“Come on, keep up!”
I duck under a low hanging branch, yanking my night pants free when they snag on a briar, and struggle to keep up with Amy. Her legs are longer and she’s the one with the flashlight so she has no problem avoiding sticker bushes and ant beds, but I haven’t got the same luck. Just as I’m about to call out for help, my foot catches on a root and I stumble through a bush and into a clearing.
Skinny arms wrap around me and pull me up, Amy’s teasing voice murmuring, “Careful, Nessie,” as she pulls me upright. She’s turned the flashlight off, but there’s enough moonlight for me to see perfectly. My mouth drops open as I take in the white weeping willows surrounding us, backed by dark pines. They look like graceful ladies curtsying to imposing lords; the sight makes me remember hazy bedtime stories about princesses that save themselves without ever losing their shoes. The sweet smell of ripe muskeydimes and blackberries fills the air and lightning bugs dart between the spread branches of the willows.
Amy giggles from behind me, pleased with herself. “You like it?”
“It’s beautiful!” I let awe color my voice, knowing it’s expected.
A massive smile takes over her face at the praise and she whirls me into a hug, keeping us spinning until we’re both so dizzy we collapse in the soft grass. Momma’ll be mad when she sees the stains on my nightclothes, but this is worth it. Ever since Amy moved up to high school, she’s been too caught up in her world of cheerleading and boys to hang out with me. I’m only two years younger but the difference means the world when you’re in separate buildings eight hours a day. Not having her there to pull me out of my darker moods has left me hollowed out, full to the brim with a gaping darkness I can’t seem to fight alone.
“You wanna hear a story about this place? It’s one granny tells us that’s definitely true.” We’re lying side by side in the grass now, staring up at the stars. I breathe in a deep lungful of the night air, reveling in the heady sensation of feeling so light. Amy’s granny has the strangest stories and I’ve heard most of them, but I know which one she’ll be telling tonight.
“Yeah, tell me.”
She takes a deep breath, like she’s getting ready for something big, then let’s it all out in one long rush and starts talking.
“Crater Bend was founded by a man looking for somewhere he wouldn’t be bothered. He wandered all over Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina before someone pointed him towards Alabama. When he got here, he kept walking until all he could see on all sides were trees and decided our little dent in the ground was a crater, and the creek through Prater’s field had enough curve to be a bend and then he settled down.
“For a while, he actually was alone. Crater Bend is pretty far from anywhere and nobody wanted to make the hike. People started coming eventually; building houses and planting crops, setting up a little town and laying out roads. As the population grew, people noticed some things.”
Amy stops, rolling onto her stomach to pluck dandelions out of the grass and knot them together.
“What’d they notice, Amy, you’ve got to tell me now!” It’s for show, something to keep her from noticing the careful looks I keep sending the shadows under the bushes. The silence is too much trouble in a place like this and I need her to keep talking so I can stay grounded.
She laughs and keeps knotting, but after a moment she starts up again.
“Little things. Flowers during the winter, trinkets left in a baby’s cradle, honey and sugar disappearing from the pantry. When the first baby got taken, people got concerned. Back then it was different, fairy tales and spooky stories a little close to the truth, more people wary of the fey. So they caught on pretty quick: iron over doorways, milk and honey as offerings, babies slept with salt pouches over their heads, and everyone felt safe enough. The fey obviously ruled the land and people respected that. But the fey like pretty things and they take what they please.”
She ties one last knot and drops the resulting crown on my stomach, already working on a second one.
“Travelers came through town every once in a while, people that got lost or people on their way somewhere, and one day in spring, it was a pretty young woman with too much heartache. Nobody can remember her name, if she ever said it; all anyone could remember was that her eyes were red from crying and she never returned from her walk in the woods. After that, it was like a floodgate had been opened. People disappeared left and right. Took them a while to put all the pieces together: a little boy who wandered away from an abusive father during a hiking trip; a young man, betrayed by his lover and listless with pain, ducking through the trees to escape the scrutiny of the cooing townspeople, never seen again; a little girl that couldn’t remember what was so great about the world.”
My breath catches in my throat, strangling me.
“The fey like pretty things but they have a kinder side. They don’t like to leave people to be sad. They do little kindnesses to make people smile, even if their mischief is sometimes worse. So when all these sad people started coming through their territory, they wanted to help them. When little trinkets didn't work, they lured them right to this clearing and played them music as sweet as honeysuckles and as light as moonlight, coaxing them softly from the shadows until they danced.”
Finally done weaving flowers, she crowns herself and flops over onto her back again.
“Granny says if you dance in this clearing under the moonlight with sadness in your heart, the fairies will take you away with them so you’re never sad again. She says they do it to be kind.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a shadow dart through the bushes, ducking through the leaves silently, but I don’t react. There are more in the trees and if I focus on them for any length of time, I’ll be tempted, oh-so-sweetly tempted, to follow them away from here.
Amy heaves a sigh, splaying her arms out wide to her sides, smacking my leg as she does.
