The Singing Campground Part 5

            The faery waiting in the library did not resemble a queen from any of Lilly’s books. She wore a dark brown leather tunic and pants tucked inside matching leather boots. Her dark hair was braided around her head and pinned in place. No fancy gown or crown.

            The faery queen’s glowing green eyes glided over the human family while her pale pink lips remained closed in a straight line. Lilly thought she was beautiful in the way of a jaguar or a tiger.  

            Lilly felt like she was in the principal’s office for something she didn’t do.

            “Maybe we should curtsy or bow or something,” Mom whispered. “We wouldn’t want to offend her.”

            “Good idea,” Dad said. He and Willow bowed stiffly from the waist while Mom and Lilly attempted to curtsy without tripping over their ankles.

             “Your Highness,” Dad said, his face to the floor. The family waited for the queen’s response. Lilly prayed Willow wouldn’t do anything stupid that would draw the faery’s anger.

            “Stand. There’s no need for ceremony here,” the Queen said, rising from the chair. “Away from court, you may address me as Lady Aster.”

            Dad introduced the family. In response, Lady Aster waved her hands in front of Lilly’s parents. They froze in place like statues. Lilly tried to shake her mom, but she did not respond. A wave of panic washed over her. A glance over at her brother revealed matching wide eyes and open mouth. This could not be good.

Lady Aster turned to Lilly and her brother. Lilly tried not to tremble under her cold eyes. Then the faery smiled, her teeth all pointed and not at all human. “Twins! A rare sight. Faery mothers bearing two children must offer one as a changeling. I wonder…”

            Lilly shivered as Lady Aster placed her hand on her head, touching her forehead with her thumb. She felt a warm sensation like she was taking a shower. Memories popped into her mind. She and Willow talking about the strange singing. Threading their way through the woods. Foxes roasting marshmallows. She had no control over her thoughts as they were plucked out of her mind. Her anxious eyes sought her parents, but they stood frozen in place.

            “Stop it!” Willow shouted, grabbing Lady Aster’s arm, and breaking her contact with Lilly. “You can’t go rummaging through her mind like that! It’s rude!”

            “So you are protective!” Lady Aster said, her face flushed and eyes wide. “You can feel what I am doing to your twin.” She tried to touch Willow’s head, but he wiggled out of her grip.

            “Fear not! I wish you no harm,” Lady Aster said. “I found what I was seeking.” She snapped her fingers, and their parents blinked.

            “I’m… sorry. I didn’t hear you,” Mom said. Her forehead wrinkled as she looked at Dad for an explanation. He shook his head.

            That was so creepy, Lilly thought.

            Which one, pulling thoughts out of your head or freezing our parents? Lilly heard Willow’s voice in her head.

            How can you speak to my mind like that? Lilly thought.

            It must be a side effect of what she did to you. Are you okay?

            Yeah, I guess. She hasn’t turned us into trees yet.

            I don’t think she’s evil. I’d definitely like to learn how to do the spell to freeze Mom and Dad. That could come in handy.

            Willow! Be serious. We’ve got to focus on getting back to our world.

Lady Aster dipped her head toward their parents. “Thistle is preparing tea, and she would like your assistance. Run along, and I will chat with the twins.”

            Without a word, their parents walked out the door. Lilly and Willow were alone with the faery queen.

            I’m scared. Lilly thought toward her twin.

            Don’t worry. We’ll figure this out.

            “Now then, come sit down with me, and tell me more about the portal in the garden.” Lady Aster perched on the edge of the chair and gestured toward a tiny couch across from her. Lilly and Willow exchanged glances but sat down. Lilly was pushed into her brother’s elbow by a pillow embroidered with a large raven. The thumping beat of her heart matched Willow’s foot tapping on the floor.

            “You may think I am here as a friend of Nettle and Thorn,” Lady Aster began. “But I am only welcome in this place because of their absence. Thorn’s mother is Queen of the Spring Court. We have been rivals since birth. Her mother was betrothed to my father, yet she betrayed him for a mortal. My father broke off their engagement and married my mother instead. Thorn and I were born the same year.”

            “What does that have to do with us?” Willow said. “All we did was follow their stupid song.”

            Willow! That’s no way to talk to a queen! Lilly thought. And to Lady Aster, she added out loud, “Lady Aster, please forgive my brother’s rudeness. We are all stressed out. Nettle and Thorn kidnapped us. Although Faerie is a beautiful place, it is not our home.”

            Lady Aster appeared lost in her own thoughts, barely aware of the twins. “Perhaps the perfect punishment for Nettle and Thorn would be to leave them in the human world. Not only would they be absent from court, but they would eventually lose their magic as well.”

            At that moment, Thistle, Mom, and Dad came in with trays of tea, cakes, and sandwiches. Although Lilly was worried about how they were going to get back to the campground, the dainty white cakes with pink icing looked delicious. She couldn’t help herself from filling her plate. Breakfast seemed a long time ago.

            I don’t know why they cut off the crusts, but these egg salad sandwiches are awesome! I could eat fifty of them, Willow thought to Lilly.

            Please don’t act like a pig! We need her to help us, Lilly thought back.

            “Lady Aster, is there another portal we could use to return to our world?” Mom asked. Her hands didn’t tremble as she set her cup down in its delicate saucer. Mom was under control in all circumstances, even when she was having tea with a faery queen.

            “If it is a question of payment, maybe we could give you something you don’t have, like coffee,” Dad said, wrenching his finger out of the tiny teacup handle. “Or maybe some good Irish whiskey.”

            Lady Aster shook her head. “Your assistance will be payment enough. To get back to your proper place and time, you will need to return through the same portal. After you cross through, I will give you a spell to close it permanently on your side.”

            “You can open the portal?” Lilly asked. She felt a tiny glimmer of hope flicker inside. Although she was motivated by court politics, it seemed like Lady Aster was willing to help them.

