Fighting the Frost


For those who found my last story a bit difficult to take, well, this one is at least somewhat less hard on the reader. Or at least it’s intended to be.

Fighting the Frost

Raelorn stood on the edge of the city and shivered. He didn’t know which city it was, nor did he care. They were all the same. Cold, indifferent steel and concrete, air thick with dirt and noise.

He was ready to stop. He’d been searching too long, and he was weary. Too, cities were not known for being gentle to his kind.

He closed his eyes. There. His caged cousins’ spirits burned like beacons directly ahead of him. However inimical the city, however weak he felt, that was where his path led.

Raelorn sighed and stepped across the line, invisible to normal sight, that divided not-city from the city.

#

Jen waited with one eye just past the edge of the wall. She clutched a string in her hand and held her breath, hoping, needing.

The small creature moved slowly toward the bait. It stopped frequently, sniffing the air and looking around. Jen was lucky it hadn’t seen her, even though she’d learned to hold very still.

Finally, the creature made a dash for the cake. As it tore hunks off in its hands and stuffed them into its mouth, Jen pulled hard on the string. A cheap plastic tumbler came flying across the kitchen at her, but she ignored it. She ran past it to the counter and threw all her weight onto the large plastic mixing bowl the tumbler had propped up seconds before.

She was almost too late. The bowl skidded to one side and she had to lunge for it. Pinned under her, it continued to jerk and shake. A whistling noise, high enough to hurt her ears, squealed angrily from under the bowl, but she ignored the pain.

After about twenty tense minutes, the whistling and shaking stopped. The bowl sat for a moment, then tried a march toward the edge of the counter. Jen braced her feet against the floor and pushed back. The pushing stopped, but Jen hung on. Two minutes later, the bowl again attempted escape, with similar results.

Jen waited until everything had been still for ten minutes before carefully and quietly letting go. She immediately put a cutting board on top of the bowl, then the several cans of soup waiting on the counter.

Then she turned to the kitchen table, where the cage that would hold her new captive lay in pieces. She poked cheap takeout chopsticks through holes she’d sliced in coffee can lids, one lid for the bottom of the cage and one for the top. Then she threaded string through the chopsticks to hold them all together. It felt flimsy, but it should do.

It wasn’t difficult work, but Jen was tired when she finished. She looked up at the clock on the stove. Four a.m. No wonder she was beat; she’d been up since two and she wasn’t a night person.

Everything had been quiet for almost half an hour. Jen returned to the counter and pulled the cutting board away. She bent down until her eyes were level with the counter and slowly lifted the near edge of the bowl.

It was safe. Jen pulled the bowl away. The cake was gone, except for some crumbs. In its place lay a tiny figure, to all appearances asleep. Jen would have said it looked human, except for the size and the wings. It was naked and obviously female, and its belly bulged with its recent meal.

Jen marveled that this creature, taking up maybe a third of the plate the cake had sat on, had devoured a piece of cake that had filled the whole thing. But the was hardly the only wondrous thing about it. The most wondrous thing was that it was now hers. Jen picked it up gently, set it in her makeshift cage, and pushed the lid back down over the chopsticks. She put the cage with the others on the shelves on the wall between the kitchen and the rest of her studio apartment. This one made eight.

She set up the tumbler and bowl with a new piece of cake and headed for bed. There’d be time later for the contemplation of wonders.

Jen woke up about noon. It was Saturday, for which she was grateful. She’d spent enough nights recently fairy hunting to be really sleep deprived. No matter how little attention anyone paid to her at work, they’d have to notice eventually. Besides, Saturday meant she could spend time with her pets.

A chorus of headache-inducing whistles greeted her the moment she sat up in bed. The shelves buzzed with the noise, and she was afraid it would bother her neighbors.

“Shh. Hush,” she pleaded. “Wait just a minute and I’ll get your food. Shh.”

Jen ran for the kitchen and grabbed the pan that held the rest of the cake she’d used for bait last night. This had been the last box. She’d have to get more today. She didn’t bother to cut it, just ran back with the whole pan. The new slice she’d set out had nibble marks in it, so she left it.

She broke off pieces and started stuffing them through the holes in the cages. It was easier with the new ones, where she could slide chunks through the large holes between chopsticks. The colander and perforated steel trashcan were harder. She had to rub the cake into the holes. The toughest was the plastic bin that used to hold her sugar before she’d poked holes in it to turn it into a fairy cage.

