Atlas Shrugged
Babes in the Wood

Hank and Gretchen

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They were lovely babies, Hank, what the hell happened?

You fed them too much gluten. 

I did not!

Yes you did. You fed them pasta as soon as they had four teeth between them.

Well, it's not like they would eat anything else!

Gretchen. I'm sure they would have surrendered to squirrel soup and broccoli eventually. 

I don't have time for this! Hank! Could you put the phone down for five minutes, please?!

Gretchen. I don't know what the hell to do about it. Have you considered beating them?

What?

Beating them, Gretchen; have you considered daily beatings?

Hank. You're not serious.

Gretchen, I've never been more serious in my life. Consider me serious as a corpse. Those kids scare the shit out of me. 

Hank, honey, they don't mean it. They're just experimenting and don't understand the consequences yet. 

Experimenting. Right. Experimenting is when you decide to drink half the booze in the house. Experimenting is having sex in the bushes. Experimenting is getting stoned and eating the goldfish, not the dog!!

OK. When you're right, Hank, you are right, but I don't see how inflicting fear and harm ever helped anyone.  

****

The barn fire started just past 10:00; by 3 AM the last of the firetrucks and paramedics pulled away, and just before daybreak, Hank slipped out the kitchen door. He headed north, on foot. A few hours later, Gretchen stood at the window in the master bedroom and watched the grey haze over the footprint of the no longer barn. The trees on the property moved one way and the next, as if the wind were possessed, gusting this way and that. The suspended haze was motionless, the air, toxic. On the third day the haze dissipated in exactly two minutes and twelve seconds. She had no idea where the children were, no idea where Hank had run off to, and wasn't sure she gave a damn. 

On the morning of the fourth day, Gretchen pulled it together and went back to work. Fearing possible legal ramifications, she called the school in the afternoon. Gretchen opened with a brief explanation of the drama and then asked if there had been any unusual outbursts from either child. She was assured that the anticipated daily allotment of inexplicable events continued as per usual. No, neither of the children have been caught red handed; they're certainly good at getting away clean. We'll give you a call if anything out the ordinary occurs. 

OK. They're alive, the little fucks, and they'll probably show up in the kitchen expecting to be fed any day now. This sucks. Hank sucks. The kids suck. I definitely suck.

On the way home, Gretchen stopped at the local green market. She stocked up on all things vegan. She dumped six full bags of produce, several jars containing fluorescent green sludge, and enough boxes of frozen vegan patties to fill the freezer. Out of self-preservation, she considered pouring the contents of the liquor cabinet down the sink, but filled half a tumbler with Hank's Good Stuff instead. She set the table for four, nuked a box of vegan patties, diced a block of extra firm tofu, shredded half a pound of kale, and evenly distributed the brown and green mess across a large platter. Garnished with a whole tomato and topped with half a jar of toxic green stuff, the platter was placed on the table. 

She got a glass of water and sat down to wait. By midnight she'd consumed all of Hank's Good Stuff and considered trying something else. She wished for a cigarette and there on the table, six inches from her plate, sat half a pack of Newports and a little red lighter. 

You don't suppose it would be pushing it to wish for an ashtray, do you? 

No? OK, my water glass will do.

She gave up at 2 AM and went to bed. 

Gretchen did not recall clearing the table. She did not recall cleaning the kitchen or scraping the sludge into the trash. She acknowledged she'd been a wee bit inebriated and perhaps ran on autopilot. She considered the possibility of sleep walking. However, Gretchen was absolutely certain that she had not removed $400 of vegan groceries from the house. The refrigerator was spotless. A single bottle of water remained on the top shelf. She ran an 1800-watt blow drier on the freezer door for a full thirty minutes before she could pry it open. A solid block of ice filled the compartment. 

*

We should never have killed the witch.

****

Hank and Gretchen were born thirteen seconds apart, each umbilical cord wrapped firmly around the other's neck. It's as if they've been trying to kill each other, one nurse said to another. Immediately following the cord removal, both infants screamed and continued to scream until they were placed side by side in a single bassinet. They shrieked at the top of their lungs on the way home, side by side but in separate car seats. 

