The chorus of “Happily ever after” roused me from my stupor. Even from the living room I could hear the bored edge in Elise’s voice; it was as predictable as Kari’s enthusiasm or Allan’s singsongy tone, and as strained.
Storytime was finished. I headed to Kari’s room to say goodnight, but paused outside the door when I heard her speak. “Daddy,” she said, “is that how it was for you and mommy?”
I held my breath, sincerely wondering how Allan would answer. But it was Elise who answered: “Of course not. Mom’s not a princess.”
Kari laughed, but Allan didn’t miss a beat. “She is to me,” he said.
I crept away as quietly as I could, unsure whether the sound I suppressed was a sob or something more like bitter laughter.
It was a over a week later, and storytime was definitely over. I tried not to think of Allan as I stared into an expanse of prairie grass. It spread like a yellow-green ocean from the light on the back porch to the end of the known universe, losing color the farther it went into the night. Finally I could see nothing but the phosphorescent glow of hundreds of lightning bugs: the deep water. There be monsters.
I sat on the kitchen’s island cradling a glass of Pinot Grigio, and without thinking of Allan I contemplated how I had gotten myself stuck in a place like Ohio, anyway. No, not stuck, my editor-mind corrected: marooned. Marooned and emotionally mutinied by a pair of pirate daughters who had always loved their daddy better.
The glass of wine sweated in the evening’s heat, drops of cold water running down the stem and over my fingers. I wiped my hand across my forehead just as a wave of breeze skimmed across the ocean of my back lawn, in through the open window and over my face, turning me suddenly cold all the way through. The screen door slammed on the back verandah and I jumped up to face my girls.
“Mom!” Elise shouted. She held something behind her back as she stood shifting with excitement from side to side. “You’re never gonna believe what Kari and me found!”
In my editor-mind I cringed, thinking Kari and I, and wondering if ten was too young to start correcting the finer points of my daughter’s grammar. But I figured she’d pick them up with or without me; it seemed all she did was read. I tried to smile. “Did you catch some good lightning bugs?”
Little Kari, hands over her mouth, looked as though she was about to burst. But Elise continued over her sister’s muffled snickering, strangely sober. “Yeah, mom. And something . . . else.” She brought the object out from behind her back without looking at it, and I was so focused on her scrunched-shut eyes that it wasn’t until she re-opened them with a little gasp that I saw what she meant.
She held the mayonnaise jar high in front of her like a trophy. Ragged holes had been punched in the plastic lid, the label peeled off leaving only smudgy streaks of glue obscuring its contents: three agitated fireflies, their green butts blinking on and off like living Christmas lights; a few leaves and a bumpy twig; and, sitting on the twig with her elbows on her knees, a tiny winged person.
I looked from my older daughter’s stunned face to my younger daughter’s suppressed mirth to the mayonnaise jar to the glass of wine in my hand, took a sip and set it down on the counter behind me. I took the jar from Elise, still studying her expression. My mind was struggling to convince me that I couldn’t have seen what I thought I had. Not a fairy; not a real one. Probably some toy I gave them and forgot about, I thought. I laughed at my gullibility, and raised the jar for a closer look.
The figure sat turned away from me, presenting me with coppery hair and greenish wings. Delicate, almost translucent wings which, I now saw, moved gently in and out as if to the rhythm of a creature’s breathing. Holding my own breath I turned the jar around.
There she was, not a toy at all, cast in intermittent lightning-bug light. About three inches tall, fair-skinned and naked, she sat on the twig with her bare feet on the glass bottom of the jar and her head in her tiny hands. One of the lightning bugs—to her the size of a barn owl—buzzed around her head, and she shooed it away with a violent wave of her arm.
She picked her head up and fixed me with fierce green eyes. “What?” she said, in a surprisingly big voice.
My grip on the jar slipped. It fell a few inches before I caught it again, and the fairy—or whatever she was—fluttered her wings in the jar’s airspace before settling back down onto the twig. I set the jar on the kitchen counter.
Kari scrambled up onto one of the stools on the other side of the counter, perching on her knees with her elbows on the formica countertop. She peered into the jar like a cat looks into a fishtank, still grinning. “Can we keep her?” she asked.
The tiny woman threw her hands up in the air. I shook my head, feeling like I was moving underwater. “I think . . .”
“What’s your name?” Elise had scooted onto the stool next to her sister to regard the fairy, though with a less predatory look on her face.
