The Singing Campground Part Six

            “T-the queen! She sent us back!” Lilly managed to choke out, her heart jumping into her throat.

            “No!!!!” Nettle roared, dropping a large duffle bag on the ground. Thorn and the children growled, exposing pointy teeth. There was nothing human about those expressions. They rushed toward Lilly and her family with their backpacks raised as weapons.

            “Out of here,” Dad shouted, grabbing the twins and dashing across the clearing.

            “Stop!” Thorn commanded. Lilly and her family froze in place.

            What are they going to do to us? she thought to Willow.

            Probably turn us into trees. No one would even notice if there were four more trees in this forest, Willow thought back.

            Not helpful, Lilly replied. She would have burst into tears if only she could move. At least she could still breathe. Of course, at that moment, she had a tremendous itch on her nose. A rustling sound made her forget about it.

            A female faery with two children entered the clearing. She wore long white braids and was dressed for hiking with boots, a broad-brimmed hat, and a backpack. The faery children’s heads were capped with curly white hair, and they looked very young, not more than two and four years old. They held their mother’s hands and stared at Lily and Willow with eyes wide as a full moon. A male faery followed her, carrying a larger backpack.

            “What is this all about?” the male faery said. “Is there a problem with the portal?”

            Thorn spread her arms wide. “Just a broken spell. You know how these things happen. We will get it working immediately.”

            The female faery frowned. “I hope so. We must return in time for my Herbcraft class. My students depend on me.”

            Nettle stood in front of where the portal had been, spreading his arms wide and muttering in his own language. After three attempts, he shouted, “The human broke the portal!”

            “Leth uss go,” Mom said, straining against her frozen lips. Lilly could see Mom’s eyes were sparking with anger, even if she couldn’t move her face. Dad was turned away from them, frozen in mid-step. She hoped he wouldn’t fall on his face.

            “I’ve got this.” Thorn pushed past Nettle and sprinkled white powder onto the ground. She spit on it and mumbled singsong words.

Nothing happened.

“Damn you, Aster!” Nettle said, shaking his fist at the sky.

“Curse that wicked queen!” Thorn said. “When we get back, I will personally tear her heart out and serve it for dessert. Over sponge cake with whipped crème.”

Lily’s heart was racing. What can we do?” she thought to Willow.
            Although he couldn’t turn, his eyes attempted to meet hers. Don’t worry. You’ll think of something. You always do.

            “First things first,” Nettle said. He waved his hand, spoke a few words, and Lilly’s parents turned into rabbits. They sat back on their haunches, sniffed the air, before hopping into the dense underbrush of the forest. Then he released Lilly and Willow.

            Lilly itched her nose furiously.

            “Twins are too valuable to waste,” he said to their friends with a shrug. “We’ll take them home with us.”

            “Turn our parents back!” Lilly said. “We had to do what the queen told us. We had no choice.” She pulled away from Rudy who had grabbed her arm.

            Two of the other faery children held Willow between them. Their sharp fingernails dug into his arms, causing him to yelp in pain.

            Yeow! These little buggers are strong! he thought to Lilly.

            We need to get Mom and Dad back! Lilly thought to her brother. She tried to remember the faery tales Mom told them at bedtime. Faeries like to trade. We’ve got to think of something we can bargain with.

            The faeries dragged Willow and Lilly to the campfire circle. Nettle and Thorn sat down across from them.

            “We can reopen the portal with our own magic,” Lilly said.

            “Magic? We don’t have any magic!” Willow protested.

Lilly exchanged a look with him. We’re talking to each other in our minds. That’s magic. I think we can do more.

“Twin magic is extremely powerful,” Thorn said. “Especially since your visit to Faerie. No doubt you’re starting to experience some of the effects.”

 “We’ll fix the portal if you change our parents back,” Lilly said. “Promise. Promise you will return our parents to human form. Three times I ask this.” She remembered that faeries couldn’t lie, and they took their bargains seriously. Also, asking three times was binding.

“Agreed, agreed, and agreed,” Thorne said. She pulled some herbs out of her pouch and mixed them in a bowl. Rudy poured liquid from a vial into the mixture and a strong licorice smell filled the air.

“This porridge will strengthen and focus your magic so it can be used,” she said, handing the bowl to Lilly. “Take two bites and pass it to your brother.”

