The night I saw the Grannies suck the life out of my friend Leonard was the night I really woke up.
Before that night, before that day, I had been just another face in the crowd, an orphan entrusted into the care of Gnollwood Academy. I barely remembered my parents anymore, and the nights of crying myself to sleep had dwindled down to hardly ever. I did remember they used to call me G, cuz my name is Griffin. They died in a fire when I was six years old, and I was told by a lot of people that it was a miracle that I had survived. I still have burn scars all over my legs from it. Pretty sure they're part of the reason I've been bounced around from foster family to foster family. About a year ago I was told I was an ideal candidate for a new orphanage, and so I got packed up with a bunch of other kids who were unadoptable, and we were brought here to Knollwood Academy. Or, as I like to call it, Gnollwood Academy, after a monster I read about in a storybook once. The G is silent. Like me.
The Grannies run the place. That G is definitely not silent. There are three of them. They had real names once, and I'm sure that's how they introduced themselves to us, but we foster kids renamed them because what else were we supposed to do?
There's Granny Gross, a fat, bloated, blob of a woman, with greasy skinned hair and a continually dirty white apron over an elephant-sized green dress. She was always sniffing and sniffling, and always had that look in her eye like she was about to eat a kid whole. There were jokes about the adopted kids not really leaving, about them getting put in her beef stew. They weren't very good jokes. Like I said, what were orphan kids supposed to do? Besides, that didn't make sense cuz it was the same stew every night, no matter what.
Then there's Granny Groan, who could be the Cryptkeeper's childhood sweetheart. Skin and bones, with a huge beak of a nose and beady yellow eyes. Hair like a mop pulled back to a bun. She never wore anything except a long frumpy gray dress with house shoes. She had more wrinkles than a prune. But she always knew when a kid was misbehaving, and she always knew when they were thinking of causing trouble. She never smiled, and only spoke in a high pitched whine when she was getting onto someone about misbehaving. She always said that. Misbehaving. Like we were supposed to be angels or something.
But as bad as they were, Granny Grape was the weirdest (or creepiest) of all. She was short, pale, black-haired, with a black lace dress with ruffles and bows and black mary janes, with this giant purple birthmark that took up half her face, and all smiles. All. The. Time. A huge teeth-baring smile that never goes away. Even when she's mad, when the ragefires danced in her purple eyes (and they almost always did), that smile never went away. Creepy.
If there was someone else there or someone else in charge, nobody knew it. The Academy was really kind of a small place, more like a big estate with a dorm attached to the back. The Grannies lived on the second floor of the house. The girls slept in the two bedrooms on the first floor, turned into dorm rooms. Us boys lived in the back dorm attachment. It was mostly warm. You could tell not a lot of effort was made to make it nice. We got fed pretty regularly. Even if it was pretty much the same thing every day. Granny Gross does all the cooking, of course.
Everybody eats in the huge main hall that doubles as the showroom for when families come to pick us out like furniture shopping. I've never been picked, even by accident. Actually, the crew that's here now have really clashed with the furniture in a lot of homes...that's why most of us are still here. Meal times and outdoor play are the only times when the girls and boys are allowed to mingle. We figured the Grannies must be really old fashioned that way.
But that's how I met Deanna.
Hold on, let me back up to Leonard.
He was my best friend. We came in together and immediately took a liking to each other. He was a big goofy kid who was always cheerful. He could see the bright side to anything, and always could make me laugh. I want to believe that we would've been best friends even outside of that miserable place, but in there, having someone like that was gold. Plus it didn't hurt that the first day there when Frank, the resident bully, tried to mess with me, Leonard made him back off. We were there for each other like that. I hoped that we would be there for each other, like brothers, for the rest of our lives. That's actually how I got to see him die.
