Fly! Fly away! What is this horrible place? The night, fountains and wreaths of flame! Hide! The air is so heavy. It is filled with brimstone. I want my mother! Fly! Hide! Nothing of this can be real. It is death! It is made of death! Creatures, hot light and cold iron. So tired... Twisted nightmares, ugly light, shrill noises, they must not see me. Hide! So weak...no farther. So...tired. Guardians protect me. Hide in here, in the effigies. So scared...where is father? Where is home?! I…must...re...turn...
"Nicolas, watch your sister. I need to find a pay phone and check in with the office."
"What? Why do I always have to do it? Where's dad, anyways?"
"He's probably doing 'research' again. Just watch your sister. This is important."
"It's always important..." Nicolas looked for a pebble, something to kick his frustration out on, but there were none to be found along the crowded concrete stretches. Something like that, of course, would mar the appearance of 'The Happiest Place on Earth'. He followed behind, navigating his sister's stroller on an ever changing course between sets of legs in motion and the meandering curbs restraining everything, losing sight of his mother for moments that seemed longer with every iteration.
"Autumn keeps dragging her feet!" His plea for intervention dissolved into the general murmur of the masses. The advantage was hers. So, with a devilish grin and a snicker, a little bracing, she threw her body upwards, and stretching her legs, she slammed both feet into the concrete. Away she was launched, her long blonde braided hair flying like a pair of whips around the fair skin of her cheeks and down to rest on her brand-new, pink Minnie Mouse T-shirt, her shaggy bangs bouncing along for the ride. "Stop it!" The stroller handles had catapulted out of his hands, all a part of a five-year-old's plan. She knew the lap belt would save her. Nicolas was not so lucky, distracted and stumbling to crash half-toppled onto a wrought iron fence post, while jamming a finger between chain links.
"Watch it, kid!" came a muffled snarl from inside a smiling cloth masquerade. Nicolas's young dignity could not take much more as he now faced the Mad Hatter.
"Sorry, it was my little sister that tripped me."
"...everything's fine Paul, I just wanted to check-in. It's amazing here, isn't it? It was great of Harold and me to bring the kids here..."
Nicolas was left to figure it out inside a hole, surrounded by the heavy summer crowd, frozen in a half-shrug and all bewildered. Everything felt off kilter. A dad who thought he was Magnum P.I., his little girl shouldered with Mickey ears on, worked his way around some boy rubbing his elbow, and what must be his sister sitting in a stroller. Another girl stood on one side of the King Arthur Carrousel, unhappy and letting everyone know about it, her parents pulling out their hair while offering toys and treats for silence. Over in a particularly large family, the father and kids argued about where to go next, the mother trying desperately to regain control. They and so many others had come today and been counted two-by-two's as they marched among the attractions underneath the blue summer sky, all of them moving with a purpose.
"Mom, can Dad take me on The Matterhorn today?"
"No! I want to ride Dumbo! Mommy, take me to Dumbo!"
"What? Hold on...take you sister on the ride, please. I'll be done in a minute...yes...sorry you can't hear anything in this crowd...did you get the Weinstein report?" His mother shooed him away with her free hand, then used it to cover her other ear, so Nicolas knew it was quite useless to protest. His mom could never get far away from business, even here. She had barely even dressed down, with her beige skirt and pale blue blouse and her dirty blonde hair tightly permed. She meant business and not even her kids would slow her down, as the last five years of Jazzercise showed.
"Yay...let's go Nick."
"It's a shame that this place doesn't serve alcohol. I could go for a good chardonnay right now. How can I be in California and not be able to get a good wine?"
"ahhr...Alright...get out of the stroller." Nicolas went to undo her belt, but before he could try, she had wiggled up out of it, and was off in the zip of tan Corduroys.
"Paul...Paul, just get Laura to work out the details..."
Another wait in line, then Fantasy spun around him with a newly constructed four hundred year-old Bavarian facade (so he had been told) and meticulously manicured greenery. This trip had come a few years too late for him. When he was a kid, he played as if he could see magic out of the corner of his eyes, and followed the tracks of elves to their burrow in the trees, but he was grown-up now. He knew now that magic had been a way of explaining the unknown. He groused and watched the Skyway pass above them, and plotted his escape to tomorrow.
Pretty colors and happy endings were the stuff of marketing, something that his father had gone on and on about until he had disappeared somewhere. Marketing was his father's job. He worked for an advertising company in Denver. His mom was somebody important for Coors. One time, she had tried to explain her job to him. It made no more sense to him than her title, 'Executive assistant in charge of internal coordination and interests'. He just knew that she was on the 'fast track to the 'it' crowd'.
"Let's go ride Peter Pan nex'!"
Nick sighed as he was drug along. Mom was nowhere in sight. He worked his sister back through the traffic to catch a glimpse of her in quite the animated state, her words thankfully lost in the din. It would be a while longer.
"It's Alice! She's real! Let's go see her," Autumn squealed, tugging his arm and making huge, bended knee hops in place.
"No no NOno, no no no NO...Lame!"
And there they were again in order, forced into the rhythm of the drum and fife. The two of them boarded Captain Hook's fancy fiberglass ship as it set sail for the sky, hung on a disguised metal track. There was no magic here, just human ingenuity.
"Where is Tinker Bell? I don't see her!" She tried leaning way out over London to check under the boat, to the point where Nicolas had to grab her by the collar.
"She's too small, I guess."
"Do you think fairies are real?"
"No..." The answer was meant to stomp out all discussion.
"What about Santa Claus? He's real."
"I don't know..."
"What about God?"
Nicolas just shook his head slowly as they silently traveled through a story which unfolded in a series of twirls and jerks. He would never admit to anyone how well he remembered the tale. Something was bugging him. Yeah, his little sister was part of it, but really, it had been since they arrived this morning, no, even before then. It had started yesterday, when they were riding the riverboat in Frontierland. His parents thought he had gotten seasick (how that was even possible?), but that feeling had never gone away. He had only noticed it now. He rubbed his head it as they left the attraction, muttering something about the rough ride, then a familiar baritone voice carried over the din.
"Nicolas, where is your mother?!" His father waved as he walked towards them from the strip of buildings and attractions across the way, wearing his deep blue jeans and a light button-down shirt tucked in loosely to hide an expanding waistline.
"She's by the bathrooms, on the phone!"