            The faery queen took another sip of tea before answering. “No portal is closed to the Queen of the Summer Court. I suggest we send you back quickly to avoid any ugly confrontations.” She set down her teacup and saucer. “No time to dawdle. Now that we have been refreshed, let us proceed to the garden.”

            When we reached the portal, Lady Aster handed a leather bag to Lilly. “I’ll take that,” Mom said, reaching for it. Lady Aster stepped in front of Lilly. “She and her brother must perform the spell. Mortal children are more sensitive to magic. And as twins, they reflect each other’s power. It will not harm them.”

            “How do we know that for sure?” Dad said. “I’m not going to allow my children to do some ritual, or whatever it is, if we don’t know it’s safe.”

            “This is the price of your return,” Lady Aster said in a stern voice, waving her hands in front of their parents. “You will comply with my instructions.” Mom and Dad froze in place like they did before.

            Lilly opened the small bag in her hand. Inside was a tiny bone, maybe from a bird, a ball of string, and a black stone. Willow peered in over her shoulder and reached out to touch the items.

“Do not touch the elements before it is time!” Lady Aster warned. “We do not want them to lose any of their potency.”

            “What do I have to do?” Lilly asked. Her hands were shaking, and she could think of a million things she’d rather do than fool around with magic. Magic was the wild unknown. Lilly would rather stick with what she was good at, like multiplication or taking tests.

            “I’ll help you,” Willow said, putting his arm around her. When did he decide to act like a brother instead of a monkey? That was magic by itself.

            Lady Aster put one hand on each of their shoulders. “Do not be anxious, little lambs. This is simple magic. Listen carefully. When you come through to your world, Lilly will pour the items into her hand. Then she will spin around three times and say, ‘Be closed.’ As the portal begins to narrow, she will toss the items into the window, causing it to lock. Permanently.”

            “How will you know that we did it?” Lilly asked.

            “I will know,” she said. Then she snapped her fingers. Mom and Dad started moving again. “Come, I will send you home!”

            Lady Aster spoke some words that sounded like water bubbling in a stream. A large window opened, and Lilly could see the woods from her world. The faery queen dipped her head toward them. “It was a pleasure to meet you. Especially the twins. Do not hesitate to cast the magic when you arrive. Good day, human family.”

            With a stern look back at the faery queen, Dad stepped forward into the portal. “Come on, kids,” Mom said, taking Lilly and Willow by the hand. Lilly felt the resistance as they passed through.

            With a few steps, they were back in the forest. Birds chirped and pine needles rustled in the wind. Lilly wanted to run over and hug each tree.

            “Let’s do the magic,” Willow said.

            Lilly poured the bone, string, and rock into her hand. She spun around three times and said, “Be closed!” in her best bossy voice. Then she threw the items into the shrinking portal. It winked out of sight.

            I can’t believe I just did magic. I wonder if it worked, she thought.

            I’m sure it did, Willow thought back.

            Lilly’s eyes grew wide. We can still talk to each other’s minds!

            Totally awesome! Willow thought to her.  

            Even as Lilly was debating whether it was good to have her brother’s voice in her head, she felt waves of hot anger coming from behind her. As she turned around, she saw Nettle and Thorn, their eyes flashing and teeth bared, holding her parents. Even the faery children looked ready to pounce on her and tear her eyes out.

            “Human child, what have you done?” Thorn wailed.

The Singing Campground Part 4

            Lilly struggled to sit up in the soft feather bed. Her heart raced and she could barely breathe. The room in which she woke was peculiar. The stone walls were covered with brightly colored tapestries of forests and animals. The floors were wood planks and partially covered with thick green rugs.

            Or were they rugs? As her foot slipped out of bed, she felt blades of grass.

            The bedframe was built with huge logs. There was a carved pattern of birds along the side facing her. A brilliant white comforter spilled over the sides of the bed with pale green bedding underneath. Bedding that looked suspiciously like giant leaves. And the comforter looked more like milkweed fluff than fabric.

            Where was she?

            She ran to the narrow, high window, and reached up on her tiptoes to peek out. The scene below revealed rolling green hills bordered by dark forests. No sign of any cars or trucks. Or telephone poles.

            I’m in Faerie.  

            Her fuzzy mind cleared, and she remembered. Her family was tricked and pulled through the portal by the faeries they heard singing at the campground. Just so the faery family could take four more people on their camping trip in her world.

            It was too much for her to think about. Time to find her parents and Willow.

            Up to this point, she didn’t even notice she was dressed in a long white nightgown. Someone had dressed her for bed. She tried not to think about that as she threw open the doors of a huge carved wardrobe. Inside were various tunics, leggings, gowns, and other clothing she was not certain of their purpose. Everything was in shades of green and brown. She grabbed brown leggings and a plain green tunic and put them on. Then she pulled out some soft brown leather boots.

            Now feeling like she was in a Robin Hood play, she left her bedchamber and carefully descended the narrow, stone steps that led down to the main floor of this …Palace? Castle?

            After wandering down a long, narrow hallway, she found the dining room. Seated at a table that was longer than ten cafeteria tables set end to end were the rest of her family. Willow was chowing down on several slices of toast and what looked like oatmeal covered in cream.

            “Mggmg! Ya mmgup!” he said, gesturing toward her.

            “Willow! Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Mom scolded. She stretched over to hand him the large linen napkin from her lap. “Wipe your face. You look like a barbarian.”

            He swallowed, dabbed his chin, and repeated, “Lilly! You’re finally up. We’ve been waiting for you. Get some food. It’s great!” He grabbed more toasted bread from a huge plate.

            “Mom, Dad, what are we going to do?” Lilly said.

            “Sit down and eat your breakfast,” Dad said. His plate was overflowing with sausages and scrambled eggs. “It’s hard to think on an empty stomach.”

