. The whole eating kid thing is not that great of a gig. The real money is in selling candy. Highly addictive candy is the best." She took off her apron and put the knife down. "Do you want to see Fran? Okay, follow me."

Herb and Lou set their things down by the kitchen island and followed their principal.

"But why make people fat?" Lou asked.

They followed her. Herb wondered if he was just walking into a dungeon where she'd put them in chains and then eat him. He didn't believe she'd lost her appetite completely.

They walked over to the warehouse they'd seen when they came in.

"I give you, Endora's Sweet Creations, Inc.," she said and walked inside the warehouse.

About a thousand people were inside, working. The place was a factory, with many assembly lines. The first thing Herb noticed was that the workers seemed like zombies. They didn't show any emotions in their faces.

"The fat part is just a side effect of the candy. The candy makes it so that you do exactly what I say. People can't get enough of it. So, they keep gaining weight. Near sixteen is the perfect time to put them to work."

Fran was here somewhere. Herb needed to find her.

The principal continued, "Once you pay people, there's unemployment, vacation time, benefits, birthday lists. It's much easier when they're catatonic. No one's even asked for a raise."

"I want my sister back," Herb said.

Principal Blair's eyes glowed red. She walked quickly in front of him and grabbed his shirt. Then she lifted him easily, so that they were face to face.

"I'm losing my patience with you," the witch said with a growl. Her face then straightened and she put Herb down. Herb couldn't stop himself from shaking. He hoped Lou didn't think he was scared.

"Are you a betting man? Not that you're a man yet, but you get the point," she said. "I am feeling generous. If you convince your sister to leave with you, then I will let you go. If you do not, then you are going to do something for me. You are going to feed one of my candies to your new girlfriend. And then you are going to eat one yourself. And you're going to do that or I will eat Fran. And not just Fran. That little sister of yours should make a nice dessert. I think all this talk of eating people has reawakened the old desires, and I'm getting a little nibbley."

He had spotted his sister down in the middle of an aisle. He wasn't sure how much time had passed but he guessed it had been close to an hour. If he didn't do something quick he'd lose both Fran and Beck. But what if he lost? How could he do that to Lou?

"Do it," Lou whispered on his ear and gave him a kiss on the cheek. A blast of energy shot through his body. He imagined it was the same type of energy that makes people jump out of planes.

"I'll do it," he said.

"Go," the witch said.

Herb ran over to where his sister was. She didn't look at him. In fact she didn't look at what she was doing either. Whenever a candy passed, her arm would automatically grab it and put in a box.

"Fran, we need to go," he said. He grabbed her arm and started pulling her. She wouldn't budge. Lou ran over to where he was and the two of them tried to pull her. She didn't move an inch.

"Fran. Mom is waiting for us at home. Please, come with me," Herb said.

"Yeah, it's nice in your home," Lou said.

But it was really hard to tell if Fran was even listening.

"Give up?" the witch said.

"Fran. You are the best cheerleader in the world. How does that new cheer go? Why don't you show me at home."

Nothing. Fran kept putting candies inside the box.

"You're looking really thin," Herb said.

"Don't lie," Lou said.

"Shh." Then it came to him. The thing that broke the trance for the family that had been living at his house -- a strong emotion. "Fran. I know I don't say this much…"

"C'mon, I'm not going to let you go on all night," the witch said.

"I love you Fran. I love you as much as I love Beck," he said. Fran lowered her arms. Candy passed by the belt, but she ignored it. Herb continued, "When they took you, and Beck, I wanted to get Beck. But then I thought you might get eaten. I didn't want you to get eaten. Would you forgive me for having favorites?"

Fran turned her head. "You're so embarrassing," she said. "Let's go."

"What!" the witch said. "How?"

"You wouldn't understand," Lou said.

Herb grabbed his older sister's hand and started walking towards the door.

"This is not over. Your little sister doesn't even know your name by now. See you in school tomorrow, you two." The witch walked passed them and walked towards the door.

A strong emotion is what it took to wake up his sister. There were thousands here. How could he rescue them all? He couldn't make them feel love like he had done for his sister, but maybe…

"Double or nothing," Herb shouted.

The witch turned around and smiled. She adjusted her bra strap and said, "You're on."

Herb whispered something in Fran's ear. Fran shook her head.

"You can do it," Herb said. "I know you can."

"What are we doing?" Lou asked.

Fran scanned the room.

"What's going on?" the witch asked. "C'mon, get on with it."

Herb saw what Fran had locked her eyes on. Perfect. Ahead of them, there was a platform. A microphone hung from the ceiling.