I was sneaking back from the kitchen with my weekly haul of chips. I usually got in trouble for something or other at least every other week, and most of my punishments involved losing my dining room privileges for a day or so. So I had figured out where the Grannies hid the good stuff, and I started sneaking good eats from there to stash for the dry times. I always shared the best stuff with Leonard, so this night I was looking for him. I figured he had to be in the bathroom, since his cot was empty, and walked out into the hallway. I sensed more than heard them coming, and I ducked into a niche in time to see the Grannies coming with poor Leonard carried between them. They were all quiet, and I was more than a little worried to see that Leonard wasn't moving much. They got to the door of the dorm and set him on his feet. Granny Gross giggled sickeningly as he swayed a little. She reached out and steadied him, caressing his arm. He seemed oblivious.
"Let's one last sip, just to makes sure," she whispered, her eyes fixated on him. Granny Groan shook her head, but Granny Grape cocked her head at him, smiling appraisingly.
"Alright," she whispered back. "It doesn't make a difference at this point anyway."
The three bent forward and pursed their lips. At first, I thought they were going to kiss him, and had a moment to be disgusted (ew, is that the sort of thing that happens at these places?). But they weren't touching him, just sort of making sucking sounds from a few inches away. Then something drifted out of Leonard, just like someone smoking a cigarette. It swirled up and into the three of them. It seemed to go on for hours, but really it was like a few seconds. The smoke was thin and wispy, and soon there was none left. The Grannies stopped sucking and leaned back, looks of satisfaction on all their faces. They whispered to themselves a bit more, then sent Leonard into the dorm and turned to leave. By now I was getting tired and sore from standing in one place too long, and my foot might've scraped against the floor ever so slightly. Granny Groan whipped her head around and stared in my direction, beady eyes searching the darkness. She must not have seen me, though, cuz she followed the other two down the hall to the stairs up to the second floor. I didn't breathe until I heard the creak of the third step from the top. It's how we all knew they were on their way.
I ran into the room to find Leonard. He was already lying down, but he looked so pale. His eyes were half-closed, and his breathing was shallow. I knelt down next to him and reached out to shake him, but he grabbed my hand and turned his head to look at me.
"G? Is that you?"
"Yeah, buddy, what's going on? You feeling alright?" I was nervous, not just because of what I had seen, but because he looked downright awful. But who could I tell? Should I call 911?
He shook his head slowly. "Griffin, watch out for the foxtails. That's how they getcha." That seemed to take all the strength he had, cuz he closed his eyes and his hand dropped.
And that's how they found us the next morning, Leonard dead in his cot, and me kneeling beside him.
I don't remember much else about that day, paramedics and Grannies and inspectors running around the place, a lot of activity. They wheeled Leonard out on a stretcher and cleaned the place up. Outside play was canceled that day. I didn't care. I had a lot on my mind. I wasn't staying long enough to find out what else was going to happen. I was gonna mosey out the door as soon as the ambulance loaded up, and by the time anybody noticed, I'd be long gone.
That plan lasted all of five minutes. Granny Grape was waiting for me at the cast iron gates as the ambulance passed through. She snatched me off the back bumper quick as lightning and marched me back up to the Academy.
I spent the next week in solitary. Solitary is a storage closet just big enough to put a cot in and stand up. Actually, it's not so bad if you're the type who can be alone with his own thoughts. And at least I got a break from beef stew. The cuisine consisted mostly of pieces of burnt toast and oatmeal, with some orange slices every morning as breakfast.
I also got the lecture about misbehaving from Granny Groan, the usual novel about how lucky I was and I should appreciate the sacrifices the Grannies made and I shouldn't waste my second chance. Blah blah blah. The only thing I was appreciating was getting out of that closet. When the day finally came when she said I had been punished enough, I walked as fast as I could to the back door. It was outdoor play time. I tried not to look at Leonard's neatly made bed as I passed it.
Outside was so different from inside. As dreary and old and dry the house was, the yard was the opposite. Gnollwood Academy was out on the edge of the city, practically by itself on a giant piece of farmland. Grass covered hills filled with plots of trees were scattered everywhere. A river tried to make its presence known with its babbling, but no kid had ever seen it. The yard had all of that and more. A giant wooden playset that had a tower and swings and slides. A playhouse across from it that the girls tended to congregate at. The sandbox was generally avoided, we were never sure how old the dirt was or what could be in it. The only tree had been stripped of its branches and a tetherball rope, no ball, hung from the top. And there was a concrete slab in one corner where prior kids had etched out four squares to bounce a ball on. Odds and ends that served as balls and bats and goals and nets were everywhere. It was paradise. We only had outside play two and a half hours a day, but it was everybody's high point. There was a balcony that overlooked the fenced in yard, and one of the Grannies was always sitting there in a lawn chair, like our guard.