The little creature stood up in her 32-ounce world. “What’s yours?” she asked, pointing her whole arm at my daughter.
“Oh. I beg your pardon,” she said, and I smiled proudly. “My name’s Elise, and this is my sister, Kari.” Kari waved quick as a hummingbird, and Elise gestured across the counter to me. “And that’s our mom.”
The fairy turned toward me and inclined her head slightly. “Hey, mom,” she said.
I laughed, reaching for my glass of wine. “You can call me Deb.”
“What are you?” asked Kari, and her wide eyes narrowed as Elise punched or pinched or kicked her under the counter’s edge.
“No,” said Iris. “I have a few questions for you. Question one: which one of you slack-jawed gawkers is going to free me from this lard-smelling prison?”
“Will we get a prize? A wish granted?” In her excitement Kari didn’t seem to notice the dirty looks she was now getting from both her sister and Iris.
Iris turned toward her, her voice syrupy sweet. “What would you wish for, little girl?”
Kari squealed with joy, talking a mile a minute. “A new bike, or to be the prettiest—no! Three more wishes! Or just for daddy—” She cut off abruptly, and the joy fell away.
“I can do that,” said the fairy.
Kari and Elise gasped in unison.
“But I’m not going to. Wishes, wishes, wishes. Nope, not this time.” She laughed a squeaky, cackling laugh.
“Now hold on, Iris,” I said, setting the nearly empty wineglass back on the counter.
“What?” she asked. “You don’t like me fucking with your kids?” One of the fireflies dived at her head and she ducked, swiping at it with both arms.
Elise and Kari giggled, and I wondered if it was about the bug or the naughty word. I don’t think they knew what it meant, only that it was off-limits. “Iris,” I began, aiming for an authoritative tone. “I’m going to have to ask you not to swear in front of—”
“Hey,” she said, flapping her wings. “Do you know what kind of fucking powers I have? Maybe I can destroy you with a snap of my fingers.” Squinting, I saw that her tiny fingers were poised to snap. Once again she was dive-bombed by a lightning bug, but she simply pointed at it and the bug blinked out of existence. She leaned one hand against the jar’s wall for a moment, head down, then looked up at me with a dark expression. “You don’t know, do you?”
I shook my head.
“Then I call the shots. Open lid, now.”
Her arms were crossed over her naked chest, her foot tapping impatiently. With a shrug I reached over and unscrewed the mayonnaise jar’s lid. Iris flew out, stretching her wings, as did one of the lightning bugs. The other bug seemed content to throw itself repeatedly against the glass wall of the jar.
“Iris,” Elise said, a waver in her voice. “How did you make that bug disappear?”
The fairy paused in mid-air, looking at Elise. “I told you I had powers, didn’t I?”
Elise seemed to consider this, eyes rotating in their sockets to follow Iris, flying in loop-de-loops in our kitchen. She looked more than a little frightened, Elise, and I thought I should say something to comfort her. But what was there to say? Eventually she continued: “But where did it go?”
I re-screwed the lid, locking the remaining firefly inside. In a small way I mourned its missed opportunity for freedom. You snooze, you lose, I thought, and with that, unbidden, came thoughts of Allan. He’d flown right out of the jar that was our marriage—vanished, or maybe just escaped—and I could still hear the buzzing sound as I banged my head against the glass.
Iris flew around, floating like a butterfly with her nude legs trailing behind. She hadn’t answered Elise, and it didn’t seem like she was planning on it. “Can you bring it back?” Elise asked.
Iris set down on the counter, stretching upwards with her arms. Kari reached her arm across the countertop to get my attention, whispering loudly enough for everyone to hear. “Mom? She’s not wearing any clothes.”
“No she’s not, honey,” I said, looking at Iris’s tiny white butt as she bent to touch her toes.
“No she’s not,” Iris echoed. “An astute observation, little girl. And no, I don’t want any of your doll’s clothes. You people are all the same.” Suddenly she twirled around and pointed at me. “Hey, how ‘bout a drink?”
I shrugged, looking into my own empty wineglass. “Wine okay?” She nodded. “What can I put it in for you?”
Iris sighed loudly, and I imagined I could see her roll her bright green eyes. “A thimble is traditional,” she said. She paused, while I mentally searched the house for a thimble. I wasn’t exactly a seamstress. “If you can’t manage that, the cap from the toothpaste tube will do.” She sounded incredibly put out by the whole thing.
