His head rested against a pillow, but he had not slept, not even a wink. Once, he had been called a night owl by his mother, and took a liking to it. Many nights this summer, he had snuck down to watch the late night horror movie, bright eyes bulging in the darkness, and hooted at the finest examples of bad acting passing through the tube. Tonight, he was learning that getting mad at not falling asleep was doing nothing to help him fall asleep. The breeze, the world of sound through his window did not help, neither did checking the time every five minutes. So, he was not at all surprised when his door creaked open, a small shadow appeared in his doorway by the moonlight, and he heard a tiny, high-pitched voice whisper, "Nicolas, are you still aroused?"
"Yeah, come on in Milly." He was glad for the company. The little fairy peaked her head from around the corner post of his bed, and his lips broke into a grin. She was waring a green, plastic sun bonnet, which actually matched her dress quite well. He reasoned that it must have been a forgotten remnant of the Barbie stuff from Christmas that Autumn had not set to scissors, hammer, or to the flame. "My sister's been dressing you..."
"This is so different from your sister's home..." her thoughts raced at the possibilities as she walked on four limbs among his worldly possessions. "It is the two sides of balance, you and her." Something in particular grabbed her attention, and she fluttered to the top of his dresser for a closer look at his Transformers poster in the moonlight, standing between his Master Merlin game and Rubik's snake twisted into a horse. "...I must ask, why do we wait when time itself is lacking?"
"Because we have to wait until my parents are asleep or we can't go anywhere...and now Latrell is late. I don't know how to drive." Nicolas sighed, and turned off the alarm to his digital clock.
"Drive? He is the master of some swift beast?" Milith'aonga flew across to the top of his short bookcase, and landed in the gap between factions of his Transformers collection. "Do these protect you?" She poked one with just the tip of a finger.
"We're going to take my mom's car. You remember, you rode in it home."
"Oh, horrible thing! Not again!" she trembled. Her tail tripped Hound, knocking him into Optimus Prime, who in turn fell off the top in a slow, stiff motion. She cringed at the site with a forehand over her mouth. Two more limbs shrunk away from the chaos as the toy crashed in to the dark carpet. "I am so sorry if I hurt you!" She flew to the floor to help, and set him upright there.
"It's fine, he's not alive, or a golem, or anything. It's just a toy."
Milith'aonga left it there alone, just in case Nicolas was wrong, and flew up to a little desk near his bed where his brand new Commodore Amiga 1000 sat, and made faces in the dim reflection of the monitor. "I hid in your sister's sachel of diversions, even before she was swallowed by the beast. I could not endure it so."
"It'll be fine. People use them all the time."
"And how many are consumed by these beasts?"
"OK, you got me, people can get hurt...but cars aren't alive either, look..." He slid off of his bed and onto his knees to open a drawer built into the bed frame. It was his little space of forgotten toys, and from it he pulled a Matchbox car, a 1978 Pontiac Firebird, and set it up on the desk next to her. He watched from his knees as she looked it over, yet afraid to touch even this.
"See, It's like nothing worse than this, except bigger of course, and it looks a lot different, and it has a real combustion engine...and...this really doesn't help at all."
Milith'aonga slowly tapped the miniature car, and finding that it did not bite, picked it up and squinted at it's back end. "Younglings play with toys of these beasts?"
"No, not a beast, just a machine. It can't think for itself, or move on it's own. It would kinda be our magic, I guess."
"No creature I have heard of creates ma'chine's."
"Not even a wheel? Those are the little circles on the side of the car that roll so it can move." Milith'aonga touched one of those wheels with her hand and felt it turn. He pulled another Matchbox out, a black van with a red stripe across it's side and spoiler, and rolled it across his desk to bump into the wall.
"Those have little use to a winged creature."
"Yeah, I guess you're right. How about tools even? A hammer or an ax? A spear, even a bow or a knife? Any of those are machines too."
"Yes, some of those are known, by my people or others. They are used as you would, for food, and to protect..."
"Yours is not the only world with violence. There are many peoples, not all are kind, and the guardians are few." Her head bowed as she slumped into a sitting posture with her tail curled around the toy car beside her. She refused to speak about it anymore, and left Nicolas to his imagination as ogres, trolls and inhuman monsters invaded an unsuspecting earth.