            Lilly rescued two slices of toast before her twin could eat them all. The pieces were small and dark brown, and they didn’t have holes like bread from the grocery store. She scooped some honey from a pot with a wooden ladle and spread it on the bread.

            She hesitated. Although the bread looked delicious, she couldn’t get the warning about faery food out of her head. The rest of her family looked normal, though. Her stomach rumbled to settle the argument. She nibbled the bread, slightly crunchy and bursting with sweetness. Then she took a sip of tea that a servant brought her. It was spicy and sweet.

            “Now that we’re all here, we need to figure out how to get back,” Dad said. Mom nodded from her seat across from him. “There’s no need to panic. Willow told me that Thorn said the portal here was no longer used. That means there must be others.”

            Lilly jumped up and clapped her hands. “Let’s go find another portal!”

            Before her parents could respond, a ruddy-cheeked faery wearing a blue dress and white apron entered the room. “If you are finished with your breakfast, there are some humans that are eager to meet you.” Her wrinkles deepened with her smile. She tucked a wisp of white hair back into her bun and then wiped her hands on her apron. Lilly had never seen an old faery before. Truth be told, she’d never seen any faery before yesterday. In her mind, she always thought they would be tiny like Tinkerbell and eternally young.

            “You may call me Thistle,” the faery said. “I am the housekeeper of Forest Home. My master and mistress left me strict orders to make you comfortable in every way. You must be disoriented, going through the portal like that. Meeting more of your kind will make you feel at home.”

            “There are other humans here?” Lilly asked.

            “They come in various ways,” Thistle said. “Tributes, changelings, and humans who wander through portals.”

            “We got pulled through that portal!” Willow said. “We didn’t choose to come here.”

            Thistle nodded, and her face turned pale. “I know. Nettle and Thorn are always getting into mischief. Been that way since they were wee babes. They need to be more careful. If the Queen found out they reopened that portal, she would be quite angry about it.”

            “We need to go home,” Dad said in a firm voice. “Can you help us?”

            Thistle backed away, shaking her head. “I cannot help you. When the master and the mistress return from their trip, you may ask them.” She turned to the maid clearing the breakfast dishes. “Leave that and take them down to Connell’s cottage.”

            Lilly and her family followed the maid out of the castle and across the grounds.

            It is a castle. I can see the outer walls surrounding us.

            Next to the rear stone wall sat a tiny stone cottage. Behind the cottage was a garden full of flowers and vegetables. The maid led them to the wooden door. Lilly and her family stood there waiting as she knocked.

            Lilly wondered if they’d be friendly.

            The door opened, and a tall man with red hair and a bushy beard appeared. “Well, well. Who do we have here?” he said. Immediately he was surrounded by four small children.

            “Daddy! Daddy! More people like us,” one of the little boys said, peeking out from behind his leg.

            After we met everyone, we went inside and sat down on a couch that smelled like moss and was incredibly soft. The mom, Angela, brought us tea. The children, Tommy, Anna, Kevin, and Danny, sat on the ground watching us intently.

            “So you are the campers that everyone thought died in the brush fire,” Dad said.

            “Yes, if Nettle hadn’t seen us through the portal, we would have been goners,” Angela, said, patting Anna on the head. “We owe him our lives.”

            “Why didn’t you go back?” Lilly wondered out loud. Anna was only three years old and kept trying to touch Lilly’s hair. Little kids could be so annoying.

            “Nettle and Thorn need us to remain on this side of the portal in order for them to use it,” Angela said. “When we saw how much they loved camping in the human world, we decided to stay here. There are many advantages to living in Faerie.” She pulled Danny and Tommy into a hug.  

            “Nettle hired me to oversee the running of his farms,” Ryan added. “He gave us this cottage and all the food we can eat. The land is welcoming to all plant life and the faery workers are strong and tireless. It’s a lot less stressful than my law career.”

            Mom shared a look with Dad, but he shook his head. “That sounds wonderful for you. However, our family needs to get back to the campground. Is there another portal nearby?”

            “If there is, we have no knowledge of it,” Angela said. “I’m sure you will settle in quickly. I’m excited to have someone to share human recipes with. It will be fun. This is your world now.”

            While the adults were talking, Lilly and Willow got pulled outside by the kids.

            “Do you have any video games?” Willow asked.

            Tommy laughed. “No electronics here. No electricity at all.”

            Lilly’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re kidding! You can’t even watch TV. What do you do for fun?”

            “We’ll show you,” Kevin said. Lilly, Willow, and the rest of the kids followed him to the barn where four dragons waited in stalls. One of them roared with delight to see Kevin, causing a burst of fire and smoke. He gently patted the dragon’s neck. “Let’s go for a ride,” he said.

            Moments later, Lilly and Willow were riding the skies, each sitting behind one of the kids on a dragon. On a dragon! Lilly was so excited that she couldn’t even speak. She rode behind Anna, her pearl pink dragon’s wings stretched wide.

It was breathtaking to see the land from above. Lilly thought it was the most thrilling thing she’d ever done. She looked over at Willow, who had his eyes squeezed shut and his arms tightly wrapped around Kevin’s waist.

            When they finally landed, Willow jumped down and ran over to the bushes to throw up.

            “Not much for flying then?” Kevin asked, covering a smile.

            Willow wiped his mouth on the inside of his tunic. “Nope. I’d rather sit in my living room and play “Fantasy Combat” with my online friends anytime.”

            “I can’t believe your parents let you ride dragons,” Lilly said. “My mom wouldn’t let me ride a horse until I was eight.”

“We’re a lot older than we look,” Tommy said with a shrug.

            Then Lilly remembered what Willow said about the missing campers. It happened 25 years ago. That meant even if Anna had been a baby at the time, she should be at least 25 years old now. “Wait a minute! You haven’t gotten any older than you were when you came through the portal. How can that be?”

