TWs: transphobia (mild, unspoken, complicated), obsession/stalkerishness (INTENSE), paranoid delusions/psychosis, imprisonment
A long time ago, in a land that had not yet lost its magic or its gods, there was a witch who lived in the woods; this might be a story you know, I never really know with you, but her house wasn’t made of candy, because that’s a horrible idea, and just asking for ants. I did have an ant problem, but that’s unavoidable in woodlands, and – and that’s not the point.
You’re getting sidetracked.
Right. Forest, house, not candy. Whether or not she was a witch is also, strictly speaking, up to interpretation. There are two kinds of women in fairytales, really; maidens and crones. Mothers are supposed to be in there, too, but they become irrelevant, part of the background. And I’m no maiden. So crone it is. The maidens – well, they came later, after the witch had built her palace far away from every other living soul, a work of art for her eyes alone. There were two of them; an elder and a younger sister, lost and searching in the woods, abandoned by their parents.
Er, but more about them later.
No, not cowardice, just – you know, maybe you should do this part. No, that’s a bad idea. Shit, it’s bad enough that I ended up talking to myself. Although I think anybody would.
Less long ago, after the world forgets most of its gods, leaves them forgotten but not faded in textbooks and shrines and literary memory and the love-languages of songs and symbols – that, that is when we meet you. We do not know your face, not right away. We know you, instead, by the signs. The steadiness of your gaze. The caution in your stance. The way your fear and your curiosity do not so much do war with each other but egg each other on; it is because you fear me that you wish to know more. From the first moment you lay your eyes on us, you know that we are a puzzle, and you know that you want to solve it.
We have no answers for you, save the one you do not want to – should not – hear. We will end up telling you anyway. We will be careless, reckless, hope that honesty will inspire kindness (perhaps pity) from you. We never should have done it. And in our carelessness, you heard your old name and now – now – now – yes, it’s true, we will have to confess to the blood on our hands and the chains on our wrists. Perhaps this was inevitable. Perhaps fate has spoken. Perhaps this is part of our punishment.
But fate also shows me recognition in your eyes. And fate winds me ever closer to you – fate, or obsession, or love.
I asked you – ask you – asked you – “what do you see” and you tell me about broken glass and kaleidoscopes. I take you at your word, and I suppose you could be lying, but I also suppose there’s no reason for you to. We could lie to each other. But I know, and I think you know, that instead we are more truthful to each other than we are with any other – mortal or immortal, human or sidhe, man or woman.
She is still screaming.
It never stops. It never stops. She can taste blood in her mouth – a hunter’s kill, a blood moon, a price for vengeance. And yet.
She can smell the changeling on the wind. Old scent. Gone into the Medium where she cannot (dare not) follow. But in time – in time the changeling will re-emerge. A proving ground. A chance.
Call her human.
I dare you.
I can see you through the trees. I don’t know if you’ll believe me, if I tell you that I didn’t mean to bring you here. That this was the last thing I wanted. Because now that you’re here, there’s no hiding it from you, is there?
But you’re not the only one here.
I can hear her. Calling your name. Calling for help. Innocent in her stupidity.
I try not to care. I try. I do. But-
THEY WILL NEVER SEE YOU.
My love. My soulmate. Yes. This is the proof. I could have killed you. I could have. I would have-
My soul itself will not allow it. Do you see it? That I will tear myself apart to prove myself to you? That I would kill a hundred, a thousand men to prove that this is truth? The signs are all there. Read the stars or the entrails, the fortunes written in cards or bones or entrails – they will all say the same thing.
Only allow me to show you. The patterns alone will redeem me. What are a few lives to the cruelty of decades and centuries alone-?
No, I think – I think I should care.
I mean, I don’t. They weren’t very helpful. Or very nice.
SHE WILL NEVER SEE YOU.
Time reveals all secrets.
So tell me, Jamal – am I the witch in the woods, or the princess in the tower? Which story would you like to hear? Which would you like to tell? Truth is malleable; truth is everywhere. And I, for one, would love to know how it ends.
