This nine-chapter novella is the first of two stories set in between the periods of Stranger Things: The College Years and Stranger Things: The New Generation. I advise reading those stories, as well as the third in that trilogy, Stranger Things: World’s End, before reading this one, which is supplementary and does not involve the Upside Down. Like the Upside Down trilogy, it’s a work of fan fiction based on the Stranger Things TV series. I do not profit from these stories and they are not canon. There is plenty of Stranger Things fiction to be found online (see here), but if I learn that the Duffer Brothers do not appreciate fan fiction of their work, or if they order a cease-and-desist, I will gladly pull the stories down.
The Witch of Yamhill County — Chapter Five
The Prismatic Tree
The library was watching. Hopper was sure of it. He sensed the books eyeing their every move, and he wanted to move on. But he’d do this for Leigh.
There were thousands of books in the main room, extending to a ceiling twenty feet high. An immense chandelier worth a fortune bathed the room in soft light. It was a vast room, about ninety feet long and wide. Two ladders rolled around the perimeter on floor tracks, providing access to the books out of reach. Most were written in Russian or English, but there were other languages too, even alien tongues from other worlds. Topics ran the gamut of science and witchcraft: books on nuclear physics, biochemistry, astronomy, cybernetics, alien ecology, alchemy, conjuration, necromancy, illusions, phantasms, and more. Most of the material was in cloth-bound books, but there were also papyrus scrolls and clay tablets.
It was the Ninth Wonder of the World, in Hopper’s eyes. The public libraries in McMinville and Newberg were garage sales by comparison. You could lose yourself in this room, and he could tell that Leigh Davis wanted to, more than anything.
She and Hopper were on the ladders, while Dash explored the map room to their left. Straight ahead was a third room of richly bound books; Leigh was anxious to get in there. Three doors were spaced evenly along the wall behind them. The middle door they had come through, from the kitchen. The door on the right was painted black and locked; Hopper had tried it right away. There were tables all over the room, with books piled on them. Hopper wondered who shelved the material; it was like the cabbage soup and bread in the kitchen. Were they part of Sara’s duties?
Hopper was doing his best to put the kitchen behind him. He had laid that requirement on Leigh and Dash, after almost dragging them back outside after Travis’ death. They were traumatized; no one their age should have to see a friend die, let alone turned inside out. All of them still wore Travis’ gore, though they had sponged most of it off in the kitchen washbasins. Hopper replayed their defiance:
“Let go of me!” Leigh had yelled, still in tears. She jerked herself away from Hopper. “I’m not leaving. I came to find the Prismatic Tree, and I’m going to find it.” She sat down, a few feet away from Travis’ unspeakable corpse, crying hysterically.
This won’t do, he had thought. If Leigh insisted on plowing on, she would have to man up. Hopper had leaned down next to her, and gently but firmly held her face in front of him. “Listen to me,” he said. “If you want to stay and go through with this, I’m not going to stop you.” I should, but I won’t. He remembered the passion of other kids: Mike, Lucas, Dustin, Will; and Jane of course. “But you have to suspend your grief. You understand me? Mourn for Travis later, not now. That’s how this works. You either get it together, or I’m getting you out. This hut has no sympathy.” He let that sink in. “You understand? This hut has no sympathy.”
She finally nodded, wiping her eyes.
He stood up and looked at Dash. “That goes for you too.”
“I’ll tell you what goes,” retorted Dash, still in tears. “And I’m not leaving either, no matter what you say. I’m staying in this hut until the witch comes back, and I’m going to shoot her fucking face off — even if you don’t have the balls to.”
Hopper had said nothing. He wouldn’t waste time on Dash’s stupidities. They would cross the bridge of midnight when they came to it.
Now it was only 9:18. They had been inside the hut for about an hour, mostly in that thrice-damned kitchen. It had taken them a while to find the real door, leading out of the kitchen to the library: it was in the mouth of the dragon-head stove, way in the back, blocked by the fire. Hopper had then figured out what the metal pole was for. The hook reached inside the stove to pull a lever that stopped the fire. That allowed anyone to crawl through the mouth and reach the door.