I nodded to Elise. “Will you get a cap for our guest?”
Elise hurried off in the direction of her bathroom.
“Wash it out real good!” Iris called after her. “That shit tastes horrible.”
Really well, my editor-mind said. Wash it out really well.
It took forever to get the kids to sleep that night; fairy tales didn’t interest them, especially not ones read by mom. “Can we keep her?” was all they wanted to know. I told them it wasn’t really our choice, but I did eventually get them to bed with the assurance that Iris would still be around in the morning. Relieved, I crept out to the back porch with an opened bottle of Pinot Grigio, and lit a cigarette.
“Blow that my way,” said Iris, as I dropped into one of the padded deck chairs. She sat on the edge of the table between them, legs swinging in the night air. “That’s one of the things I miss out on, being so small. Cigarettes. There’s just no way to shrink those.”
I exhaled a lungful of smoke at her, watching as she basked in its carcinogenic fog. “Yeah, but at least you’re a cheap date.” I pointed to the toothpaste cap in her hands, filled with a few drops of white wine.
She laughed, leaning back on her elbows on the table. A few caps of alcohol had made her far less cantankerous.
“And you have magical powers,” I added. “I think I’d like that.” Iris said nothing, her shiny green wings moving slowly in and out like a fan. “Iris?”
“If you could make that lightning bug disappear, why couldn’t you get out of the jar?”
“Who says I couldn’t?” she said, an edge entering her voice.
I put my hands up, backpedaling. “You’re right. I shouldn’t assume.” I sipped my wine, then quietly: “I just thought if you could’ve gotten out, you would have.”
She glared at me. Her eyes seemed to be made of emerald light; sometimes they shone, other times they pulled light into them like twin black holes. “You think magic’s like turning on a light switch?”
“I don’t know.”
“Not even a light switch is like a light switch. You just think it is because you don’t see what it takes to get the power into your house. Somewhere coal is burned to turn water into steam to spin a turbine to make electricity, which travels for miles to get to your house. You flip a switch and the light comes on, like magic.”
“Okay, so . . .”
She sighed. “So I’m having an off day.”
I raised my glass in a toast. “I hear that.”
Iris leaned back again. “It’s pretty out here,” she said. “Calm.”
I looked out at the waving field of prairie grass, trying to see it as anything but a wasteland. The lightning bugs had all gone to sleep, along with the few neighbors we could see, and it was quiet, quiet, quiet. In the town behind me lay the college campus with its old stone buildings and its suddenly unfunded and un-staffed literary magazine, all folded in for a summer’s hibernation. Sometimes I thought I could hear it snoring, rumbling like an approaching summer storm. Soon it would wake, breaking open like a hatching egg-sack with motion and noise and youth, and I knew we’d see Allan then, at least. He wouldn’t turn his back on a tenure-track position, even if he had no problem turning it on me.
“So what would your wish be?” Iris asked, turning over on her side. Her wings out of sight behind her, she looked just like a woman in miniature.
“I don’t know,” I said. “World peace? Naw, that’s boring. I really don’t know. Money wouldn’t fix anything. I don’t even think having my job back would.” I took another drag from my cigarette and blew the smoke over Iris’s recumbent form.
She shivered in delight. “You want him back?”
“Can you really do that?” It didn’t occur to me to ask how she knew about Allan in the first place.
She laughed. “No, not really.”
This time I laughed too. “Oh. Well, he always comes back eventually. Not that it matters much. Seems like he’s not here even when he is here.” I paused, sipping from my glass. Iris did the same, then extended her toothpaste cap to me. I took it, dipped it into the wine in my own glass, and handed it back to her. “I guess my wish isn’t so much that he’d come back as that it would matter if he did.”
“That’s a tough one.”
“I know. So how ‘bout you? What’s your wish?”
She looked at me, startled. “I—I don’t know.” She turned toward the ocean of green grass, wings moving subtly in the breeze, but before she did I thought I saw a new look on her tiny face, a darkness that I couldn’t quite identify.
The next morning I woke to the sounds and smells of breakfast, and for an instant I thought Allan had returned. But he doesn’t make breakfast, I thought. And then I remembered the previous evening.
