Chris and Darren turned away from Froggy’s house and set off into the woods. “Are you sure you know where you’re going?” Darren asked.
“Positive. The characters here may have changed a bit, but the landscape is completely familiar.”
“Good. ‘Cause I wouldn’t want to accidentally end up in the Fire Swamp, or the Bog of Eternal Stench.”
Chris laughed. “This isn’t The Princess Bride, and I don’t see any Labyrinths around, so I think we’re safe.”
“Just checking,” Darren said, bumping their shoulders together.
They continued on in companionable silence. Soon, a delicious scent began to fill the air.
“Ooh… Gingerbread!” Darren exclaimed, turning his head from left to right and sniffing excitedly.
“Act like a puppy much, Darren?”
Never one to be deterred by Chris’s teasing, Darren kept trying to pinpoint the source of the scrumptious aroma. “Come on!” he cried, grabbing Chris’s hand and taking off in the direction where the scent was the strongest.
“Do the words Hansel and Gretel cannibalism incident mean nothing to you?”
“Relax. Of course I’ve read Hansel and Gretel. But I’ve read your book, too. Remember? All we have to do is wish that the witch will become a vegetarian, and then she won’t eat us.”
“If it’s the same witch,” Chris muttered darkly. But he allowed Darren to pull him off the path, following the scent of gingerbread.
Soon they came to a picture-perfect gingerbread house. Chris was shocked to see his friend (and coworker) Dot-Marie Jones standing in front of it.
“Dot!” Chris called, running towards her. “What are you doing here?”
“I think you’ve got me confused with someone else, Punkin. I’m Witch Beiste, and I live here.”
“You’re the witch?!” Darren blurted out. “I wish you would become a vegetarian!”
“A vegetarian? Sorry, Punkin, never gonna happen. I’m a turducken-itarian. That’s what I eat for every meal – a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken. A witch has gotta keep her strength up.”
“All you ever eat is turducken? But what about Hansel and Gretel? I thought you were trying to fatten them up to eat them.”
“Eat them? Punkin, what kind of a witch do you think I am? I was just trying to put some meat on their scrawny bones so they could play defense on my peewee football team. But I think Gretel had an eating disorder. And then Hansel got all in a snit because he wanted to be the quarterback. With a bony arm like that?! I don’t think so. But those two munchkins just couldn’t accept that I was only trying to help. So one day, when I opened up my oven to put in my turducken, the two little ingrates pushed me in and ran off. Fortunately, I like my turducken slow-roasted, and I always keep the oven temperature low. So, after I had a nice little sauna in there, I climbed back out, feeling refreshed. You know, a good sweat does wonders for you.”
Chris and Darren stared at her, mouths open.
“You boys trying to catch flies?” she asked.
Chris closed his mouth, and elbowed Darren until he did the same. “So let me get this straight,” he said. “You’re a witch, but instead of eating children, you coach a peewee football team?”
“Way to go – touchdown! You were paying attention.”
Chris shook his head as if trying to rattle something loose in there. “And your name is Beiste?”
“There’s the extra point,” she said, holding up her hand for a high five.
Chris was too busy trying to wrap his mind around this strange mash-up between Glee and The Land of Stories to pick up on her gesture, but Darren swooped in happily for a high five. “Sorry I tried to turn you into a vegetarian,” he told Witch Beiste. “I’m usually much more accepting of people’s chosen lifestyles. I just freaked out a little when I thought you were going to eat us.”
“Don’t worry, Punkin. No hard feelings. … I can tell you boys aren’t from around these parts, seeing as you’re out of uniform. Where are you heading?”
Chris finally recovered his composure enough to speak. “We’re on our way to the Corner Kingdom.”
“Well, much as I’d love to have you stay and chat, you’ve still got quite a bit of walking to do. And I’d recommend you get well clear of these woods before nightfall. Not every creature here is as much of a connoisseur as I am when it comes to dinnertime.”
Chris and Darren nodded their agreement, as the distant howling seemed to be drawing nearer…