The other door they had gone through had been an obscene trap that went nowhere, except into the belly of the person who opened it. The winding hall and vomit-smelling cavern had been Travis’ intestinal tract and stomach. As soon as he opened it, the door had formed a dimensional link to his body. The spongy “corridor” (his intestine) had twisted along to his actual stomach, and the closer Hopper and Leigh got to the “cavern”, the more Travis’s cramps had pained him. They had all believed that his cramps were caused by a spell in the kitchen, and that the kitchen was somehow trying to prevent Travis from leaving. But the invisible barrier wasn’t a spell; it was a natural barrier that stopped anyone from trying to get inside his own body. When Dash finally forced Travis to do that, the rupturing paradox caused Travis’ horrible death — and ejected them outside his body, back into the kitchen. Right now there was nothing on the other side of that door, and there wouldn’t be… until someone opened it again, and it created a link to that poor fool’s intestine…
Or at least, that’s how Hopper made sense of what happened. He didn’t share his ugly theory with either Leigh or Dash. He certainly didn’t want Dash knowing that he killed Travis precisely by trying to help him across the barrier. Let them go on thinking that Travis’ cramps and body contortions were caused by some kitchen spell that had just kept building until he burst.
“Find anything?” asked Leigh, high up on one of the ladders. She had told him to look for any book that had a tree on the cover, or the words “prismatic tree” in the title. Intent on finding a cure for her aunt, she was already coping better.
“Yeah,” he said. “A book on these evil beings called daemons: dergho-daemons, pisco-daemons, ultro-daemons, yagno-daemons. They all look worse than anything from the Upside Down.”
“Nothing.” He wished he were in the Upside Down right now. He threw the book aside and looked at her. “What about you?”
“Lot of books on how to make potions,” she said. “Pretty nasty ones.”
“Hey, I found something!” said Dash, poking his head out of the map room. “Come here, check it out.”
Hopper and Leigh followed him inside the room lit by a much smaller chandelier. There were maps of various places scattered across small tables, especially Russia and Oregon. On the center table was a triangled map labelled “The Dancing Hut”. It seemed to show all the rooms inside Baba Yaga’s evil home.
“This is what we’re inside,” said Dash.
“Wow,” said Leigh. “So we’re here now?” She pointed at the triangle labelled “Library”.
“Seems so,” said Hopper. “If these rooms are adjacent as they look, the entry hovel leads to the dining hall, which leads to the kitchen, and now the library. So yeah, that’s our path so far.”
“If we had taken that other door in the small chamber of the dining hall,” said Dash, “we’d have gone to the throne room instead of the kitchen. I wonder what’s in there. Does Baba Yaga sit on a throne like some queen?”
“She’s a bitch-queen from hell,” said Leigh ferociously.
Hopper didn’t care about the throne room. He was trying to figure out from this map where Sara Schwartz was. The guest rooms? Doubtful; guests weren’t usually servants. Stasis chambers? What were those? Lost souls? He didn’t like the sound of that room.
He liked even less the “B.Y.” adjacent to the library they were in now. Surely that stood for Baba Yaga. Was that where the locked black door led? The witch’s bed chambers? Did Sara reside in there?
The “prison” label alarmed him. It was the furthest area from their current location. Did the witch currently have prisoners? She seemed to eat kids right away, and no adults from Yamhill County had been reported missing. He was a sheriff. He’d have to see who was being kept there.
Leigh pointed excitedly at the room labelled “Orchard”. “That has to be where the Prismatic Tree is, right?”
“Maybe,” said Hopper.
“And we’re almost there. After the guest rooms.”
Hopper didn’t want to think about who Baga Yaga’s guests were. Who the hell kept company with a witch who ate kids, and set traps in her home that turned people inside out? “We’ll find out soon enough,” he said, answering both himself and Leigh. He stood up from the table.
“I don’t get it,” said Dash. “The hut’s not a triangle. The rooms we’ve been in aren’t triangles. And they’re not the same size.”
“This isn’t drawn to shape or scale,” said Hopper. “You probably couldn’t map this hut in a way that would make sense on paper.”
“Why not?” asked Leigh.