"You can do it," Herb repeated.

Fran took a deep breath and started running towards the stage. Her chin raised high. Her arms made into fists in front of her, holding invisible pom-poms. The same invisible pom-poms Herb had seen her practice with time and time again at home. When she got up on stage she kicked her right leg up high. Not as high as Herb had seen her do it when she was thinner but with a lot more umph than he'd ever seen. If the witch had been standing right in front of her, she would have definitely felt it.

"Yeah! C'mon, everybody," Fran yelled. She put her invisible pom-poms down and did a back flip. The stage shook.

"The microphone," Herb yelled and pointed at his ear. "We can't hear you."

Fran found the switch on the microphone and turned it on. Then she bent down and picked up her invisible pom-poms again.

"Okay, everybody," she said. "This is a new cheer I have been working on all summer. Well…I can't really do that one. I wrote it before I knew the whole witch town thing. Okay, here's a cheer I'm going to make up as I go along. Ready?"

No response from the crowd. Lou took a few steps forward. "Yeah," she said and motioned for Herb to do the same. Herb clapped a couple of times.

"This ought to be good," the witch said. "After she's done, they're going to beg me to give them more candy. 'Please Mrs. Blair, give us more candy. We can't possibly go another night with the nightmare of seeing that much mass jumping up and down on stage'. Pitiful."

Herb didn't answer. Lou took Herb's hand and squeezed it. Fran began her cheer.

"Working without pay is lame.

"Eating candy every day.

"Not caring about life, or… or…, something, something that rhymes with Blair… hair. Not caring about life or hair.

"We all hate Blair."

Fran paused. Silence, except for the machinery, and the witch -- she was bent forward, holding her stomach, as if she were vomiting, except the only thing spewing out of her mouth was laughter. "Great strategy," she said. "Make me laugh to death. I haven't laughed this hard since Edmund fell for the Turkish Delight in the Narnia books."

"C'mon Fran. You can do it. Don't listen to her," Herb said.

Fran arched her back and raised her chin even higher. "Life or hair, we hate Blair," she repeated into the microphone.

A few kids stopped working and turned towards Fran. She repeated the last part of the cheer again, "Life or hair, we hate Blair." More people turned to face Fran.

A piece of candy flew out of nowhere.

"Ouch," the witch yelped. The candy had struck the back of her head.

Herb and Lou turned around. Another piece of candy was making its way towards the witch. A tall boy with a big blond Afro said, "I used to care about my hair. We hate Blair," and threw another piece of candy at the witch.

A girl with straight black hair standing nearby said, "Well, I've never liked my hair. I can never get it to do anything; it just stays flat. But I hate Blair too."

More people started feeling their hair and chanting, "We hate Blair."

"Stop," the witch yelled and ran towards the stage. Herb and Lou ran after her. The witch reached for Fran, but Fran did a cartwheel, forgetting all about the invisible pom-poms. The place erupted in cheers.

"We hate Blair. We hate Blair," the whole factory was chanting.

The witch looked at Herb and Lou and then looked around the room. It looked as if she were trying to find a way out. But every door was blocked by people.

The boy with the blond Afro jumped on stage, grabbed the microphone, and shouted, "Let's get her."

It was like watching people in a football game rushing the field after their favorite team had won. Twenty or more people grabbed the witch and held her up on her back like a rock star that had plunged from stage onto the crowd of fans.

"What should we do with her?" Afro kid asked Fran. Fran looked at Herb. The room became silent. They were all looking at Herb.

He'd been thinking about this since he figured out that fire and water wouldn't work. "How about cold?" he asked Lou.

Lou shrugged. "Nothing I've read says witches die with cold, but we should try everything."

There were a few murmurs from the crowd. Some were debating whether cold would be the right approach and others were just wondering what was taking so long -- they should stuff her in a freezer and be done with her.

Herb was wondering why the witch looked so calm. She hadn't flinched when he'd mentioned the cold. In fact she had stopped squirming and looked almost peaceful. Was she patiently waiting for her death? Herb didn't think so.

A kid rushed to a panel with hooks on the wall. He grabbed some keys from one of the hooks and said, "The trucks are refrigerated. Let's put her in truck twelve, and see what happens."

There were many cheers. The crowd started carrying the witch towards the exit with the trucks.

The witch was still calm. Herb ran in front of them and put a hand up to stop them. "Wait," he said.

The crowd stopped.

Cold wasn't going to work. It was all about emotions. The trance was broken with strong emotions. Love had done it for his sister, and hate had done it for the rest of them. Cold was just like heat and water, it was a physical thing. It wouldn't work.

