It was mid-afternoon when James headed out for a long walk through the woods. Though a boy of only ten, he was often allowed to roam once his chores were done. Of course, however, he had no cares for what he was "allowed" to do. "My chores will get done," he muttered to himself as he slipped off the property, "when they get done. That's that." He wandered for quite some time, playfighting with branches, throwing rocks at birds, and having adventures in the woods. In short order, he realised that the sun was beginning to set. "I should get home," he told himself. "It will surely be dinnertime soon." Quickly, he turned on his heel, and began back to his house. Given time, though, darkness settled over the woods, and he quickly became aware of just how lost he was. He began to hustle more and more, then jog, then eventually begin sprinting, desperately hoping to reach home, when he met with what he believed to be his house; a sturdy, two-storey red brick building, with a flower garden planted out front and a cobblestone path leading up to the door. Inside, he could smell something delicious cooking; fresh fruit, vegetables, and a warm pie crust baking. "This has to be it," he assures himself. "I'm home." He runs to the door, "Mom! I'm home!" No response. He knocks violently on the heavy oak door and begins to shout once again, this time more upset by the lack of response. Behind the door, footsteps approach, and a heavy cane pounds down the stairs and lands abruptly on the hardwood flooring. It's too late now, but as the old man opens the door, James realises that this is not his house at all.
"Sorry, sir. I must have the wrong house."
"Well, that's quite the shame, young…"
"James. I'm James." He shoots curtly.
"Yes, yes. Well, as I was saying, I was quite hoping for some company. Disappointing indeed. But aren't you a bit far from home?" The balding man is no taller than James, and, with his back hunched over his cane, could even be shorter. His beard, however, runs down nearly to the ground, and his voice is deep and comforting, like a loving father.
"What do you mean, maybe? Are you, or are you not far from home?"
"Well, I'm a little lost, actually. I could be close to home, but I wouldn't really know."
"Ahh, ah." The old man replies, and James rolls his eyes a little. "Would you come in for tea, then? Perhaps you should stay the night until your parents can be by to find you." Of course he wouldn't. This old coot must be a thousand, James thinks. But the dark frightens him, and so he nods and steps inside, lead by the old man's cane as he closes the door behind him. Over dinner, the old man discusses with James, where his parents have gone, why he has been let out so late, where he should be, but the young boy is far too involved in his meal to respond fully, giving instead simple "mmhmm" and "uhnuh" answers to every word until the old man eventually gives up. Another hour passes after dinner, and James is still refusing to speak to the old man, who eventually decides to offer his bed to the boy, and sleep in the chair downstairs. James nods enthusiastically and storms up the stairs into bed. It's been a long work day, he thinks to himself as he dozes off.
"Rise and shine, kiddo!" The old man has stomped into his room and thrown the curtains open. The light scorches James' eyes like he had never known.
"Agggh! What's that for?!" He shouts, throwing the blanket over himself. The old man simply chuckles and steals the blanket away without a thought.
"Time to get up!"
"We're going to find your parents, of course!"
"Awww…can't I just stay here? I don't want to go back to my parents." The old man puzzles over this for some time.
"Alright. But only until your parents turn up."
"What? Why?!" James whines back.
"No such thing as a free lunch, kid. Let's go." Moaning, James rolls out of bed, goes downstairs, has a quick breakfast of buttered toast, and is then taken out back by the old man. In the night, he hadn't seen, but behind the house is a huge fenced area with farmyard animals of all sort. Just off that is a large field of grains.
"Take your pick. Animals, or grains."
"Either you work out in the field harvesting, or you feed and check out the animals. It's your choice?" James groans, and complains, and whines, until eventually he accepts the job of tending the animals. It's hard work, the sun beats down on him, and all he can think is how unfair it all is. Why is he out here in the hot sun, when other kids get to play outside and in the woods and at the park, and…just as this train of thought comes around, a pig kicks back, and a lump of dirt—hopefully—kicks up in his face. At this, he snaps, and jams his shovel in the ground with an angry jab. That's it. I'll show that old man. I'll show him.
"Best get to finishing that, son!" The old man shouts, almost reading his thoughts. "Or there'll be nothing to eat tonight!" Grumbling under his breath, James lifts his shovel again and continues his work.
"I've had it!" James shouts over the dinner table.
"I see you've found your voice." The old man prods sarcastically.
"I can stand all this work! Why do you make me do it all?"