As they ate, she wondered again whether she should call them fairies. She was only guessing. She’d have sworn up until a couple months ago that there were no such things. If she hadn’t been desperate, she might not have believed it then.

The first day she saw one was just like any other weekday, except that it was her twenty-sixth birthday. She hadn’t gotten any calls from well-wishers, but she hadn’t really expected any. Her mom wasn’t good at that sort of thing–always too distracted by her latest passionate interest to deal with dates, she might remember to apologize later. Dad had his own problems. Her sister had always been too much older to really get close to, and the space between them had widened after Chris had married and had kids.

As for friends, well, Jen had to admit she didn’t make friends easily. She never had. Some days the knowledge tasted bitter, but she wasn’t going to let it get to her today. She’d do something special for herself, instead.

She took the earlier bus to work and tried to make eye contact and smile at her coworkers as they gathered in the break room, waiting to start the shift. It was hard, but she kept it up.

She got only a couple of weak smiles from Tom and Elena for her efforts, but it was early, and that was still more interaction than she usually had with them. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to get along. But being part of the crowd seemed to mean being loud and very casual. Jen just didn’t know how.

Still, her modest success felt like a birthday present. She resolved to try again at lunch. When the whistle blew and the lines shut down, she grabbed her lunch bag and headed for the break room. In good weather, she usually took her lunch outside, so she wouldn’t have to sit alone in the middle of a roomful of noisy camaraderie. Not today.

She marched, without pausing to let herself think about it, up to the table where Elena was sitting with a bunch of female friends. There was one empty chair, and Jen put her hand on the back of it. “Excuse m–“

“Did you guys see what she said to him last night?”

“I know. And he believed her!”

“I’m so ready to give up on him. Anyone in his right mind would know that when she scrunches up her eyes like that and tries to look adorable, she’s lying through her teeth.”

“I don’t know…”

Jen could tell they were talking about a TV show, but she didn’t have any idea which one. She waited with her hand on the chair for a pause so she could ask to join them. The conversation rattled on. When it switched to another show a minute or two later, she
walked out and ate her lunch in her normal spot on the dock steps. The book she’d brought was almost enough distraction.

When lunch was over, it was a different matter. Counting the screws, washers, and other assorted hardware in each bag coming down the line didn’t use enough of her brain.

Normally she used the time to daydream. Today, she wondered, once again, why everyone but her seemed to understand how to deal with other people. Other people knew what to say to start and end conversations. They knew how to chat to pass the time. She couldn’t remember a time when those things hadn’t been awkward and painful for her.

Was it something about her that made these things so hard? Sometimes it felt like she’d missed a class in school that everyone else had taken. Or that everyone else had been handed a key to life, while she was still searching for the gate in the fence. Silly, she knew, but more pleasant than thinking it was something wrong with her that kept her sitting in life’s shadows.

Her memory was all too ready to argue that it was her. There were all the jokes she hadn’t gotten, the ones where she’d laughed in the wrong places. There were the conversations that she’d killed as soon as she’d opened her mouth. There were all the times she’d said something she’d heard someone else say the day before, only to have everyone stop and stare at her as though she were speaking another language.

The scenes were still fresh and painful, although some of them were years old. She welcomed the break whistle. Then came Terrie, the plant manager’s assistant, over the PA. “Will all employees please join us in the break room for cake and ice cream.”

That meant going back outside to read was out of the question. They were celebrating the June birthdays. She had to be there when they announced hers.

She stood in the back of the room, so she wouldn’t have to fumble with a chair when it was her turn. She hadn’t been enthused enough to hurry, and she got there just in time to hear Terrie, a petite, slightly overweight brunette whose self-important attitude did nothing to endear her to the production staff, start reading off the birthdays.

“June second–Jim Curran. Come on, Jim, stand up.”

Jim grumbled but stood up.

“June ninth–Blanca Padilla.” Terrie pronounced it blank-uh pad-ill-uh, and Jen winced. “There you are Blanca. June eighteenth–Alfonse Williams.”

