The girl lay motionless on the bed in the dark, dank room behind the mirror. She was curled miserably into a ball, her unruly dirty-blond curls spilling over her bloodstained face. Her breathing was shallow and irregular, and every so often she would let out a quiet whimper of pain. Two words raced through her mind, over and over, repeating themselves in an endless cycle.
Why hadn't she gone with her instincts? There had been something off in the other mother's voice, she had sensed it. Something too… eager. Too sweet. Yet she had agreed to the buttons. How could I have been so stupid? Why was I so willing to believe the other mother?
Other mother? No, that creature was nothing like a mother. A monster like that didn't deserve the name… Through her pain, the girl wracked her brain for a word that suited the horrible witch…Beldam. Yes… beldam. That name fit far better than 'other mother', the girl thought grimly. Why had she so willingly believed the beldam and allowed her eyes to be sewn with buttons? She knew she wasn't stupid or naïve. But… she had been unhappy and grieving. And, if she admitted it to herself, she had been very selfish and greedy as well. The other world had seemed irresistible, after all.
Now look where it had gotten her.
She was stripped of her eyes, couldn't even remember her own name, and she felt so weak, as if some of her life was drained…
The girl shuddered, and clenched her teeth to keep from screaming out in anguish. How long? she thought. How long had she been here? She didn't know; all she knew was that a very long time had passed. It could have been days later... She decided it didn't matter.
What was going to happen to her next? More torture? …She didn't care. Nothing could be worse than the pain she had already suffered… was still suffering. The pain was excruciating, though she had stopped screaming a while before. All she could do was lay there in the darkness and wait… Wait for whatever was to come next.
ABOUT TWO WEEKS EARLIER
Her name had been… Hannah.
They had recently arrived in Ashland Mills, Hannah, her father, and her five younger brothers and sisters. They had bought and moved into the large house at the edge of town. The house was painted a bright, cheerful pink, and was surrounded by thick woods and fields. There were many places for the children to explore, inside the house and out. Outside there was an apple orchard; a huge, colorful garden in the front, with ponds and stone bridges and planters throughout; a barn near the house; and a well. For the first week or so after moving in, the children spent their time exploring outside.
Hannah was the eldest child, at thirteen, so after her mother died of illness during the long, hard journey to Oregon, she had become the one who had to take on the chores her mother had usually done, like cooking, mending, washing, cleaning and looking after the younger children. Her father had helped a little bit, while they were on the journey, but once they moved into the house, he had to begin working in the fields all day, and she had to bear the burden of household duties mostly alone.
She sometimes felt like Cinderella, the heroine of a fairy story her mother had told her long ago when she was a little child. Cinderella had to do all the household chores, too, but unlike Hannah, she had a wicked stepmother and stepsister, had married a handsome prince, with the aid of her fairy godmother, and lived happily ever after. Hannah, on the other hand, had a mostly absent father, a passel of children to care for, no prince, and certainly no fairy godmother. She almost wished that she could find some way away from the drudgery of her life, at least for a little while. But she knew that was impossible.
Hannah discovered the little door about a week after they had moved into the house.
It was raining heavily that day, so Hannah's siblings couldn't go outside and were getting restless. Hannah was having a difficult time trying to keep them out of her father's way and out of mischief. She was attempting to do the mending that afternoon, but her siblings kept pestering her; the twins were bickering with one another and came to Hannah to solve the dispute; the most mischievous of her brothers had somehow tied the littlest sisters braids to a doorknob, and she made quite a racket about that; another sister wanted Hannah to help her make a doll, etc. Hannah was about ready to scream from the stress of it all.
Finally, after being pestered one too many times, Hannah threw down the shirt she was patching for one of her brothers, gathered all the children together, and suggested exploring the house. They readily agreed, but only after extracting the promise from Hannah that she would search with them. She finally assented, and the afternoon was spent exploring.
The children first decided to explore the attic and the basement, parts of the house they had not yet looked in. In the attic, they found nothing but a few forgotten boxes and trunks, with nothing inside them but old, uninteresting, slightly mildewed papers. They explored the large basement, taking candles with them since it was pitch-black dark. There was nothing down there but the wavering shadows the candles cast on the walls, many thick spider webs, and a few scuffling, skittering sounds that Hannah suspected belonged to mice or rats.