Suddenly, the witch was back on her feet. On the floor next to her were two gingerbread cookies. The rest of the people who had been holding her tumbled backwards. The witch dashed over to Lou and grabbed her.

"Anyone touches me, and she's dead dough," the witch said. She had her left arm around Lou's neck. With her right hand she formed a pretend gun out of her index finger and thumb and pointed it directly at Lou's heart.

If Herb had been in a trance, this would have set him free for sure. In one night he'd let three people he cared about get captured -- first Fran, then Beck, and now Lou. He had to figure out a way to get rid of this witch.

Everyone held still except for a girl who bent forward and picked up the cookies before anyone stepped on them.

"In case you're wondering, cold can't kill me either," the witch said. "Nothing can. But if you think I'm going to spend another hundred years locked up, then there's no emotion strong enough to cure your stupidity. So just back up."

Herb took a step back. Everyone standing next to him did the same.

"Don't worry about me," Lou said. "Think of saving Beck."

The witch's eyes flashed red for a second. "Shut up," she said.

For the first time, Herb noticed a strand of gray in the witch's hair. And the witch's face, which he'd thought of as perfectly smooth, had wrinkles. Had he just not noticed them before?

The witch took a few more steps. Around her, people parted to let her through.

"I'll take those keys," she said, looking at the kid with the keys for truck twelve. The kid sighed, then threw the keys at her. She pocketed the keys and moved her finger quickly back over Lou's heart.

Then Herb remembered something Lou had told him back in the park.

He rushed forward towards the witch. The witch looked surprised at first, but then she smiled and tapped her index finger on Lou's chest.

Nothing happened.

The witch tapped Lou's chest again. And a third time. Still nothing happened.

"She can't hurt you if you care about someone else and not yourself," Herb said.

A wart appeared on the witch's left cheek. She pushed Lou back into the crowd and aimed her index finger directly at Herb's heart.

"Hold it," the witch said to Herb. "Have you thought about what getting rid of me will mean for you? What will happen when they stop eating the candy?"

A few people closed in around the witch and held their ground.

"Who's going to care about you?" the witch continued. "If I'm gone, your sister will get thin again. The only reason she loves you now is because she looks as bad as you do. But what about when she's pretty? Your mom will get thin too. How was that working for you before? In fact, most of the people here will get thin. You know they're only listening to you now because you look like them. It's not going to be easy when you're the last one around the track in gym. I'm even willing to bet your girlfriend here will get thin. Sure, she'll pretend she doesn't care about being fat at first, but wait until it's time for homecoming. She'll lose weight for the pictures, there's no question about that…And do you think she'll want you standing next to her looking like that?"

"Don't listen to her," Lou said.

Herb paused. He was trying not to listen to the witch, but it was true that Fran would get thin again. Within a month she'd be giving him advice on how not to embarrass her. His mom would get back in shape too, and if that happened then she'd never get back together with his dad. There was a chance even Lou would get thin. After all, she'd been eating vegetables for the last year. The only reason she was overweight now was to protect herself from the witch. But with the witch gone…

"Your dad abandoned you, and your little sister doesn't remember you by now. Are you sure this is what you want?" the witch asked. She closed one eye for a better aim and adjusted her finger.

Herb looked at his sister, who was still on stage and said, "I don't care if you hate me again because you're thin and I'm not. I still want to help you." He then turned to Afro kid and said, "And I don't care if you forget that I was the one who came to kill the witch and you begin to pick on me at school. I want to help you too."

The wart on the witch's cheek burst open and a worm crawled out of it. She grabbed the worm, threw it on the ground, and stomped on it. She stopped aiming her finger at Herb and used her hand to cover the hole.

Herb walked a few more steps forward. Lou followed him. "I don't care what happens to me. I just want everyone to be safe."

"Fine," the witch said. "Take me to the freezer. As long as I don't have to hear this mushy babble." She waited, but no one picked her up.

Lou looked at the witch and then at Herb and smiled. "Who cares about homecoming pictures? I want you to have a good time, whether you ask me or not."

"Enough," the witch yelled. One of her teeth fell to the ground.

"Dude," Afro kid said. He was still up on stage behind the microphone. "I would personally cut my hair off if it would stop people from picking on you at school." Herb wasn't sure how cutting hair equaled not getting picked on at school, but it didn't matter -- it had worked. The witch's skin began to peel.

Others noticed what was happening and joined in. One by one they began to say things they would do for other people even if it meant giving up something they liked. With each word the witch's hair turned whiter.