Lilly hesitated as she looked at the grey, lumpy mass in the bowl. What if I throw it all up? she thought to her brother.

            “Just do it,” Willow said. “How bad can it be?” He took the bowl and tasted some from the spoon. He worked hard to keep his face neutral. It tastes like Aunt Gertie’s rice pudding.

            That bad, Lilly thought back. She took the bowl and downed two spoonfuls. Then she handed it back to Thorn. Other than her churning stomach, she didn’t feel any different.

            “Come, children, we have work to do,” Thorn said. She led them back over the original portal’s location. “Close your eyes. Both eyes, young manchild. Think about our castle in Faerie. This should not be difficult because you have actually been there. Think about the bedchambers you woke up in. Think about the delicious food Cook prepared for you.”

            “I’ll never forget that French toast,” Willow said. “Why couldn’t your potion taste like that?”

            “Focus!” Thorn snapped at him. “When you have anchored the location in your minds, then think about building a bridge from here to that place in Faerie.”

            “What kind of bridge? Wood or stone?” Lilly asked.

            “I want to make one of those hanging rope bridges,” Willow said.

            “It doesn’t MATTER what type of bridge! It’s only a symbol, a device to make a portal,” Nettle shouted.

            “Settle down, my love. They are only children,” Thorn soothed him.

            Lilly thought about a bridge to Faerie. In her mind, she saw it like a storybook bridge, old stone and arched. Wide enough for a horse and wagon. She sent the image to her brother.

            Looks sturdy, he thought back to her.

            As Lilly focused on the bridge and the castle back in Faerie, the forest grew silent around her. Her mind started to feel fuzzy, like after she’d spent too much time in the sun.

            How long do you think we have to do this? Willow thought at her.

            How should I know? she thought back at him.

            “It is finished!” Thorn shouted and the twins opened their eyes. In front of them was the familiar swirling circle they had been dragged through the first time.

            “Brilliant work!” Thorn and Nettle’s friend, the male faery, said. “Quickly, let us leave.”

            “Come on now. Don’t dawdle. The portal will only stay open a short time,” Thorn said, lining up her children. She gestured toward their friends and their children.

            Lilly tugged at her arm. “Wait a minute! You said you’d restore our parents!”

            Thorn nodded. “Of course.” She flicked her fingers, and Mom and Dad came crashing out of the bushes, crawling on all fours. They stopped, looked at each other, and quickly jumped to their feet.

            “Now look here, Thorn!” Dad said. “We have no magic! Let us go at once!”

            Thorn and Nettle glanced at the twins. “You have more magic than you know. But do not fret. The portal is open once more. We will bid you farewell.” And with that, the faeries jumped through the portal before it closed.

            “I’m hungry!” Willow said.

            Lilly’s stomach gurgled in agreement. “Me, too.”

            Mom gave them a weary, relieved smile. “Let’s go back to the campsite and grill up some burgers.”

            “And share scary stories around the campfire,” Dad said. When he saw the twins terrified expressions, he added, “Or maybe just regular stories tonight.”

            As they followed their parents out of the forest and back into the campground, Lilly thought she heard faint strains of singing coming out of the woods. Do you hear that music? she thought at Willow.

            Yeah, he thought back, but I’ve had enough exploring for one day.    

            Lilly checked her jacket pocket for the small jar of the remaining potion Thorn had made them eat. It was sealed with a wax ring.

In the distance, she was certain she heard the delicate peal of children’s laughter.

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 Witch Who Was Afraid of Magic

     

No one ever visited the old crone who lived deep in the heart of the forest. The miller’s wife said she was a witch. The blacksmith’s wife told everyone she was mad. The local priest insisted that she was a wise woman with knowledge about herbal remedies, nothing magical.

The crone’s name was Circe, meaning “little bird,” which is how she lived, hidden under the trees. Upon her arrival she had claimed a tiny stone cottage, built and abandoned by unknown persons long ago. She made it hers as she swept the hearth, tucked straw into holes around the window, and planted wildflowers around it.

Circe wore her waist-length black hair twisted and braided around her head like a crown. Even though she could feel the wrinkles on her face, her hair’s glossy raven color never faded. It was an unconscious magic that she couldn’t control. If she had chosen to practice her magic, she would be able to hold on to more of her youth. But she hid away from magic as well as people.