"Oh boy, it's going to be a bit. OK...wait...no! Come back here Autumn!" The elder Reuel snagged his daughter's arm before she managed to cut through the bushes and into some mischief.
"Can we go to Tomorrowland? I want to check out the arcade. All they have at Marvin's Pizza is Ms. Pac-Man and Pole Position."
"No way, Kiddo. I spent $18.50 to get you in here, arcades are free. Let's go to check out the shops." It was like that was why everyone came here, for the shops. "It cost almost a hundred bucks for the four of us, and every fifty feet, there's something overpriced to spend money on. The profit margin must be insane."
"Can we at least go on the Matterhorn later?"
Nicolas shoved his hands in his pockets and trudged along behind with the stroller. His father had insisted he dressed in a pair of nice slacks and one of his alligator shirts, even though it was, like, a hundred degrees. His stomach growled from the smell of some unseen food, which made him feel even queasier, his feet ached, and nothing they had done all day had made any of these worthwhile. At least the stores had air conditioning, but having to endure a whole shop full of princess clothing hardly seemed worth it. Autumn did not seem to care much for the dresses, either, and had taken to chasing the dust bunnies off of the shelves or something. But he endured, the whistles at the price tags, the clucking, and the jargon, with a sigh. Relief finally came after the forth such store.
"I'm going to get Paul fired when I return, the man just doesn't pull his weight. I can't even enjoy my vacation with all his pestering." His mom was winding down fit by fit, but still had a few left in her.
"Taiwan...Between Japan buying up real estate, and Taiwan making everything we use, in thirty years they'll have divided this country right down the Mississippi."
"Can we get something to eat?"
"Dad! It's a small world! Please, please can we go?!"
"Sure, Autumn. You know, I remember growing up in Burbank when this ride opened. Of course, all of this around here was…"
Nicolas sighed again, and trudged along. He spent the next five minutes wishing he had a paddle, anything to shave the time between now and lunch. They just drifted along in an endlessly looping chorus. Whether or not the world was getting smaller, his stomach certainly was not. If the world was, it just meant that there was less room for everyone, and people were not getting along too well now.
"Dad, can we PLEASE get something to eat now? I'm starving!"
"I want to try this toy store here first. We have a bid in to Hasbro."
It was another store, outlandishly styled and placed to lure attraction goers into its doors. Well, it had caught a big fish now. The insides were even more garish. Nicolas thought he had fallen into one of those old, jerky specials they played every Christmas on the television. Autumn spied one parent, and then the other, and slipped away unnoticed, once more. Nicolas thought about doing the same in the opposite direction, but her escape was so clean he was not sure which way that was. He picked an angle towards the door, and slipped out sideways to take a breather behind an aisle of dolls dressed in garb from around the world. Maybe they had some real toys in here somewhere. Nicolas wandered for a moment until he caught a glimpse of his sister at the center of the store under some tower, castle...thing, housed under a sky painted dome. Curiosity took over, and he followed her there. She just stood over one of the barrels of dolls, still, which was a little odd in itself. Usually, nothing held her attention for more than a handful of seconds.
"What's going on, Sis?" he asked in a gentle voice as he walked up beside her.
"Tha' Tinker Bell's glowin'." She pointed into a whole pile of them, flat faced, noseless ragdolls with wings that had a silver sheen.
"Huh...I don't see anything."
"Tha' one way over there..." She stood up on the tiniest tip of her toes and stretched out for one of the many out of reach. Nicolas could not resist the site of his pathetic little sister, so he dug through the pile, pulling one out after the other to her vigorously shaking head until he finally received a nod. He had to check this doll out himself, turning it over in his hands several times to make sure. It was a Tinker Bell alright, nothing special, just over a foot long and not even the nicest in the bin.
"You see it?" He strained over every inch of the fabric as it began to blur. The lack of food made his head hurt and the room spun a bit. "No...I'm going to put it back."
"What, Honey?" A baritone shouted from nowhere.
"Can I get a Tinker Bell stuffed animal?"
"...Bring it here."
Nicholas was hesitant to hand the doll over, but there was no nonsense on his squinched up sister's face. She held up the doll with both hands, squealing and giving it a hug before skipping off to find their father.
"$12.95? No honey, it's too much. You each can have five bucks."
"Dad, she can have my half."
"You're still three dollars short." Nicolas dug out a small stash of quarters out of his slacks, counted out a dozen and placed them in his father's palm. He had been saving them for the arcade, just in case, but the opportunity, it seemed, had passed. Anything, anything, if it would get them some lunch. "I'll get the tax sport. I'm using the whole trip as a write-off anyways.
Nicolas Reuel was convinced he had been cursed, and in the way every ten-year old thinks, he was right. He knew he was ready for the bigger things that little 'kids' don't get to do, but for now all that entailed was babysitting his little sister. He looked to a future when he finally would get to do the things he wanted to do, like 'Mission to Mars'. That's what he wanted. He had read the plans and looked at the diagrams, many times, in the encyclopedias at school. The United States was going to Mars. The flying cars and hover boards and moon colonies and holograms, they were coming. It was right around the corner, and he wanted to be there when it happened. He wanted to see the possibilities, like being shrunk and actually being inside the human body, or actually being inside a computer, fighting disk battles. The future was going to be an amazing place, if he ever got to see it.
But no, he was just a babysitter for his sister. He often blamed her for not having a chance at Little League, last spring. Truth be told, he would have spent most of the season riding the pine. He was not very large, or tall, or athletic, and spent most of his free time exploring the hills and forests above Golden, Colorado, and pretending it was a different time, anytime but now. There was plenty of fertile earth and nature around his home to develop quite the imagination, just not a lot of people, so he was pretty used to entertaining himself and relying on his own devices.
So, Nicolas was used to doing his own thing. At school, he hung out with his friends, and was ignored by others, which included the girls, which he was fine with, mostly. He absolutely knew why. His blonde hair, he would say it was brown, never lay right, his cab-door ears, and the freckles, he had gotten it all from his mother. Just as bad were his father's fat nose, which made his eyes look too close together, and big mouth filled with buck teeth. It made Nicolas look just goofy. His mom sometimes teased him about his baby face. Just another reason he could not grow up soon enough.