She’d skipped today, the twelfth. Jen hoped they weren’t saving her to make a big deal out of the fact that her birthday was today. She hated having everyone looking at her. She didn’t remember them doing it to anyone else, but she usually skipped these things.

When Terrie read the last two names and started leading the singing, Jen changed her mind. People staring at her would have been infinitely better than knowing she’d been forgotten, left off the list. She’d been on it for the last four years, so they knew when her birthday was.

No, they’d just forgotten she existed, and no one in the room, many of them people she’d worked with for years, knew her well enough to remind them. Jen felt a cold knot crystallizing like ice under her diaphragm, making it hard for her to breathe.

Suddenly, she’d had enough. She didn’t want to spend any more time with these people, and she certainly didn’t want to eat cake and celebrate with them. Clutching the icy mass in her belly, she walked over to Sanchez, her shift supervisor.

“Mr. Sanchez, I’m not feeling well. I’d like to go home.” She quailed under the weight of his attention. “I think, maybe, something…my lunch.”

“You don’t look so good, Jenny. Go ahead and take off. Do you need help getting home?”

Jen exhaled hard, feeling like she’d been hit. She shook her head and fled into the women’s room. It was, Jen was thankful, empty. She stepped into one of the stalls, slammed the door shut, and leaned against it, holding her stomach and breathing carefully through her mouth.

Ow. Ow. Ow.

Jenny. He’d called her Jenny. He’d been her supervisor for two years. Two years of some of the best quality numbers in the company, and it wasn’t even worth it to him to get her name right. No more than it was worthwhile to anyone else to know when her birthday was. And she’d tried to do something nice for herself by making friends out there.

Jen laughed bitterly, stopping when it threatened to turn into sobs. She pressed her back hard against the stall door, covering that little aching vulnerable spot between her shoulder blades, the one that felt like a bull’s eye painted on her back.

She should know better. She had no excuse. If experience had taught her nothing else, it should have at least taught her not to try. If constant failure hadn’t driven the lesson home, the talk she’d had with her mother after she turned eighteen, “old enough to know,” should have.

Mom had meant to be kind, maybe, in her absentminded way, to explain why Jen’s father had never taken the interest in her he obviously had in Chris. But for Jen, learning that she’d been conceived in an attempt to save a marriage–ended by court papers signed three weeks before she was born–had just confirmed something she’d always suspected.

“Useless.” As the hissed word bounced back to her off the tiled walls, cold and relentless, Jen felt something crack. Fat, unstoppable tears rolled off her cheeks onto the floor.

The litany that had formed the background of her life poured through her head. She’d outlived her purpose before birth. She wasn’t good at anything. She couldn’t get close to people, couldn’t talk to them, couldn’t even act normal. She was a lousy human being. Useless.

She covered her ears and rocked, willing it to stop, but on it went. The ice in her stomach snaked slivers of frost into the rest of her with every repetition. It came with pain but left a welcome numbness, with only a tiny ache of cold, behind it.

Jen knew she ought to fight the frost. Something had warned her, a long time ago, that letting it take all of her could mean her death. Worse, it could mean living as the kind of monster who didn’t care about anything or anyone. But the only alternative to ice right now was pain, and Jen thought that might just kill her on its own.

The door to the bathroom opened, and Jen put a hand over her mouth. She tried to take deep, quiet breaths through her fingers, hoping she wouldn’t start hiccupping. She really didn’t want anyone to find her crying in the bathroom.

That fear and the breathing took up so much of her concentration, it took her a minute to notice the conversation going on in the stalls around her.

“So now I have to go work Q.A.” She recognized Elena’s voice. “Is there anything more boring?”

“So sorry,” replied a voice Jen couldn’t place, “but at least it’s not me.”

“Thanks.” Elena was sarcastic. “Oh, well. That’s Jen for you: too stuck up to talk to us, and then she leaves us with all the work.”

Jen coughed, choking on the unfairness of the accusation. She was maxed out for accruing both sick time and vacation. It wasn’t like she had somewhere else more appealing to spend her time.

At the sound, conversation stopped. Flushes were quickly followed by perfunctory hand washing. The last noise Jen heard from them was giggling as the bathroom door closed.

Hearing that hurt, but it helped too. Anger burned away a little of the frost and let her stand up straight again. That was what she’d let spoil her birthday? No more. She’d…well, she wasn’t sure what she’d do, but it didn’t involve staying here.