They both brought pain.

The crone knew how to take care of herself. Her skill with bow and snare provided her meat, along with vegetables she grew in her garden. In exchange for herbs, the blacksmith’s daughter, Anna, brought Circe whatever else she lacked. Her innocent smile and sparkling eyes reminded the crone of herself when she was very young.

Every day the crone strolled through her forest home. The dark green canopy allowed only speckles of sunlight to dot the carpet of brown leaves. The trees were close together, so she had to wind her way around them. The branches whispered greetings to her as she passed. With a hand on the rough, gnarled bark, she whispered her thanks that the forest provided murderers with peaceful exile.

Many years ago, she had lived in the nearby village, before any of its current residents had drawn their first breath. In those days, she was recklessly beautiful and gave herself freely to any young man she pleased. This did not make her popular with the women in the village.

Thomas, one of the village elders, pleaded with her that she should settle down and marry. Circe smiled at his grave face and agreed. It was time to start a family of her own. Mother gave her books and seedlings to nurture her magic. Warned her to only use it for good.  

A raven’s cry brought Circe back to the present. That was good because she didn’t want to dwell on what happened next. The laughing young man she married became an angry jealous man who left marks on her. He told the men at the pub that he had married a witch, and the reason they had no babies was because his wife slept with demons. A ridiculous notion that may have been concocted to protect his tumorous pride.

One night her husband came home with murder in his eyes. As usual, she brought him his stew which he ate in front of the fire. He roared out insults and grabbed his walking stick. Before he could strike her, Circe quickly spoke words of power. Her husband cried out, fell to the ground, and turned into a rat. With a broom she swept him out of the cottage. Then she packed up a basket and left.

Circe wasn’t sure where to go. Her magic was tied to the land of her birth. She could not simply leave on a ship. If she traveled to the next village, someone would find her. She would be dragged back and hung on a tree. Although her husband had been an evil man, transforming him without his consent was against the covenant she and her mother signed. Why hadn’t she turned herself into a bird and flown away the first time he struck her? But what was done was done.

The forest called to her. She made it her home. For many long years, she lived as mundane, afraid to use her powers again.

When the crone arrived back at her cottage, Anna was waiting for her with red eyes. A wasting sickness had hit the village hard, and her older brother had been in bed for three weeks. Circe told her she could send some herbs, but she couldn’t go back to the village with her.

The disappointed young girl left with a full basket.  

That night, the crone woke to the sound of her name. When she sat up in bed, her mother’s shade stood at the end of the bed with her arms crossed. Mother had passed over when Circe had first married and had never appeared to her before. Although she could see the kitchen table faintly through Mother’s body, she didn’t want to underestimate her power. Even though the shade didn’t speak, the crone shivered as Mother’s words flashed with anger in her mind. Then the shade disappeared, and she knew what she must do.

Early the next morning, she tugged on her boots and fastened her cloak. She loaded up her basket and left the cottage before she could change her mind. Mother was always right, even when she was dead. Even though the crone was ancient in years, her steps were quick. She reached the middle of the village square by twilight.

 Anna was hauling water from the well, and almost dropped her bucket when she saw the crone. The girl led her to her family’s house behind the blacksmith shop. It was a fine house, two floors high and made of wood. She pushed open the heavy door and they walked in.

 Anna’s brother, Gregory, was upstairs in the first bedroom. His sweat-drenched face was covered in red dots, and his arms, once strong enough to pound iron, were only skin and bones. Circe asked the girl to bring her a pot of hot water and some clean cloths. What could she do for this young man? Her magic had lain dormant for over two hundred years. Would it listen to her now?

 When the water arrived, Circe mixed in some herbs, chanting under her breath. Anna watched her with great interest, for there were no longer any magic users left in their land. With the arrival of the priests, witches and wizards were driven away, to be replaced with prayer and medicine. But the village priest and the doctor from the neighboring village could do nothing to stop the terrible sickness.

Remembering what Mother had taught her, Circe used the cloth to cleanse Gregory’s face. As she wiped over the weeping sores, she spoke powerful words of healing and life. The sores disappeared, replaced by healthy skin. Anna ran out to find her mother in the market.