I usually went to join the foursquare bunch with Leonard, but today it was a little hard to get excited about playing a game. I also noticed that in the week since I'd been gone there had been a few additions and subtractions. Frank was still there, of course, in the tower with part of his gang; Lawrence and Will. The triplets Huey, Dewey, and Louisa were playing foursquare with little Tina. Jackie was in the playhouse with Karen and Russ, but Thalia and Maya were gone. That made me happy...they were sisters and had been worried about getting split up. Like the triplets might. Nobody talked about it, but the chances of siblings staying together in foster homes were very low.
There was a new girl. She was playing by herself with a tattered baseball, throwing it up in the air and catching it. She had a sable bob cut and dark eyes and looked about my age. And for some reason, as I looked at her, I thought she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I'm not one for noticing girls like that….I've never looked at a girl and thought, beautiful. I didn't know why it happened that day, but I knew where my feet were taking me even before I was halfway across the yard.
She noticed me coming and stopped. I don't know what I thought was going to happen but she was looking at me suspiciously. Honestly, I should've just gone somewhere else. But I ended up standing across from her. We didn't say anything at first, just checked each other out. Most of us have been in bad situations, with adults and other kids, so being wary up front is nothing new.
"Hi." I decided to go first. I was the oldtimer, after all. "I'm Griffin. G to my friends. What's your name?"
She blinked at me a couple times. "Deanna."
A wave of the sillies came over me, and I suddenly swept my arm across the yard and house. "Welcome, Deanna! You've just won a lifetime vacation to the sunny happy lands of Gnollwood Academy! On behalf of the Grannies, please make yourself at home."
She gaped at me, then started laughing. And that was how we became friends.
It turned out the other kids had already decided not to be her friend. As we filed in from outside play, both Russ and Will warned me that the new girl was weird. She had weird dreams, and said weird things, and had pushed Frank down the first day for saying hi to her. I personally doubted that was all Frank had done to deserve getting beat up on, but I nodded and thanked them and said, "she seems okay to me."
"Your funeral, pal," Will sneered. Russ just shook his head from behind him. Russ hadn't joined the boys in following Frank only because he had a hatred of bullies, which he defined as anybody who was confrontational or direct or assertive. Which was also why he hadn't found a family yet.
Lunchtime came, and I got my sandwich and chips and fruit cup and went to sit with Deanna. Most of the time, the girls sat together and the boys sat near them but not close enough to be considered near them. The triplets were always the exception of course. But while it was unofficially segregated, the Grannies didn't care who sat where. Or they didn't seem to. Deanna and I talked all through lunch, and through dinner that night, and the next day. And the more we hung out, the more we opened up. I felt like I could be myself around her, and her smile took away the sting whenever I thought about Leonard. I think she felt comfortable with me too, and I think that surprised her. So a few days later I decided to tell her about the Grannies and what I had seen, and what Leonard had said to me.
Deanna was silent after I told her, just kept on swinging while I watched her. After a while she looked at me with those intense eyes and said, "I believe you."
I didn't realize I had been holding my breath until right then. I felt such relief. She continued swinging, then said, "I have dreams. About different things. But they are all true."
I was immediately curious. "What kinds of things?"
She shrugged. "Things that are about to happen, mostly. Like I dreamed that my mother would kill my father and I would end up in here. And it happened."
Well, that kinda killed the mood. I figured we were done and was about to suggest playing some soccer when she spoke up again.
"I dreamed about soulsuckers the night I got here." She saw the expression on my face and said, "I don't know what a soulsucker is. But there were three of them. A short one, a fat one, and a skinny one. I thought I was just nervous from being in a new place. But they were flying over my head, trying to suck out my soul through their mouths and waving some weird furry thing at me."