"Since we're both awake, I want to show you something, wait here." He was gone for less than a minute, reappearing in the doorway with a Little Golden Book in his hand.
"That is the tale that Autumn most enjoys! The one with her Tin'curl'bell. The illusion she desires of me, within and out..." Her voice, which began in excitement, traveled with her mind, and had entered uncertain ground. Only later would Nicolas understand their meaning.
"Wow, you must have some real good eyes to tell that in these shadows." He twisted it around to check out the cover himself as he sat down on the bed cross-legged. "I've read this book a dozen times to her, and mom and dad another dozen more, easy." Milith'aonga hopped over the gap between desk and bed to join him, and he passed her the book. She sat down with it in her lap, slowly turning the pages with a pair of limbs while the fingers of another set ran the contours of the pictures. "I wanted to show you what people think of fairies now. We seem to miss magic."
"I am sorry, I know nothing of these runes."
"You can't read? Neither can my sister, not real well anyways. I think it's funny that we are even able to talk to each other, since you never had even seen a human before."
"This is different, I see the speech in your mind, as I do your desires. In your mind is my speech as well."
"That's cool. Here, I'll just read it to you then." She rested on her thorax, her head propped up with her two foremost limbs, the rest folded underneath as her wings above, and studied the pictures much like his little sister would, as he retold the story one more time.
"Perhaps...one day, man and we...will be ready to...rejoin" The little fairy girl slept, and Nicolas pulled the sheet over her and watched her breath until his own slumber was broken along with the very nearly the window as a rock crashed into it.
"No! I see this beast with fire and anger. I can not face it... " The fairy had tried her best to hold a brave face, right until the back door was opened so she could see the insides, and now she was tripping over herself in terror.
"I'm comin' too, righ' Nick?!" Where Autumn had been hiding, or why she was even awake right now. It was way past HER bedtime.
"Yo, guys, we need to get going here." And now Latrell in hoarse mutiny. The reality of what they were trying to do that night was weighting on him a lot heavier now than it had some hours ago.
That thing that 'happens', well, he was a fan and it all was hitting him now. Nicolas looked up to the bright moon already high in the sky. At least to him, it seemed a little flat already. It was past midnight already, they were supposed to be long down the road by now, and had not even gotten out of the driveway yet.
"Milly, it's safe like I showed you, this car's friendly," Nicolas pleaded.
"Ha! It just sleeps."
"And you, Autumn, you stay here! We don't even know where we are going. It's too dangerous." Great, now he had tied himself in verbal knots. Maybe they would not notice.
"No! This is bogus. I'm goin' and you can't stop me, so there!" She let off a raspberry, really leaning into this one with her hands on her hip. "Milly needs me. I'm her frien', you...you ogre! Right, Milly?"
"She'll be fine, let's go already. I'm going to get into enough trouble as it is."
"Just give me a second, Latrell!"
"I desire her company, in truth." Her four 'arms', those over-sized eyes, every part of her pleaded for mercy as the little fairy stood up straight next to his knee.
"Oh, come ON! Let me come or I'll tell Dad."
"Dude, we need to go...NOW."
"Fine..let's go..." Nicolas threw up his hands with a something between a sigh, a moan, and a grunt. He had time for nothing else as Latrell emphatically motioned him towards the hood of the car.
"Come on, help me get this out of the driveway." Both started to push in earnest, straining for motion, Latrell dividing himself frantically between the steering wheel and the door frame.
"Why...are we doin'...(ugh)...this again? It's like...pushin' an...elephant."
"So we don't...wake your parents."
Rubber crunched every piece of aggregate in that concrete driveway with a noise that sent flares up over the rural darkness. Slowly, and with generous panting, the two of them managed to creep the car up and onto the narrow asphalt road, Latrell turning it into the slight uphill grade.
"When di'yoo...learn to drive...anyways?"
"This isn't really the time...PUSH."
Nicolas was feeling pretty puffed up at his progress, and thought about trying out for football this fall, then his knees began to wobble. "Oh man, I can't hold it. It's too steep!"
"Oh...CRAP!" His foot slipped on a bit of loose rock, and gravity took over. Three-thousand pounds of steel built to move did.