Gregory opened his eyes and frowned to see a strange old woman bathing him. Circe told him she was a witch and to lay still while she finished healing him. And yes, she’d seen a man’s nakedness before. She needed to cover all the sores with the healing water no matter where they were on his body.

 When the blacksmith’s wife, who asked her quickly to call her Kathy, saw her oldest son sitting up in bed and taking some soup, she almost crushed Circe with a hug. The blacksmith had died some years ago, and Gregory had taken well to smithing. His work supported their whole family. And of course, he was a good lad, with his good years ahead of him.

 The crone ended up staying for the night. The next day, word spread through the village, and she was busy going house to house healing those she could. Anna stayed at her side, her eager assistant. Circe ended up staying for two weeks until there was no more sickness in the village. Even the priest came by to thank her for her service.

Finally, it was time to go home. Anna had proved to be a diligent student and made Circe promise to make her an apprentice in the magical arts when she was old enough. The crone’s magical knowledge would not be lost at the end of her time.

 The sunset glowed behind the forest as Anna approached. Her arms and legs ached from doing more magic in recent weeks than she’d done her whole life. The branches rustled with approval and rabbits stood peering with curiosity to see a powerful witch. Her stone cottage with bright red and yellow flowers looked finer than any palace to her. She started a fire, put on a kettle, and shook some of her herbs into her mug. When the water boiled, she reached out to take it from its hook above the fire.

Suddenly, she felt eyes watching her. She almost dropped the kettle when she turned around to find Mother’s shade standing there, glowing in the firelight. This time Mother’s face was smiling and covered with tears. She gave her daughter a curtsey worthy of a queen. Then she pulled something out of a small pouch at her waist. Mother placed it in Circe’s hand. A real, solid object. Her breath caught as she realized what it was.  

A large black pearl broach. Mother’s favorite. It had been buried with her. With trembling fingers, she fastened it to the neckline of her dress.  

The wind kicked up outside and blew her door open. Without trumpet or tambourine, the forest celebrated her victory over fear. Then she poured the steaming water into her mug. She sat down in front of the fire, the mug warming her hands.

And she smiled.

Losing Control: A witch’s dilemma

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ZAP!!! Boom! Tinkle! My grandmother’s favorite teapot hit the floor and broke into a million pieces.

Staring at my hands in horror, I realized the cause. It was happening more and more. My hands trembled as I swept up fine porcelain scraps and dumped them into the trash can. Last week, I set my sister’s cat’s tail on fire. The week before that, I was pretty sure I caused my other sister’s rash.

Practicing magic is a responsibility. That’s what our mother used to say when we were young witches. I can still see her furrowed brow, her thin lips set in a straight line. Strict but caring. I still miss her, gone all these years.

After she passed, I became the most responsible witch in our family. I washed our clothes, swept our cottage, and cooked stew over the fire. That’s more than my lazy sisters, Rose and Camellia, ever did. They were only interested in coming up with new spells.

For the first twenty years of my life, my spells were obedient to my commands. Then suddenly, after last Midsummer’s festival, magic started leaking out at inopportune moments.

Practicing magic requires control. Successful spells and potions were the result of focused intent and attention to detail. A pinch more lavender than required, and the entire village could fall sleep instead of easing one anxious mother into slumber. The village elders only accepted our family as witches because we pledged to do no harm.

If I couldn’t get my magic under control, I would lose it. Literally. The regional coven would show up and drain me of my magic. Without a trial. On the spot. And I would spend the rest of my life mundane.

Think. Think. How could I tame my magic? Maybe I was working too hard. Meditation. That would help.

Rose, my older sister, helped me set up candles and pillows outside under the willow tree. Away from anything breakable. Her eyes told me she knew what was at stake. We didn’t discuss it. Any talk about misused magic could draw the attention of the coven elders. They seemed to be everywhere.

I closed my eyes, settled into the goose down pillows, and listened to the birds warbling high above me. The breeze sighed through the willow’s drooping branches, tickling my face with the scent of wildflowers. The birds called out to one another, the same melody repeated over and over again, like an inappropriate tavern song stuck in your head.

Hard to meditate with that cursed chirping. Suddenly silence fell over me like a blanket. Small objects pelted me and hit the ground, some tipping over the candles. With horror, I realized they were dead birds. My stomach churned with urgency. I leaned over past the pillows to vomit on the grass.