My heart almost skipped a beat. "That sounds just like them!" I quickly looked around, making sure nobody could hear us. I noticed Granny Grape was on duty today, and she seemed to be taking notice of us talking so quietly. I forced a smile on my face and pointed over to the soccer ball.
"We can't let them know we know anything. Let's go play a little. Granny Grape's watching us."
As we walked over, I was pleasantly surprised to feel Deanna's hand slipping into mine. She looked up at me with that serious expression on her face and then smiled faintly. "You know we have to do something, don't you? We have to tell someone, or we have to stop them ourselves."
My heart was beating a mile a minute. "Yeah, I guess so. But nobody will believe us." I looked up at the balcony, at the smiling face of Granny Grape. Was it smiling even more? "If Leonard was here, he would say it's up to us, like it always is. We have to take care of ourselves."
Deanna squeezed my hand and skipped over to the ball ahead of me. She looked over her shoulder. "Your friend Leonard sounded smart."
Twice a year the Grannies put on an open house. They invite a bunch of wannabe parents to come all at once to look us over. Sometimes inspectors come unannounced too, just to make sure everything is on the up and up. Granny Gross mostly disappears as she cooks for the banquet they put on for them (adults get the good stuff, always). The week before the open house is always the worst. We spend most of the day working under Granny Groan's nose, mopping and scrubbing and doing yard work. Usually, we don't mind, since Granny Gross makes way too much food and always gives us the extras, like freshly baked rolls.
This week, though, things are different. Not just with me and Deanna, but with the Grannies. We could all tell they were nervous about something, but nobody could tell what. They would snap at us for the least little sin, and more than one kid went without one of those delicious meals. Deanna and I knew what it was, though. If they really were soulsuckers, then they were probably hungry. And Granny Grape kept watching me and Deanna as if she thought we were up to something. Which we were. I had a plan.
Deanna told me the details of her dream, and in it the three soulsuckers flew into the library and flew through a wall into a secret cave full of dead kid's bodies. I have to say, if I dreamed like she dreamed, I might never go to sleep again. But that did give me the idea for my plan, and I started the first part of it that night.
I had stopped my midnight raids after Leonard, but that night I made a special trip. I had never been to the library after my welcome tour, but we all knew where it was. A couple of the kids liked to hang out in there during free time. It's never locked, so it was easy to inch my way inside the closed door. Deanna had explained to me about where the wall was, so I went right to it and found a bookcase.
I've seen all the movies I needed to know what I had to do. I started tilting books back, one at a time, until I found the hidden latch behind one of them, something called House of Leaves. I was a little nervous that it might make some noise, but the bookcase and wall swung open completely noiselessly. Still feeling nervous (after all, who knows what was in there?), I peered into the dark room. Surprisingly, it wasn't too deep. It looked like there was a lamp beside the opening, so I turned it on after making sure no one was sneaking up behind me. The light showed an alcove with two or three small bookcases and the little table that had the lamp. I was more than a little disappointed. I mean, I didn't really think I would find a bunch of kids bodies, but I was expecting to find more than books. I picked one up and dusted it off, just to make sure I wasn't missing anything. The thing looked ancient, with a heavy duty leather cover. I couldn't make out what was on the front, or what the rest of the book was about. Some foreign language. I picked up a couple more and found the same story. I guess the Grannies collected old books and put them in here. I started to walk out, disappointed, but then I saw another old book leaning against the wall next to the table, barely visible. The cover was blank, but when I opened the cover to look at the first page, it was in English! Barely...it was like old-timey English. The book was called Our Book of Shadows. I flipped through it and the word 'witchcraft' jumped out at me. Yup, this might be worth looking at. I tucked it under my shirt, turned off the light, and snuck back out.
Deanna and I spent the next few days reading the book in secret and in shifts. I won't tell you where we hid it, but we made sure the Grannies couldn't find it, even accidentally. She's the one who pointed to a chapter on something called phylacteries. I guess it's some item that witches use to store their lifeforce or the lifeforces they've stolen. When I saw that, I knew it had to be something in their room. If we could find their phylacteries, we could expose them. But we couldn't just confront them here, by ourselves. We had to do it during the open house when other adults were here, hopefully some with the authority to take the Grannies away.