"There are no free lunches, and you're a fool if you think you're doing all the work." This argument carries on until dinner is completely gone, at which point James stomps up into the old man's room and flops down on the bed. I can't take this, he thinks. I don't need this, he thinks. I can live on my own, he thinks. At that, he walks to the window, swings it open, and runs off into the dark and foreboding woods. With every step, the grass crunches under his feet, as though the ground threatens to swallow him whole, and every branch is a vicious arm reaching out to snatch him up at once, but he continues onwards. I can do this, he thinks. I've never needed anyone before, he thinks. First, though, I'll need a shelter. Climbing a tree, he brings down an armful of leaves and piles them on the ground. "Perfect." He announces to no one, climbing into them. It's warm and comfortable for a moment, but then the wind kicks up and steals his bed away from him. Standing up, he kicks the remaining leaves away in frustration. "Fine then. I'll build a better home." Climbing the tree once more, he brings down a bundle of sticks and more leaves, and balances them precariously against the trunk, creating a small, crooked tent. "Perfect." He announces again, to anyone who could hear him. Climbing inside, this one isn't as warm as the bundle of leaves, but feels more like home. He begins to fall asleep, at which point he begins to roll around and kick until he feels something sharp fall down on him. At first, he panics, but as he opens his eyes, he realises that it was simply one of the twigs he had made his tent out of. He had knocked it over in his sleep. Again, in frustration, he kicks the remnants of his small, pathetic shelter until the twigs from which it was formed snap into splinters. At this, he begins walking through the woods. "Forget it," he shouts, throwing his hands up in frustration. "I can find my own way home!" He walks, and walks, and walks, until his feet ache, and at last, comes up upon yet another strange house in the forest. At first glance, it seems to be made out of wood, and oddly covered in snow despite it being mid summer, but a closer inspection reveals it to be made of something much stranger. In disbelief, he steps up, puts his hand on it, and breaks off a small piece, sniffing it deeply before biting into it. Gingerbread. In fact, come to think of it, the whole house looks rather similar to the gingerbread houses he had enjoyed decorating around the Christmas season. Walking to the door, he pushes it open and steps in. "Hello?" He shouts, cautiously. "Anyone in here?" No response. A stroke of joy runs through his mind. No one home. Looks like I've found where I'm staying! Inside, the house has furniture like any other, though the walls are no different than the outside. In no time, James dashes upstairs to the bedroom and throws himself onto the bed, eliciting a huge creaking as the gingerbread supports bow under his weight. This is good, he thinks, as he nods off to sleep.
Days pass, and the house has lost a significant portion of its exterior. Eating little else, James has lost much of his energy for exploration, growing listless and laying in bed most of the day, until one evening, he jumps down into his big double bed , and the floorboards groan and creak in disagreement. He waves his hand indifferently, but as he rolls over, the creaking grows louder, and louder, until the entire floor gives way, and his bed lands, baby and all, in the livingroom below. At first, he tries to ignore the change. This is good, he thinks. This place needed some redecorating. However, another loud crunch echoes in the room, and he rolls out of his bed just as the ceiling begins to cave in upon him. The walls crumble, and he shouts out an incomprehensible syllable in anger, watching the pride of his life slip away from him. Tromping through the woods, though, just nearby, is an old woman in a black overcoat, skin nearly greened, nose elongated, and fingers bony as the longest-dead skeleton, approaching the wreckage screaming curse words and waving her hands. At once, James attempts to run, but the weight of the gingerbread is too much for his weakened arms, and he cannot move as he sees her pull a knife from under her coat. At once, he screams out and tries to bring his arms up over himself, but they barely move on his command, so instead, he closes his eyes as she rises up, taking the blade in both hands. This is it, he thinks. What did I ever do to deserve this? Impact, however, never comes, and as he opens his eyes, he sees a familiar cane just before his face, between it and the hands of the old hag.
"Up, boy! Up!" The old man shouts to James.
"I can't! I'm stuck!" The old man sighs and rolls his eyes before pushing the hag away with his cane in both hands and extending it to James, pushing away the rubble in quick, precise strokes. At last, James is free, and the old man offers the cane to help him stand up. Together, they run back to his house, and the hag turns away as they grow near.
"Glad I found you, son. Your parents called, they're worried sick."
"Really?" James answers in disappointment. "Could you…could you let me stay with you just a little bit longer?" The old man smiles.
"Perhaps." He begins. "But just remember. There are no free lunches." James nods, and together, they return to the brick house.