“But it’s only a bedtime story Granny tells me when I stay with her.”
She sounds mournful as she says it, like she wishes she could bring herself to believe it, and I have to choke back hysterical laughter at the thought. Who would wish for these things to be real when the reality is so terrifying? Who would call that fate on themselves so casually?
The tinkling sound of laughter to my left draws my eyes unbidden and I find myself staring at a wood sprite, perched elegantly on their spindly legs, tilting their head to stare a time with beady black eyes that reflect the lightning bugs and moonlight eerily. I snap my head back, ignoring its inquisitive look, and return my attention to Amy. Her blank eyes are fixed on the stars above us again and I watch the subtle shift of longing across her face, followed by melancholy and a trace of something like resolve before she’s flipping onto her side, drawing her knees up to press into my thigh. Dandelions get crushed mercilessly as she tosses her head around to get comfortable and the little yellow flower petals get caught in her hair, clinging to the black strands like lifesavers bobbing in the ocean.
“How’s middle school, short stack?”
Its light, a simple question ever adult I’ve encountered since sixth grade has asked me, but the easy lie I told them doesn’t come so readily with Amy’s tawny eyes fixed on me like they are. I mirror her pose, crushing my own crown and pressing my bony knees into hers, letting my choppy brown hair tangle in my fingers before shoving the whole mess above my head.
“Fine. Boring without you.” The words feel punched out of me but my voice is steady and calm. “How’s high school?”
Before she even opens her mouth I can read the answer and it scares me. Dread, anger, fear, anxiety, and a bone deep exhaustion ricochet across her face, so fast someone who hasn’t known her for years wouldn’t notice, but I see it. She’s miserable but struggling to hide it and my heart breaks because it really shouldn’t be her, shouldn’t be someone so lovely and beautiful and alive that hates getting up in the morning, but the evidence is there in the pause before she smiles, calculatedly sweet.
“It’s great! Everyone’s so nice and the classes are fun, though I really need to talk to my Biology teacher about what we went over Friday, I don’t understand . . .” And on and on as she pulls up her walls and settles into the expected.
I can see the fey creeping closer as we talk, sneaking up to us on feather light legs, the siren call of their music getting louder and louder the closer they come. My skin itches with the need to run but my mind is fighting it violently, wanting nothing more than to let myself be taken. If I was taken, the shadow I’ve been dragging around for years would be gone; the pain and hurting I can barely feel through the numbness would disappear and I’d be happy. It’d be so easy.
The first time I heard the music, when I was playing at the edges of the woods, I nearly followed it. Only the good sense my momma trained into me years ago kept me from following that sweet escape to its end. Granny and her little circle of knitting buddies gave me cookies and protection, telling me the stories and the legends so I could defend myself. It doesn’t seem to matter now, spread out on the grass of the clearing I’ve been dodging for three years, listening to Amy prattle on about her classes and letting the fey’s call lull me under. The reasons I should fear this, fight this, flee as the crooning voices creep closer and closer.
Instinctively, my hand drifts to the locket around my neck and my hand closes over it. Since the day I picked it out as a friendship necklace for Amy and I to share, nothing calms me and focuses me like clutching the silver compass. Now, the cold bite of the metal on my palm and the tiny engraving on its back: Follow your North Star home. A cheesy line, chosen by two sugar hyped kids, but now it’s the only thing with the power to remind me why I’m still here.
Amy who helped me stay balanced when I learned to skate, who talked me through the nightmares when I read Life of Pi, who eats coffee ice cream on the roof with me during meteor showers, who has helped me learn to love myself. I can’t give into the fey song and join the other sad, starlight children in the sky because Amy is still here to keep me grounded.
She’s still slurring through a description of her History class, complaining about the teacher’s lack of essay questions on the tests and how it isn’t fair because she’s best at those, her eyes glazed over as the music snags her too. I knock my knee to hers, startling her out of her trance.
“We should get back. The sun’s going to come up soon and if I’m not in bed when Momma leaves for work, she’ll skin me. Come on, on your feet.” I stand, dragging her drugged looking form up with me. The fey are eyeing me as I do, slinking back into their shadows and trees, smiling sharply. Their song gradually ends as Amy and I stagger away from the clearing, tripping over roots and stepping in ant hills, our clothes getting torn by briars. I don’t turn back to catch the ancient eyes I can feel watching me, nor do I question their sudden silence. Usually they chatter and chant, coaxing me sweetly to join them. Now they only watch me critically.
The murmurs that follow me out even sound approving which makes sense in a way: the fey only take people who have nothing to keep them safe and happy. Neither Amy nor I will be interesting to them as long as the other is around.
Leauna Layfield is an aspiring anthropologist and the future engineer of the world's first warp capable starship, provided she makes it through pre-calculus. A junior at Leeds High School, the sixteen-year-old prefers hiding in the library to lunch and doesn't feel at home if there aren't any books. Her writing is the only aspect of her schedule she never feels pressed to finish, and she takes great pride in everything she writes.