But, that meant the next part of the plan was to follow them and watch them and search their room. All of that was dangerous and nearly impossible, especially with all the activity going on before the open house. It was Friday, which meant we only had the weekend until the open house started.
That night, though, we met in secret in the girls' bathroom and figured out what we were gonna do. Deanna was excited...I think she was enjoying the spying and sneaking around. I thought at first that it was the only reason she had agreed on seeing me that night. I talked about how we could watch them without them seeing us, and the secret doors I've managed to find in my time here. I loved talking to her because she seemed to really listen to me, with all her soul. I found myself talking about the future, and how we would probably be split up when we got sent to different orphanages or foster homes, and how much I would miss having such a good friend. She looked sad at that, but I'm not surprised. I was sad at the thought of not seeing her anymore...then she kissed me, and I stopped thinking. It amazed her too, I could tell. After we stopped, we just stared at each other, and she looked a little shy.
"I shouldn't have done that," she said, breathless. Her eyes drank me in, and I couldn't help myself. I leaned in to kiss her again, and she let me.
"We can't," she said when we stopped. My mind was buzzing, and I barely noticed when she left. I assumed I went back to bed eventually. I didn't sleep for the rest of the night.
That weekend we pretended not to see the other looking when the Grannies weren't watching. We would sneak holding hands out of sight of the balcony at outside play time. We were actually paying attention when the Grannies had an argument within sight of all of us, at the top of the steps, the next day. Nobody could hear what they were arguing about, though. Deanna looked sad and happy and terrified. I got Louisa to pass her a note telling her that we were safe, it had nothing to do with us, but she still looked the same at lunch.
That afternoon, during a frenzied sterilization of the kitchen, I managed to sneak away and hide in the solitary closet. I hadn't noticed it before, but you can look into their bedroom if you peek out the door. I waited there until I saw Granny Gross huffing her way up the stairs and go into the bedroom. She disappeared out of sight, and I started to get worried that I wouldn't be able to see what she was doing, until the grunting and plopping sounds started. I gagged and almost threw up. I guess I hadn't figured that the Grannies used the bathroom like other people, but it sounded horrible. Finally, I heard a flush and turned teary eyes back just in time to see her reach up and pet something on the doorframe as she waddled past. After she had gone down the stairs, I snuck down the hall.
None of us had ever been this close to the Grannies' bedroom. We weren't allowed on this side of the stairs. We had only been to the second set of bathrooms and the solitary closet, but those were always supervised visits. I was in forbidden territory...this would be more than just solitary time. But I had to see what it was. I felt more than heard someone coming around the bottom of the stairs, and I instantly turned as if I was creeping up the stairs.
"Hey, you, get down from there!" It was Granny Gross, coming back for some more toilet time probably. I'm a really good actor, if I say so myself. With Granny Gross and Granny Grape both standing over me, I managed to stammer out a story about a dare gone wrong, a prank I was gonna pull on Frank. I'm not sure if they believed me or not, but I did know they didn't like Frank either, so they let me go with a warning.
"You're lucky we have guests coming," Granny Grape beamed at me, her eyes carving pieces of me away. "For now, we will take dessert away for all of next week. That should be enough to curb some of that youthful curiosity." Granny Gross goggled wetly at me and rolled away. Granny Grape stared at me for a few more minutes, and I could feel my insides shriveling up looking at that smile. Then she dismissed me.
That night as we snuck into the boys' bathroom to discuss our findings, I stole a kiss from Deanna before she could say anything. She still looked worried, but that seemed to cheer her up. I told her about what I had discovered. Before Granny Gross had caught me, I had seen foxtails out of the corner of my eye, hanging from the door frame all in a row. Leonard must've seen them that night and tried to warn me.
Deanna nodded. "I dreamed about foxes running through a house and jumping into a mahogany chest. Then the soulsuckers closed the chest and they started doing bad things with it." I shuddered. I didn't know how she put up with these horrifying dreams.