Nicolas looked nothing like his sister, who had inherited her father's straw blonde hair, which was only stringy from activity and neglect, large bright blue eyes and soft cheeks, and her mother's long limbs, button nose, shallow, crescent ears, diamond shaped face with a sharp jaw. He had been the first, but somehow she had been reserved all the best features. She looked less five than a small adult, and was always drawing the attention for it. He got the leftovers. She was the movie star and he just got to be her chauffeur. Life was not fair.
Still, he felt better when stomachs were filled and rides were rode. All the necessary hustle and bustle to make a vacation and the body want to return home to escape it. One last day, one last hurrah before the return of school and Autumn's first day of Kindergarten. The sun made its exit stage right so that the final scene could begin. Relief came to sunburned skin as the air cooled. The Reuel family rested at the patio of a restaurant on Main Street, USA, lingering on for one final night to watch bodies and forms dance in time to a synthetic melody, while bathed in the warm glow of ten-thousand incandescent lights. Well-loved characters known for decades across the earth passed down the lane, but also as things twisted by light and shadow into unnatural caricatures. Autumn ordered ice in her glass of milk, and offered soothing words to her Tinker Bell. Soon, eruptions filled the sky with blues whites, and reds. Fireworks rent the sky, cracking throughout the park to bid a raucous farewell to the guests.
Nicolas should have been asleep. He was told to hit the hay two hours ago, and he might have except for the lingering headache, probably from the fireworks. He loved sneaking downstairs at night and watching the worst television had to offer, but this was even better. It was his last chance ever; he had never seen such a thing before. This television had thirty-two channels. At home, they had only four, maybe five on a good day when he could get the antenna pointed just right, but even then a lot of snow stuck on the television. Here, there were all kinds of cool stations, and they came in clear as crystal. This one showed movies all the time. Right now, a bunch of guys were in space getting eaten by a big black bug monster. Normally, his parents would have scolded him, but they had passed out an hour ago. He sat and watched amazed, the sound turned up just loud enough to be heard over the snoring. It was the perfect crime.
"Nick, what'cha doin'?" Autumn appeared sleepily next to him, startling him more than it rightly should. She rubbed the sleep out with a fist, first one eye, then the other. Tinker Bell was hooked underneath the elbow of her other arm, where it had stayed all day. If Autumn had put it down even once, he had missed the moment. The sleep cleaned out well enough for the moment, she stared wide-eyed as the screen flickered through a particularly gut-wrenching scene. "Ohhh, you're gonna get in so much trouble."
"No, Mom and Dad aren't even going to wake up."
"They finished off that bottle of wine from yesterday because they couldn't take it with us. Didn't you hear them?"
"I'm gonna tell N-E-ways."
"Don't you dare!"
"I aAaMmm!" Autumn's fists were jammed into her sides to prove her point, Tinker Bell hanging on for dear life. Nicolas grinned, which was countered by a raspberry.
"You do that…an I'm…I'll take you toy away!" Nicolas snatched at the doll only to prove his point, causing Autumn to squeal and twist away. "Quiet!" He yelled, glancing at the beds.
"Then leave 'er alone!" Autumn yelled from her knees, her now unbraided hair spilling down to hide her face. "She's scared a you! She only likes me!"
"Fine…" he replied in a stressed whisper. "…Just stop yelling." Autumn crawled over and plopped herself next to her brother in a stand-off. Legs crossed, and her arms followed with a harrumph. Nicolas continued to watch, and tried to ignore her as the body count slowly rose. She was not going to ruin this for him.
"Nick, Tinker Bell doesn' think we should be watchin' this."
"No, you shouldn't be watching this."
"She says…what?" Autumn bent over close to the face of her doll so she could hear an imaginary voice better. "She says that it scares her and that it…what did you say? That 'you are rather a disappointment to your pra-jem-neat-oars', whatever that means."
"Let's watch the one with cartoons on it all the time."
Nicolas tried to ignore her some more, then strange bodily fluids sprayed all over the bulkheads. "Yeah…you're probably right." He flipped the knob several times until he found the station they wanted, but the cartoons were gone. Instead, it was some old black and white show. "Hey, I know this. It's 'Dennis the Menace'. You should like it. It's about a kid just like you."
"You're one of those." Together, they watched until heads nodded and eyes drooped, and a brother carried His little sister to bed.
"There's something wrong with her." Her father muttered in a passing moment between the more important things astride him. "She's too withdrawn. Look at her muttering to that doll. She never pays attention to what's going on around her."
"Harold, she's not even in school, yet."
"It's not healthy, Laura."
"Remember Nick at this age? He was always talking to himself. It's just a phase. She'll be fine once she gets used to school."
Harold's attention returned to the notepad in hand, cross-referencing his scribbled notes with the paper scattered across his row of vinyl beam chairs. Autumn spun in little circles in her pretty little blue dress, twirling her new doll to their own private joy. Laura eavesdropped on the delighted comments of the passersby, guessing where this beautiful little girl had been and how much fun she must have had. Nicolas hid in a corner, yawning and leaning up against a structural column half-buried in the wall, alternating tugs at his cuffs and choler to find little extra breathing space. His father had promised to buy him a larger dress shirt before the flight back. His father said a lot of things that he did not expect Nicolas to remember.
"Now boarding passengers for flight 775, bound for Denver, Colorado..."
Nicolas sat up just as straight as he could and twisted his neck every which way to see everything he could not out the window, disappointed that it was just about everything in the early morning dark. He had bargained for the window seat on the return trip, and he was not about to give the privilege up. Autumn would be just fine, stuck in the middle. Maybe, he could at least see their home on the way back. His mother and father were already set to go in the row in front of Autumn and him, His father already set with his sleep mask.
For a few minutes, Nicolas sat fidgeting with both eyes peeled, hoping the two of them would get away with the row to themselves. The odds must be in their favor with this many empty seats. Autumn stood up in her chair, and twisted directional nozzles until she choked on the blast of air that shot down her throat, then found a neat little orange button that dinged. By that time Nicolas had begun to relax just a bit, until he had to deal with a stewardess. At least she was an understanding one.
About the time he was sure they were in the clear, Nicolas pick up the sound of a large suitcase being dragged down cheap carpet, along with a train-like double-thunk of hard plastic knocking against steel chair legs and tender feet. Slowly, it grew louder, terribly slowly, like the grim reaper slow plodding towards them. It just crept, crept, crept, until Nicolas could not take it anymore, and he finally peeked over headrest and perm to spy an over-sized and altogether intimidating woman almost upon them. He sunk deep into his seat, and prayed for deliverance. The woman's carry-on was thrown into the overhead bin above them and beaten down until something gave way in the crunch of delicate glass. She rattled in between the two armrests of her aisle seat with a half-grunt, half-moan. Autumn squealed and jumped out of seat as a heavy arm came down across her lap.