The children were pretty certain that they already knew everything that was in the main part of the house, so they played hide-and-seek.
Hannah decided to hide in the parlor. The parlor was a large room off the main corridor, containing stiff, formal furniture that had been there when they moved in. None of the children had really been in the parlor before, they thought the room was uninteresting and the furniture was very uncomfortable to sit in.
While looking about for a good hiding place, Hannah noticed a small door, about her size, set low in the wall on the floor. Being curious, she tried to open it, but it was locked fast. Hannah thought a moment, then remembered the string of keys her father had entrusted her with the day they moved in. She fetched them, and sorted through them, until she found a key that looked like it would fit the door. She selected a small, black metal key, with a head that looked curiously like a button, and inserted it into the lock. It fit perfectly. The key turned in the lock stiffly, as though it wasn't used often, and the door slowly opened.
Hannah peered inside. There was nothing behind the door, just an empty space like the inside of a cabinet… and a small object lying in the shadows of the far corner.
Puzzled, Hannah reached for the object and had just closed her fingers around it, when-
"Found you! …Hannah! You're not hiding!" Hannah jumped and whirled around to see one of her little sisters standing in the doorway, a frown on her face.
"Sorry…" Hannah said, looking down at what she was holding. She let out a little gasp of surprise.
"What have you got there? A doll?" her sister asked.
"It…It looks like me," Hannah said, astonished, turning the doll over in her hands and examining it. It was very finely made and detailed. It had button-eyes, like most ragdolls, and unmistakably looked like her, with her face shape, nose and mouth, curly dark blonde hair, a brown dress, and tiny brown boots.
"Where did you find it?" her sister asked.
"In there." Hannah pointed to the door.
"There's nothing in here," her sister said, poking her head through the door and looking in.
"Does that not strike you as awfully peculiar? That the doll looks like me? And it was just lying behind a locked door?"
Her little sister shrugged. "I don't know… Don't really care much, either. You're 'it' now. I'm going to tell the others!" and she ran out of the room screaming, "Everybody! Hannah's the finder now!"
Hannah sighed and examined the doll again. She was far too old for dolls, but she had never had any toys of her own that she hadn't had to share with her siblings, and she had certainly never had a doll as fine as this, that looked just like her to boot. It would be nice to have something to herself for once…
But where did this doll come from? Why does it look like me? Hannah wondered.
"Hannah, you're the finder now! You have to count! Come on," one of her brothers called faintly.
Hannah groaned and tucked the doll away in her apron pocket, next to the string of keys, for safekeeping. She closed the little door but she didn't lock it, and went to join her siblings.
In the middle of the night, Hannah was awakened by a sound. She listened carefully for the sound again. She heard the faint breathing of her sisters around her, then-
Hannah sat up in bed, and looked blearily about the dim, moon-lit room. There was a scampering sound, and Hannah looked in the direction of the noise. Squinting, she could barely make out a small shape by the door. It appeared to be a mouse. Hannah, naturally curious and thinking that she might be able to trap the mouse and give it to one of her brothers, grabbed the empty water glass off the small bedside table. She crept out of bed and tiptoed toward the mouse. It scampered out the door, and Hannah followed quietly, on tip-toe. She followed it down the hall, downstairs, into the parlor, where she watched it squeeze through the little door. Now I've got you, Hannah thought. The door was a dead-end, after all. She tiptoed over to the door and opened it softly.
She let out a gasp of amazement as the door opened to reveal, not a dead-end as she expected, but a long brightly colored, inviting tunnel unfolding before her. A rush of cold, musty air blew in her face and ruffled her hair as she gazed at the tunnel in wonder. Is this a dream? She reached out and carefully touched colorful surface of the interior of the tunnel. It seemed to be real; it was soft and slightly squishy. She hesitated. Should I go in there…? she thought. Of course, she knew she would go in. If this was a dream, then she was in no danger. And if this wasn't a dream… If she shut the door, went back to bed, and pretended to forget about it, she knew she would always be bothered by wondering where the tunnel led. Besides, who knew where it went? It probably led to someplace interesting and amazing and, if nothing else, this would be an interesting story to tell her siblings. She put the glass down outside the door, hitched her long nightgown above her knees out of the way, and cautiously crawled into the passageway.