"Okay then. This is what we have to do. Tomorrow night, we're going to sneak up there and grab them. Once we have their phylacteries, we're in charge. We can burn them up if we want to, and take away their power. The adults have to listen to us then. We can finally be free!" I was getting excited. I held Deanna's hand and was about to reassure her that we were gonna be together forever (I'm not sure what I was thinking, just that I didn't want to not be with her) when we heard the door open. My insides turned to mush as I turned around to see the Grannies peering in at us. Granny Gross was leering evilly, Granny Groan was clicking disapprovingly, but Granny Grape's smile was practically wrapped around her head. Deanna squeaked in terror as Granny Grape grabbed her up, and the other two grabbed me.
"It seems there's been some, naughty goings-on happening here," Granny Groan hissed, shaking me by the neck. Granny Gross chuckled lewdly. Granny Grape just looked at Deanna with a disgusted smile. Like I said, the Grannies were old-fashioned. But I was terrified. I thought about how Leonard looked when he died, and I started praying in my head that we weren't going to be midnight snacks.
There was only one solitary closet. After discussing it amongst themselves, they put Deanna in it. I wasn't sure why she would be the one who got punished more, except that she was the one who had snuck out of the dorm, technically. I got all of my dining room privileges and outside play times taken away. I didn't care. If Deanna wasn't there, then it wouldn't be the same. Besides, that would give me the chance to get the foxtails.
The next day all three Grannies found something for me to do. Every chore, every errand, every menial task they could find, I was the one they called. I was so busy running around and working I barely had time to think, much less plan my heist that night. Every time I passed the stairs I looked up at the closed and locked closet door and wish Deanna some comfort. Soon, I told her.
I was exhausted by the time dinner rolled around. I went right to sleep without a peep.
The next morning was Open House day. I woke up to the boys lining up for breakfast before we would be excused to get ready for the presentation. It was the one time of the day when the three Grannies were occupied because they had to be everywhere. I was told to go to the bathroom and start getting ready. I knew it was my only chance.
I listened at the door until I heard the sounds of plates clanging together. Then I counted to three and opened the door. Nobody. I tiptoed past the foyer and made my way up the stairs. I paused at the top as I looked at the closet door. No, I couldn't take the time to talk to her. Someone might hear us, and I was on a time limit. I ran to the Grannies' bedroom and stepped in.
It was surreal being in there. It looked like all three Grannies slept in the same king-size canopy bed, complete with thick curtains and millions of pillows. The room itself was full of junk. Old junk, like out of an antique store. There was even a spinning wheel in the corner! But I looked at the doorframe and saw them. Six foxtails, all different colors and shapes and in different conditions. Six? I started to panic. Were there three more Grannies we had never seen? I didn't know which ones to grab, so I was gonna have to grab all of them. There was a hand-carved wooden chest hanging open next to the door, so I grabbed it and pulled all the tails down and threw them in. I could hear cars pulling up. I was running out of time.
I peeked out the bedroom door to hear the front door being thrown open by Granny Groan, who looked more like a schoolteacher than an old crone this morning. At the same time, Granny Gross was finishing up the last of the decorations in the main hall and Granny Grape was bringing the children out in a line. The adults poured in. I don't know why there were always so many parents and so few adoptions every year.
In the chaos, I snuck down the stairs, clutching the wooden chest. I hid in the shadow of the banister until the line of kids had passed me, then I ran to the library. I made sure nobody was inside before I dove in.
I had to make sure about my timing. I had to make sure I would be safe from them trying to stop me. And I had to make sure Deanna would be alright.
It was agony waiting. I heard the introductions, the speech they gave, the little song and dance number we had been practicing off and on for weeks. Soon the Grannies would let the mingling begin. I was ready then as the song was winding down. I was standing outside the door, ready to run in to the main hall. As the kids finished and started to go sit back down and the parents clapped, I took a deep breath, held the chest tighter, and walked out.