Jen grabbed some tissue and blew her nose savagely before opening the door behind her. She splashed some cold water on her face and patted it dry with a paper towel without looking in the mirror. She settled her face into a scowl that she hoped dared the world to talk to her.

She marched out of the bathroom and
down the short hall to the door. No one was there to see her. She was half-sorry, half-relieved. Her anger still felt all too fragile.

It was easier by the time the bus stopped for her. Jen sat on the sunny side of the bus, closing her eyes and trying to absorb a little of the sun’s warmth. Once the bus reached her corner, she’d settled on a plan. If no one was going to help her celebrate her own birthday, she’d just have to do it alone.

She marched into Harold’s, the convenience store on her corner, and picked up a box of yellow cake mix and a tub of chocolate frosting. She grabbed eggs, just to be sure she had some, and headed for the counter.

Abdullah, his white hair in its usual untidy mop, gave her his standard wink and toothy grin. “Looks like someone’s having a party.”

Jen gave him what she hoped was a mysterious smile and paid for her purchases. She wasn’t quite ready to try to talk.

In fact, mixing the cake in her beige, boring apartment took most of her remaining energy. As it baked, Jen reconsidered her decision not to have a television. All the songs on the radio were about broken hearts or parties, like the one she should be having–if she had anyone to invite. She was too tired to read even the books she reread when she wasn’t up to tackling something new. She just sat on her couch and waited for the oven timer, trying unsuccessfully not to think.

It was almost too much work to get up when the timer went off, but it would be more to deal with beeping and smoke. Putting the cake on the counter, she wondered why she’d bothered. She didn’t want it any more.

Since it was made, one slice, plain because frosting was too much trouble, went on a plate that she carried into the living room. She got a bite into her mouth before the tears overwhelmed her again.

Lying on the couch, she couldn’t stop crying. Was it wrong, she wondered, to need more from life than a slice of solitary birthday cake? Anything more was always out of her reach, and it hurt so much to keep trying. Wouldn’t she be better off to reach out for the frost and let it take her? Still, she couldn’t quite. She cried over her cowardice too.

She knew that she was loud enough to be heard in the hall. She tried to keep quiet, but then another surge of pain would come. On it went, and on, until she couldn’t think clearly enough to remember what she was crying about. Still she couldn’t stop.

When Jen woke, her apartment was dark except for the streetlights shining in the window. Her neck was sore from sleeping with the couch still folded up. Her head throbbed, her throat was raw, and her mouth tasted foul.

She groped her way into the bathroom for some aspirin, then into the kitchen for water. She tried to accomplish the whole trip without waking all the way up. That possibility evaporated when she turned back from the sink.

There was something on the cake, something big enough to see in bad light. Jen wanted to run away, but she couldn’t leave whatever it was with her in the dark. She edged around it to flip on the kitchen light–and saw her first fairy.

Not that she knew right away. It took minutes for her eyes to convince her brain that the head of dark gray hair resting in a hollow in the cake wasn’t a mouse. But mice didn’t have wings. Whatever was in her cake definitely did, translucent gray-green sheeny wings cupped around its sleeping body. Their edges fluttered as the fairy breathed in and out in its sleep.

She prodded the fairy gently, testing the reality of it. It chirruped, poked an arm out from under one wing to wave vaguely in the direction of her finger, and turned over on its back, all without opening its eyes. Opening his eyes, she corrected herself.

He wasn’t quite as tall as her hand was long, and aside from the wings, he looked like a tiny man who worked out a lot. Well, wings and one other thing. Jen didn’t have any practical experience, but she had taken health class, and she’d seen enough guys in tight jeans to be pretty sure those were not human proportions.

She realized she was staring and blushed. Then she laughed at herself for blushing over a sleeping fairy, or whatever it was. That brought home the fact that she was standing over a fairy in her kitchen at–what time was it? One a.m. Oof.

Jen decided she was probably dreaming, or sleepwalking, or whatever it would take to make the whole thing make sense. It was time to go back to bed.

First, just in case it was all real, Jen pulled everything off her coffee table. She grabbed the colander from the cabinet. She cut into the cake around the fairy and gently scooped fairy and cake together onto a paper towel. She set that on the table and put the colander over the top, with a stack of books to weight it down.