I stumbled downstairs to the kitchen, where Iris was flying above the stove. Under her command breakfast literally made itself, spatulas hanging in the air waiting to turn slices of French toast and bacon. She was still naked, of course, and I wondered how she avoided splatter burns.
Kari busied herself setting the dining room table—four plates, but only three with glasses and silverware. On the fourth plate sat Iris’s toothpaste cap. Kari scurried past me holding a carton of orange juice and a jug of syrup, while Elise huddled next to the stove, watching intently as Iris hovered over the frying pans.
Seeing that there was nothing I could do to help I sat down at the table. Before I could even pour myself some orange juice Iris and my girls came into the room, preceded by floating plates of food that somewhat unsteadily set themselves down on the table.
“Good morning, girls,” I said. And to Iris, “Looks like you’re having a better day.”
She smiled, breaking off a crumb of French toast with her hands and carrying it to her plate. “Your girls have been helping me.”
“I set the table,” said Kari, her face already smeared with syrup.
“I see that, Kari,” I said. “Thank you.” Elise’s eyes remained focused on little Iris sitting cross-legged on her floral-print plate. “Elise, how were you helping?”
She just shrugged and stabbed a piece of French toast with her fork. I looked to Iris, hoping to catch some sort of answer in her gleaming eyes. But her head was bowed away from me.
Ebullient and oblivious as always, Kari broke the silence. “What’s your family like?” she asked, showing everyone her partially masticated breakfast.
Iris looked around as though she wasn’t sure the question was addressed to her. As her attention settled on my younger daughter her wings drooped. “I don’t really have one . . . anymore.”
“What happened to them?” asked Kari.
The little fairy shrugged, moving wings as well as shoulders. “What happens happened. The world is big; we’re small. It’s easy to lose things.”
Her sadness was palpable, so many times bigger than her. It hovered around the table as if borne by transparent wings.
“It’s okay,” said Elise, finally starting to eat her breakfast. “You can stay with us.”
She didn’t ask me if it was okay, and the parent in me wanted to protest on principle. Nonetheless I was glad when Iris answered, “Maybe just for a little while.”
When we finished eating, Iris cleaned our plates with one sweeping wave of her arm. Like that the syrup and crumbs and the little white strings of bacon fat that Allan used to eat but none of us liked were dispatched, perhaps to some other realm. “Beats the dishwasher, don’t it?” she said, winking at me. I heard myself giggling, imagining the dimension of banished items. A land piled high with table scraps and lightning bugs, but also with secret treasures stored for safekeeping, with precious children and irritating lovers.
Echoing my own thoughts Elise asked, “But where does it go?”
“Would it bother you if I said I didn’t know?”
Elise shook her head and Iris watched her, an appraising look on her face. “I think it’s just gone.”
“Can you bring it back?”
The fairy was grave. “Disappearing is easy, but bringing things back is hard. It may be the hardest thing in the world.”
Iris had been with us for a week, which meant it had been eighteen days since Allan had gone, and I still wasn’t thinking about him. Not enough to pick up the phone, anyway, and once again be the first to crumble. It had always been easy not to answer when his cell number appeared on the caller-ID; the calls were never for me. This time, though, he hadn’t called. But it seemed like even the girls missed him less with Iris around. Who needed Allan when there was magic in the house, a little more magic each day?
With Iris’s help the housework got done in a snap: dirty socks floated merrily into the washing machine and streaks simply vanished from the windows. Even better, she was very patient with the girls, taking the edge off the long summer days that would ordinarily have had me begging for year-round schooling. Elise in particular had taken to the little fairy, and if she wasn’t haunting the college’s library or reading in her room she could be found trailing Iris around the house like an oversized shadow.
Every day I felt I ought to be looking for a new job, but then I would remember where I was and laugh out loud at my nonexistent options. Having been let go by the college, what was there for me? The town didn’t even have a grocery store.
After dinner we’d all go out to the backyard and watch the day’s radiance give way to darkness. You could see stars blink on almost one-by-one, mirrored on earth by the creepy staccato blink of hundreds of fireflies. Warm nights were a relief after sweltering days, and Iris and I would sit on the verandah and sigh into our wineglass and toothpaste cap.
Iris fidgeted with her cap of wine, picking it up then setting it back down, then picking it up and passing it from one hand to the other. Without looking at me or at Kari and Elise she asked, “Do you see what they’re doing out there?”