And this was just the beginning. The woman grumbled a bit during takeoff, then shook her body farther into the chair, kicked her feet up, and tossed her head back over the headrest. Soon, her mouth was a geyser of spittle, a small, deep throated snore sputtering from within. As soon as Nicolas though the worst was over, something soon stirred inside the woman, and she woke with a shiver and a snort. Her purse was kicked out from underneath her seat, and she strained for it, producing a pack of Virginia Slims and a lighter. One was lit, and she took a long drag from it. Of course, the smoke did what smoke does. Nicolas stifled a cough, but Autumn took the worst of it.
"Miss...Miss Lady, Mille, my Tinker Bell, is getting really sick from your cigarette," she cried in a small, determined voice. "Can you stop, please?"
"Look kid, I'll do what I want. This flight is over two hours. Leave me alone." The 'lady' did not even bother to look at Autumn.
"Nick, Millie's getting totally sick. Help her."
"What am I supposed to do?" Autumn tugged on his sleeve, almost climbing him in desperation. "Please, just put it out. Just look at her, it won't kill you to wait." He probably could have said that better. The look he got in reply made that clear.
"Screw you kid I need it for my diet." She proceeded to take another long drag, blowing the smoke from her nose.
"Millie's really mad. Somet'in's gonna happen." Nicolas could not help but watch the doll in anticipation. Maybe the haze was messing with his vision, but something about the doll was not quite right, like it was blurry or something. Its smile seemed twisted, and the wings drooped. It even seemed to be turning blue. Then the weirdest thing happened. In a puff of ash and char, the cigarette exploded. Shocked, the woman shot up, driving her forehead square into a pair of air nozzles before folding back into her seat. She came back up rubbing her forehead, eyes squinted shut in pain.
"What the Hell was that? What did you do to me, little girl!?" The woman crumpled the cigarette's now splayed end into the armrest ashtray. Nicolas could not hold back a smirk. It was something straight out of a Loony Tunes. There was even soot ringing the woman's, now crimson, face. Nicolas saw the steam rise from her ears, and cartoonish devil horns sprouted from the welts on her head. That could not be right. He shook the images out of brain.
"Nothing! Millie did it!" Autumn slipped the doll behind her back, protecting it from a clubbing from the woman's wild arms with her own little body.
"I'll get you...you witch! Where are you parents?! I'll put you over my knee!"
"Dad-eee!" Her father sat up, and pulled the mask off of his eyes, still dazed. Their mother prairie dogged from her seat at the scream.
"You leave my sister alone!" Nicolas shouted, not knowing what else he could do.
"Madam, I'm going to have to ask you to move." It was the young stewardess, who had heard the commotion from the galley, and had come to investigate.
"But This Girl, she did something to me. Look at my face!"
"Come with me now, please." The commotion had spread, and two other additional stewardesses joined in from the front of the plane.
"It's not my fault!" In the strictest sense, this was true, but there were plenty of other seats to discuss it all in. The woman was ushered away hurriedly by the three stewardesses as they could, her luggage and purse left behind. Autumn giggled, and Nicolas swore this time he heard an echo respond at a higher octave. Harold and Laura never got any explanation to their liking about the whole thing.
Upon landing in Denver, the Reuel Family was offered a profuse apology as the plane was cleared before them. Autumn and Nicolas were offered, and quickly accepted a trip to see the cockpit and meet the captain. Nicolas even rattled off the names of the gauges he knew as he sat in the co-pilot's chair.
"See, this is how people fly Millie. Maybe Mister Pilot can show you how. "
"...and can you believe Reagan? He bombs Libya back into the Stone Age on a whim, but then turns around and doesn't give a damn about apartheid in South Africa."
"After six years, are you really surprised? He'll do anything for the military-industrial complex." Herold backhanded the corner of the morning newspaper with striped pajamaed indignation, reclining back just enough to hide his eyes from the light of the late morning sun.
"I'm so sick of his cowboy diplomacy. It's just going to make Gaddafi even more belligerent."
"Come eighty-eight we'll finally replace him with a good Democrat and the needs of THIS country will finally be taken care of. After the past six years of his example, America will never elect another conservative...hey, Nick. Did you have a nice nap?"
"You want something for lunch?" Laura Reuel had spent the last hour piddling around the kitchen in her Adidas joggers, but without any of the characteristic smells of breakfast. She hated that kitchen, not for cooking, but because of its appearance. The lime cabinets were just too much, and needed to go, along with the sky blue linoleum countertops, now that they had the money. She would have the wall between it and the dining room torn down as well, but that would mean a disastrous combining with the master bedroom upstairs.
"Are you sure?" His mother offered him something lumpy and brown, saran wrapped, "I bought some oat bran muffins."
"You OK there, Champ?" Something was not, and it lingered on him. Nicolas had flopped into bed as soon as they had made it home from the airport, barely even making it out of his dress clothes. He yawned as he stood there with them now, more asleep than awake.
"I didn' sleep v'ry good las' night, at the hotel." Nicolas shuffled aimlessly past the traditional oval oak table. "Tah music kept me up."
"What music?" His father folded his paper over, and stared at Nicolas.
"Harold, you weren't exactly all together last night."
"It wasss like a chorus of an'els cryin'. An' every time I slep'...all kinds of strange things, and music tha' nobody's heard..."
"Look, I'm sure you were just tired from the trip. It was jet lag..." His mother replied, placing a hand on Nicolas's shoulder, but trying to reassure his father. "How about you sit down and I'll get you some toast."
"She's out back with her Tinker Bell. She wasn't hungry, either."
"OK…" Without another word, Nicolas slipped on his Velcro shoes and out the back door.
"There's something wrong with that boy, too."
"Oh stop it, Harold."
The Reuel family lived in a large, but rather plain looking, two-story home on the rolling hills of Lookout Mountain, which was considered a part of Golden Colorado, which today is just a suburb of Denver, but this was many years ago. The new couple had bought this home when Nicolas was an infant and money was just trickling in. Now it flowed, as seen in the matching set of BMW's in the drive way, and the new modern furniture that sat conspicuously inside together with the old. The carpet needed replaced, that was the big project next week, but at least the hokey wallpaper had finally been torn down and painted over with a nice textured beige. Getting the place ready for entertaining was their five-year goal. Still, nothing had been done to alter the exterior of the home, which looked like a box of cheap wood siding painted red, with plenty of windows poking through.