“I don’t know, I’m just guessing. But if all these rooms are inter-dimensional — which they obviously are, to fit inside a small hut — they don’t connect in a way that makes sense in 3D. I mean, look” — he pointed at where they were now — “the library leads to the kitchen, the guest rooms, and ‘B.Y.’, which probably means Baba Yaga’s bedroom or something. So there should be three doors in the library leading to those rooms, and we saw them out there in the main room. But they’re all along the same wall, close together. In our world that’s impossible. The kitchen, the guest rooms, and the witch’s room would all be on top of each other, in the same space. The triangles on this map aren’t literal, they’re just a way of showing how the rooms of the hut connect.”
“Marya said there are twenty rooms in the hut,” said Leigh.
Hopper looked at her. “So?”
“I only count sixteen.”
“Me too,” said Dash.
“Marya doesn’t know how to count,” said Hopper. They were lingering too long.
“I don’t know,” sad Dash. “Where’s the meat locker on this map? Maybe that’s one of the four rooms not accounted for.”
“No, I don’t think so,” said Hopper. “The meat locker is part of the kitchen, just like that small connecting chamber was part of the dining room.”
“And like this map room is part of the library,” said Leigh.
“Exactly,” said Hopper. “These sixteen ‘rooms’ represented by the triangles may have smaller rooms inside them. Maybe Marya thinks there are twenty because she confuses them with single rooms like the meat locker or this map room. Anyway, it’s time to go.” He peeled the map off the table. It came off easily. It was 20″ x 20″, and he folded it, and then handed it to Leigh. “Put it in your pack.”
Leigh did as he said. “Let’s go into that expensive looking room. Maybe there’s a book about the tree in there.”
“Browse fast,” said Hopper.
He found it before she did. The book was shelved face out, and on the cover was a tree filled with multicolored apples. He picked it up: The Prismatic Tree of Nadežda Chilik. It was worth a fortune. Strands of real gold were woven into the cover.
“Leigh,” he said. He waved the book at her. She stepped off the stool and ran to him.
“Oh my God, this is it,” she said taking the book from him. Her hands were shaking as she set it on a nearby reading podium, and opened to the first page. Hopper and Dash looked over her shoulder.
Her enthusiasm cooled right away. “Oh, come one!” she wailed.
“Russian,” said Dash contemptuously.
“Hold on,” said Hopper. The book was written in Russian, but the text had begun blurring as soon as he tried to read it. He leaned over Leigh and kept looking. The text was completely out of focus now, as if he needed reading glasses. Then, seconds later, he was reading English. “Jesus,” he breathed. He would never scoff at magic again.
It was happening to Leigh and Dash too. Leigh was delighted, but Dash was unimpressed. Bored, he walked away and browsed another alcove.
Hopper moved Leigh aside and took charge of skimming through the pages. They were full of history about a witch named Nadežda Chilik who lived centuries ago. It was information they had no time for, but the gist was that Nadežda had made some evil pact with the gods in order to create the Prismatic Tree. Hopper didn’t see anything explaining how Baba Yaga acquired this tree, but he assumed that the bitch probably stole it. He stopped about a third of the way through the book, when a chart caught his eye. He went back a couple of pages before the chart and started reading carefully. “Here we go,” he said, picking up the book now. “This section explains the healing benefits of the different apples.”
“Which color cures multiple sclerosis?” she asked.
Hopper read a few paragraphs. “Green, it looks like. It says the green apples cure all diseases and poisons.”
“What about the others?”
“The red ones cure physical injuries. The orange ones — Jesus, this can’t be for real — regenerate lost limbs. The yellow –” He stopped short at the description of the yellow apples. Mike, he thought, hardly daring to hope.
“Let me see, sheriff.” She put her hands on the book, and he lowered it so she could read too.