When the incessant screaming became unbearable, their mother put them in the same cradle which produced instant silence. Fearing the return of homicidal ideation, she moved them to the same crib the first time Gretchen tumbled out of the cradle. When they were moved to cots they chose to sleep in just one until they were six. Their father partitioned the room, threatened them with death and dismemberment, and slammed both doors. The incessant screaming resumed. After listening to the banshees for a solid week, their mother obtained a ninety day visa, packed her bags, and moved to Australia. Divorce papers arrived by certified mail at the end of the month.

Their father took a second job, purchased a microwave, and packed the freezer with instant meals. He left a very large supply of disposable paper and plastic goods, clipped a contractor bag to the kitchen door, and instructed them to use it appropriately. They saw him approximately twice a week. He replenished supplies and replaced the trash bag. He did not speak. 

When they were eight, their father quit his second job and brought home a new wife. The new wife came with accessories; two medium size children and a baby bump. For the first time in their lives, Gretchen and Hank were silenced. Their step-mother had them 'housebroken' before the arrival of the baby bump. Despite the established household tranquility, the sight of another red-faced infant sent their horrified father to the neighborhood bar. 

Mothers instinctively fight for resources for their own children. Without intervention, becoming a wicked step-mother is almost always inevitable. She held out for five years  and when the twins turned thirteen she negotiated a settlement. In exchange for two internal frame backpacks, sleeping bags, a tent, new boots, half the contents of the pantry, and $2500, they agreed to depart and never return. For an additional $2500, they wrote and post-dated a letter to their father, indicating they'd received tickets, cash, and passports, and were on their way to their mother. They did not expect to return. The letter was notarized after the fact and presented immediately. Legally, this was the best she could come up with to keep social services off the property and both of them out of orange jumpsuits.

****

They hiked straight into the forest and for the first two weeks lived happily ever after. Shortly after breakfast one morning, Hank informed Gretchen that they had approximately two days of remaining supplies and it might be a good idea to head into town. Gretchen had developed some sort of intestinal problem that seemed to be getting worse. It hadn't occurred to them that they might have added iodine to the list. They repacked, stowed, and started down the hill. Gretchen calculated that fourteen days of hiking had most likely brought them at least eighty miles west. She wasn't sure what sort of town they'd find but was fairly certain, having followed the sunsets, that they had not walked in circles. 

They walked for three days and didn't seem to be getting anywhere other than deeper into the forest. They hadn't found a single source of running water. A day or two without food would have been fine, but dehydration is deadly and Hank was scared. Gretchen was still walking, but not particularly coherent. Intestinal disturbances lead to a quick death without replacement fluids. They spent the last night on the forest floor because neither of them had the energy to pitch the tent. They curled into a single sleeping bag for warmth and in the morning could not meet each other's eyes. 

Hank left Gretchen in the sleeping bag. To be sure he could find her again, he tore up a t-shirt and strategically draped strips across tree branches at eye level. When he ran out of strips, he removed and tore up his own shirt and continued. By the time he reached the clearing, he was down to socks and boots. 

There was a woman waiting patiently on a log seat outside a small house. She waved him over, and failing to acknowledge that he was pretty much naked, she handed him a glass of water. When he finished the water, she gave him a cookie and asked him to sit down. The woman was very pretty and Hank was thirteen and naked. He tried not to look at her, but he'd already seen and had nothing with which to hide himself. She seemed amused. For the first time in his life, Hank was mortified. The woman excused herself and went into the house. She returned with a large scratchy blanket which she draped across his shoulders; leaving it up to him to do the rest.