Around their home, meadows of yellowed grass rolled along the always sloping terrain and the narrow roads curled along with them. Ponderosa Pines gathered on the northern sides of the hills and mountains or traveled between, on their own time, in singles or small parties. Scattered homesteads as individual as their owners found places in the clearings between. Squirrels ate from the trees, mule deer and elk grazed, all for the cougars and bobcats to feed on, and the occasional black bear ruled over all. As great as it was for the young imagination, if you were older and looking for the high life, you were out of luck. There was a restaurant and the graveyard of Buffalo Bill, which was about it. Town was east, down five miles of white knuckle switchbacks falling thirteen hundred feet to into valley. The view was breathtaking, the snow made it impassable. Blackouts were common in the winter. Everyone kept a well-stocked pantry and plenty of thick blankets, and kept an eye to their neighbor for mutual assistance and sport.
But snow would not a problem anytime soon. This Sunday morning, it was warm enough for a Transformers t-shirt and last year's jeans turned into cutoffs. Autumn was nowhere nearby. Nicolas drifted out of the nebulous boundaries of his backyard, still not altogether awake.
The sounds of nature, from the crunch of earth to the rustle of the wind and everything that resided there, the smell of musk and pine, his home, the very landscape and the colors reminded him of the music of his dream, which echoed, carrying him somewhere. He could not let it go again. He remembered a distinct yearning, the sound of excitement and hope fluttering from a piccolo flute. He squinted in the too bright sun as he tried to follow something that flowed all around and through him, and overwhelmed. He eventually sought shade down in a grove of pines nearby. There was his sister, resting on a squat boulder in hand-me-down Oshkosh overalls and a sunny yellow t-shirt.
"What are you doing way out here? Mom's gonna be pissed," Nicolas yelled from his vantage point above. Autumn startled badly, nearly slipping off of the flat-topped boulder, then finishing her dismount excitedly as she spotted him. Her short legs carried her the distance in moments, her arms ready to deliver a huge hug.
"It's OK. Milly wanted ta come. She's keepin' us safe. You've come to help us!"
"No, you're in trouble, let's go." Nicolas, in full grown-up mode, tried to grab her wrist. "And who's 'Milly' anyway?"
"She told me she needed a snail shell, an' so we're here for one. I don't know where she went..." Autumn gasped, trying to spit out too many words in one breath.
"So, wait, Tinker Bell, you lost her already?! This is a new record. Come on, we need to find her." Nicolas finally caught her hand, and drove her in front of him. "When are you going to start paying attention? Some bear is going to eat you..." Nicolas herded his little pest along for the search, kicking over rocks and scattering pine needles with his sneakers. "Where did you leave her last?"
"You're starting ta sound like Dad. Milly comes back."
"No…take that back...wait,what?!" He saw the Tinker Bell doll down on one knee, plain as the sunbeams that lit her cloth skin through the pines, her fat fingerless hand probing inside the crevice of a granite stone. It even turned its head as he gasped. He wondered for a moment how it could see with stitched eyes, or hear for that matter, right before the doll let out small squeak as she fell to the ground limp. "No, I saw you! Don't even try to fake it, I saw you!"
"She's just scared!" Autumn lunged towards the doll, kneeling to rescue it off of the bare dirt.
"How does a cloth doll stand up? Its knees are just stitches. What is wrong with my brain? Hey! What are you doing with it?"
"Milly IS REAL. You have ta really look at her." The doll was shoved as close to his face as his little sister could manage with her short arms as he stood there, incredulous, with his weight on one leg, arms crossed and feeling quite taken for a fool.
"This is stupid..."
"Stop bein' like Dad and try."
When Nicolas was younger than his sister was now, there was a time when his aunt used to babysit him. Now, she was a bit of a nut, or a tree on the river bank, refusing to change or give in while the river ate away at the soil around its roots. It had been her that read him the old fairy tales, and not just the kid's ones, but the good stuff like 'The Brothers Grimm' and other scary things. She always used to hum a chaotic melody when she worked, like she made it up as she went along out of many parts that ebbed and flowed.
Why was he remembering this after all these years? Her song wormed its way into his head as he stared at this Tinker Bell. It seemed blurry again, like on the airplane. No, it was more like a glow, the halo made more obvious by the shade of the grove. Suddenly, it came into sharp focus, and he screamed in shock as the doll burned of light in his sister's hands, the flattened cotton body consumed in seconds leaving a vibrant form behind. She now offered to him a real fairy, just as he always imagined one, wearing nothing but a simple loose summer dress made from what looked like iris petals, not fashioned, but many grown together into one. The dress flowed in its bell shape down her body down to just above her knees, its 'fabric' so stiff you could not tell what was touched by skin or air, yet rolling on a breeze that that did not exist. Remnants of the light that once surrounded her still shimmered upon it.
"Autumn, you OK?! I don't believe this. Drop the doll!" Nicolas tugged at her arm while swatting at the creature, causing it to tumble slowly to the ground like a leaf. He had to save his sister, carry her to the house and hide her in her toy chest upstairs, but Autumn instead dropped to her knees, becoming forty-seven pounds of anchor holding him in place.
From this creature, this fairy, formed a double set of wings from along its mid-back, long and narrow much like a dragonfly's, their length at rest falling to her calves . At first glance he had thought them to be a part of the dress, their sheer translucence had blended so well into the dark dress's glow. With noticeable effort, it flew the dozen or so feet to Autumn, and tried to help her up in flight. It had thought about his sister before itself. Nicolas felt himself changing, fur growing across skin and his ears stretching to become a mule.
"Milly!" Autumn pushed herself upright. The 'fairy' then took a seat on her shoulder, its right arm wrapped around her neck.
"Leave her be. I am sorry for my lies. I did not want to involve any more men into this." Now it was talking, the wispy and high pitched voice he expected out of something so small.
"Men? Who else knows about this?"
"Just this one, your sister, my friend."
"She's a girl."
"Yes. I do know this, as am I. What would you call yourselves then?"
"Call ourselves...what, you mean hu...mans, never mind."