            The Connell kids laughed.

            “I’m actually 28 years old in the human world,” Anna said. “After a few years here, Mom and Dad noticed we hadn’t aged. They got worried and asked Thorn. She said time moves way slower here than in the human world. Our minds still mature like they would back there, but our bodies change more slowly.”

            “That’s creepy!” Willow said. “You guys aren’t really kids at all!”

            “Nope,” Kevin said. “Mom loves it. She says she never wants us to grow up.”

            But Lilly did not think she wanted to have a little girl body forever. She wanted to be an adult. Then people would take her seriously.

            Her parents came out and joined them. “Nice dragons,” Dad said. “Willow and Lilly, I hope you didn’t ride without permission.”

            Lilly’s face turned red. “Only a short ride.”

            Dad gave her a stern look. “We’ll talk about this later. Right now, we’ve got to get back to the castle.”

            The maid who had brought us to the campers stepped out from behind my parents. She appeared to be in great distress as she wrung her hands and stepped back and forth from foot to foot. “Quickly. You must return to the great hall. The Queen is here.” Her eyes grew wide as she added, “Whatever you do, you must not say anything about the broken portal.”

The singing campground Part 3

            “I love story time!” one of the faery children said. They settled down on the logs around the campfire and eagerly waited for their mother to speak.

            Lilly narrowed her eyes at her twin, but Willow sat down next to Rudy, the oldest of the faery children and probably the closest to his age. “Come on, it would be rude to leave without hearing her story,” he pleaded. She shook her head but sat down next to him anyway. If she had to admit it, she was a little curious about the faeries, too.

            Nettle and Thorn sat across from them on another log. Thorn tucked wayward strands of her curly brown hair behind her pointed ears. Then she began to speak.

“In a time past, maybe twenty or so of your human years, some campers got caught in a wildfire right here in the woods. Nettle just happened to be trimming the hedges by an old, abandoned portal when he smelled the smoke. He peeked out and saw a human family scrambling to protect themselves from approaching flames. My husband’s heart was pricked, for you can see we also have children we love.”

            “I had to do something,” Nettle said, his face grim with the memory.

            “Of course, dear,” she said, patting his hand.

            “Nettle had no idea whether the old portal still worked. It had been dormant for centuries. Faerie centuries. But he could try. He reached through the portal and grabbed one of the children. Her brother saw his sister being dragged away and held onto her. The other children tried to free her. But Nettle’s magic was too strong, so the children were all pulled into Faerie. As the last of the four children landed in our garden, the parents also fell through.”

            “That’s amazing,” Willow said. “Everyone in our world thinks they died.”

            Lilly tipped her head like she was chewing on a deep thought. “No one ever saw them again. Why?”

            Thorn and Nettle exchanged glances. “They remain in Faerie,” she said.

            That’s when Lilly remembered that faeries couldn’t lie. But they could bend the truth and leave out what didn’t serve their purpose. “But they must have had friends and other relatives that they left behind,” she said.

            “Sacrifices had to be made,” Thorn said, getting up quickly. “Does anyone want some lemonade?”

            Lilly didn’t like how the faery mother had changed the subject quickly. But she didn’t have anything to accuse her, and Nettle had saved that family.

            “So now you use the portal to come here camping?” Willow asked, taking a cup from Thorn.

            “That’s right,” Nettle said. “When I pulled the human family through the portal, its magic was changed. It now allows six faeries to travel through it. Only six. The same number as the humans that came to us. When we are in your world, no one else can use the portal. Anyone who tries it gets bounced back.”

            “That’s weird,” Willow said.

            “For sure,” Rudy said. “But it means our family can go camping in these woods. We love it here!”

            “It’s fun to go to a place where we don’t have to hide from dragons,” one of the little girl faeries said.

            “A nonmagical world is a much safer world to camp in,” Thorn said. “We’ve talked about it so much, now some of our friends wish to join us. However, the way the portal works, it would be impossible.”

            “That is too bad,” Lilly said. There was something more that the faeries weren’t telling them, but she wasn’t sure what to ask. “We should be getting back. It’s been great to meet you, but we don’t want to get in trouble with our parents.”

            “It’s okay, Lilly. We could stay a little longer,” Willow said.

            “No. We need to go now,” Lilly insisted. She stood and pulled her brother to his feet. “Thank you for the marshmallows and lemonade.”

            Thorn and Nettle stood, and their children gathered around them. “Well met, Willow and Lilly,” Nettle said with a slight bow.

            Thorn smiled and it was like a beam of sunshine. “It’s wonderful that you have parents. A family of four. Perhaps you could bring them back with you tomorrow.”

            “Sure! That sounds great!” Willow said.

            “Come on. Let’s get out of here.” Lilly dragged her brother through the woods until they reached the road where their bikes were parked. Her head felt fuzzy, and her legs were wobbly on her bike.

            As they rode, Lilly could glimpse the sun resting on the horizon between the trees. No doubt they had missed dinner and would be in trouble.

            “Why did we stay there so long?” Lilly yelled.

            “You don’t meet faeries every day,” Willow cried.

            Lilly had a sense of uneasiness that settled over her like night over the sunset. The faeries had been nothing but nice to them, and yet… Every faery tale she’d ever read warned against dealing with the fae.

Hopefully, eating a few marshmallows was safe.

            When they zoomed into their campsite, their dad was walking toward them with a lantern. “There you are,” he said. “We were getting worried. I was just getting ready to come find you.”

            “Sorry,” Willow said. “The sun set extra fast today.”

            Mom jumped up from her chair. “Lilly, I expected better from you. Your brother has no sense of time, but you are usually more sensible.”