Granny Grape saw me instantly. Her smile actually slipped a little as she watched me from behind a group of parents. Granny Gross was nowhere around, but Granny Groan whirled around and started weaving her way toward me. I hopped up on the hearth of the giant fireplace, feeling the heat at my back. They loved to have the fire roaring, like in an old-timey castle. Now it was my backlight, and the applause and rustling died down as everyone noticed me. My heart was pounding, but I clenched my fist.
"The Grannies are lying to us. They're lying to all of us. They're not human, they're monsters. They eat children! They're killing us!" I was trembling, but I managed to scream the last. A woman laughed nervously, but all eyes were fixed on me. Granny Groan shook her head at me.
"Problem child, we have been too lenient on you. You are why this place exists, for children like you who refuse to behave. Who make stories up. Naughty, naughty child. Get down from there and take your punishment." She advanced. I kept my eyes on her and on Granny Grape, who hadn't moved.
I held up the chest between us, my knees knocking. "This is the proof. They're witches, who suck out our souls. They torture us and beat us down, but sometimes they slip up and kill someone by eating too much. They're soulsuckers. This is proof that they're not human." Why wasn't anybody leaping to my defense, or at least saying something? All of the kids seemed to be frozen to their chairs, and the adults were smirking and whispering to each other. I was suddenly angry.
"Why won't you listen to me? This is our chance!" I screamed.
"Because they knows what's good for them. Unlike you. Put the chest down, Griffin." Granny Gross's voice echoed from the door I had just come through. I turned my head to find her standing there holding Deanna's hand. Deanna didn't look scared, though. She looked very sad as she looked up at me, tears in her eyes. Granny Gross pushed her forward and glanced back at the other two. I looked to see Granny Grape was walking forward as well, her eyes on Deanna. She looked up at me, that creepy smile overwhelming me in hate.
"Get down, Griffin. You must be punished. Or we'll have to punish her."
The threat was clear. But instead of getting scared, I was getting angrier. Nobody was doing anything. It was going to be over. The kids were too scared, and the adults thought it was a weird play. I blinked tears away, and the chest suddenly felt incredibly heavy. My head hurt, and I staggered.
"NO!" Deanna screamed. She spun around and punched Granny Gross right in the gut. Granny Gross doubled over, mostly out of shock (a lumberjack wouldn't be able to get through that mass of fat).
"Do it, G! Kill the hags! Burn them all up!" She vaulted past the Granny and ran through the door. My last view of her was a look of relief on her face as she disappeared down the hall.
With the last bit of strength I had, I threw the chest into the fire.
There were screams. All three Grannies screaming. Some of the adults looked horrified. Some of the kids were shocked. But Jackie and Tina were also screaming, for some reason. And there was screaming coming from down the hallway. Granny Gross stumbled forward, and I saw her body shifting, like something unmentionable was wearing a Granny Gross skin and was trying to throw it off. Granny Groan was melting, and there was something horrifying underneath. But Granny Grape was the worst. She just kept smiling, even as her eyes became black holes and her body became scales and fur and tentacles. And then they all caught on fire. Not just the Grannies, but Jackie and Tina too, who had also started to shift and transform into little things with bat wings. The adults were all standing by then, either yelling and running away or yelling and trying to save someone, anyone, or yelling into their phones calling whatever help they could reach. Most of the normal kids had already started to run out the door. I sat down and watched all five bodies burn to piles of ash.
After an hour, the official authorities had started to close up shop. They had interviewed everyone who had witnessed the extremely rare multiple spontaneous combustions and released all the kids into the care of the real orphanage people. They had tried to keep quiet that they had found Tony's withered body under the Grannies bed, but I was able to hear that little tidbit. They had questioned me over and over again, different people, different agencies, all the same questions. I told them the truth, as much as I knew, all of it. Most of them thought I was in shock, either from what I had seen or what I had experienced at the hands of the abusive Grannies. I think some of them believed me, but wouldn't put anything down in a report. That's okay. It's over now.
After there was a lull in questions, when it looked like everyone was getting ready to go, I got to have a moment by myself. I wandered down the hall to the library. Inside, I reached up and pulled on the House of Leaves latch. I stepped into the alcove and sat down next to a pile of ash.
"It's over now, Deanna," I said to the air. I fought back tears. "We won. You're free."