More of the witch's teeth fell out. She tried to hold them back with her forearm, while plugging the hole in her cheek, but there were too many to contain.

Fran jumped off the stage and ran over to where the witch was standing. When she reached the witch she stopped and faced Herb. "Oh, okay. You know what I'd do?" she asked and paused. "I would stay fat. If it's the only way you and I can hang out without hating each other, I'd do it. There. I've said it. I'd stay fat. Even though I'm not as good of a cheerleader fat."

The witch exploded into a cloud of dust. The dust filled the entire warehouse for an instant and then vanished, scattered by the warehouse's fans. Pieces of the witch's clothes flew in every direction. One of the pieces fell on Fran's head.

"Gross," Fran said and shook it off. Others grabbed the rags and suggested burning them, or putting them in the freezer, just to make sure the witch was all gone.

The crowd began to cheer and to congratulate Herb and one another. Some got up on stage and began bouncing and dancing. A few of the girls walked up to Fran and asked her if she could teach them some of her moves.

Fran ignored them and walked towards Herb. When she reached him she said, "Go already. Go get Beck."

Lou nodded. "Go. We have to get rid of the candy."

Herb pushed his way through pats on the back, congratulations, and more comments about how they'd consider staying fat too, maybe.

#

He ran home until he was completely out of breath, then he walked as fast as he could. The witch was dead, but did that mean that everything would go back to normal? Maybe that only happened in movies. He hadn't waited long enough to see if the gingerbread cookies had turned back to people. And besides, Mrs. Lenheart was flesh and bone, as far as he knew. What if she refused to let Beck go? He could get the police but would they be happy that he'd killed the candy maker, the principal, and the mayor?

He rushed inside the house. "Mom. I need to know where Mrs. Lenheart…"

At first he couldn't make sense of what he was seeing. Mrs. Lenheart was there, in the living room, standing over his mom. His mom was on the floor in front of the couch clutching his sister. Beck. Beck was here.

Herb dashed into the room. He put himself between Mrs. Lenheart and Mom and Beck and glared at Mrs. Lenheart. "What have you done to her?"

Mrs. Lenheart looked scared. She put two hands up to protect herself and took a step back. "I couldn't do it. I'm sorry. Bill and I wanted a little girl so badly."

Herb bent down and reached for his sister. Beck looked up. Her eyes were still teary. "Herbie," she said. She still remembered him. But how?

"After an hour had passed she was still crying," Mrs. Lenheart said. "She wanted to see her mom. She was never going to be ours -- she'd never gone under the trance. We didn't want a daughter that way. We didn't care if we got turned into gingerbread cookies or not."

"We didn't care either," Herb heard a man's voice say. He looked up and saw two people standing by the kitchen door. They were the people from the photo -- the Thompsons. Mr. Thompson was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and Mrs. Thompson was wearing a dress with flowers and around her neck was a necklace. The same heart shaped necklace he'd seen on the gingerbread cookie. Mrs. Thompson looked at Mr. Thompson and flicked off some cookie crumbs from his shirt.

Mrs. Lenheart took a step back. "How?" she asked and looked at Herb.

"I'd say that something must have happened to the witch," Mr. Thompson said.

Herb nodded.

"It's not easy being a cookie, wondering if someone is going to eat you, feeling like you're dead but still being afraid of dying…" Mr. Thompson said.

"Let's go find our children," Mrs. Thompson said, urging Mr. Thompson forward.

"…but we'd do it again if we had to," Mr. Thompson said.

The Thompsons walked towards the front door. "I guess we're going to have to find a new place to live too, seeing how you folks are here now," Mr. Thompson said. He smiled at Herb and patted him on the shoulder.

Herb waved them goodbye.

Outside, families were walking. Two kids on bicycles passed by. Across the street, and two houses over, a dad and his son were playing basketball. They weren't moving very fast because of their weight, but they would get thin again, just like the witch had said. And what about him? Would he get thin? Maybe, or maybe not. One thing was for sure -- this time he was going to choose his weight for himself. He wasn't going to be fat because he resented his mom and sister, and he wasn't going to be thin to fit in. He was going to be whatever he wanted just for himself. And that thought made him feel lighter already.

Down the street he saw Fran and Lou walking back towards the house. Afro kid was with them. He and Fran seemed to be hitting it off.

There was only one person missing.

His mom put a hand on his shoulder. "You know," she started, "there are worse things than being overweight. Losing your family is one of them…Let's call your dad," Mom said.

Herb and Beck looked at each other and smiled.


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