            Lilly’s heart ached when she saw her mom upset. “I’m so sorry, Mom. We went on a hike in the woods. It was shady in there. I didn’t realize what time it was.” She hated lying to her parents, but there was no way she was going to tell them they met faeries.

            “I’m starving,” Willow said.

            “Your plates are on the kitchen counter,” Mom said. “After you’re done, you can do the dishes and take the trash down to the dumpster. You can expect extra chores tomorrow.”

            The next day, Dad decided the family should take a hike. Lilly and Willow were excited because usually Dad preferred to sit in the shade and watch sports on their big screen TV on the outside of the trailer.

            “It’s a beautiful day, and families should enjoy it together!” he said. Mom packed lunch. Lilly grabbed the trail map the ranger gave them when they checked in.

            “Maybe we should hike down to the lake,” she said, squinting at the different colored lines on the map. “It’s only 1.7 miles and it’s rated moderate. I think we could do that.”

            “Let’s go!” Willow said.

            It didn’t take them long to find the trailhead for the hike to Lake Cuyamaca. Lilly and Willow walked ahead while Mom and Dad followed. The path was paved with tiny gravel, so it was easy to walk on. Occasionally, another path would branch out from the main one.

            “Willow, don’t go down there,” Dad said. “We don’t know where it leads. I need to conserve my energy.” He was already sweating in the steamy late morning sunshine. The lake trail crossed a huge meadow without any shade. Lilly was already regretting her choice.

            “Dad, maybe we should rest under those trees,” she said, pointing to the woods on the left.

            “Good idea,” Dad said. “It’s hard for us old folks to keep up with you kids in this humidity.”

            “I brought granola bars and tangerines,” Mom said. “This would be a good time to take a break.”

            Lilly and Willow followed their parents into the woods. Dad kept going until he found a place for them to sit down. The twins realized that the clearing looked familiar.

A large unnatural brush-free area with a fire circle in the middle, surrounded by fallen logs forming benches around it.

            This was the same place they met the faeries!

            Lilly started to shiver, which made no sense for a hot day. She was pretty good at directions. The clearing she and Willow visited last night was at the other end of the campground. In fact, when she chose the lake trail, she had purposely picked a route far from where they had met the faeries.

            A rustle announced six familiar foxes as they bounced out of the bushes.

            “Look, Arnie, foxes!” Mom said, taking a step back.

            “Stay away from them, dear,” Dad said, shielding her with his arm. “They might have rabies or something.” He turned to Lilly and Willow, who were standing frozen with looks of surprise on their faces. “Kids, they won’t attack you. They’re afraid of humans.”

            “Not all are,” Nettle said, standing up on two legs. “Lilly, Willow, nice to see you again. And thank you so much for bringing your parents.”

            Mom grabbed Lilly’s arm. “You know these creatures?” she asked.

            Lily attempted a weak smile. “Of course, Mom. But they’re not really foxes. They’re faeries.”

            “You can’t see what they really look like until you eat some of their food,” Willow added. “We met them last night. They’re super cool.”

            Thorn came forward and handed two graham crackers to Lilly. “Give these to your parents. Then they will believe.”

            Lilly realized this was a lot easier than trying to argue with her parents. She handed a cracker to each parent, which they ate with a lot of doubt. As soon as they swallowed them, their eyes were opened.

            “My, my! You ARE faeries!” Dad said.

            “Arnie, are they dangerous?” Mom asked, rubbing her eyes.

            “We’d love you to join us for an early luncheon,” Thorn said. “We’ve prepared something special for you.”

            Before Lilly could protest that they were in the middle of a family hike, Nettle grabbed her around the waist and threw her over his shoulder like a bag of potatoes.

            Several things happened at once.

Thorn pulled Dad into the woods. Rudy took Willow’s arm and pulled him behind her. Mom shrieked and ran after them. What did the faeries want with them?

Did faeries eat humans?

Whoosh! Twisting around, she could see a whirlpool in the air, framed by the ancient branches of two oak trees. The portal. Next thing she knew, Nettle passed through it, making her ears pop. The rest of the faeries and her family followed.

Nettle set her gently down into a bed of soft pine needles. She couldn’t see anything because on this side of the portal, it was night. But it smelled tangy like a forest. She thought she could also smell grilled chicken and corn.

Then she felt the thump of her brother and parents falling next to her. The faeries stood over them, their green eyes reflecting the pale moonlight.

“What do you want from us?” Lilly said in a half-sobbing voice.

“You’d better let us go,” Dad said. “I’ve got a knife.”

“Arnie, it’s only a pocketknife,” Mom argued.

“You weren’t supposed to tell them that. It’s iron after all. Doesn’t iron hurt them?” he said.

A few whispered words produced a flame which Thorn used to light a lantern. Her beautiful face looked haunting in its light.

“We are sorry to distress you in any way. You are very important to us. Because the four of you passed through the portal, now we can bring four of our friends out to your world for a camping trip,” Thorn said in a soothing voice.

“Our children play with theirs,” Nettle said. “They love to play in the woods. It gives us adults plenty of time to sit around the campfire.”

Lily’s mind whirred. “So, you need humans to go through this portal into your garden so that you can take faeries back to our world for a camping trip? What about our camping trip?”

Dad stood up, looking around. “Where are we? Send us back immediately!”
            Thorn sighed like a patient mother. “I’m so sorry. It’s time for you to rest now. When you awaken, luncheon will be served.” She waved her hand and a thick purple mist covered Lily and her family, sending them into dreamless sleep.

The singing campground: Part 2

“Let go! Got to get a video of this!” Willow tried to pull his arm and phone out of Lilly’s grip

“Shush! They’ll hear us.” She dragged him back into the surrounding trees. The clearing in front of them was a large circle, too perfect to have been formed by nature. But it wasn’t the clearing that raised the goosebumps on her arms.