"Indeed. I am Militha'onga, of the Water Skimmers," she stated with such pride Nicolas wondered if she was some kind of royalty of whatever she was. Finally, he had a good look at her. Her oversized, bright green eyes flashed even as she sat there still, set wide on something of a broad, flat face, and appeared almost cartoonish set against her dainty nose and long, thin pointy ears. The long, continuous arc of her jawline, small mouth and dipping chin gave her face a round look not unlike the dolls she had masqueraded as. Her hair was a lavender color, very thick and short which made it stand up in spikes, which accented her face, and stood a stark contrast to her ivory skin.
"You're ARE a fairy? Radical." Nicolas leaned in for a closer look, and hesitantly tried to touch her with one finger.
She rolled those large eyes, and sighed, "If you must call me so."
" 'Tis the name of men, and an offense. To you so would be the Grass Leapers, and the Flower Tenders, and the Moon Chasers..."
"OK, I'm sorry. Give me a break. How was I supposed to know?"
"So, I've gone nuts then."
"I've gone nuts then..." Autumn did her best to mock the look on his face while she spun her finger around her ear, catching strands of blonde hair.
"You are right. He is a...ah 'total pain'."
"Totally," Autumn giggled as she stole back a glance. "All brothers are." Nicolas threw up his hands at this grievous insult, wishing he could get his eight bucks back.
"This is truth, I have thirteen of them."
"OK, let's just say this is real. Why just Autumn and me, and no one else? There were millions of people that saw you."
"I do not know. Are your parents druids?"
"No, they don't care about nature, unless they can make money out of it. They're yuppies."
"Are they 'goblins' then?"
"No! I mean…I don't know. It's the way they are."
"The powerful enchantments of my people work well on these. They give what others desire."
"And I wanted a friend Nick! And here she is!" Autumn smiled at the fairy on her shoulder, and bounced her into the air with a hop, sending them both into laughter.
"I have completely lost my mind. Oh look, and there's the white rabbit to carry me away to Wonderland." It wasn't really, except for the tail, but it was there, watching the trio for a moment before casually hopping away. Militha'onga fell off of Autumn's shoulder and fluttered within inches of Nicolas's face. The excitement and fear were plain in her eyes. Her hands were cupped together underneath her chin.
"Do you know of those places between worlds? You can aid me!"
"OK, Wait...so why were you two out here away from the house again?"
"Milly needs a snail shell."
"I need one to return to my home. Do you know of another way?"
"Oh crap! We're hundreds of miles away from your home. I'm sorry."
"No, the distance means nothing, but the time is short. A shell, and of exceptional size, we must find one. Assist me." Militha'onga flew the short distance back to the boulder she had been working under, landing on all fours to come up stretching from head-to-wings-to-toes.
"Fine...Autumn, I'll lift some of these large rocks, you check underneath for snails." So, they began the hunt through the hilly field, checking up every tree trunk and under every boulder, hunting everywhere for the strangest, most common thing. "And what will this shell do?"
"It is necessary to hear the ley lines. I have seen such once before."
In roughly an hour, five snails were found. The fairy singled out the two largest and inspected both, as Autumn knelt in the grass keeping one in each hand, slowly turning each about, feeling every bump on the spiral of each, much to the perturbment of the snail inside.
"Snails make magic? Do you make a brew out of them?" Autumn bent her face within inches of the snails, gawking, looking for the hidden magic herself. She had handled plenty of snails before, but all of those had been just plain snails. She had never seen a magical one before.
"OK, and...so, what are ley lines?"
"Do you know nothing of your world? They span the space between earth and sky around both our words, some strong, some not so, and bind in many places. The ones of my world use them to speak across the distances, and to travel those distances, At one time, we used them to travel from this world."
"So you're an alien? Like, from far away?"
"No! She's a fairy!"
"Shut-up, Autumn! She doesn't like that."
"You shut-up, Jerk!"
"BOTH OF YOU CEASE THIS! What is wrong with you hu'mans?" The command echoed in his brain. He had never thought before that a voice so strong could come from something so small. He checked out his sneakers, scuffing some residual dirt of a heel. "We were once from here, long ago, but man drove us away with all his fighting. All you do is fight. It is all your short lives seem to be for."
"She started it..." Autumn almost crossed her arms, then remember the slimy creatures she cared for. She settled for a pout.
"I will keep this one. Return the other." Autumn did, careful to put it somewhere where it would not get squished.
"So, this is it?"
"Oh no, I need rainwater, and a wooden bowl to place it in. Also, of what you would call argentum, It is a bright shiny thing that if fashioned flat shows your form."
Autumn raised her hand high over her head like she was in school already. "Glass? Oh, I know…a mirror!"
"No, that's not right..." Nicolas spoke under his breath.
"It has a nobler sister that shines like the sun."
"Gold...wait, you need silver. I'm sure we can find something in the house." Milly held the snail out to him, and he took it, first gazing at it, then her. "Man, I can't believe I'm doing this..." Militha'onga just nodded. The three made their way back up the hilly field, Nicolas plodded along while Autumn skipped, stumbling on rodent holes and continuing unabated. Militha'onga took a long look around her, with an apprehension that excited, then took flight hesitantly, and fluttering unevenly, caught up with the siblings.
"Is your whole world like this place? Or is it as before, with the terrible iron beasts that consume everything living to make like them? Blowing smoke and bursting the skies, and their triumph, parading in dress with a thousand lights and their captives. False likenesses of vanquished heaped everywhere for anyone to claim. It was a horror! Tell me that is not so."
"Well I don't know, kinda...there are a lot of different places...don't get me wrong, it sucked there..."
"No, it didn'!" Autumn pleaded.
"It's all fake, though."
"Illusion too? Please, explain."
Both siblings made disjointed attempts to answer on the short way home, often interrupting each other mid-sentence, changing the topic and ultimately accomplishing little unless their purpose was to confuse Militha'onga more. Still, the fairy tried to hang in there as both siblings chattered on, replying mostly with a nod until about half-way back when she landed in Nicolas's arms, exhausted. The explanations continued right up to the backdoor of their home.
"…a thousand times, magnets don't work that way, now shush," Nicolas laid his finger across his lips as he tried to open the door to the laundry room with a minimum of fuss.
"HEY, CHAMP!" He was not even two feet inside. Maybe he should have asked for fairy magic... "Why do you have your sister's doll...and are talking to it? Why does it have a snail?"