Then it was time to try to sleep. Her brain buzzed with questions, making sleep difficult, but they were far more pleasant thoughts than she’d had earlier.

She must have dozed off eventually, because her alarm woke her up at its usual time. Jen shut it off and glanced at the coffee table. The colander, at least, was still there. Jen didn’t touch it. She decided she could wait to prove to herself that she’d been sleepwalking. Before having to face another day of reality, she wanted to relive the magic of discovering a fairy in her kitchen.

The colander trilled and Jen jumped. She looked over to see tiny fingers gripping the colander through the holes. Jen sat up and leaned over the coffee table. Through one of the holes, she could just barely make out an eye staring back at her.

Slowly, trying not to startle him, she reached out one pinky toward the colander. Instantly, he disappeared. Still, she rested her pinky nail just below the hole where his fingers had been. She waited, breathing shallowly.

Eventually, his fingers crept back out the hole. She held her breath. Gently, weightlessly, they crept over the surface of her nail. They came to rest still touching her. He blurbled a question that she didn’t understand.

She called in sick to work, not caring for once that someone would have to cover for her. She even hoped it was Elena.

It was Friday, which gave her three days. Except to get more cake mix, Jen didn’t leave the apartment all weekend. That wasn’t so unusual, but it was the first weekend she could remember that she hadn’t been lonely even once.

The fairy didn’t do anything special, just chirped occasionally and ate all the cake she could stuff through the holes of the colander. But her apartment wasn’t empty.

Monday morning, she saw signs that another fairy had been in her cake pan. She set up her first fairy trap. It hadn’t worked, but the second one had. Since then, the fairies had continued to show up on a semi-regular basis. She didn’t know why they found her box cake so appealing, but she wasn’t about to argue.

Jen was glad she didn’t have to try to tell anyone about them. Completely aside from the issue of being believed, there was the question of how to refer to them. She’d decided against giving them names, since presumably they already had their own. They might even have told her what they were, for all she could understand them.

Finding space for them was a more pressing issue. Cages were cobbled together or pressed into service from anything she had lying around that might hold them without suffocating them. She blessed whomever had decided that these apartments could skimp on space but needed almost a full wall of deep built-in bookshelves.

Her books came down to make room and were stacked against the wall underneath the shelves, covered with cake crumbs. They were mostly children’s books and fluffy romances. Every one had happy endings and soft covers, making it a little safer to throw them on those occasions when she could no longer stand things working out for everyone but her.

She hadn’t picked one up since the first fairy had arrived
. They weren’t friendly, exactly, but they offered more companionship than books did. They looked at her through the cages, watched her. Occasionally they even trilled at her. She talked back to them, not caring whether they could understand. It was just nice to have someone to tell things to.

Although she wasn’t sure what exactly happened to the food she gave them, since she never had to clean the cages, they appeared to need it. She couldn’t remember ever being needed.

It was slowly freeing her from the tyranny of other people’s opinions. She was able to joke a little with Abdullah and say hi to the bus driver instead of just smiling. Small things, but every time, she felt the frost recede just a little.

Two weeks after her birthday, she’d run into Elena. If there had been a crowd, Jen would have kept quiet. But seeing Elena by herself, Jen hadn’t been able to resist the impulse to get a little of her own back.

“Hey, Elena. I hear you had to work Q.A. while I was gone.” Jen looked her in the eye. “It must have been terribly boring. So sorry. I just couldn’t stop coughing.”

Elena had flushed silently and dropped her eyes.

Jen still wanted to jump up and down like a kid remembering it now. She knew it was a small thing, petty even, but it had been so nice to see someone else be speechless for a change. Even a tiny flame could warm you if it was all you had.

The only flaw in her new happiness was the cages. She wished she dared trust that the fairies would stay if she let them out. Still, sitting in her living room on that Saturday morning, surrounded by cages and a burbling chorus, she was as happy as she could ever remember being.

When someone knocked at the door, it took Jen a moment to realize what the noise was. No one ever came to see her. She opened the door, thinking it was someone knocking at the wrong apartment.

When she opened the door, she was sure of it. The stranger in front of her was tall and pale, with black hair that absorbed light and eyes that suggested every color without settling on one. Handsome, even beautiful, felt like inadequate words to describe him. Finally, Jen settled on magnificent. He was definitely not someone who would come to see her.

