Meghan handed her classroom keys to Alice, the school secretary, and started her summer vacation. As she got into her car, she looked over at the other teachers coming out of the gates. They would probably have a normal summer, sitting by the pool, going to lunch with friends, or working in the back yard.
But Meghan and her friends Debbie and Mary were headed into another world.
Just as she pulled into her driveway, her cell phone buzzed, still on silent from the school day. She looked at it, and saw that it was Debbie.
“Hey, Debbie, are you ready to go?”
“Yeah, just wanted to know if I should pack something formal. Remember last summer when we scored an invitation to the Spring Court Ball?”
“Don’t worry about that. We can buy something more appropriate there if we need to. Just remember to bring lots of candy, especially chocolate bars. They were better than gold last time.”
“Got it. See you at the hotel.”
Meghan grabbed her bulging duffle bag and set it by the door. Then she looked over her note for Carrie, who was staying in her home to take care of her Pomeranian for the summer. She pulled her long brown hair back into a bun and changed her shorts and t-shirt for a sundress, acceptable attire for their destination. Finally she gave Barker a treat, grabbed a bottle of water, and she was on her way.
The entry point for their vacation was in an old hotel downtown. A few years back, she and her friends had booked a girls weekend there, so they could hang out at the huge swimming pool. The hotel, The Mission Inn, remodeled various times over the decades, was full of passageways and small hidden rooms. Megan’s overactive imagination demanded they explore all of them. During their wanderings, they had discovered an old freight elevator, the kind that looks like a cage.
“Finally, you’re here!” a familiar voice called to her when she reached the lobby. An older woman in her sixties with long straight grey hair jumped out of an overstuffed chair by a brick fireplace.
“Mary, I can’t believe the school year’s over,” Meghan said with a smile. “I can’t wait to see Clover again. I miss her brown bread and corn muffins.”
Another woman walked in carrying a duffle bag. She wore a wide brimmed straw hat that kept her dark curly hair under control. “Ready for some fun?” she said as she joined them.
The three women entered the maze of hallways lit by dim lights set in wrought iron holders. They passed a few housekeeping carts and guests in swimsuits. Then they opened a door at the end of the corridor and walked down ancient stairs that looked like they were made of stone. Down and down they descended into the humming body of the hotel.
After four flights, they finally reached the bottom. Meghan opened the wooden door and they stepped into a small room with a freight elevator. She pulled up the outer gate, and her friends pulled apart the metal doors. Then they stepped in with their luggage and closed the doors. Meghan pushed a button labeled SUC, and the elevator whirred to life, taking them up with jerky movements. The structure of the surrounding walls showed through the slatted wooden gates, and she felt, not for the first time, that they were inside a large beast, looking at its bones and muscles.
The elevator creaked to halt, dropping slightly, causing the women to grab the railings that ran around the inside of the elevator car. They opened the gates into another bare room with a wooden door.
“Finally, we’re here,” Meghan said as they stepped out into a dirt road.
“Back in Faerie,” Debbie sighed.
“Back where we belong,” Mary added. The room they left looked like a small wooden shed from the outside. The road before them led into a series of rolling hills, dotted with trees that clustered next to a hidden creek.
Standing on the road was an open bed wagon drawn by a towering grey mule. A cheerful-looking man in coveralls with slanted green eyes and pointed ears that poked through his curly red hair greeted them.
“Good day, ladies! Long time beyont and welcome once more. On time as usual. Come on aboard, and let me take you home.”
“Thank you, Thistle,” Meghan said. “Back once more, and welcome accepted.” She and her friends tossed their bags into the back of the wagon and pulled themselves into it, sitting on some wooden crates that smelled like peaches.
“Thistle, you got some dapples! My favorite,” Debbie said. “I hope Clover’s going to make pie!” Meghan knew that her friend’s months of eating only carrots sticks and protein drinks ended when they emerged into their summer world. Sometimes, she worried about her friend’s obsession with being thin.
“Of course she is,” the faery said, rubbing his ample stomach. “The missis is cooking a proper welcome back dinner tonight with all the neighbors.”
“I missed this so much,” Mary said, looking around at the many shades of green surrounding them. “It’s so brown and dried up where we’re from.” They rode down into the cool shade of the glen. The breeze carried wildflower perfume, and twittering red and yellow birds peaked out from the trees overhanging the road. Mary had packed her paint set and a roll of canvas, as she preferred to sit out in the countryside painting the beauty she saw instead of worrying about what she would wear to the evening party.
Meghan soaked into the colorful landscape, her eyes seeking out every detail to compare it to her fond memories of past summers. Then she frowned.
“Mary, do you see that, over there to the south?” she asked, shielding her eyes with her hand against the bright sunshine.
As Mary followed Meghan’s gaze, she gasped. “It’s grey over there, down by the mill creek. There still are trees but nothing has any color. I hope there’s not some blight on the forest!”
“Thistle, what happened down there? Has there been a drought?” Meghan asked.
The faery glanced back and sighed. “You will learn soon enough. Not the right talk on your first day back.”
The three teachers looked at each other, but didn’t press the issue. If a faery was closed up about something, you wouldn’t find out until they were ready.
“There it is,” Debbie said, as the wagon crested the hill and revealed Willow House. It was a tall brick house with rows and rows of shuttered windows, surrounded by draping willow trees. The servants, dressed in pale blue with white aprons, stood outside waiting, which from this distance looked like bluebirds on the lawn. Their servants! So different from their other lives. The mule plodded on, too slowly for Meghan’s racing heart, until they reached the front drive.
Clover, a short round faery with a grey bun, walked up with a small stool to help them down. The other servants reached up to take their luggage. They were home.
Later, after baths in rose scented water and dressed in green gowns that shimmered like beetles, they came downstairs to a roar of greetings. Faeries from the surrounding farms gathered at a long table, one end reserved for the teachers. Wine was flowing liberally, and laughter bubbled up everywhere. Servants scurried around carrying heavy platters of roasted meats, fish, potatoes, and vegetables.
Meghan and her friends quickly joined in the feast. “Isn’t it amazing how the food here tastes so much better than anything we have back in our world?” Mary asked her.
“Better than any restaurant,” Meghan agreed, and she tore into her turkey leg.
Suddenly, a tinkling bell rang, and everyone froze. No one expected the Summer Queen to visit here, so far away from her court. But that bell announced her eminent arrival so everyone rose to their feet, wiping greasy fingers on their clothes.
A flash and puff of smoke made Meghan blink, and then there was the Summer Queen, standing in their hall. A tall creature with long braided dark hair, her beauty causing everyone to squint. Her gown that shimmered with colors of bright blue, pale green and pink and she wore a silver circlet on her brow. Her female attendants surrounded her in blue uniforms covered with chain mail. Everyone in the room bowed or curtsied, waiting for their monarch’s instruction.
“Rise, everyone. Grace and peace to you all in this humble house,” Queen Amber said in a grave voice. “Please return to your festivities. Our purpose here is to speak with the newly arrived teachers.” She gestured toward Meghan and her friends. “We require a meeting with you in the palace. Come with us immediately.”
A queen could not be refused. Guards took their hands and pulled them close to the royal entourage. Another flash and puff of smoke and they were gone.