They both stood there staring like mannequins in a store window. From the singing, Lilly had expected to see real people, sitting around a campfire. But this wasn’t a regular campsite. And the fire was not in a campground fire pit. She was certain that was against the rules. Mom always read the rules to them when they stayed at a new place.

Willow, his head full of stories about the campers lost in a wildfire years ago, expected to have his first glimpse of ghosts.

Neither twin saw what they expected.

Furry, red foxes with white faces, holding sticks in their hands (paws) and roasting marshmallows over a blue fire. Lilly knew fires were not usually blue, except natural gas flames under a stove. This was a blue fire coming out of a huge stack of logs piled in log cabin style.

And the foxes must have heard them arguing, because they stopped singing, and looked toward the trees where they crouched.

“Awesome!” Willow whisper-shouted. “They’re foxes!”

“What should we do?” Lilly asked, being the more practical twin.

At that moment, one of the larger foxes set its stick down on a rock, making sure that the partially browned marshmallow didn’t touch the ground. It walked on its back legs a few steps towards them.

“Come out from the trees, human kits,” it said in a low-pitched, deep voice. Lilly’s mouth dropped open. The voice was so human that if she wasn’t watching the words come out of the fox’s snout, she would be certain it was an adult man.

“Run!” Lilly grabbed her brother’s arm.

“Not only can they roast marshmallows, but they can talk!” Willow said, his smile ear to ear. “I want to meet them.”

“We should go. Mom said not to talk to strangers.”

“Strangers are human, silly. These are foxes. That can talk.”

“Come into the clearing,” the fox said. “We are eager to meet you. Did you hear our song?”

“Yes, we heard it,” Willow said. “It was awesome. We wanted to see who was singing it. Are you ghosts?”

The small foxes laughed, and it sounded like water tinkling on glass. Another large fox came near, standing by the first one.

“No, we are quite alive,” the second fox said in a high feminine voice. “But our true natures are concealed by glamour. Those who don’t hear our song, see only normal foxes in the woods.”

“If you’re not foxes, what, or who, are you?” Lilly asked.

The female fox gestured toward the campfire. “See for yourselves. We intend no harm toward you.”

Willow and Lilly looked at each other. When Mom had gone over all the rules about camping, she had not told them what to do when encountering magical talking foxes who ate marshmallows.

“Don’t be a baby, Lilly,” Willow said, making the decision for them both. He pushed her into the clearing where they took seats on large fallen logs around the roaring campfire. One of the smaller foxes handed each of them a carved stick with two marshmallows stuck on top.

“If this is one of those faerie tales, we really shouldn’t eat any food they offer us,” Lilly whispered to her brother.

“It’s only marshmallows,” Willow said. He thrust his stick into the fire. His marshmallows were a burning torch in seconds.

“That’s not the way to roast them,” Lilly said. She carefully dangled her stick at the edge of the fire, avoiding the strange blue flames. After a few minutes, she turned her stick. The side of her marshmallows facing the fire had turned golden brown.

“That’s the proper way to do it,” the largest of the small foxes said. “You can call me Rudy. What do you call yourselves?” The fox licked the gooey white from his claws. The other small foxes huddled together, staring at them with unblinking black eyes.

“I’m Willow, and this is Lilly,” her brother said. “We’re twins.”

“How delightful!” the older female fox said. She shared a knowing glance with the male fox, and then handed Willow two graham crackers and a piece of chocolate. After putting it together like a sandwich, he ate it quickly.

“Mmmm. This is delicious,” he mumbled with his mouth full.

Lilly was still not sure whether she should eat her perfectly roasted treat. She watched her brother, holding her breath. If something went wrong, she would grab him and run back to their campsite.

Willow jumped up from the log. “I can see you!” he shouted to Rudy. “You’re not a fox. You’re a boy!”

Lilly stared at her brother in horror. Did the food do something to him?

“Don’t worry. Your brother was not poisoned by our s’mores. When a visitor eats with us, they can see who we really are,” Rudy said. “Go ahead, eat it. You’ll see.”

She slowly pulled the marshmallow off the stick. Its crunchy gooey sweetness exploded in her mouth. It was the best roasted marshmallow she had ever tasted. As she swallowed it, her eyes were opened.

The foxes around the campfire were replaced by slender people dressed in various shades of brown and green. Two of them looked like adults and the rest were children of various ages from around four to twelve. Rudy looked like the oldest. They could have passed for survivalists living in the woods except for their long pointed ears that poked out from their silky dark brown hair.

“You’re faeries!” Lilly gasped.

“Summer Court, to be exact,” the father said. “You can call me Nettle. This is my wife, Thorn. You’ve already met Rudy. The others are Loden, Sunny, Tawny, and Golden.” The faeries nodded as Nettle named them.

Willow frowned. “What are you doing out here? Don’t faeries live in a different realm?”

Thorn smiled. Her glowing emerald green eyes framed by waves of shimmering dark brown hair were so lovely that Lilly and Willow’s hearts felt like they would break. “We’re camping. Like you and your family are,” she said.

Lilly pushed out of her mind the faery’s radiating bliss. From the books she’d read, she knew faeries were tricky and not usually nice to humans. Leaving right now would be the reasonable thing to do.

“Nice to meet all of you. Willow and I have to go now. Dad needs us to help with dinner.” She tried to pull her brother away, but he shook her off.

“Is there a portal around here?” he said, looking around. The surrounding woods, other than the perfect campfire clearing, looked like normal trees. There was no hint of magic.

“Sit down,” the mother said. “It is a long tale, but I would tell it to you.”

Willow sat back down on the log. Lilly sighed but joined him anyway. Her brother had no common sense whatsoever. She felt like she was born as his twin so that she could keep him out of trouble.

Sometimes it worked.