If I didn’t want to kill my sisters and burn down the village, I would have to either move into the woods or have the coven drain my magic. I started to pack my bag when my younger sister, Camellia, came in from the garden.

“Where are you going, Violet?” she asked, her eyes wide. “Have you been called away on a quest for the queen?”

I didn’t want to lie to my sister, but I did anyway. “Of course, that’s where I’m going. I will miss you and Rose, of course, but if the queen summons me, I must obey.”

As I stood at the door with my bag over my shoulder, Camellia hugged me farewell. As she released me, there was a POP and a cloud of silver smoke. As the smoke cleared, a small black rabbit sat on the floor. Poor sister!

I ran as fast as I could down to the main road. I guess I could have stayed and tried to turn her back, but I didn’t trust my magic. What if I turned her into a fly and Rose swatted her with the broom? Rose would figure it out when she returned.

Where could I run to escape myself? I followed the road as day turned to night. Pulling my wool shawl closer, I worried it wouldn’t be enough. I mumbled a warming spell and felt its instant effect. At least that magic still worked.

A full moon guided my steps as I reached the northern woods. I ducked under its covering, following animal trails. A childhood memory tickled in my head. There had been an abandoned hut out here where a woodcutter used to live.

The humming of insects and scurrying of unseen creatures kept me company as I threaded through the trees. I did not worry about becoming prey as my protection spell would cloak me from sight and spell.

Then I saw it. Nestled near a rushing stream, a crumbling wooden shack. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and drew a picture in my mind. When I opened them, I saw a small, thatched roof cottage with a sturdy wooden door, one window on each side trimmed with boxes of bright colored flowers.

When I stepped inside, a roaring fire in the hearth welcomed me. With a sigh, I unwound my shawl and hung it on a hook by the door. I unwrapped the bread I had brought and set it on the table. I put the kettle on for tea and then sat down in a rocker by the fire.

What would I do now? Forage for food in the woods and stay away from people? I was no hermit. Then I saw a letter on the mantle. I got up and opened the seal, a butterfly symbol that looked like the one Mother used to close her letters.

Tears leaked down my face as I read:

“Dearest daughter,

By now, you have learned that trying to control your magic in

your own strength is futile. This is your first step toward

mastery. Your magic is strong, but you must remember

it is not your work but a gift from the Creator.

It was not given for your benefit, but for the benefit of all.

Now that you are here, away from your many tasks,

take the time to understand your purpose.

Then your magic will be under control.

With love and hope,

Mother”

Carefully I refolded the letter, tucked it into its envelope and set the letter back on the mantle.

Mother knew I would reach this point. There still was hope for my future.

I would discover my purpose and learn more about the one who was really in control.

What a robot learned at school

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“I’m not going to listen to any more of this nonsense, Anon,” Mom shouted. “Androids don’t go to school!”

“Then why was I designed to look like a child?” I wondered out loud.

Dad sighed and gave me a sad smile. “We wanted to fit in with the rest of our friends. We couldn’t have biological children, so we selected you.”

Mom took a cleansing breath and lowered her voice. She looked so beautiful when her face was relaxed, which wasn’t often. Long shimmering black hair with rebel white strands framed her symmetrical face. Her large brown eyes were filled with tears. What did I do to hurt her this time?

“Anon, there is no reason for you to attend school,” she said. “You’re already programmed to know everything you would ever need to know.” She patted the synthetic skin on my hand. “You’re a big help to me at home. How would I finish all my work for the corporation if I didn’t have you to do research for me?”

I did help Mom a lot. Not only did I research properties for the corporation to absorb into its ever-expanding empire, but I also did the house chores that couldn’t be completed by the cleaning bots.

Knowing I was useful made my core swell with pride, but it wasn’t enough.

“All the other kids go to school,” I insisted, accessing my sulky voice program.

Mom and Dad looked at each other. Did they have a form of mind speak I didn’t know about? Mom sniffed. Dad set down his tablet and took a sip of coffee.

“It might be instructive for Anon to experience school,” Dad said.

#

The next morning, I stood at the bus stop with a crowd of children, my backpack hanging from my shoulder and my Avengers lunch pail clutched in my hand. Although I would not require food and bathroom breaks, my realistic human design should allow me to fit in as a normal child.