“They’re catching lightning bugs.” Almost every night my girls were out in the tall grass trapping the luminous bugs in a jar.
“Maybe you can’t see it from here,” she said, peering into the dim yard. “Kari’s catching them; Elise is doing something else.”
I covered my eyes with my hand and squinted, but I could only see the shapes of my daughters hunched in the grass. They were just figures outlined against a backdrop of tiny green lights blinking on and off.
“Maybe you should go look,” Iris said, still avoiding my gaze.
I pulled myself out of the low chair, feeling huge and ungainly and suddenly excluded, and stepped into knee-high yellow grass. It whispered as I waded through it, but I couldn’t understand what it said.
I came up behind Elise without her noticing, she was so focused on something in front of her. She knelt so motionlessly that I almost worried about her; she looked like she’d been turned to stone. In front of her, fireflies blinked on and off and she watched them, intently.
I knelt behind her and watched what she watched. As my eyes adjusted to the dark the lightning bugs came into better focus, and I could confirm visually what I knew intellectually: that even with their lighted butts extinguished the bugs still existed, flying about as modestly as any fly in the dark. But then, two feet in front of my daughter, I saw one that didn’t. The firefly’s taillight went out, and with it the whole bug popped right out of existence. I blinked my eyes and shook my head, hoping to clear whatever distortion had produced the effect, but as soon as I opened them I saw it again. The light was snuffed and the bug was gone.
“Elise . . .” I said.
I said it calmly, but she jumped so high she almost fell over. She turned and looked at me with saucer eyes.
“Are you doing that?”
She nodded, a grin creeping onto her face.
I stood up, startled by a tug on the back of my shirt. Twirling around I saw Kari, lifting a jar high in front of her for my approval. “Look mom,” she said.
In the jar were four lightning bugs, and I stared at them for a long time. When I was satisfied they weren’t going anywhere I looked back to my younger daughter, forcing a smile. “Good job, Kari,” I said, backing toward the house. “You too, Elise. Good work.”
Stumbling back onto the solid ground of the porch I felt my heart racing. Iris was still sitting on the edge of an overturned ashtray that served as a bench, and when she looked up at me her tiny face was blank. “What else have you taught my kids?” I asked.
“It wasn’t me,” she said.
I laughed, bitterly. “Like hell it wasn’t.”
“Sit down, Deb.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” I said, weakly. I wavered between sitting and standing before dropping into my chair.
“Do you know what Elise’s wish is?”
I looked at her, overcome by a sick feeling in my stomach. “I don’t know,” I said. “What? To become a witch?”
Iris shook her head, a sad smile on her face.
“Okay, what? I don’t know.”
“That’s exactly the problem,” she said, and with a sudden flap of her wings she lifted off the table, floating toward the yard.
“Wait,” I said, wondering how we’d gotten so far off track. “I think you should leave.” Even I could hear that my voice carried no conviction.
Iris just started laughing, bobbing up and down like a buoy. “You gonna make me?” she asked. “Your kids like me better than you, and we’re more powerful than you are. I like you, Deb. So relax, and stop saying stupid things.” She turned sharply and flew off into the yard, leaving me stunned and alone.
I grabbed my wine glass and went back into the kitchen to re-fill it. Damned uppity fairy, I thought. First Allan and now her. I thought of calling Allan, making him come back. I had the feeling it would fix everything that was broken, but something stopped me. Pride, maybe. Or something deeper. It wouldn’t fix everything, my editor-brain corrected. It would fix everything but you.
I wandered around the house. Everything sparkled a little more than it used to; it seemed fresh and clean, but also unfamiliar and subtly menacing. I found myself standing in the doorway to Elise’s room, looking into it as if for the first time. The room was a sea of lavender, her favorite color. Every surface was covered with either stuffed animals or books, and they all seemed to be watching me with dark accusing eyes. I stepped into the room and sat down on my daughter’s neatly made bed.