The Singing Campground: Part One

When her dad finally turned their motorhome into the campground, Lily had no reason to believe it was haunted. After all, she had just turned twelve years old, and she considered herself very grown up. She didn’t believe in nonsense like ghosts. Not like her brother, Willow, who still tied a beach towel around his neck and called himself Super Twin.

The sign at the campground entrance said William Heise County Park. It had taken them over two hours of twisty roads to get here. That seemed like a long time to drive somewhere just for the weekend, but Dad was set on eating apple pie at nearby Julian. He had towed our Jeep behind the motorhome so that we could ride top down into the historic mining town on Saturday.

“When we get to our site, everyone helps set up camp,” Dad said. “Willow, that means no taking off into the forest.”

“Come on, Dad!” her brother said. “We’ve been stuck in this RV forever!”

“No whining,” Mom said. “Camping is a team activity. Everyone works together.”

Lily gave her twin her best Mom glare. He took a deep chug of his soda and belched in her face.

“Mom, Willow’s being rude!” she said.

“Willow, settle down,” Mom said. “Be nice to your sister for once.”

Willow stuck out his tongue at Lily who had already decided to ignore him.

After he unhooked the Jeep, Dad followed the signs to their site. Mom followed behind us driving the Jeep. Lily had studied the camp map before they left. This camp had three loops for motorhomes and one just for tents. He turned right at the first loop and drove slowly.

“We’re in site 12. Keep your eyes open so we don’t miss it,” he said.

“There it is,” Lily cried. A small wooden post at the side of the paved pad had the number 12 written on it.

Dad passed the site. Mom jumped out to guide him back into the spot.

“Lily, check the level,” he said when he was in.

Lily grabbed the small plastic leveler and set it on the kitchen counter, in the middle of the small motorhome. She looked at the small bubbles inside. One bubble was for front to back level and the other was for side to side. The side to side one was inside the lines. Level. But the front to back one was not.

“Dad, it looks like we need blocks on the back tires,” she said. She was pretty good at checking levels. She was exact in everything she did.

After the motorhome was set, Lily and Willow helped their mom set up the outdoor rug, table, and chairs. Dad plugged in the electricity and hooked up the water. Then he took down their bikes from the rack on the back of the motorhome.

“Let’s go explore,” Willow said, hopping on his bike.

“Wait! Here’s your helmet,” Lily called after him. He zoomed past her, snagging his helmet out of her hand. She rubbed some sunscreen on her nose. Then she pulled on her mini backpack with drinks and snacks. She buckled on her helmet over her blonde hair swept back in a ponytail. Finally, she was ready to catch up with her brother.

“Bye, Mom! Bye, Dad!” she cried over her shoulder.

“Be back by dark,” Mom called after her.

Lily pedaled hard before she saw Willow cruising down the hill toward another loop of campsites. “Wait for me!” she said, although she didn’t have much hope that he would slow down. Suddenly, she raced past him as he stopped at the bottom of the hill.

She slowed down and turned around to join him. Willow stood with his feet down on either side of his bike, staring into a deep green thicket of forest.

“What do you see? Is it a deer?” Lily said, putting her feet down.

He turned to face her. “Wait. Do you hear that?”

Lily listened carefully. Chirping birds, droning insects, faint laughter from a campsite. “What exactly should I be hearing?”

Willow’s curly blonde hair almost hung into his eyes, but she could still see that he was freaked out about something. His mouth scrunched up in annoyance. “Come on, Lily! Can’t you hear it? It’s singing! And a guitar. Some campfire song I kinda remember from summer camp.”

Lily listened again. This time she faintly heard voices singing along with a guitar. It did sound like an old song they’d heard at camp:

Mr. Moon, Mr. Moon, you’re out too soon,

The sun is still in the sky.

Go back to your bed and cover up your head,

And wait til the day is night.

            She would have expected to hear this song coming from a campsite at night. Instead, she heard it coming from the forest somewhere beyond them.

            “I want to go see who’s singing,” Willow said, pushing down the kickstand on his bike and setting it up on the side of the road. “Wanna come with me?”

            Lily looked around. Their bikes would be safely out of the way. There was still plenty of daylight left for them to explore. Besides she was curious about the song, too. “Okay,” she said. She left her bike and followed her brother into the woods.

            There was no trail, so Willow had to beat down the underbrush with his sneakers and push branches aside to make progress. Lily defended herself against the branches when they snapped back in her face.

            “Who do you think they are?” Lily asked. She had already decided the mysterious song came from some campers roughing it outside the regular campsites. There was something haunting about the way they sang though.

            “Ghosts, of course,” Willow said over his shoulder.

            “Seriously? How do you get ghosts from a group of campers singing a song?” Lily said with a chuckle. “You are so weird sometimes.”

            Willow stopped and held back a branch so he could see her face. “Did you hear Dad talking about it the other night? The reason we were able to get last minute reservations was because campers say this place is haunted.”

            “A haunted campground?” Lily said. “Dad must have been trying to scare you.”

            “I thought so, too. But then I researched it on the internet. Ten years ago, there was a huge wildfire up here. Almost took out the town of Julian. All the campgrounds were evacuated. Except there were some campers that went out into the woods to get away from other people. They didn’t realize the fire was that close. The wind blew up and none of them escaped alive.”

            “Wow! That’s terrible,” Lily said.

            Willow nodded. “Yeah, it was. The camp was closed for the rest of the summer, until they could make repairs. The next year when campers came back, they started to complain about hearing strange sounds. Singing in the woods. Some people said they were the ghosts of the campers who got caught in the wildfire.”

            “There’s no such thing as ghosts,” Lily said. “Maybe someone is playing a prank.”

            “Let’s find out,” Willow said. He pulled out his phone from his pocket. “I’m going to take pictures of the ghosts or pranksters. Whatever. When I post this on Instagram, I’ll get thousands of new followers.” He turned and continued toward the music.