She got excited as she read the chart. Hopper was taking all of this with a ton of salt. He’d seen impossible things in this hut, but the Prismatic Tree was miraculous. Not only did the apples have extraordinary healing power, they carried permanent side benefits. There was a catch, however. The tree was intolerant of greed. It allowed any person to pick two of its apples. If someone ever picked a third apple (or more), the mere touch of the apple would inflict the person with its toxic power — the reverse of its healing power. The chart explained everything:
||Healing Power (from eating)
|Side Benefit (also from eating)
|Toxic Power (from touching)
||Cures all physical injuries
||Provides heat resistance (temps up to 110 degrees feel like room temp)
||Causes bleeding and scars
||Regenerates lost limbs
||Provides energy (only 1/2 the normal amount of sleep required)
||Causes the loss of an arm or leg
||Provides virility (tireless sexual performance every 4 hours)
||Causes blindness or deafness
||Cures all diseases/poisons
||Provides nourishment (only 1/3 the normal amount of food required)
||Provides cold resistance (temps down to -10 degrees feel like room temp)
||Causes relentless fear and anxiety
||Gives ESP (ability to read people’s thoughts)
||Causes homicidal or suicidal mania
||Fluency in all Slavic tongues, and the ability to understand any language
“This is… incredible,” said Leigh. “So a green apple would give my aunt ‘nourishment’ too?”
“Yeah,” said Hopper. “She could save a ton of money on food.”
Dash had come back and was also looking at the chart. “The orange apples regenerate lost limbs?”
Leigh looked at him. “Your grandfather.”
“What about his grandfather?” asked Hopper.
“None of your business,” said Dash.
Leigh punched Dash’s arm. “Don’t be an ass.” She turned to Hopper. “His granddad lost a leg in the Korean war.”
“So when we see this tree,” said Dash, “each of us can take two apples of any color?”
“I think so,” said Leigh. “I mean, that’s right, isn’t it, sheriff?”
“That’s what it says,” said Hopper. He wasn’t getting his hopes up. If this tree actually existed, he already knew which two apples he’d pick. There was another color besides yellow that Mike Wheeler needed.
“It’s good that we found this book,” said Dash. “I pity the fool who takes more than two apples.”
“We knew that from Marya,” said Leigh. “But she was vague. She just said that if you pick too many apples, the tree would hurt you in some way. Now we know how many, and how.”
“And now we’re getting the hell out of this library,” said Hopper. He tore the page from the book and handed it to Leigh.
“Ooooh,” winced Leigh, taking it. “Maybe you shouldn’t have done that. Marya said something about Baba Yaga being worse than a public librarian –”
There was a sudden explosion from the book’s pages, and Hopper flew backwards onto the floor. Leigh screamed and Dash pulled out his Glock. The book fell to the floor with its pages facing up, and then, with a hideous cackle, it snapped shut on its own. A faint gurgling noise came from between the binding.
“Holy shit!” yelled Dash, keeping his gun on the book.
Leigh’s attention was on Hopper. She was kneeling over him. “Are you okay, sheriff?”
Hopper was not okay. The explosion from the book (which hadn’t harmed the book at all) had blasted into his chest and left arm. If he hadn’t been holding the book at waist level when he ripped the page, the explosion would have seared his face. His shirt around the wounded areas was shredded; his chest and upper left arm had lost skin. They were worse than third-degree burns, and he felt on fire. He imagined Baba Yaga laughing at him for daring to swipe a page from one of her precious books.
“Oh my God,” said Leigh, helping him sit up. “You need to be in a hospital.”
“Yeah well, that’s not happening,” said Hopper. He wanted to scream.
“What do we do?” asked Dash, aghast at the sight of the sheriff’s chest.
Leigh took action. There was a small table in the room with an ornate looking cloth over it. She removed the cloth (half-expecting it to explode in her face) and brought it to Hopper. She gently pressed the cloth over his chest and arm, absorbing droplets of blood. Hopper took out his knife and cut the cloth into pieces, tying one around his arm, and wrapping another around most of the region of his chest. It was makeshift as hell, but at least it protected the exposed flesh.
He stood up, trying not to show pain. The kids needed leadership. “Okay, let’s go back to the three doors. We want the one to the guest rooms. That should take us to the orchard.” He looked at his watch. It was 9:43.