"Wait, don't...you jerk!" Nicolas was not about to become a speed bump, he took another ditch dive. Latrell instinctively dove into the driver's seat, and landed face down, his legs still dangling out the door. It was a slow speed disaster as the car rambled it's way down the road as it pleased. Milith'aonga and Autumn watched from the driveway with the same look of shock and amusement, one standing, one hovering. Nicolas was just in shock. There went his mom's tan BMW, hitting the asphalt lip, veering onto the gravel shoulder, and look, into the drainage ditch. It's front passenger tire shot the curl, something went crack, and Latrell was jostled into a position where he could witness the splintered remains thump and clatter all over the hood of the car. Everything went silent, and he was quite content in the moment just to listen to it.
"Dude, you just crushed Mr. Smith's mailbox!"
"ME?!" Latrell really wanted to punch this kid in the face.
"I'll just tell him that I saw Tommy do it. He's a dick anyways. Comon', let's get out of here." Autumn and Milith'aonga had crept down the road towards the trouble as they dared. Latrell drew a deep breath, Nicolas held his, and the ignition key was turned. The BMW came to life, and as quietly as Latrell could manage, was backed up onto the road. There it sat in the dark, rumbling away.
Autumn tugged the passenger door open with both hands. "See Milly, it's safe. It has sea' belts and EVERYTHING."
A little fairy heart skipped a beat as the interior light flickered on. "You are under a deception more powerful than any I know. Still..." she listened to the car purr contently, and looked at it's soft blue interior. Her head cocked at an odd angle. "Still, a beast so simple as to stumble into a ditch hardly can be so dangerous...If this is the only way..."
Autumn flopped onto her usual seat in the back. "See, I'm OK." Milith'aonga reluctantly followed her.
"My understanding is that the taste of man is foul." The fairy's head was on a pivot in Autumn's lap, looking for whatever would consume her in the belly of this beast.
"You ready? Man, that must have looked totally like 'Streets of San Francisco'."
Nicolas dropped a stuffed backpack, now with a single shoulder strap, onto the front passenger seat, and something else before jumping in. "Yeah, I just grabbed one of the hubcaps."
Before long, they were riding westward deep into the night. No one felt much like talking after what it took to get them this far, and what still lie ahead. This was not feeling much like a movie anymore to Nicolas, not like what he wanted. It made him wonder, and he turned to the back seat. Milith'aonga was content to sit in Autumn's lap and take in the world as it passed by, maybe it was her normal time to be awake, like a cricket; maybe she did not need to sleep at all. Autumn had rolled down the window, and was playing with the summer wind. Nicolas wished that he could slip the fairy into a lapbelt, but they weren't designed to handle someone of her size, or shape. A lap seemed to work better, she could curl her tail down between his sisters legs and really stretch out her little body.
"This ride is nice, wood trim, power windows, power seats, a moonroof. You can barely hear the engine. It's a ride meant for a princess alright. It's just a shame it's an automatic." Latrell spoke absentmindedly, mostly to himself.
He could have only meant Milith'aonga, his Milly, the Milly that he saw. Autumn had acted no different tonight than yesterday, or this morning. But even then, before she had touched him in the strawberry patch, had he seen the same Milly as his sister? Latrell saw something human, most others nothing but a doll. The common thread was that everyone saw what they wanted to, and in truth, it really was not that different than what people did to each other.
The back road funneled into a state route, an that route into an interstate. Still, the traffic remained light as foothills became mountains, which grew and became sharp, bare, and rigid. However, they never quite managed to hide the moon, an observer and timepiece, ticking away.
Latrell had been quiet to Milith'aonga, and to everyone mostly, since the trip started. He was focused on ten and two, left mirror, speedometer, rear view, front, right mirror and back again. There was a question, however, that he still could not dismiss, "Dude, you still haven't told me where we are going." It really did seem to matter.
"West, we just need to head west a couple of hours...it's not even a town. Milly will show us when we get closer." Nicolas wished he had a better answer, just for his own piece of mind. "Thanks for driving us."
"No problem. It just seemed like something I had to do, but why didn't your parents just take her back home?"
"Uhm...her parents didn't give her permission to go...and don't know where she had gone...and...well, you know how my mom and dad are. They would have just called the cops."
"Really? You're not making any sense."
"It's just complicated. Milly just isn't from around here."
"You keep saying that like it's good enough. Spill it. How bad can it be? You're a kid."
"So...when did you learn to drive?"