Her bedside table and the floor in front of it were littered with library books. Setting my wineglass down I picked the top one up. Magic, Applied was the title, and the one under it was Invocations, Spells & Charms. They were all on similar topics. The topmost book on the floor, The Magical Encyclopaedia: R – V, had a rainbow-colored bookmark sticking out its top, festooned with a red yarn fringe. I picked up the book, opening it to that page. There were a number of entries in the two-page spread, but one of them was marked with a penciled-in star. “Summoning,” the book said, “is the act of bringing an object or a person to the summoner by means of incantation or spell. The degree of difficulty—and danger—varies with the object being summoned, with even small inanimate objects requiring a moderate to high level of magic. The summoning of persons should not be attempted except by one well-trained in—”
“Snooping, huh?” The voice startled me, and I dropped the book. I whirled around to see Iris shaking her finger at me as if to say shame on you. Guiltily I picked up my glass and took a step toward the door, but as I got closer I saw that Iris was smiling. “It’s okay,” she said. “I snooped all the time when I had kids.” She waved her arm in the air, brushing that topic away. “But that’s beside the point. Have you figured out what your daughter’s wish is yet?”
Iris hung in the middle of the doorway like the littlest gaol-keeper, and I couldn’t bring myself to brush past her. Diminutive as she was, I was tinier still.
“No, I was just—” I paused, remembering the book. “Summoning? Is that it? What does she want to summon?”
“Hey, you’re almost there,” she said.
In her eyes I saw encouragement tempered with frustration and mockery. “It’s not Allan, is it?” I asked.
“You got it!” she said, flying in a celebratory circle.
“But the book said—”
“That’s right. That’s why you should be worried.” She flew closer, so close she was looking into my eyes one at a time. “You may actually have to talk to your daughter.”
I re-filled my glass, then changed my mind and left it in the refrigerator. While it might’ve been easier for me to tell Elise about the danger of easy answers with a glass of wine in my hand, it definitely would’ve been harder for her to listen. Taking a deep breath I stepped onto the porch, where both girls were sitting on its edge.
The screen door slammed behind me and they looked up together. “Is it time for bed?” Kari asked.
“Yeah, Kari. Go brush your teeth, okay?” She ran into the house, letting the screen door bang closed again. I had to smile; at least she seemed unchanged. Elise started to follow her little sister. “Elise, can I have a minute?”
She shrugged. I sat in the place Kari had occupied, unsure how to begin. I looked up at the bright carpet of stars, but they were silent, inert. I decided to lie.
“Hey,” I said, pointing up. “Shooting star! Make a wish.”
Elise looked at me like I was a lightning bug she hoped would disappear. “I didn’t see it. Can’t make a wish if you don’t see it.”
I sighed, dropping the pretense. “Elise, what’s up with you lately? You’ve been so quiet.” She shrugged again, silent and inert as the stars. “Is it because dad’s gone?”
“You know, it’s not like I don’t miss him too,” I said.
“I do miss him. But you can’t force someone to be someplace if he doesn’t want to be.”
“I can,” she said, and I saw a scary gleam in her eye. It was probably my imagination, but in that instant her brown eyes seemed to glow green.
“Okay,” I said, hearing the quiver in my voice. “I know you’ve found a way that you think you can bring him back, but—”
“I don’t think,” she said. “I know I can. Even if you don’t believe in me.” She started toward the house.
“Elise,” I said, almost begging, “please don’t. What if you get hurt?”
She snorted again. “Like you care.”
Shocked, I could think of nothing to say.
“I’m doing it,” she said, in an eerie low whisper.
“Elise”—my voice was raising into a shout, the twang of my frustration clearly audible—“just listen to me!”
“No, you listen!” She towered over me, and I was actually afraid of her. “I’m bringing him back, and you can’t stop me.” She stalked into the house, letting the screen door fall. But this time it stopped before slamming, settling into its frame without a sound.
I sat there for a long minute, looking out into the prairie grass. Fucking Ohio, I thought. Fucking Allan, fucking college, fucking prairie grass. Fucking magic. Fucking fairies.
As if on cue Iris flew out the door holding her toothpaste cap in one hand, preceded by my wineglass. “Didn’t go well?” she asked, landing beside me on the porch.
I turned to her, panicked. “What could happen to my daughter if she tries this?”
“Bringing things back is the hardest thing in the world. Even I couldn’t do what Elise wants to do.”
“Okay,” I said, my patience at its end. “But what will happen to her?”
“It’s like . . .” she seemed to search for an appropriate simile. “Electricity, right? The wires in your house can only handle so much, and if you try to pull more through them they . . . blow a fuse?” She frowned. Maybe this wasn’t the simile she was looking for. “Except there are no fuses for this kind of power.”
“So what happens?”
“She’ll be destroyed. And so will I, and probably you and Kari too.”