They went back to the main room, and to the three doors lined on the same wall. They had come from the middle one. Hopper pulled out his Smith & Wesson, and tried the black door again; it wouldn’t budge. That one must have led to Baba Yaga’s chambers. Which meant the other door was the one they wanted. He went to it and grabbed the door handle. “Have your gun ready,” he told Dash. “There could be nasty company in here.”
Dash nodded fiercely, holding the Glock in front of him. Hopper had to admit he handled it professionally. He wondered what the kid’s story was. His own story wasn’t going well. His chest was a wall of fire; he had let a kid die. Please, he prayed. Let me protect these two and get Sara. He cracked open the door and peeked in.
It opened into a cross-shaped room. There was a rug at the center of the cross, and four doors along the walls. At the other end of the cross was the door that presumably led to the orchard. The doors near the rug probably accessed the guest rooms. It looked like there was no one present in the cross-shaped hallway.
Hopper opened the door all the way, and turned to them. “Listen,” he said. “We’re walking straight and fast to that door at the very end.” It was about sixty feet away. “No noise, no stopping on the way. Move quietly past those other doors. You got it?”
Leigh and Dash nodded, and they all began walking. They passed the first two doors on their right and left, crossed the rug, and then came to the next two doors. Something was making a horrible noise behind the left one. Hopper realized it was a voice — the voice of some creature from a world he’d never want to visit. They kept walking until they reached the door at the end. He was sweating from the pain of his burns, and knew he was scarred for life. The explosion from that book had been of magic and pure evil.
They reached the door without alerting any guests, and went through. Hopper turned to close it behind him. There was no door to close. Where the door should have been was a vortex of air. He and the kids had emerged through a wind tunnel. They looked around.
And stared wonderstruck.
It was the orchard: inviting, refreshing, and wholly out of place in a home as vile as Baba Yaga’s. There were about a dozen apple trees filling the “room” of the orchard, which extended for well over a hundred feet in all directions, probably closer to a hundred fifty. The “walls” appeared to be an enclosure of hurricane-force winds, which also formed a “ceiling” fifty feet high. The air was perfectly still inside the orchard, but the wind-walls prevented anyone from leaving the place, unless it was through a vortex like the one they came through. They couldn’t see any more vortexes from where they were now, but there had to be two more somewhere: one leading to the “Stasis Chambers” and the other to “Lost Souls”.
The apples on the trees looked delicious, and the kids wanted to pick some, but Hopper told them not to. He had paid a dear price by stealing from this hut. They would pick only from the Prismatic Tree, which allowed every picker two apples before retaliating in punishment.
They walked through the trees, savoring the apple smell. When they had gone about sixty feet and passed five trees, they came to a stream of white fatty liquid, banked by incredibly soft brown earth. The stream divided the orchard in half, running about a hundred thirty feet. They gasped at what stood on the other side.
“I knew it was real,” said Leigh softly.
The Prismatic Tree towered forty feet into the air, dwarfing the other apples trees before and behind. There were at least a hundred apples on it, perhaps about fifteen or sixteen of each of the seven colors.
Dash fingered the Glock in his pants, looking around. He didn’t trust unguarded miracles.
Hopper didn’t trust miracles period. Even after all he’d seen this evening, he suspected these rainbow apples were probably about as magical as the fruit he bought at Bernards Farm. Then he swore. The kids were already starting across.
Dash yelped as he sank ankle-deep into the brown bank. Then he looked curious and scooped up a bit of what he was standing in. He tasted it and his face brightened. “Holy shit! This is pudding!”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” said Hopper, stepping into the bank after him. Dash gave him the finger and kept eating. Hopper reached down and picked up some of the brownness, which indeed looked exactly like chocolate pudding.
Leigh was in the stream, which went halfway up to her knees. She said she thought the liquid was pure cream. Hopper waded in after her, and Dash followed. A river of cream banked by pudding. They were in a fairy tale.
They reached the other side and stared up at the Prismatic Tree. “Who wants to go first?” asked Hopper. He was suddenly scared of the tree.
There was a rustling noise on the ground a few feet away, and they all jumped, yelling. Hopper and Dash pulled out their guns and aimed down. A fat ugly thing crawled towards them.
“I’m shooting it!” said Dash.