"I said it's not important." Nicolas really did not feel like pushing it, and he caught Latrell mouthing several false starts, but nothing more expressive than a sigh escaped. "...I hope you brought some money for gas. We're getting low."
"We put everything together that we had, me and my sister, $52 and some change. Six months of allowance for vacuuming and babysitting." He pulled out a wad of crumpled bills from his pocket to prove it.
"I witnessed these things, Dol'lores. Why does man desire them?"
"Really?! You found her in Disneyland, and she doesn't know about money? Was she locked in a tower?"
"Well, this is money...Autumn, pass these to her." Milith'aonga slid off of her knee onto the vinyl seat as autumn leaned forward sleepily to grab them. "The orangey kind of one is a penny, it's made from copper. One is a nickel, but I'm not sure if that is what metal it's made from. The one made from paper is a dollar."
"Like silver, or iron."
"Ah.." She rolled one of the coins in a pair of hands, observing the portrait stamped inside.
"People mix them together, like copper and tin to make bronze, or use them by themselves..."
"Look," Latrell interrupted Nicolas, "What it's made from isn't important. People want money, they go crazy for it. It can get them anything they desire."
"Desire I understand, but to desire this?"
"Not anything..." Nicolas retorted.
"You try and tell people that. Money is the root of all evil."
"Milly, it's really not that bad. Money is something you get for helping someone else. Then you use it when someone helps you. There's nothing evil about it."
"I feel no curses. These do not seem evil." Each looked like a plate, or saucer, as she held them by four sets of fingers.
"It is like a tool. I depends on what people do with it."
"...I'm going to put some music on, before I pass out." This ended the conversation, but not the rivalry. Latrell really wanted to pull something in on the radio, something besides that lonely country twang, as they rode in the cradle between mountain chains.
Milith'aonga perked up after what might have been her dozing off as well. Her eyelids had not closed though, if she even had them. "What is this? It is very lively."
"This is Duke Ellington, and the music is called Jazz. Have you been living under a rock, girl?" Latrell tilted up the rear-view mirror to catch a better look at her dark face.
"No, my home lies at the base of a tree, why?"
"Wait...Nick, I thought you..."
"Ha! Milly, you're so funny...LOOK, a town! Let's fill up. I'm starving...you want something?" Nicolas's voice started to crack. "Dude, this summer heat, I'm sweating like a crazed pig."
A disgruntled Latrell just shook his head as he pulled up to the pump. "Go pay, and get me biggest Pepsi they've got." Hardly a hot spot, the unremarkable service station was the late night Mecca of this sleepy town. Latrell filled the gas tank while watching the vehicles slip both in and away, then stepped away to empty himself.
From out of somewhere popped a trio of buddies to check out this, with one exception, immaculate BMW. They had enjoyed themselves a little too much that night, but we're joking around and generally harmless. They probably did not deserve a pair of viscous rabid dobermans jumping all over the glass trying to tare their faces off. They split loudly, and in a hurry, with two dogs very much pleased with themselves, grinning from one ear to the other.
"What the heck is going on out there, a robbery?" Nicolas very much worried about the answer. He twisted himself around to see past the posters on the windows, at the same time trying to draw the cashiers attention back and hand him the money. "I should call the cops."
"I was just out there, it's nothing...just those full moon crazies." Nicolas was not getting any better with practice, he could tell that just by looking at the cashier's face as he got his change back and grabbed the sack of goodies. Of course, by the time he made it back outside it was quiet again, that was probably a good thing anyways.
"Milly, can you do the thing with the bowl to see how much farther we need to go?" Nicolas handed the bag off to Autumn and slid back into his seat, not failing to notice that Latrell was missing. "I brought you some Twizzlers, Autumn."
"But mom doesn' let us eat in here."
"Just don't leave a mess..."
Nicolas was interrupted by the driver's door opening. It was Latrell, and he seemed eager to get moving again, already speaking as he jumped into the seat. "Milly, that is one screwball map you have there. Are we ready to roll?"
"Hold up just a moment, where do you take off? The girls told me you left them alone, at this time of night? You didn't even lock it." Nicolas checked his calculator watch for the umpteenth time. It was almost 2 AM.
"Dude, give me a break. Trust me, nobody's going to steal this car, not here anyways,...I..." But Latrell clammed up yet again.