She reached the end of the passage, pushed the other door open, and crawled out into…
Her own parlor.
"What on earth…? Curious. I never left," she murmured aloud, standing up and surveying the room. It looked exactly like their living room, with the slick, polished floor, bright newly painted walls, stiff formal furniture and everything… She sniffed the air. Strange. Something was cooking. Whatever it was smelled wonderful.
"Hannah? Darling, is that you?"
Hannah was jolted out of her thoughts by the sound of a voice. A familiar voice… One she had been longing to hear, one she thought she would never hear again except in her memories and dreams.
Mother? But… it can't be…
Puzzled, Hannah went down the hallway and opened the kitchen door. She gasped at the sight of her mother, bent over the stove, her back turned.
"Mother?!" Hannah blurted in amazement. Instinctively, with a cry of delight, she rushed forward and hugged the woman tightly.
"Mother, is it really you?!" Hannah cried.
"Yes, sweetheart. It's really me," a voice said soothingly, and a slim hand stroked her hair comfortingly.
"How can that be? You…" Hannah finally looked up at her mother's face, and immediately let out a small squeak of surprise and fear. She quickly let go of the woman and backed away cautiously.
"Y-you're not my mother," she whispered.
This woman looked a little bit like the way she remembered her mother, only… She was prettier. She stood a bit taller, and she was thinner. She was very pale-skinned, and her long nails were painted crimson red. But the most unnerving part was her eyes.
They were big, black buttons.
"Wh-who are you?" Hannah choked out.
"Oh, dear. I suppose that must have given you quite a shock," the woman looked concerned.
"Y-you just said you were my mother. But you're not my mother," Hannah said cautiously, staring warily at the button eyes.
The other mother smiled brightly and laughed. "I am your other mother," she corrected. Seeing Hannah's wary look, the 'other mother' smiled tenderly and placed a reassuring hand on Hannah's shoulder.
"What is an… other mother? I did not know I had one," Hannah said suspiciously.
"Everybody has one; you simply have to know where to search. Now then, run along into the dining room and tell your other father that supper will be out soon," she said briskly, gently nudging Hannah toward the door.
Hannah hesitated, staring in bewilderment, wondering whether she should do as this strange button-eyed woman said. She briefly considered turning around and going back through the door, to her own home. As if sensing Hannah's hesitation, her other mother turned around again and said, with a warm smile and a wave of her hand, "Go on."
That shook Hannah out of her thoughts, and she slowly went to the dining room, shooting a last careful glance behind her.
Her other father was sitting in a chair at the table, with his head bent down. He turned as Hannah entered the room, and his eyes were also gleaming black buttons. Hannah guessed that everybody in this place had buttons for eyes.
"Hello, Hannah," he said jauntily.
"Um… Hullo," Hannah said nervously, not knowing what else to say. She fidgeted uncertainly, shifting from one foot to the other. "She… that is, the other mother, she said to say, um, that dinner is soon."
"Oh, wonderful. Mother is an excellent cook, you know. Have a seat," her 'other' father said, smiling friendlily as he stood up and pulled out a chair for her. Hannah, unused to such attention or politeness, quickly sat down.
"It's so magnificent that you're here," her other father continued.
"Um… Thank you?" Hannah said. Her statement came out sounding like a question. She looked nervously looked at her other father, who stared at her with an open, friendly expression on his face.
"Supper's ready!" the other mother announced cheerfully, appearing in the doorway. As the warm smell of freshly cooked turkey reached her nose, Hannah suddenly realized she was starving.
Within a few minutes, Hannah found herself staring at an immense spread of food piled on the table. There was turkey, potatoes, green peas, corn on the cob, pumpkin pie… The other mother had prepared most of Hannah's favorite dishes, and everything smelled and looked amazing.
