Casually, Declan stepped through the window as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world. He was considerate enough to stow his still-burning cigarette into a pocket of his green wind jacket before shaking the night from himself.
Alan's eyes darted back and forth between Declan and his…the thing masquerading as his daughter.
It wasn't her. He knew it wasn't her. The problem was he didn't what it was. It wasn't Hailey. Hell, it barely looked human. But if that wasn't his daughter, then where was she?
"Are you well?" Declan asked.
The question in his mind found its way to his lips. "Where's Hailey?"
Declan smiled, showing far more teeth than Alan thought anyone should possess. "That's a difficult question to answer, my friend. One you probably wouldn't believe. Let's leave it at your daughter's been kidnapped, shall we?"
Alan sank down to the floor.
"Betrayer!" the Hailey-thing mewled in her bed.
"Not at all, young one," Declan said coolly. "You're discovered. He's entitled to his fair chance. If anything, I'm acting in accordance to rules you never bothered to learn. You really should, if you get the opportunity, they're quite interesting. Tedious, but interesting."
The Hailey-thing stood up, barely taller than she was sitting down. She seemed such a pale imitation of a human Alan wondered how he'd seen her as his daughter.
"What the hell is going on?" he demanded.
Savage growling rumbled from beneath the bed. Too many sets of black eyes that pierced the shadows glared on at him.
Declan sighed. "I suppose you deserve some sort of explanation, Alan."
"You owe him nothing!" the Hailey-thing shouted.
With an agitated look Declan silenced her. He turned his attention back to Alan. "Which would you like to know? The truth of what's going on or the truth about why it's going on?"
"I think I'll settle for what, right now," said Alan.
"Your daughter has been kidnapped by fairies and replaced with a changeling," Declan said simply, pulling out his half-finished cigarette and puffing on it absently. He didn't bother relighting it, but it seemed to have lit itself anew.
Alan shook his head. "Alright, you've already lost me. Can I try the why now?"
"It has to do with old covenants that really don't concern you," Declan said.
"And fairies did it?"
"I understand you might be skeptical."
"Skeptical? Yeah, that's a good word for it. You know what? Fuck it, let's try doing the rational thing. I'm calling the police." Alan threw his hands up in the air and walked out the door before coming to a sudden stop.
Declan was sitting at the kitchen table waiting for him, looking mildly bored over a crossword puzzle Donna had been doing earlier that day. The telephone hung loosely in his hand.
Alan carefully looked back over his shoulder. Despite his better judgment, it didn't look like Declan had an identical twin. "Right then," he said, sitting down opposite Declan.
His mind was shaking. It was some magic trick, he knew. Smoke and mirrors, distraction and illusion. It didn't have to be real, it just had to make you question if it was or not. It was all just a diversion to keep him from finding out what happened to his daughter.
No matter what, he promised himself, he'd find her.
"This can go one of several ways," Declan said quietly. "All of which are possible, you just have to pick one.
"Firstly, you can call the police and inform them that your daughter has been abducted. They will do the responsible thing, come aknocking on your door in the dead of night to see sweet little Hailey softly slumbering in her bed. They will not see what you see. They will only see the mirage because they don't know what to look for. They aren't looking for anything out of the ordinary so they will only see what they expect. Many people, including your wife will begin to question your sanity which could ultimately lead to the end of your relationship. She will take the girl and be none the wiser. And your true daughter will still be gone."
"You make it sound like this has happened before," Alan remarked.
"More or less," said Declan. "The second choice is by far the easiest. Boring for me, but the easiest overall. It involves you accepting the fact that your daughter is gone."
"Never," Alan snapped.
Declan just smiled. "Hailey, will you come here for a moment?"
And there she was. Her soft, golden hair twisted into knots from her pillow. She rubbed sleep from her eyes with one hand while the other supported a tattered teddy bear. "What's wrong, Uncle Declan?"
He scooped her up in his arms and sat her on his knee. Lovingly he wrapped his arms around her and spoke soft words in her ear. "This man doesn't believe you're really Hailey, little one. Do you think you can convince him otherwise?"
His daughter looked him in the eyes, her sparkling blue eyes as innocent as any child. "I love you, daddy." She reached out her hand for his. "It's late and I'm tired, will you carry me to bed?"
"Stop it!" Alan all but shouted. "It's not her. I know it's not her!"
The façade dripped off of Hailey like water. She melted back into the other thing with skeletally thin limbs and hair the color of barley. Her lips pouted around sharp, pointed little teeth as she hopped off of Declan's knee and marched back into Hailey's bedroom.
Declan took a long drag on his cigarette. Neither one of them was willing to talk about it.
Alan didn't want to think about it. How much she looked like Hailey. She did. He couldn't lie to himself and say that he knew it wasn't her. He only knew because he'd seen it before.
Declan had implied that he could live with it. Learn to adjust. It might not be Hailey, but she'd still be his daughter. He'd just learn to accept the fact that his daughter wasn't really Hailey.
A horrible little voice at the base of his spine couldn't help but ask, "Maybe it doesn't matter."
"What is she?" Alan found himself asking.