“I have come for them.” His voice matched the rest of him and carried a weight of authority that Jen envied.

He could only be looking for the fairies. Still, she tried to lie. “I–I don’t know what you mean.” If he’d peered past her into the apartment, looking for the cages, she might have been able to do it. Instead, he stared down at her silently, and she, utterly unnerved by that kind of attention, stepped out of the doorway.

As he walked past her, Jen had the vague impression of something following behind him. It might have been a pair of wings, but when she looked directly at his back, she couldn’t see anything unusual.

“Are you a fairy, too?”

It was the only time in her life that Jen could remember speaking without thinking first, and she regretted it immediately. He turned to stare at her again.

“I’m s-sorry.” Jen looked at the floor. “I–that’s just what I’ve been calling them to myself.”

He sighed, and Jen dared to look up again. “Don’t worry, child. Fairy is not what I call myself, but I have been called so before. It will do.”

“I could call you by your name?” Jen tried to meet the cool eyes that stared down at her. She couldn’t. “Never mind.” She didn’t know what to say next, and the silence stretched uncomfortably until he broke it.

“It’s time to let them go.”

Jen panicked. Every little bright moment she could remember in her life had happened in the past two months. Life had stopped being endless work and had started giving her moments to look forward to. Now he was telling her to give that up.

She wanted to say, “No,” and make him leave. She wanted to be strong enough to defy this stranger who was coming into her home and giving casual orders. Instead, she could barely hear her own voice, high and thin. “I…I can’t.”

“You can’t?” He paused and considered her. “Oh, I see.”

Jen knew that he did, that the truth was plainly there on her face, in her posture. She cringed to have to acknowledge that hers was such a small, easily read story. As the silence stretched, she felt the ache again in that small vulnerable spot between her shoulder blades. She waited for him to mock her.

Instead, his words were as gentle as they were inexorable. “Don’t you think they have the same right to their lives that you have to yours?”

More. She knew their lives were worth far more than hers was even with them in it. Her life the way it had been before they arrived–well, if she hadn’t known how little it was worth before, she certainly did now.

Knowing it, she couldn’t go back. She needed them. She grasped desperately at an idea. “But they came to me.”

“You did nothing to tempt them here?”

Jen thought about it and risked a look up. “Just baked a cake.”

A sad smile on that majestic face softened his words. “And do you think cake alone would be enough to keep them here?”

Jen shook her head and looked back at the floor. The cages. She should have known he’d see the weakness in her argument as quickly as he saw the weakness in her. The tears fell for the first time since the fairies had started coming to her.

It hurt more than she thought it could to face the truth implied by the cages. It was such a fragile lie she’d built her happiness on. His words shattered it. They had no more chosen to be with her than anyone else in her life had. She’d have to give them up, set them free.

But she didn’t know how. How could she go back to her old life, being certain that there was more, knowing that it had once been hers? She’d only been able to bear it because she’d never known anything else. The frost had almost won then. How quickly would it take her now?

She wished desperately that he would just take them all and disappear. She could admit to herself what she had done, but saying it out loud was beyond her. Putting a hand to a cage to free the first one would be impossible. Waiting for the courage to do either, courage she knew wouldn’t come, was agony.

He interrupted her misery. “What if I stayed in their place?”

Jen gaped. “What?” She didn’t believe what she heard, but her brain couldn’t make the words mean anything else.

“If I promised to stay with you, would you be able to let them go?”

Jen couldn’t hear anything but sincerity in his voice. Still, she looked hard at him, trying to detect mockery or deceit. He was…he was just too much to be willing to do that.

“You would stay?”

He nodded. “I would, if you would let the little ones go.”

“Why?” The question slipped out, more forcefully than she usually spoke, before Jen could stop it. She blushed, but her attention was all for his answer.

He shrugged, implying that the question hadn’t occurred to him. “It is necessary.”

Necessary. Right. She took a deep breath. Well, she wouldn’t have believed him if he’d said he’d stay because he liked her.

In fact, she still had trouble believing he’d be willing to stay at all. She wanted to ask again, to make him confirm it, but it felt a little too much like suggesting he was lying. Some instinct told her it wasn’t a suggestion he’d take well.