Hannah stared hesitantly at the food, then piled some on her plate. She tentatively took a bite. Her eyes widened, and she exclaimed, "This is delicious!"
The other mother smiled happily. "I am so glad you like it."
Hannah nodded and dug in hungrily. It was the best food she had tasted in a very, very long time. And how nice it was not to cook! To be the one served, instead of the one doing the serving; Hannah hadn't had that experience since before her real mother had died.
As they ate, Hannah gradually became comfortable and more at ease with her 'other' parents. They were so nice and welcoming! At home, Hannah had often felt that nobody really ever listened to what she had to say, but here in this other world, with her other parents, they listened attentively as she talked, and they talked back, instead of brushing her off.
Finally, she plucked up the courage to ask, "W-why do you have buttons for eyes?"
There was a silence around the table for a moment, and the other father shared a glance with the other mother.
Then the other father said, "Well, why do you have eyes instead of buttons?"
Hannah opened her mouth to reply, then stopped and considered it, for a moment. Why do people have eyes instead of buttons? …Or buttons instead of eyes? She hadn't thought of it that way before.
Her contemplation was interrupted, when the other mother said happily, "You do ask such funny questions, Hannah! It's so nice to have you here, dear. Your father and I have been waiting such a long time for you to arrive."
"Um…Have you?" Hannah said.
"Yes, but we knew you would come one day, and then we could be a whole, proper family," the other father said.
"Oh. Um…Speaking of whole families… Why is it only me here? Do I have any 'other' little brothers and sisters, like at home?" Hannah said shyly.
"Well…" the other mother said slowly, "I figured that you would prefer to be an only child here."
"Ah…" Hannah smiled slowly; it had always been a secret wish of hers to be an only child, to not have to put up with younger siblings all the time. Then her expression changed to a more serious one.
"Why are you doing all this for me?" Hannah asked, indicating the spread of food on the table. "Y-you're being so kind. Nobody's been this kind to me in a long time."
Even before Hannah's mother had died on the journey, she hadn't had much time for Hannah. She had been too busy with the younger children and packing for the journey; Hannah had been her helper, and she remembered that her mother had never even spared a moment to say thank you then. Her father, though he was there with them, was working in the fields from the time it got light in the sky till dusk. When he came home, it was usually to eat some food and then he would crash in bed and go to sleep.
"We're doing this because we are glad that you are finally here with us. Now, what do you say we play a game?" the other mother asked, button eyes flashing eagerly.
Hannah readily agreed, as she loved games, and they played a riddle game for the longest time afterward, and after that, a charades-like game. Eventually, Hannah began yawning, and discovered that she was feeling very sleepy.
"I'm sorry, I do hate to interrupt," Hannah yawned hugely, "but I'm tired. …I-I think I should be getting home, to bed now."
"Oh, of course! I should have noticed you were tired before, dear… Come along, it's all made up," her other mother said.
"Oh, but I can't…What about…" Hannah stammered, as her other parents ushered her out of the room.
Upstairs, they reached the bedroom that in Hannah's old world she shared with her sisters. The room was dark, and the other father walked in ahead and lit the lamps. Hannah gasped in amazement as the lights came on. Painted with a lavender colored paint that shimmered when the light hit it, the room was much more cheerful and interesting than the one in her real home. There were fantastical toys that fluttered and crawled about the room and greeted her; pictures on the walls that moved and flickered; a huge toy chest filled with even more toys and games. Hannah turned around and around, surveying her surroundings with wonder.
"Oh, my… This is incredible," she whispered breathlessly.
The other mother and father smiled at each other, pleased, as they watched the girl explore the room delightedly.
Suddenly, Hannah seemed to remember that she was exhausted, and she crawled into the large, soft bed. Her other mother tucked her in and sat on the edge of the bed.
"Good night, dear," she said.
"G'night…" Hannah mumbled, barely able to keep her eyes open. "May I come back here again? Please?" she managed to ask, struggling to stay awake.
"Oh, of course! Anytime at all," her other mother said gently.
Hannah, relieved and content, shut her eyes and quickly drifted off to sleep. As she nodded off, she fancied she heard her other mother and father say, "See you soon." But perhaps that was her imagination.