Hank managed to talk the woman into helping him retrieve Gretchen. She didn't seem all that interested in his sister, but eventually produced a roughly bound litter and followed him out of the clearing. It took him ten minutes to give up. No matter which direction he walked there was no sign of torn clothing. Worst of all, they kept ending up at the clearing. When Hank started to cry, the woman said, follow me, little boy. Within five minutes they reached Gretchen. There was no sign of torn clothing anywhere. Hank didn't care; Gretchen was still breathing. They loaded her onto the litter and the woman continued walking east. Hank managed to drag his sister but couldn't handle the weight of the packs. Everything, including the cash, was left behind. It took five minutes to return to the clearing, walking the wrong direction. Hank simply did not give a shit. He had his sister and he was ready to fall down.

****

The woman put Gretchen in a small room at the back of the house. She made her swallow two pills and drink some water. She left a chair by the bed with a glass of something murky, assuring Gretchen that as soon as she managed to get it down and slept a bit, she'd feel much better. The woman left Gretchen in bed and closed the door. Gretchen slept straight on to morning, and Hank was put in a small basement alcove. He did not sleep. He could not remember a night without his sister but chose to remain silent. He didn't want anything to happen to her. 

In the morning, Gretchen was much better. She was still a little pale, but most of her energy and nearly all of her brain were back. After breakfast, they did the dishes together and then joined the woman at the log. Hank was still wearing the blanket. They stood before the woman, anticipating instruction but received none. Instead, the woman leaned forward and pointer a finger directly at Gretchen's belly.

You've got a problem there, sweetie, haven't you?

Well, my tummy feels better now, so I don't think so.

That nasty bacterial infection isn't your problem.

I don't understand.

Yes you do.

Gretchen's head filled with white noise, she lost her balance and fell on her back. She sat up and looked at the woman. She could not look at Hank.

It can't be. It was only two days ago. There's no way to know!

It can be. It is. And it was far more than two days ago. 

That's not true! It was the night before Hank left to get help and that was two days ago!

Nope. That was three months ago. Don't you notice the leaves have changed and the ground is getting colder?

Gretchen looked down at her belly and felt sick. She looked up at Hank and burst into tears. The woman reached forward, stroked her head and said, don't worry, it will be OK.

How?!

Well, you're much too small to carry even one baby, much less two, so we'll just have to put this on hold until you've grown up a bit.

Put it on hold?

Yes. We don't need to do anything drastic, we'll just put it on hold until you're ready. Now stand up please.

When Gretchen stood, the woman put her finger approximately three inches below her belly button. She didn't press hard but Gretchen felt penetrated. She felt the finger enter her belly and slide right to the center where it wiggled back and forth a bit. The woman withdrew her finger and said, they're doing just fine and they'll stay that way until we say it's time. OK?

OK.

****

Hank and Gretchen spent seven years with the witch. It only felt like one, but the changes to their bodies told another story. At the end of seven years they could hunt, dress and cook their meals, cultivate a garden, preserve for winter, and build a house. That last part was the last part. The witch told them it was almost time. Neither of them understood. Almost time for what? She gave them an odd look and said they'd remember soon enough. They built a small cabin with a fireplace and hearth. They built shelves into one wall on which they placed dry goods, water, and jars of something freakishly green. The witch produced one bed, a table, and two chairs. As she turned to leave, she said, I'll leave you two alone a bit, but don't worry, I'll come back in time. 

Hank was no longer naked, but he still carried around the blanket. When the door was closed, he tossed the blanket on the bed and declared it good enough. Gretchen sat on one of the chairs and cried.

Why are you crying? We have shelter, food, water, fuel? We have fuel? Come on! What's wrong with you. 

She touched me again.

What do you mean?

Like the fist time, when she put her finger on my belly and it felt like she slid it all the way in.

I don't remember that.

I didn't either, not until she did it again. 

After supper they opened the door and stepped into the clearing. The house was gone. No sign of the woman remained. They walked through and all around the clearing; they found nothing except the remains of a tattered shirt, which made no sense at all. 

Hank and Gretchen lived alone in forest without much trouble. They stopped questioning their circumstances. Gretchen wondered, from time to time, if the woman was just a story they'd told themselves. Hank wondered nothing other than what the hell was happening to Gretchen's body. Her belly expanded and her breasts looked swollen. He didn't see her naked much, but thought now might be a good time for a thorough examination. She resisted. He insisted and eventually she removed her shirt.