            Lily followed behind him, wondering how she allowed her brother to get her involved in another one of his ridiculous schemes. The singing was getting louder, and now she could tell that there was at least one adult and more than one kid singing. It sounded like only one acoustic guitar. She suppressed a shiver. It was chilly in the shade here, compared to riding in the sun. She was glad they were both wearing jeans since it was hard to tell whether they were walking through poison ivy.

            They were surrounded by young trees growing close together, the canopy of leaves overhead not yet thick enough to block patchy sunlight from filtering through. Blackened stumps and fallen black limbs poking out through the undergrowth were the only reminders that a wildfire had destroyed this area years ago.

            The singing went on, song after song. It was getting louder. Now Lily could also hear the crackling and popping of a campfire. They kept walking toward the sounds.

            Willow pulled aside more branches, and a clearing opened before them. A large fire was burning in the middle, contained by a ring of rocks. The singing stopped.

            Lily gasped and grabbed Willow’s arm, pulling down his phone.  

How Violet got right

Violet did everything right.

Every week, she created 10 TikTok videos, posted 21 pictures of her meals on Instagram, and liked all her friends’ memes on Facebook. She answered every text and email immediately upon receiving them. All her friends loved her.

Not only did Violet do everything right, but she also had the right job.

She only drove to the office once a week. The remaining days she worked from her spare bedroom in her tank top and yoga pants. Her colleagues lived around the world, creating ad campaigns for top companies. All her friends envied her.

In addition to doing everything right and having the right job, Violet had the right boyfriend.

Anthony was a firefighter, with tousled raven-colored hair, the kind you wanted to run your fingers through. In fact, he was so hot he was hired to pose for a firefighter calendar that benefited families displaced by wildfires. All her friends loved him.

And yet, Violet did not feel right.

She felt like social media dictated what she should wear and care about. Her bosses expected more from her since she worked at home, so often she worked all night. Anthony worked long hours during the fire season, so he felt like she should run his errands and be available to him without any notice.

She suspected she might need to get rid of some things in her life so she could feel right. She turned off her TV and computer. She deleted her social media accounts. She quit her job and started working at Starbucks. She broke up with her firefighter boyfriend. Her friends pushed each other out of the way to try to date him. Although she was surprised she didn’t care that much about losing these things, she still didn’t feel right.

Violet starting writing again, and that felt right.

Years ago, she loved writing horror stories, but her life became too busy and too right. She pulled her old stories out of the desk drawer and revised them. Then she submitted them to magazines who eagerly accepted them for publishing. She started working on a children’s book. It was about a little girl who was surrounded by adults that told her what she should do. The little girl ran away into the forest, where she ended up living happily in a tiny cottage with her pet rabbits. When the book was ready, she submitted it to a literary agent who loved it so much, she signed her that day.

Violet started to feel right.

She wore clothes that looked good and felt right on her. Her job at Starbucks paid the bills so that she could write books when she got home. She even met a guy at her first book signing who seemed right for her. He was smart and creative. He wanted to start his own publishing business and publish all her books. He did things for her, and that felt right.

Even though Violet felt better, she still knew she wasn’t right. She bought a Bible from a used bookstore. Every night, she would read a chapter before bed. After a while, she understood what she needed to do.

She started attending a church down the street from her house. The pastor said things that didn’t make any sense, like giving money to the poor and caring about people who were not right like her. This intrigued her so she decided to find out more. She bought a Bible from a used bookstore and started to read. The words were different from all the things she had heard online and from her friends.

That’s how Violet finally found out how to be right.

The Mystery of Summer Vacation

Unless you are a teacher, you will never experience the mystery of summer vacation.

The school year grinds relentlessly through your calendar for ten months. Deadlines loom like boogie men. State tests. Report cards. Awards. Room inspection. Then one day, you leave your key with the school secretary and walk out to a new world. Your chest relaxes and you can breathe. The sun smiles at your secret summer plans, and for a moment you forget that it will burn you. You don’t realize that you have started to giggle, causing others around you to stare.

Except other teachers, who share a secret smile.

During summer vacation, mornings are quiet and leisurely. Birds chirping outside are the only ones busy at work. When you finally roll out of bed and stretch, the sun is well on its daily trek across the sky. Devotion time is not rushed. Coffee is savored. Plans for the day include reading on a lounger in the pool. No grading papers. No staff meetings.

The first few days are a blur. Your mind is resetting itself for summer mode. But after a while, you notice other people racing around in their cars during the day, especially in the morning and early evening. That’s right! You forgot that other people go to work. In the back of your mind, you know that you’re only on summer vacation for ten weeks, but now you can only see empty, uncommitted squares on your calendar.

However, you are a teacher, so you have made plans for some of those days. Beach trips, camping, visiting relatives. But those events are not squeezed into the school year, so your forehead doesn’t wrinkle when you think about them. You’ll have plenty of time to shop and pack in the days to come.

Weeks go by. Smiling comes easy. Your family enjoys your company. Your dogs wag their tails at the door as they wait for their morning walk.

As July comes to an end, anxious thoughts poke their way through your summer brain. Will I have a good class this year? Will our principal do that same old team building activity during our first staff meeting? You rebuke these thoughts as it is not time yet.

Then a letter arrives. Your spouse laid it on the kitchen counter without a comment. You pick it up with trembling hands because you know what it means. Your principal sends it every year.

The dreaded Welcome Back to School Letter. With all the dates for meetings and days you can get your key to work on your classroom. Each line cuts into your soul.

Summer is almost over. Frantically, you try to jam in as many activities as possible before your report back date. Your smile is fading now. Your laugh sounds a little forced.

And just like that, summer vacation is over. How can you walk away from your school building one moment, and then in the blink of an eye, you’re back stapling up new paper and counting out school supplies?

A mystery no scientist has ever solved.