“What do you mean, destroyed? What does that mean?”
Iris just shrugged, an almost imperceptibly small movement.
“Great,” I said, jumping up from the porch. “Thanks! So what do I do, smarty? Clearly I can’t talk to her, and apparently I can’t stop her.” Iris stood on the porch in the strange light-and-dark shadow of my wineglass, impassive. I felt like grabbing her, crushing her in one hand, crumpling her into a ball like a piece of winged junk-mail. “This is all your fault!” I yelled. “I wish you’d never come here!”
“Wishes, wishes, wishes,” Iris said. She floated lazily up and toward the house. “Keep dreaming, sister.”
I fumed at her for a moment, then went into the house. As soon as I did I could tell something wasn’t right. The air seemed shimmery, unstable, and the hair on my arms stood on end. I ran through the hallway to Elise’s door and tried the handle, but of course it was locked. Pressing my ear to the door I thought I heard murmuring, though it might have been the reflected sound of blood pounding in my ears. Otherwise the house was as quiet as it had ever been, which added to the spookiness. Was she trying the summoning now? How would I know? Did magic have a sound?
I rapped on the door with my knuckles. Nothing. I knocked harder with the side of my fist. Stepping back from the door I examined the handle. Maybe if I got a paper clip or a bobby pin I could pick the lock.
My left hand felt heavy, and my ring warm on my finger. My wedding ring.
Not just warm, hot, and getting hotter all the time. I pulled the gold ring over my knuckle as it started to burn, and quickly dropped it onto the hardwood floor. It clattered to a stop, emitting a mild glow, then it wobbled once and slid purposefully under the gap in the door.
“Elise!” I yelled, pounding on the door with the heels of both hands. “Stop! Let me in!”
“Go away,” she yelled back. “Why don’t you drink some more wine?” The air seemed less agitated while she spoke, which I took as a good sign.
Ignoring her insult I continued. “I’m not going away, Elise. You have to stop before you hurt yourself.” Iris flew down the hallway, and even from a distance I could see that she was worried. “Before you hurt all of us.”
“All you care about is yourself!”
The door next to Elise’s opened, and Kari stumbled into the hallway in her oversized nightshirt. “I feel funny,” she said, leaning against the wall.
“That’s not true, Elise. How could you even think that?”
Iris paused in mid-air. “That’s a good question,” she said.
I blinked, and opening my eyes I saw the little naked fairy hovering over Kari. She was peering into her eyes and feeling her forehead with the back of her arm, as Kari smiled sleepily back at her. I thought of the books in Elise’s room. Why hadn’t I known what she was reading? How could I not have known her wish? I thought of the wine, and the secret smoking, the three of them all awake before me, making breakfast. My girls used to help me in the kitchen all the time. When was the last time we’d done that?
I shook my head, blinking in the increasingly fuzzy air. My head was starting to hurt, and I felt dizzy. I leaned against the wall for support. “Nevermind that, Elise,” I said. “I know why you think it. I haven’t been spending much time with you lately, have I? I’ve just been so . . .” How were you going to end that sentence? my editor-mind asked. Selfish? Mopey? Pathetic?
“Distracted,” I finished, and immediately thought better of the whole sentence. “But that’s no excuse. I screwed up, and I’ll do anything to fix it.”
The voice coming through the door sounded hard, yet brittle, like it could shatter. “You’re just trying to trick me into stopping.”
I hung my head against the smooth-painted wood of Elise’s door. Kari had slumped to the floor, and Iris was hovering with her palms against the girl’s forehead.
“Elise,” I said, sounding weary even to myself. “I’m not. I love—Ow, what the fu. . . ?” Something sharp had hit me in the shoulder, bouncing off to land on the door in front of me. It was a picture frame, held picture-side-down to the vertical surface of the door by some force I couldn’t begin to understand. Turning it around I saw that, of course, it was a picture of Allan. He was sitting on Elise’s bed in the old house between our two grinning princesses, all three of them done up in my makeup. I remembered the day; he’d let them dress him up as their “fairy godmother,” with a pink tutu over his jeans and a too-small conical princess hat strapped tight under his chin. The lavender wings from Elise’s Halloween costume had barely fit over his shirt, bunching the fabric at the armpits in what looked like an uncomfortable way. But in the picture he smiled his goofy smile, holding a wand with silvery streamers in the air over Elise’s head.