“No, don’t!” said Leigh. “It’s only a hedgehog.”
They looked closely at the spiny thing. Sure enough, it was. A really fat one.
For all Hopper knew, this hedgehog had rabies and could spit poison. “I’m shooting it too, if it comes any closer,” he said.
The hedgehog astounded them by speaking: “Oh, please. You don’t need to hurt me. I don’t bite or anything.”
“Oh!” said Leigh. “It talks.”
The hedgehog looked up at her. “Oh. Hello. You’re the nice girl. From the farm.”
“Marya?” said the hedgehog. “Well, I used to be Marya. Then I did a bad thing, so the Mama cursed me and put me in this place.”
Leigh was shaken and appalled. “Baba Yaga turned you into a hedgehog?”
A very fat hedgehog that can speak, thought Hopper. The witch had a cruel sense of humor to go along with her punishments. “This is the girl you kids met at Bernards?” He holstered his gun and motioned for Dash to do the same.
“I… I guess,” said Leigh. “She called me the ‘nice girl’ there too.”
Hopper addressed the animal. “Aren’t you supposed to be the witch’s granddaughter? And she did this to you?”
“I was really bad,” said the hedgehog. “And she only called me her granddaughter. I wasn’t really related to her.”
“Must suck being a hedgehog,” said Dash.
“It’s not so bad,” said the hedgehog. “I like it better this way. I get to stay in the orchard all the time and eat cream and pudding.”
“And apples,” said Dash.
“Oh, I can’t reach the apples. The Mama made me so I can’t climb trees. I’m too fat, and she didn’t give me claws.”
“That’s mean,” said Leigh.
“But the cream and pudding never goes away. I have everything I need.”
She’ll be dead in a month on that diet. Maybe sooner. Hopper had to ask her about Sara. “Listen Marya, we’re going to get you out of here. I mean the whole hut, not just the orchard. But have you seen a girl named Sara Schwartz? Baba Yaga brought her to the hut two nights ago.”
“I know,” said the hedgehog. “She replaced me.”
“I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone about the hut. But I told the nice girl and her boyfriends at the farm. When Mama Yaga found out, she cursed me. Now she has another dove.”
Dove. Why did that sound familiar? “So Sara is, what, the witch’s new ‘granddaughter’ now?”
“Yes. She has my old room. Next to the work rooms.”
Hopper told Leigh to get the map of the hut. She took it out of her pack. He knew right away where Sara was. Little Dove. They had to go through the room of “lost souls” (whatever that was) and then the baths, and then they would be at Sara’s room. Next to the work rooms, as Marya said.
“All right,” he said, folding up the map and giving it to Leigh again. “You’re coming with us, Marya.”
“Oh, no!” said the hedgehog, sounding distressed. “That’s not allowed! I’ll be –”
“Don’t worry,” said Leigh. “We’re going to protect you.”
“But first,” said Hopper, “the three of us are each going to pick two apples from this tree. That’s safe for us to do, right?”
“I’m not sure,” said the hedgehog. “I know you can’t pick too many, or something bad happens.”
Hopper put his faith in the information from the library book. “Well, here goes everything,” he said, looking up at the Prismatic Tree. “Who wants to pick first?”
“Me,” said Dash. He knew what he wanted. Reaching up to a low-hanging branch, he plucked an orange apple. For his grandfather who lost a leg in Korea. Then he looked around for his next color. He had to shimmy up a branch to get it: an indigo. He jumped back down, and put the apples in his backpack.
Leigh came up to him. “Who’s the indigo for?”
She nodded and hugged him. “Good for you,” she said.
She turned to Hopper. “His cousin on the east coast has psychosis and multiple personality disorder. She’s a real mess.”
Dash looked annoyed. “My family’s none of his business.”
No, thought Hopper. But my family is mine. He knew the colors he needed. Reaching up with his right hand, he yanked off a yellow apple. So Mike can see again. Then he circled the tree until he found a blue one within reach, and snagged it. So Mike will stop screaming at night, and be at peace again.
Leigh protested. “Sheriff, you need a red one. For yourself.”