Neither girl was even paying attention, both instead watched which way the little silver shell might float. Milith'aonga had found a car neck pillow from somewhere, and used it in effect like a booster on the other seat. "We have come much closer and quickly. Perhaps half the distance does remain."
At least this shelved the argument. Latrell drove in silence as they continued on, drowning himself in the music as he tried to forget.
"How is it that music of such variety of sound can be, and such complexity?"
This struck up a conversation of brass trumpets and the double base. The sound of music, beyond forms and customs, revealed two kindred spirits for a fleeting moment. They took simple pleasure in the form, accepting for a given that it was there. Nicolas slumped up against the passenger window, trying to not pay attention to any of it, and was grateful when the music finally faded into static.
"So hey, what's the worst thing you ever did?" Latrell asked, a little distant but at least in a better mood.
"It just might be tonight," replied Nicolas, yawning as he spoke.
"HEH, yeah I hear you. You really want to know how I learned to drive?"
"Sure, if your OK with it. You seemed...well, like you would have rather...I don't know...get punched in the face by Tyson."
"Driving cars is what had my parents move us here. Back in Richmond, my cousin thought that no one would suspect a nine-year-old kid would be ripping off cars, and he was right. I didn't know any better at the time, or maybe I just didn't care. Then he got caught and my parents knew something was up. They..."
Red and blue beams pierced through the car to impose order. Small beads of sweat immediately formed on Latrel's forehead as he looked behind them. "I knew it! I knew this was just a bad idea. What is he after me for? I was driving fine. What made me think we could get away with this?" One arm still tried to obey the rules of the road, the other wanted to pull on to the shoulder at the demand of the lights and sound. His feet opted to not take sides.
"Get a grip! Just chill out or we're all going to jail, or worse. It must have been that cashier." Nicolas was calmer, it was not his butt in the sling. He had a plan, and one of those things might work today. "Milly will take care of it. Just do what the cop asks."
"I have no understanding of this. What is required of me?"
"Just have the man see what I want him to, Milly. Can you do that?"
"I will do what I am able."
The highway patrolman seemed in no hurry to approach them, and Nicolas fumed over what possible paranoia he was in on. Finally, when he decided to show up, it made things even worse. This guy was no Eric Estrada, he had imposing down. Latrell jumped when the window was knocked on, then he remembered it would behoove him to unroll it.
"License and registration..." Not even a please.
"What?" Latrell squawked.
"Just give him something," Nicolas whispered, hopefully quiet enough that the patrolman would not notice. Latrell fished out his wallet, and with shaky fingers pulled out his Golden High School student ID and handed it over. Nicolas groaned, and tried to hide his face. That was the last thing he wanted. He glanced at Milith'aonga sitting next to his sister on the pillow, her huge eyes closed, her turquoise skin wavering like the heat off of asphalt. She sat in something like a lotus position, her thighs running out and behind her body to her knees and then returning to the front of her to just touch at the 'feet', her four 'hands' resting in her lap on those 'feet'. It was all up to her now.
"What?!" There was no misunderstanding who the officer was addressing, it was Latrell.
"Mam? This is your automobile?"
"Mom's a little distraught, dad's in the hospital...he fell off a house...and landed on a bear hive...we're going to the hospital see him." Nicolas just gave up. Lying was not his thing.
"Mam, you seem in no condition to drive, do I need to radio for a pick-up?"
"No, wait...no I'm good. No thanks, ma...sir. No thank you, we're fine..." Latrell nervously tried to shoo the patrolman away. It did not amount to much, instead the officer pulled a small flashlight from his belt, and checked the condition of passengers and for whatever empty containers might have been discarded onto the floorboard.
"We received a report of strange activity in the area (I can't imagine why), so we're checking things out. There doesn't seem to be any danger here, at least to others. Just a heads up so you stay out of trouble."
"Yes sir, no problems here." Latrell would be a woman, a cow, a radish if it would get him out of this.
"Alright mam, drive safe. It's so cute, little lady, to even see your Tinkerbell strapped into her seat, nice and safe. Goodnight." The patrolman left them. No one dared to speak until the officer was well on his way.
"Arrugh!" Latrell was shaking like a leaf. "I don't know, I don' wanna know. I don't freakin' care! Don't tell me how, just let's get this over with and get home so I can never speak to any of you again."
"How does he drive wit' shades on?"