"Milly's wings were tired...I mean Autumn's arms were tired...we were playing a game..." His face flushed cherry red and his body went rigid as he made himself look his father in the face. Nicolas was really lousy at lying. His father was wearing what he called his 'business casual' look, so Nicolas knew something was up.
"Uhm...OK then...Your mom has that emergency at work from yesterday, and I'm going to take her and get a few things done myself. You just saved me the trouble of leaving a note." The children trailed behind their father, for lack of something less suspicious to do, as he pocketed his keys and various other necessities. Their mother was already coming down the stairs in her bright, best business suit and skirt.
"We're off. There are leftovers in the fridge, but we should be back before dinner."
Both children waved them goodbye with grins choked behind bit into lips and sucked in cheeks. The front door closed. The sounds of two sets of footsteps in step were drowned out by a worried conversation, soon fading away.
"Why don't they see you, Milly?" Autumn asked.
"Because they do not desire to...Wait, we are not alone, from where is that sound?" It was some canned synthesized melody she heard, and Militha'onga pried herself out of Nicolas's arms, gliding in a half-circle to the shag carpet.
"Dad just left on the TV, again. You remember television, like at the hotel. So, we need a wooden bowl, that should be easy, mom has some salad bowls in the kitchen...Milly, where are you going?"
It looked as if she was skipping across blue and gold grass, in reality she flew in quick bursts down the hall and around the corner to the living room, where the Reuel family had their pride and joy, a brand new, huge, 27" television displayed prominently on top an old oak cabinet. Coming in nearly clear was the Sunday Afternoon Movie. A valiant knight, his mother the good witch, dueled with an evil wizard and a dragon in a waste of celluloid everyone would rather forget. Militha'onga's jaw dropped as she stood silent on the floor, transfixed at the sights and sounds. She was held upright only by wing power. Slowly, these lifted her up to sit on the wooden coffee table, inlaid with a round ribbon of brass on its edges and rounded corners, where she sat with her legs folded up underneath her. Her eyes would not break away from this incredible new thing. "What is this magic, divination?"
"It's not magic, it's science. People broadcast the images and sound to the television with radio waves."
"Is this what men believe. Is this…this how men believe of us?"
Autumn sat on the table next to her. Nicolas stood in front of the black leather sofa, more interested in the fairy's every exited twitch and wince to the motions on screen. None of the trio spoke for a time.
"But the 'dragons', they are The Guardians. This tasks them as monsters, magic a thing of the evil. This never could happen."
"It's jus' a story Millie." Autumn rubbed one of the tiny fairy's hands gently for reassurance.
"She means that it's not real."
"Another fallacy? We tell our own tales, the memories of the past or the stories of our own lives. But this..."
"No, this never happened. It's make believe, a fairy...tale. Anyways, television about other people's lives would be boring." They continued to watch as the story ended, the knight saving the day and the dragon slain, although, he did not seem so valiant anymore.
"You have nothing like this, do you Millie?"
"Well...yes, scrier stones...every family has one. Certainly...my own family has two in our home...bigger than yours..."
"That is to-tal-ly awe-some! What do they do?" Autumn asked.
No answer came as Militha'onga learned the lessons of Lucky the Leprechaun. Nicolas grabbed the remote from next to the television, and traveled through the channels. "You might like 'Wild Kingdom'." The fairy managed a nod and uttered something as the screen was now filled with scenes from the savannah.
"Autumn, we still need silver. Go check Mom's jewelry. I'll go check the kitchen to grab a bowl and see if we have some real silverware."
For the next hour, the rummaging of the two sibling's search was ambiance to a fairy. At times brother and sister met in passing to check on progress and argue a bit. The other two pieces needed, a snail hiding in a wooden bowl, were left with their guest.
"Eureka!" Nicolas held something small to the sky, "A Christmas bell." The door to the garage slammed shut behind him.
"Milly, we found some!"
"Milly?" Autumn had heard her brother from the upstairs office, but not a reply. "Milly, did you run away again?"
Still no response, which set of a touch of concern as the pair hurried through the hall to find Militha'onga right where they had left her, barely even shifted from some time ago. Her large eyes were misting up.
"I'm sorry...I know, but…Is it all that is left of your magic, this?" Her body twisted towards them, her hands still pointed to the television.
"No, he is a pastor. He's talking about God."
"God made the world, Milly," Autumn tried to explain.
"And he did this through...Science? This wise man speaks of belief, trust and faith. This is where magic grows."
"Well, I guess nobody knows how he did it. How do you make a whole world and everything on it? I guess it could still be magic."
"This is such a fearful and wonderful realm. It's the appearance through ripples of a pond."
"I bet if I had somehow landed on yours, with dragons and fairies and leprechauns and centaurs or whatever, it would seem pretty strange to me, too. Will this work?" Nicolas dangled the silver bell by a red ribbon in reach of Militha'onga.
"You however, would have never been treated so kindly." She fluttered to her feet and took it with both hands. It was like a basketball to her as she rolled it in her hands.
"This is not pure." Her thin lips frowned.
"Will that make a difference?"
"It will hold its form stubbornly."
"It's the only thing I can find."
"Then, it must do." Militha'onga returned to sitting with her legs folded underneath her, the cowardly snail at her feet and the bell in her lap. "Time runs short. I must try." Her eyes closed and her hands began to swirl with both a grey and a light blue glow, the snail shell reflected that glow, and soon the bell did as well. Its silver metal began to flow; its shape molded by hands seen and unseen.
"That was Grandpa's," Autumn complained in a forced whisper, looking up at Nicolas.
"I'm sure he would not have minded if he could have known."
"Please, I must focus..." Militha'onga whispered, her eyes still closed as she returned to the task, but you could tell something was wrong. The flow of metal stopped, and now it was an effort just to maintain the form. Her face contorted, the glow changed to crimson, then to the darkest purple, and the bell became a tarnished, indistinct glop of metal.
"Noo!" The now silver nugget fell onto the wood table top, and not satisfied with that, she kicked it down to the carpet. Nicolas had seen enough tantrums to know what this was. "Your magic here, it is wild and temperamental...and angry. No one cares for it. And I cannot do even a simple transmutation with it, and the form is in my face! I can never return! I am doomed." Tears streamed from her eyes without reservation.
"Jus' try again. My Daddy tells me to never give up."