“I’m fine, kid.” He was anything but fine; he was in horrendous pain. But his pain would eventually pass, and he could live with his chest looking scarred and ugly. Mike Wheeler’s scars went deeper. Mike had been caged in three and half years of hell, if hell ever existed. Mike needed healing more than anyone.
“Carry them in your pack for me?” asked Hopper. Leigh took off her pack and put the yellow and blue apples away.
“Your turn, Leigh,” said Dash.
She walked up to the tree and paused, as if weighing alternatives. And Hopper swore, suddenly knowing what she would do. Before he could protest, she reached up and picked a red apple. She clutched the fruit in her hand and brought it to him.
“Jesus, kid, why?” Because you need it, you fool. You’re in agony and that skin probably won’t heal otherwise. And she can still pick a green apple for her aunt. She gets two, just like you and Dash.
Leigh didn’t say anything. She took Hopper’s hand and made him take the apple. It was like no red apple he’d ever seen. The redness was so red that it reset the bar, making the brightest of all reds seem dim and faded. He took the fruit and forced a smile. “I guess I’ll be the test, huh?”
“Do it,” said Dash. “Let’s see if these things really work.”
“It’ll be hard to miss,” said Hopper. He bit into the apple — and was thoroughly unprepared for the effect. The fruit tasted so good that it felt like a gustatory assault. Mortal tongues weren’t made to handle such purity. It was a taste beyond sweet and refreshing; whole new adjectives were needed. Maybe those words existed in Russian, but Hopper knew nothing in English that could convey what he was experiencing. He wanted fifty more of these red apples; they had put him on a plane of sensation unreachable by even LSD. He chewed non-stop and wept for joy. There were no seeds at the core; he chomped every last bit.
As he ate, his skin transmogrified. The burns that might have followed him to the grave were erased in seconds. And Hopper felt elevated, as if the apple had given him full lease on life. He was cured and felt majestic. He was ready to take on ten incarnations of Baba Yaga.
The kids were awed by the miracle. Dash looked humbled for the first time since Hopper met him. Leigh was so happy she gave Hopper a hug, and then kept hugging him. He held her and kissed her cheek, caught in her emotions. “Thanks, kid,” he said. “Thanks so much.” They stayed like that for a while. “Now,” he said finally, “go pick your second apple.”
“I guess I will,” she said, letting go of him. She went back to the tree and looked up at a branch. She hesitated, and then picked. A violet apple.
“Whoa!” said Dash. “Leigh, you need a green!”
Hopper swore again. What was she doing now? A violet wouldn’t help her aunt’s affliction.
Leigh walked over to the hedgehog that was Marya, and knelt beside her. “Here, Marya. Eat this. You’ll change back.”
Oh, Leigh. She had just sacrificed her aunt for a little girl she had met two days ago.
“Change back?” asked the hedgehog.
“The violet apples remove curses,” said Leigh. “You’ll be yourself again.”
“Well,” said the hedgehog, “you’re a nice girl. But I already forget what it’s like to be a person. I remember not being happy — that I remember. Everyone was mean. Except you. I’m happy now. I have this pretty orchard, and cream and pudding to eat, and I don’t have to do anything. It’s nice here.”
Leigh was very upset. “Marya, please. You need to eat this apple. We’ll help you.”
“Maybe Marya’s right,” said Hopper. He hated to say it.
“What do you mean, she’s right?” asked Leigh, furious.
“Look, if she was an abused kid, what does she have to go back to?” Social Services would just ship her back to any abusive parents still willing to take her, or put her in a foster home.
“She can stay with us!” yelled Leigh. “She can stay with me.” She began to cry. Dash looked uncomfortable.
Hopper put his hand on Leigh’s shoulder. “You sure about this, Marya?” he asked the hedgehog.
“Yes. The nice girl doesn’t have to cry. This place is very nice. You can all visit me any time… if the Mama allows it.”
The Mama has a lot to answer for. Leigh was crying hard now, and Hopper held her. He took the violet apple from her, and laid it on the ground before the hedgehog. “If you change your mind, that apple is for you.”
Leigh went on crying.
Next Chapter: Lost Souls
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