Fuck!

What?

Gretchen, you're fucking pregnant. What did you do?! Who did you do? There's been no one here! 

Hank, I have no idea. 

Gretchen. I think we need to get out of here.

What about the witch?

There is no witch. Do you see any witch? It's just us.

How are we going to get home?

We're going to walk straight down this mountain until we hit road or town.

Like that worked out so well last time.

It's going to have to work out; we don't have any options and I don't think I can deliver a baby.

There are two babies.

What?!

OK. Hank, I'm going to explain this one more time and then we're going to pack up and walk out of here at first light. We'll either walk until we get somewhere or we'll walk until we drop. OK?

OK.

It took twenty minutes to get down the hill. They followed the ancient remnants of somebody's torn up clothing in the trees; the placement seemed pretty deliberate. When they reached the road, they found two packs and a tent. The packs were too small and didn't fit all that well, but it was better than nothing. Upon examination of the contents they discovered clothing that would only have fit children, junior size sleeping bags and an envelope with $5000. They took the money and left the rest. Town was just around the corner. 

They had no identification and a not so good explanation. Lacking any sort of formal education past the seventh grade, their marketable skills were limited. They were too old for the foster system but clearly unprepared to care for themselves. Gretchen was about to pop. The town collectively assumed they were together and might ought to be married, given the circumstances. Gretchen and Hank gave them no reason to think otherwise. 

****

Gretchen remembers giving birth and that is all. She cannot recall where or when she met Hank but she knows they're going to be together. The babies were lovely. They never cried, they never fussed. She seemed to know exactly what they needed. She does not question the big yellow house with the barn. 

Hank knows they have not always been at that house, but he does not know how or when they got there. He knows that he is married to Gretchen but has no idea how or when that happened. He dresses in something he recognizes as 'business casual' and drives to work each morning and home again in the evening. All he has done is driven around the outskirts of town, but somehow at least ten hours have passed. He loves the babies.

Everything changed when the twins went to school. The sweet little babies became monsters overnight. They were angry, petulant, and destructive. The calls from school came more frequently as they got older, but they always stopped just short of getting themselves expelled. Gretchen turned her maternal furnace to HIGH in an attempt to nurture them back to civilized little people. When they hit puberty, the chaos escalated. They would eat only raw beef or liver. Hank tried cooking it just a little bit but they closed their teeth, crossed their arms, rolled their eyes, and snarled. The snarling was a bit off-putting. Hank had a horrible feeling.

The night the barn burned, he stood at the edge of the property and watched the flames. The crumbling structure was no longer a barn; it was a small house with a log seat in front. No one else seemed to notice. Not even Gretchen, who cried over the loss. When she fell asleep, he slipped out of the bed, dressed quietly in the hall, and went down to the kitchen.

They were waiting for him. They pointed to the kitchen door and said, it's time for you to go home. Just keep walking, she'll get you there.

What about Gretchen?

It's not Gretchen's time. Leave Gretchen to us, we still need a mother.

Hank slipped through the door and stepped into what remained of the night. A little before eye level there was a ragged bit of white cloth. He followed it to the next, and the next, and the next until he vanished into the forest. Hank took only the clothes on his back; everything else he left behind, including his memories.

****

Gretchen never saw the twins again, but was painfully aware of their presence. The chaos came to an abrupt stop. No mess, no noise, no destruction. In the morning, she would find a list which basically expressed their dinner request. It was always raw. They kept her in Hank's Good Stuff and Newports and left small gifts now and then. At first she thought she had the attention of a neighborhood cat, but eventually realized it was only her little monsters leaving the mousey gifts on the door step. Sometimes there were flowers and one year, there was a Mother's Day card. 

It was a gradual process, the loss of her memory. She stopped going to work, because she'd forgotten about work. She stopped leaving the house, because she'd forgotten what was outside. When she ran out of food, she drank some water and slipped out the back door. 

*

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