"It will not matter. Do you children even understand? I have until the moon begins to wane, one final night. I will not have the abilities by then. The magic is too difficult for me. I will remain here, miserable and alone, hoping that to survive in this faithless world until the next alignment arises..."
"When would your next chance be?" Nicolas asked.
"Only when the moon shines full at night, on the day where the sun is longest or its least, only then do ley lines sing with the strength to cross worlds."
Nicolas picked the silver off of the floor and offered it to her again. "Then you have to try again, Autumn's right."
"Come on Milly, we believe in you." Autumn wiped the tears away from the fairy's huge eyes with her finger, and hugged her small form. Militha'onga looked at the silver, then Autumn, who kept a silly smile on her face.
"Perhaps, perhaps then that will be enough. Come sit with me."
Each took their place in a circle, Militha'onga on the table with the two siblings on the floor. The snail and the silver took their places, but this second time the three of them held hands, and the objects again glowed, seemingly on their own. For a minute or an hour, time itself bent unrecognizable. The world that could be seen and heard was dulled, and for a moment there was something else. Ribbons of every color occupying and binding shadows of everyday things, then it was over. Nicolas and Autumn opened their eyes to see the silver shell that sat in the fairy's lap, a bit larger than the original, but accurate in every intimate detail. Autumn let out a squeal of delight, and broke the circle in the process. Nicolas sat in wonder, while Autumn grabbed the shell and twirled around her head before setting it back down, but Militha'onga perhaps was the most amazed.
"Thank you my friends, and thank you friend for lending me your design." Nicolas thought the snail responded. For a moment it left its shell, its eye stalks making a gentleman's bow before retreating to safety. The fairy even bowed in return, and placed her imitation back into the bowl.
"And what else did you need…Rain water? Autumn, are you hungry yet?"
"Yes, clean, clear and very fresh."
"Yeah, PB&J…please, no crust!
"Autumn, go take the snail outside and go check if anything has water in it. I'll get your sandwich ready." She was too excited to even argue, and disappeared out the back. "Milly, this probably sounds dumb, but do you even eat? Are you hungry? I'm sorry, I didn't even think about it."
"What does a 'Water Skimmer' eat? That must mean something..." Nicolas was more muttering to himself as he started digging things out of the refrigerator. "Well, help yourself. There's no way you could eat the house down."
And she looked for something suitable, through the refrigerator and into the pantry she searched, inspecting everything. "Why is all your food shaped so strange?"
"Milly, why does it have to be rain water? Will any water do?" Nicolas asked as he spread jelly.
"…Because it does" Then she noticed a large orange in a basket on the breakfast nook table. Her eyes got even wider. She flew to it, and even managed to lift it up, but something went wrong, and fear flashed on her face. It fell to a rest back on the tablecloth with a silent splat. "It is poisoned! How can you consume this...?"
"It probably has an insecticide on it to keep the bugs away."
"Have you nothing that is not poisoned, pummeled, and packed into bark?"
"Well, my aunt made these granola squares. Nobody ever ate them because they're healthy. They've got fruit and nuts and honey in them, and she probably grew it all herself." He pulled a dusty cookie tin out from deep inside the pantry and opened it next to Militha'onga. She took one square in hand, and seemed to smell it before taking a small bite, then a second.
"This is acceptable."
Perhaps even more than that, he noticed her reach for a second square. Nicolas paused for a moment as he was putting the jelly back into the fridge. "But, why rain water?"
"We do not ask the why of such things. It works and we are blessed for it."
"Would tap water work? Or does it even need to be water? Could we use this milk, or orange juice? Someone must have figured all this out before. So, why does to be rain water?"
"How am I supposed to know these things?! It must be clear, it must have no life. It is for the elders to reveal to those who show potential as they see it. No being is mad enough to want to be here. Why would this be revealed to someone so..." "And no one asks how? Or where?"
"DO NOT OFFEND THE GIFT!" She flew, really flew this time into his face, growing and twisting into something dark, horrible and twisted, with long rows of teeth in a mouth that folded over itself, many armed with claws like sabers and dragon wings. It snarled and spit, but it did not scare. It was a nightmare indeed, but one of a small child with which no logic could make real.
"Nick, the only water I saw was in that dish mom feeds the stray cat. It was totally groady." Just her head popped through the sliding glass door in the back of the house. Poof, the monster was gone, and Militha'onga fell a couple of feet before recovering herself. "What are you two doing?" Slowly, Autumn walked to and in between them, handing out a generous helping of stink-eye to her brother.
"OK, look, Milly, will it ruin anything if we try something else? Mom has several gallons of distilled water around here somewhere. The stuff's like 99.9% pure or something."
"If we must." She was still livid with a pout plastered on her face, her arms stuck crossed as were her legs suspended in air. If look could kill, and hers might, being a magic creature and all. "Now, I must have the shell. Take the bowl and your water to that table of wood. Good, now pour until it is nearly full."
"What now? Does the shell go in there?"
"Autumn, I must now rest it on the water properly." Militha'onga knelt with the shell in her outstretched hands over the bowl, ever-so-slowly lowering the shell, apex first, into the water. As soon as the tiniest tip of the top of the shell touched, it rested there, suspended and still like a top that had forgotten gravity.
"Is that hard to do?" Nicolas asked. Autumn tried to poke her head in closer, but he pulled her away by the suspenders.
"No, any wadeling could accomplish it. You really think my abilities so feeble? You can do no such thing..."
"How was I supposed to know? We just pull rabbits out of hats, and I can't even figure that out. So, is it finished? How does it work?"
"Now you still yourself, and we wait."
The shell floated still over the water. Slowly, so slowly that Nicolas was not sure it had at all, slowly it drifted a quarter circle clockwise. Then, small ripples began to appear in the water in a complex rhythm, at times, several beats came rapidly at different strengths, sometimes, nothing at all for seconds. Oh so faintly, Nicolas thought he could hear the shell humming like a violin.
"Ohh, there is a conjunction, but it is so far away."
"The shell opening is pointing west, to the Rocky Mountains. Is that the way?"
"It's acting like a horn, but in reverse...like our TV antenna...or like radar."
"The elders tell us a story that everything that exists is a sound, and everything is built from sound. It is strong enough I think, but no, it is too far away. I would surely be too long in traveling there."
"Wait, I have an idea." Nicolas's face lit up and a devious grin sprouted on his face. Militha'onga did not need magic to understand that this was going to be a terrible idea.