“New kid, back of the line!” A large stocky kid pushed me on my chest compartment, causing me to lose my balance and tumble to the ground.

“Leave him alone, Mikey,” a soft but firm voice said. I looked up to see a tiny girl in a pale pink dress standing in front of the boy who pushed me, her hands on her hips.

“Who’s gonna make me?” Mikey retorted.

“A little girl in a pink dress,” she said, touching his arm.

Zap! He jumped back like his circuits were overloaded. With a murderous glare, he shuffled to the back of the line. The girl took my hand and helped me up.

“Is this your first day?” she asked as we sat in one of the front seats. It seemed most of the other students preferred the back section of the bus.

“Yes, it is,” I confirmed. I watched her buckle her seat belt and then I did the same.

“I’m Adeline,” the girl said, her dimples deepening with her smile. “Don’t pay any attention to Mikey. His parents knock him around at home, so he has to bring it to school. I always carry a zapper with me.” She showed me the small device she’d used on the boy. I scanned its circuits to construct one for myself later. It seemed wise to add a nonlethal weapon to my arsenal.

I attempted to smile back, but my program only allows a slightly upturned mouth. “Thank you for defending me, although it is not necessary. My name is Anon.”

“Nice to meet you, Anon,” Adeline said.

When we got to school, Adeline walked me to the office where I was assigned to Mrs. Roberts’ fourth grade class. How Mom determined this was my appropriate educational level I do not know, but Adeline was in my class, and that made me happy.

We walked around the playground and Adeline introduced me to her many friends. Then the bell rang, and we lined up outside our classroom portable.

“Welcome to our class, Anon,” a tall lady wearing a “Learning is an Adventure” tee shirt and jeans greeted me. Mrs. Roberts smiled, and then added, “Class, we have a new student, Anon. Please help him adjust to our class routines.”

My programming made classwork easy. At first, when Mrs. Roberts asked the class a question, I eagerly raised my hand. After the first five questions, I noticed some of the students frowning in my direction and giving me what Adeline would later describe as “the stink eye.”

“Give the other students a chance to speak,” Adeline whispered.

That’s when I realized being in class was not about showing everything I knew. I was part of a larger machine. Mrs. Roberts’ class was made up of many moving parts, or students. We had to work together. 

But then there was recess. I stood in line at the ball room to get a bouncy ball, as per Adeline’s instructions. Just as the playground supervisor was going to hand it to me, Mikey pushed in and grabbed it. He ran out to the hand ball court, a posse of boys behind him.

“He can’t get away with that,” Adeline grumbled.

“I’ll go get the ball from him,” I offered. How I was going to do that, I had no idea. No matter how many questions I answered in the classroom, I wouldn’t be successful until I learned how to handle a bully.

So I walked up to Mikey, who was on the court playing hand ball. “Stop this game!” I said firmly, walking in the middle of their court.

“What are you doing?” the other boy on the court complained. Several kids in line at the side of the court started grumbling.

“Mikey, I stood in line to get that ball,” I said, reaching out.

“That’s too bad, you whiny weirdo!” he shouted. “Get off my court!”

Suddenly, I felt overtaken with strong emotion. My parents had never spoken to me with disrespect. I had been programmed with courtesy protocols that I suspected Mikey had no familiarity with. I was an intricately designed android with capabilities far beyond normal children. Why was I allowing this bully to dictate my actions?

“If you don’t give me the ball immediately, you will regret it,” I warned, choosing a low growl voice.

“You gonna make me?” Mikey scoffed.

“Yes. I will,” I replied. As I raised my arms toward him, I hoped I wouldn’t get in trouble for overriding safety protocols. My wrist cannons popped out, each barrel as wide as Mikey’s arm. “And you better not bully anyone else at this school. Give me the ball!”

Mikey’s eyes bugged out, and he handed me the ball. His supporters scattered. Adeline and her friends walked up. “Let’s play before the bell rings,” she said. No one said anything about my guns.

That night when I sat with my parents at the dinner table (not that I ate anything, but they wanted me to keep them company), Dad asked, “How was your first day of school?”

My circuits flashed. “I met a new friend. She taught me lessons outside the classroom that were not part of my original codes. Damaged humans threaten other humans smaller than them, and you have to defend yourself.”