So, here’s the thing about me and fairy tales. Foster parents? Not super great about reading them to children they’re mostly taking on as a charity project. Sure, not all of them were that bad. Some tried. But a lot of the kind ones were the later ones, and by then, I was already hard enough to work with that I don’t blame ‘em for not reading me cutesy bedtime stories. I never thought it was a problem before. If I really needed to know, I could just ask Jo if she’d read anything about whatever was coming up. That’d helped me so far with all of this faerie shit.
But now I was really starting to wish I’d had a slightly more normal childhood. I mean, what else is new? Pros: I knew how to pick locks and that adults were long on promises and short on follow-through. Cons: I had no fucking idea where I was. Neverland? Narnia? Heaven? No, the little I did know about Christianity meant I definitely wasn’t getting anywhere near there.
“You’re in the Medium,” Jo offered with a sigh after watching me look around for a moment. “Er, I think.”
“Doesn’t look anything like it did last time.”
“That’s where I’m a bit lost, too. I think this is one of the sub-worlds.”
“Sub-worlds. I’m starting to think you guys are just making this shit up as you go along.”
“You,” Jo retorted, voice more acid than I’d expected, “are the one who threw herself in front of a sword. You have no ground to talk about ‘making shit up as she goes along’. What were you thinking?”
I tried not to be irritated. I did. It wasn’t like I’d done it because I was aching to know what a sword in the stomach felt like. In fact…
Before answering Jo, I prodded at my stomach. I hadn’t actually gotten stabbed – maybe. Then I turned around. “I pushed someone out of the way. That’s diff—”
Somewhere in my brain, I hadn’t quite put together what it meant that I was in the Medium and that Jo was with me. To be fair, I’d been dealing with a lot all of five minutes ago, or however much time had actually passed. But it was more than that. I’d forgotten just how much Jo had faded. It had happened so slowly. Piece by piece. Eyes that didn’t quite sparkle the same way. A dress that had looked fine on a twelve-year-old, a bit dated on thirteen, immature on fourteen –
And something else was different, too.
Jo stood up, feet bracing on – actually touching – the grass, not hovering a few inches above or slipping right through. Her long hair was tied back into a loose ponytail, instead of around her head in a halo of flyaway curls. Her skin was brown, actually brown, instead of a memory of it lost in shades of grey. No dress. A button-up shirt and a black vest, which kind of reminded me of what both Avery and Isaiah wore, a cross between both of them. It wasn’t the flat chest that tipped me off; she’d been twelve when she died, for chrissakes, and besides, it wasn’t like I was flaunting a hell of a lot in the tits department anyway.
It was how much happier he looked. Happy, and nervous, and chewing on his lip as he waited for me to say something.
I bit back my first response. My second, too. This is what you’ve been avoiding fucking telling me? And the obvious, instinctual reaction that I couldn’t see the point given that Jo was a ghost – especially since by that logic, you could talk yourself out of anything, really.
“So, uh,” I managed to say, before I looked like even more of an idiot. “Is this a butch lesbian thing or–?”
“Definitely not a lesbian. That’s your thing.” Jo dug the tip of his boot into the ground. “I didn’t even know ghosts could, uh, change how we looked. Isaiah told me.”
“Isaiah helped you with a lot, huh?” I tried to keep the jealousy out of my voice.
“Yeah. Yeah, I – turns out I’m a guy. Would have liked to have put that together a little sooner, but…” Jo shrugged. I could see him kind of sinking, though. There was some reaction, some response I wasn’t giving. “It’s kind of awkward timing. I kept meaning to tell you, but.”
“I kept throwing myself into trouble?”
I’d had trans friends before. I had trans friends. Jesus, the girl I was pretty sure I was falling for was trans. Why was I so…
It wasn’t at Jo. I knew at least that much was true.
“I wish you’d told me anyway,” I said, then managed to smile. “You look good, though.”
“You think so?” There it was. He lit up, just a bit, and I realized with a suppressed snort that there were probably a few reasons Jo had been spending so much time with Isaiah.
And right on cue.
“I hate to break up this tender little moment,” came the snarl from the treeline, “but you aren’t supposed to be here.”
I bit down on the inside of my cheek so I didn’t say something I’d regret, and before I even turned to look at her, Kiera had hopped down from whatever branch she’d been skulking on, doing her usual skeletal Loom over the two of us. It wasn’t as successful as usual over Jo, because Jo was easily the same height as Kiera now. That and –
“I suppose you’re the ghost,” Kiera said with a wrinkle of her nose.