So, he wasn’t lying. But all her experience told her that people just didn’t do things like this. Admittedly, he wasn’t human, but no one had ever been this generous to her. As much as she hated herself for doubting a creature like him, her brain kept searching for the catch.

“You…” Jen took a deep breath and hoped he wasn’t easily offended. “You won’t hurt me, will you?”

He sighed, a big, gusty breath that ruffled her hair. Jen cringed for having had to ask.

“No
. I will not hurt you.”

That should have settled it, but Jen still couldn’t reconcile his offer with the rest of her life. There had to be some hidden snag. She couldn’t think of anything momentous that could prevent what was happening, so she groped after the mundane.

“Would I have to feed you? I can’t afford that much cake.”

He laughed, surprising her. “My cousins are greedy, are they? No, you didn’t need to feed them, and you would not need to feed me.”

His eyes twinkled. “You would also not need to cage me, clothe me, or find me a place to sleep. My needs are very few.”

A place to sleep. Jen felt herself going pale. She hadn’t thought about that. She hadn’t thought beyond having someone to come home to, to talk to, someone who would listen to her. Really sharing her apartment hadn’t been a consideration. Still, it would be worth changing in the bathroom for the rest of her life if that was what it got her.

That brought up one more important question. “How long would you stay?”

He stepped up to her and smiled brilliantly. “You ask excellent questions.” He picked up her hands in his. “I will stay until you no longer need me.”

Jen didn’t know where to look or what to say, but there wasn’t any question of not accepting his offer, not now. As much as her past told her to disbelieve in him, he was undeniably present and wonderfully real. She’d just have to adapt to the idea that he was willing to stay.

Jen realized the cages had been quiet throughout their conversation. It was odd. Letting the fairies go had been unthinkable just a few minutes ago, life without them impossible. But with one simple promise, she didn’t need to hold onto them anymore. She could give them back their own lives, and that knowledge lifted a burden she didn’t know she’d been carrying.

She started toward the shelves.

“Wait.”

Jen turned back to the fairy slowly, feeling a heavy fear. The relief she’d felt evaporated. She waited for this one sliver of life to be snatched from her hands too.

The fairy smiled. “You haven’t told me your name. If I’m to stay, I’ll need something to call you.”

Jen could breathe again. She thought about his question. Somehow she didn’t want him to call her by the same name her parents had, the name the rest of the world had used indifferently. Something new and untainted would be so much better. She returned his smile. “Call me Jennifer.”

Then she reached for the first cage.

#

Raelorn allowed himself to sag a little. That had taken almost more than he’d had left. It had been more difficult than he had expected and would be, it appeared, less productive than he had hoped. Still, he had accomplished what he needed to.

He looked to where Jennifer was dismantling her “fairy” cages, apologizing to each little one as she released it. She was a slight, pale thing who might have been pretty with a little animation. Instead, she huddled and cringed and apologized for existing. Her only distinguishing feature was the need that blazed though her like fire, big enough that she couldn’t contain it and hide it away.

He marveled anew at what humans could do to their own. He didn’t know the specifics of her story, but he’d heard enough of them to know the general outlines. There were only so many things that could be done to stunt a human life this badly.

Still, he admired her. She was more resilient than she knew. She had to be, to have contained her need this long without burning herself out. Even now, she was releasing the little ones cheerfully, apologizing for keeping them captive, when an hour ago they were what kept her life livable.

As they were released, his kin flew to him and chirped their welcome.

“Little cousins,” Raelorn said in the liquid language native to them all, “you are looking fit and well fed.”

An angry buzz of insults fluttered around his right ear.

Raelorn turned to face the little female who had arrived in Jennifer’s apartment just before he did. The faint flush of pink that was just visible on his other cousins was missing on her. Her skin was a pale, pale cold blue, though not as blue as his.

He made her a bow of apology. “Ah, dear one. I apologize, but I couldn’t wait. The frost would have taken me shortly.”

She warbled at him some more, and he listened politely. She was tired and disappointed. He understood, having been in her position more times than he liked to think upon. Still, her situation was not as desperate as his had been, and there was nothing he could do to reverse what had been done. She had been released. She’d have to go.