'On the road again, just can't wait to get on the road again...' Latrell almost twisted the radio knob off. It was quiet again, except for the constant trickle of vehicles that kept passing him. He made sure to stick to the speed this time, left mirror, speedometer, rear view, front, right mirror, speedometer.
Nicolas wished a different song would have come on, 'I Can't Drive 55'. It was past three AM now. The grounding that would be waiting for him if they did not make it back in a few hours. He shuddered, and tried not to think about it. He would be an adult before he saw the sunlight again. All they could do was keep going.
Milith'aonga was getting antsy as well, and could be heard scuffling around in the back seat. She had managed to find a reader in Autumn's door, along with a couple of National Geographics that had been pocketed for Nicolas. She sat with them in her lap like before, and touched the alphabet animals in order, taking her time. Then came the titanic, and the peoples of Afghanistan among others, as if with a touch she learned everything she could know.
And maybe she did. Nicolas would probably never know, unless his quest tonight failed. He could keep her here, say the car broke down or something, she would never know. She could go back next time, and share the full beauty and depths of his world with her people, and heal the wounds between the two worlds, and the things he could learn too from her. It would be a whole new science, and he the next Galileo, and it was wrong, really wrong. He would never be able to forgive someone who kidnapped his own sister. A bike ride was not the only thing he picked up from that movie. He knew what the sad truth would be if people found out that fairies and magic were real.
Milith'aonga all of a sudden gasped loudly, "I can feel the lines!" A magazine slid from her lap to fall closed on the floorboard. Nicolas watched her antenna stand straight up for the first time.
"Holy cow, this is Silverthorne, this is where our aunt lives."
"It is close, a short travel. Continue."
Silverthorne was one of a series of small towns that radiated like spokes around an artificial lake. The area was a weekend getaway spot nestled high in the mountains, hiking, boating, and fishing in the summer, skiing it's bread and butter in the winter. The Reuel family used to come here quite often to visit, the first time before Autumn was even born. Nicolas had felt joy, and heard laughter in the woods here. He did not understand why his parents were so furious when they found him that night. Nothing had happened to him. He had only been gone a few hours.
"It is close, so close. It dwells in the mountains above."
"Latrell, take the next exit."
"You got it."
They were three miles past town, almost into the next when they exited the freeway. Their path now ran between the freeway and a green meadow patched with trees, which ran up the slope to the mountainside. The trees swallowed them up, and the road terminated into a dirt parking lot.
"I can hear them. My family, they call for me." She stood on the seat staring into the darkness with her fingers hooked over the glass. In the few hours Nicolas had known her, she had always been animated, but now not a part of her was still.
"Tell them you will be home soon, Milly." Autumn reassured her. When she had awoke no one knew, and she would never tell you.
"You guys, can you at least pretend that this makes any sense." Latrell was close to pleading.
"Autumn, stay in the car."
"No, you can't leave me here Nick. I'll be eaten by aliens."
"You watch too much TV."
"You should talk!"
"Guys, not again." Latrell cut them both short as he pulled into a space. "We don't have time for the sibling rivalry stuff."
He was right, of course. Nicolas grabbed his backpack to pull a pair of flashlights, one of which he handed to Latrell, before he slung it's single strap on his shoulder and climbed out the door. He was going to help the girls, but one was missing already. Milith'aonga had shot out the window before the car had even stopped, and was well up a narrow hiking trail and into a grove of tall birch and aspen with little undergrowth.
"Milly, don't just go wandering off into the night, let me go first," Latrell shouted, then ran into the treeline to catch up, leaving Nicolas to lock up the car. He took one final look around, they were the only ones there of course, and he was the last to take to the well worn path.
The trail split several ways, their path dropping into a small ravine where a tiny creek must have trickled along for a millennia. It lapped and gurgled over rock, and more than this Nicolas heard. It was the voices from his childhood, the music from his dreams, it was here, and it was real. He did not know until now how much had missed it, promising himself right there that he would never give it up again.
The going was slow in the dark. Milith'aonga darted between moonlight and shadow, flying high and low, but always flat to the ground with her limbs dangling loosely underneath; her wings vibrated almost violently, her long tail much like a rudder. In the indistinctness Nicolas finally understood that for everything else about her, she was not at all human. Soon, she tired, and rested by hanging onto Latrell's hand. Nicolas felt that twinge of jealousy again. To Latrell, were they holding hands?