You couldn’t see me in the photograph, standing behind the camera. But I knew how I looked: plain old Deb, plain old clothes, no fun at all. Like an evil stepmother.
My eyes were wet as I looked up from the picture, and the door looked blurry. “Please stop, honey,” I said. “I’ll give you anything you want, I promise. If you want—daddy—then we’ll get him back.” I paused, sniffling. “But not like this, Elise. It’s not the right way.”
There was a pause, during which I almost thought things would be okay. But then I heard Elise’s ice-cold voice. “You don’t mean it,” she said. “You don’t love him.”
I couldn’t respond. It was at once too simple and too complicated an accusation.
“It’s true!” she said, louder now. “You don’t love him and you don’t love me either!”
Of course I did. I shouted as much. I pounded on the door again, pulling on the handle. I looked around the hallway for something to break down the door with, but there was nothing. There was only Kari twitching on the floor, and Iris hovering over her. There was only me.
“Do something!” I hissed at Iris.
The fairy glared at me. Then she suddenly smiled, in a way that made me sick to my stomach. I will never forget that smile. “There is one thing I can do,” she said.
“You’re lying!” Elise screamed, and it was the longest, loudest sound I’d ever heard in my life. The glass in the picture frame shattered. I heard things move all over the house, falling and thumping and clattering like loose stones in an earthquake. Iris snapped her fingers, and at last my daughter’s shrill scream broke off into unnatural silence.
Iris was gone. Kari was stirring on the hallway floor, murmuring like she did just before waking. I threw my shoulder into Elise’s door again and again until the latch finally gave, and I tumbled into an empty room.
I’d like to say that I never saw Elise or Allan again. It would be simpler than the truth, and truer than it too.
After Elise and Iris vanished I put Kari to sleep, then I picked up the phone and dialed Allan’s number. It rang and rang and rang, and I wasn’t surprised. I was starting to think he was way outside cell range. After that I called the police and filed missing persons reports on both Elise and Allan, though I knew it was a fool’s errand.
And then I wept. For hours, for days.
There was a lot of talk in that small town, especially when the police investigated me for killing my husband and daughter. But they never found any bodies, and most people thought I’d simply been abandoned. Perhaps Allan had been cheating, they said. Wasn’t our marriage on the rocks already?
Part of me still thought Allan would be back for the fall semester, but of course he wasn’t. I started working as a freelancer, refusing to move from the farmhouse and the town that I had never loved and hated more and more all the time.
Kari grew up, as children do, and went off to college on the west coast. She married and had kids of her own, two boys, and then divorced while they were still in school.
I spent many years alone. I grew older than I ever thought I would, until I was so old that I became young and helpless again. Kari’s boys were grown by then, and after I slipped on the steps and broke a hip she came home to live with me.
She told me, as many had, that I should move. But I couldn’t.
One day I was woken from an afternoon nap by the sound of the front door swinging open on squeaky hinges. It was a small sound, barely audible to my elderly ears, but I’d been listening for it for almost fifty years. A young man and a little girl walked tentatively through the door, looking with shock and fear at the house they thought they knew. I didn’t need to look at the pictures on the walls to recognize them; they hadn’t changed at all.
I stirred on the sofa and made ahem noises, trying not to startle them, but it didn’t work: they both jumped. “Who are you?” Allan asked. “What are you doing in my house?”
“It’s my house too, sweetie,” I said. “I’m glad you’re home. I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”
Kari came in from the kitchen then, and dropped whatever she was carrying with a clatter and splash. “Daddy,” she said, breathless, and sounded just like a girl again. “Elise.” She ran to them and wrapped them in hugs while they stared dumbfounded, looking like memory made flesh.
Allan’s horrified stare cut right through me. I knew I wasn’t beautiful anymore; I was old enough to be his grandmother. I was nobody’s princess. Still he came over to me and held me in his arms. “I’m so sorry,” he said, and when he pulled away his eyes were wet.
My own tears spilled over my eyelids and ran down a wrinkled, unfamiliar face. “I know,” I said. “I’ve always known.”
It wasn’t exactly a storybook ending, but it was enough for me.
Emily C. Skaftun is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing. She lives in Seattle with her husband the mad scientist and a cat who thinks he’s a tiger. She dabbles in roller derby and other absurd opportunities as they come along, while writing about fate, flying tigers, and strange fish.