Eventually her anger spent itself, and she followed the others, flitting through the solid outside wall to continue her travels. Raelorn wondered whether Jennifer noticed and if she understood what it implied about the cages. He wished the little one a quick end to her search.

He allowed himself a moment of sorrow that his kind had been reduced to this, to stealing scraps of human warmth from one another for survival. It hadn’t always been so. They had once been gods and the emissaries of gods. But that had been in the infancy of humanity, when mankind had needed them.

They had never considered that they also needed humanity.

His people’s beginnings were shrouded in legend, so it was a matter of great debate among them which had come first, his kind or humanity. Some thought that as mankind had slowly freed itself from instinct, learning to doubt everything, they had created a burning need for comfort in themselves. They thought his people had arisen to answer that need, learning to live off it in the process.

Others thought that his kind had shaped the development of humanity to provide more potent sources of the delicacy that slowly became their only food. Raelorn suspected that the truth was more complicated, that the development of his people and Jennifer’s were intertwined and interdependent. He doubted that either could have reached maturity alone.

But the humans had moved on. Perhaps it was his people’s fault. They were known to be capricious, to devise torments that kept humans in that constant state of uncertainty that breeds the most potent need.

Whatever the reason, humans had reached out for more certain answers to their needs. Slowly, they had built societies and civilizations, learning to depend on one another instead of their gods. They developed rules and customs that took the place of instinct and kept fear at bay. They had worked hard to discover certainties, constants and laws that made their lives more predictable and muted their strongest needs.

Raelorn’s people started to go hungry. Their fires burned low, and lower, until many of them simply stopped.

There was still need left in the world, but not like it had been. All too often it was vague and fleeting. Humans who are regularly fed don’t cease to feel hunger, but they forget the sharpness of near starvation. They forget to worry. Distractions, amusements, intoxicants–all of these dulled need, making it thin and unpalatable.

The small, half-articulated needs of children never faded, but they were just barely enough to feed one of the little ones. Times of great trouble created a feast of need, but it didn’t last. It took something unusual to make a Jennifer, an adult who found no comfort in the world, who needed as much, as persistently, as she did.

Even Jennifer’s need wouldn’t last long, although it radiated now so strongly that he could feel its warmth against his skin. His willing presence would slowly heal the wounds that made her need so great. The protections with which she had ringed herself so well would see to it that he couldn’t stretch that need by prolonging her pain.

Still, he was glad that she had been cautious. Watching her covertly look at him, trying
to figure out what would come next, he had no heart for adding to her burdens. The promises she had extracted from him would ensure he could never be tempted. Hurting her would be a poor price to pay her for saving his life.

Raelorn walked over to Jennifer’s couch and sat. He looked her squarely in the eye and patted the seat next to him.

“Jennifer, if I am to stay, we should know each other better. Will you tell me about yourself?”

He saw tears return to Jennifer’s eyes, but this time, they looked like the right kind, the kind that could melt the frost in both of them.

Comments

  1. says

    Sometimes I'm hesitant to read stories that my friends have written. Sometimes I read it too carefully, looking for flaws and sometimes I feel biased in favour of the story because they're my friends. However, when I read your stories, Stephanie, something else happens entirely. I forget that I'm reading a story written by a friend and I become totally immersed in it, feeling like I'm reading something by one of my favourite authors. Your writing has a safe, comfortable, cozy feeling. I don't know how you do it, but it's brilliant.

  2. a daughter's mother says

    Loved the story. There's always a twist that sets what you think you know about fairy tales up on end, and while often dark, it doesn't have to be. In this case the twist was mutual need – surprise! Who knew? But I found the ending deeply disturbing. Your little creatures had only two choices: captivity or death. Raelorn, in setting them free and kicking them out, comes off as particularly cold-blooded and selfish, disguised as someone coming to help. Is that really what you are trying to say? Help is only ulterior motives, survival of the fittest/biggest, fairy vs. fairy, dog-eat-dog? Is there no possible third choice?If there is no redemptive alternative, then the frost wins, and everybody, even Jen, loses. A cold-blooded selfish companion, no matter how constant and beautiful, will not affect any real change in her.

  3. Kelly says

    Hi Stephanie, some of your writing (the magic students for example) and especially this piece reminds me of Charles de Lint. He is one of my favorite fantasy authors. Pulling ancient memes into a modern landscape.