“That’s terrible! You shouldn’t have to put up with that,” Mom said, wringing her hands. “You’re staying home with me.”

“Please, Mom. I want to stay in school. Friends, classmates, and bullies are essential to learning how to be human.”

A Pandemic, Distance Learning, Natural Disasters, and Stories

storm bird

 

If you’re a writer and having a hard time focusing on your story, it’s not surprising. As hard as I try to impose order on my daily life, personal plot twists keep popping up to thwart my efforts. But don’t worry—this is not one of those “doom and gloom” posts that no one wants to read. Instead, this is about how stories emerge despite the chaos around us.

Stories want to live, too. Even if our minds are swirling like hurricanes (hopefully not as we’re boarding up our windows), we can’t help creating a narrative. As we go about our normal lives, which now includes teaching to a screen several hours a day, a story begins impose itself over our concerns. A character emerges, braver than us, who faces our same problems but in space. Or in a world of magic. Or sometime long ago before Google Meets.

Soon other characters rise up to aid our main character’s quest to save their world and right its wrongs. Quirky friends that illuminate the main character’s strengths and weaknesses. Maybe even a potential romance, although our hero really doesn’t have time for that right now.

Just like us in the real world, our main character, who now calls herself Raylene, tries lots of different strategies to solve her problems, only to be stopped at every turn. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to deal with lagging internet connections. It’s the antagonist who has shown up, just to make things more difficult. The villain is product of our nightmares, armed with complete knowledge of her fears. We’re not sure how to help our hero because her paralyzing fears belong to us.

We could remain stuck like that forever, but Raylene has her own Samwise Gamgee, reminding her of who she is and why she is risking everything. They go on together, and suddenly a thought pops up that we should call that friend we haven’t hung out with for months because of the pandemic.

When our hero and her sidekick fail, unforeseen help comes their way, and suddenly the battle is back on. At the same time, we, the writers, are in the middle of our own battles, standing in line at the medical center, waiting to get your temperature taken, or grabbing the last bottle of Lysol off the shelf at the grocery store before an old lady with a cane beats you to it.

Finally, the fighting ends, the day settles into night and your mind calms. Raylene limps back down her mountain with her hair all askew and rejoins her friends. We reach the end of our day and realize that despite overwhelming odds, we made some progress. When we lay down on our pillows, we hope the melatonin we took will really help us sleep. Because we need our rest before the battles tomorrow.

When the story comes back.

 

 

Walking with Cuddles

walking dog

 

“Come on, Cuddles, let’s go for a walk!” I brace myself as he runs into me full force, almost knocking me through the door. Got to read that obedience book again. Not controlling him always leads to disaster.

“Cuddles, sit,” I command in my best version of Frank’s authoritative voice. My husband never has trouble getting him to do what he wants. Cuddles spins around, knocking over the lamp with his tail before he thumps down on the floor and bows his head. Quickly, before he changes his mind, I slip on the choke collar with leash attached. I wish he could walk with me unleashed, but a bird might lure him away, and we’d never see him again.

Like we do every day, Cuddles and I walk down our street, his head close to my leg on the right. Proper position makes your pet respect your leadership. A few of our neighbors are out with their dogs. They nod, but remain on the opposite side of the street. Their dogs whine and tuck in their tails as we pass. In response, Cuddles growls and pulls at the leash.

“Cuddles, leave it!” I should have brought the spray bottle with us. He hates it when I spray him on the nose. The smoke cloud makes it hard for him to see, and he hates the sizzling sound.

When we reach the park, I follow the meandering path that runs through the shade of the trees. Cuddles loves being outside, and he puffs out a happy rumble. Two moms grab their children off the playground equipment and quickly strap them into their strollers. They manage to zoom away right as we approach. Some people are so chicken when it comes to having their kids around strange pets, passing that paranoia down to another generation.

But I can’t control other people’s reactions, so I walk Cuddles out of the park and head home. He is hardly pulling at all now, and I’m thankful Frank and I decided to adopt a pup instead of an adult shelter pet. These last two years have been a lot of work and cost us new cabinets in the laundry room, but our Cuddles has shaped up nicely.

Back home again, I open up the gate and take off Cuddle’s collar. He flaps away into our screened in backyard, shooting out flames as he goes. All in all, he’s a great little dragon, and we wouldn’t trade him for anything.

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