Declan exhaled a long plume of smoke. "There's an old covenant between man and, well, you'll figure it out. It deals with the exchange of children between races. A child of the sidhe is taken from its crib in the dead of night and spirited away to a place where the parents will never see it again. The sidhe child is put in place of a mortal and raised as one of them. In return, the mortal child is taken back to the place from which the sidhe child was taken and raised in the courts of, well, I suppose you might as well call them fairies, for lack of a better term."
Alan nodded numbly, dumbly. The rational side of his brain screamed for skepticism. The primal part of it was raging against the bars of its cage, screaming for release. Nothing he was being told made sense. Fairies? Sidhe? Words he'd never heard of that made as much sense as, well, as much sense as his daughter being kidnapped and replaced with something that barely looked human in the right light.
He sighed softly. "You're not lying to me, are you?"
"Every word I speak is the truth," Declan said softly, smiling. "Alan, I promise you I will never lie to you."
"Is there a third option?"
Declan's smile turned grim. "I suppose it would appeal to your sense righteousness. Part of the covenant is that the children may be returned to their proper homes if requested."
"That's it?" he asked. "I just have to ask for my daughter back?"
"More or less. It will involve you going to the court of the Dagda of the Tuatha de Danann and informing him you're unsatisfied with the exchange and wish for your daughter to be returned to you."
"Who is the Dagda?"
Declan sighed exasperated. "The things I do," he murmured. "He's the man who will raise your daughter as his own. Quite well, actually. She might be better off if you did leave her to her fate."
Alan's face flushed with heat. He grabbed the lapels of Declans jacket and shook him. "Don't you ever tell me to abandon my daughter again!" he shouted. His voice rang throughout the house. He was scared for a moment that Donna would wake up.
All at once he felt the words forcing themselves back down his throat. Soft syllables slid through his teeth like wet paper while the harsher consonants squirmed like worms against his vocal chords. It was enough to churn his stomach. He felt the sharp taste of bile in the back of his throat and barely managed to get to the sink before vomiting.
Declan just smiled, and smiled, and smiled the entire time. "This will be so much simpler if your dear, darling Donna remains asleep."
"She should know what's happening," Alan said, spitting into the sink.
"Not really," Declan said. "If you do your job right she'll never know what's happened. Your daughter will come home with you and life will go on as it always does. I can't promise that you'll all live happily ever after, though. Content, perhaps, but true happiness is rarely possible."
Alan determinedly said, "I want her to know."
Leisurely Declan took a step to the side behind some invisible curtain and vanished from view.
Alan blinked. Was it the same trick as before? Just another illusion, perhaps. Nothing like that could be real.
Declan's voice reverberated inside his skull. "You go can go onwards by yourself, if you choose. I offer you my support with no charge, a rare offer, if you will but heed my advice. This journey is meant for you and you alone. Dear darling Donna has her own role to play, but it does not coincide with yours."
"Fine," Alan whispered. "If that's what it takes then fine. Come back and show me the way, Declan."
A floating pair of lips coalesced into a Cheshire cat grin before him. "I will meet you in your automobile, Mister Scannell. And remember, silence is a virtue. It wouldn't do to wake your worrying wife."
Hurriedly Alan made for the door, pausing only to grab his jacket and a worn pair of sneakers from the closet. He made it to the door before he stopped. Trapped in a daze, his feet carried him back to the refrigerator decked out in magnets, coupons, and family photos. Two in particular caught his attention. One from nearly a decade ago when he and Donna had first met. A series of photo booth poses where he realized he'd fallen in love with her. The outrageous expressions on her face, the look in her eye that barely described her enthusiasm for life. He knew she'd changed. Become more cautious. Especially after Hailey was born. He wondered how much he'd changed from the young idealist who was more interested in the idea of being with someone than the stark reality of being in a relationship.
The second photo he carefully unpinned from the fridge. It was one of the most beautiful pictures and experiences he'd ever taken in. Donna, exhausted after ten hours of labor holding the small figure of Hailey clutched tight against her breast. Nothing could pry that woman away from her daughter. Alan smiled at how when he'd tried to hold his daughter for the first time, a fierce look came over her. It was the first time she'd had to let her daughter go.
He remembered the fear he'd had holding Hailey. Knowing she wouldn't stay so small for very long. Knowing she'd grow up one day and there'd be nothing he could do to stop it. Those first few days when his only fear was his daughter wouldn't want to hold his hand anymore seemed so long ago, before the screaming began.
Tucking the pictures in his pocket he promised himself he'd do everything in his power to bring his daughter home. Or die trying.
With renewed purpose he walked out the door and never looked back.
The changeling shivered in Hailey's bed. A deep set fear was settling in, so strong she could feel it in her teeth. The fear of discovery was welling up in her and she felt helpless against it.
Softly smiling lips appeared in the air like a crescent moon. "Shhh," they whispered. "Now go back to sleep, little one. Everything will be okay."
The changeling didn't respond and the lips disappeared back into nothingness. She pulled the blankets tighter around her small chest while one hand drifted over the edge of the bed. Only when she felt the soft, calloused tongue of the thing beneath her bed did she breathe a sigh of relief. So long as she had him she knew everything would be okay.
Knowing what she knew, she didn't trust her savior. No matter what the man called Declan promised, it was always more and never less than he said.