“Jo. Nice to meet you,” Jo replied with a smile so sharp it could have cut through steel.
“You look different than I expected.”
“I think you expected a girl.”
“I expected someone shorter. Whatever you dress up as is besides the point.”
I felt the back of my neck prickle with heat, fist curling by my side – but Jo grabbed my shoulders before I could do anything stupid. “Funnily enough, I don’t think that’s what she meant,” he said with a small laugh.
I was barely listening. I felt so stupid, but I’d forgotten how much I missed Jo. I put one of my hands up over to he—his. It’d take me a bit, but he felt the same.
“Very cute. Now if the two of you could get about leaving.”
I squinted at Kiera. She looked… well, surprisingly on edge. “You’re here.”
“Usually your observations aren’t quite so obvious. Yes, amazing. Right in front of—”
Kiera closed her mouth, seething for some reason I couldn’t understand. “You’re in the Medium. You destabilized. I assume the changeling showed you how to get back out.”
“And you’re here because?”
“I can navigate the Medium as I—” She sighed, something rankling at her. “I can—” Again, she cut her sentence off. “I just am. Faeries can navigate the Medium as they choose.”
Right. She was a faerie, which meant the Medium was easy enough to navigate. What was that? I thought anyway. And immediately following it up – She didn’t follow me in last time. She couldn’t find Jaylie. Why’s she here now?
I didn’t have any particular reason to stick around, though. Especially given that she’d just come way too close to skewering me. So I shook out my hands and tried to do what Jaylie had mentioned, about visualizing an exit.
I closed my eyes, and tried to think of the Civic Hospital doors. Opening and closing, with the little girl trapped between them –
Nothing. Just the blackness behind my eyes, stretching out like it did in the world-as-I-knew-it.
My heart began to pound against my ribs. I opened my eyes again. Kiera didn’t look smug, exactly. There was a glitter in her eyes I didn’t like – but still the same edginess as well.
“Why can’t I leave?”
Kiera didn’t say a word.
I turned to speak to Jo – and he was gone. “Jo. Jo—”
“He thought you’d be right behind him, I imagine,” Kiera said in an almost bored voice, leaning back against a tree and inspecting her fingernails. “For what it’s worth, he can get back in no problem. It just might take longer than usual.”
“Longer? You—” The angry headrush came back, and this time I didn’t have anybody to stop me. I threw myself at Kiera, my fists curling in the lapels of her coat as I shoved her back against the tree. She didn’t even try to stop me, her face a nearly-blank mask of… god, something. Sadness, almost? But the dull sadness I was so used to on myself. Resignation, really. The face you get when you’re tired right down to the center of everything you are. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything,” she said after a moment. “You did. You put yourself in the way.”
“Oh, so it’s my fault now?”
“Jesus christ, Kiera—”
“You destabilized, and so did I. And it dragged both of us back to the Medium. And when I’m in the Medium, I end up here.”
“And where is here, exactly? If it’s not the Medium?”
She laughed at that, finally breaking the dull shell she’d had on. “Oh, it’s the Medium alright. A special little spot of it made just for me. I really should have guessed where the bitch was hiding, you know. The changeling? Whether she knows it or not, this is the same thing.”
“The same thing. So you should be able to leave.”
“Oh, no.” Kiera yanked my hands away from her lapel. She was, I realized, in the state that I only sometimes saw her; gaunt and white-faced, eyes glinting with internal, unnatural light, teeth edged with shark-points, her proportions ever so slightly off. I wondered if that meant this was her true form, and the other was a mask. “One small difference, Jamal, sweetheart. I didn’t make it. And I don’t own it.”
Made just for me.
It slowly started to dawn on me that it might not just have been a coincidence that Kiera hadn’t been around any other faeries.
“Where are we, Kiera?” I asked, starting – finally – to get scared.
“Prison, dear. This is prison. Prison with a lovely blue sky and birches and spruce needles, and even a few very pretty frolicking geese, but prison regardless, with only one prisoner.” Kiera’s cheerless smile dropped. “You should have let me run the bitch through.”