Up into the foothills they climbed for almost a mile. The trail rose over a short ridge, then back down into a shallow basin. It the distance, crickets could be heard singing a welcoming hymn, a sound on their homemade violins more solemn than any human would believe they could perform. The tall trees opened up around them, becoming the living walls that held up the vault of the starry sky. Stretching in front of them was the impossibly large moon, touching the earth in a crook of the bare rock mountain that rose high enough to cradle it. It's borrowed light reflected onto a glass still pond and lit the trees in a silver-blue glow. No one but Milith'aonga dared approach the waters edge in fear of defiling it.
"Why are we even here? There's nothing out here," Latrell whispered, turning his head to look at brother and sister.
"Milly, ther's nothin' here." Autumn had a very much worried look on her face.
"Before the peoples of my world left this one, we marked the conjunctions like this in earth, stone, ancient tree, or water, to keep man away. It is here, over the waters." Milith'aonga swooped down to skim the earth, searching.
"What do you need us to do now?" Nicolas asked, slipping off his backpack just in case he had been smart enough to bring something useful.
"Just believe in me...ah, and here." She picked up a small branch of blue spruce, 'Y' shaped with a stubby base, about half the length of one of her limbs. "First, the key must be fashioned."
"Can you do that?"
"No. It is the responsibility of others who know the door."
Behind them away from the pond lie a fallen pine, long and unusually large for the area. The bark of it's trunk had been worn both by age and the many people who needed a rest to enjoy this magical place. On top of it the little fairy gently placed this branch, and began to hum in a low tone. The others gathered around her, and something in the log responded. Nicolas shined his flashlight on the stick as this muffled resonance rose in volume. Dozens of termites emerged through their small holes in the wood.
"Ewww...gross," Autumn squealed.
"Knock it off. They're nowhere near you. They're...carving it."
"OK, Milly, this is way beyond strange. What ARE YOU?" Latrell could not deny the truth anymore, no matter what influence lingered on him.
"I am a fairy."
The termites swarmed over the stick, covering it so completely that for the longest time you could not even guess at what they were doing. The humans and the fairy all stood and watched, fascinated anyways, except for Nicolas who kept an eye on the eastern sky. Then the hum came a second time from the insects, and they crawled back into their home.
"Friends, thank you for your urgency and your skill."
What had been left behind was the most delicate wooden flute, a single neck branching out into a double set of eight key holes. It's craftsmanship was unmatched by anything of man, perfectly round and smooth except for underneath the keys and wherever else Milly would grip, the telltale signature of the creators and a flourish in their work. Milith'aonga grasped it, and flew without explanation back to the pond's edge, right next to where the creek flowed away from it's waters.
"The universe is made from sound. I get it now." He saw the source in his mind. The strings that are everything, the ties that bind them together; their thickness, their tensions, the movements that created the song of life that he heard so well. It was there all around him. For a moment he saw what she saw.
There Milith'aonga stood tall, resting much of her weight on her own tail, her rear limbs steadying her. Her huge eyes closed, and she listened to the flow of the water, the tip of her tapping tail soon picking up it's subtle rhythm. The wooden flute rose gently to her mouth, her highest limbs gripped it's two branches on the outside, complimented by it's opposite middle limb on the inside. First she played scales, one side, then the other. It's notes were of a unique pitch, and so soft that it was a mystery how they carried over the water at all, but they managed and even the crickets had gone silent to listen. Milith'aonga paused and took a deep breath. Out of both sides of the flute came the same low pitch, which rose up an octave over time.
"Did you see tha' Nick? The pond was glowin'!" Autumn sat cross-legged on the grass next to where he stood some yards away. He had not wanted to even chance disturbing the fairy.
"Yes..." He had seen even more, a line had flashed across the valley, the lake, and through the pond, if just for an instant, then another that crossed over the mountain in front of them.
"Guys, were never going to get back in time at this rate." Latrell had been content until now to sit way back on the fallen tree, once he made sure nothing was still crawling on it.
"This is a revered song of thanks and joy for my people. Your people, I saw, sing songs of the same." The flute returned to her mouth, and music in two parts were played to a rhythm set by her tail. It began in a solemn tone, and those who listened to it had their souls embraced, and before they understood it, realized that it had become energized and hopeful. They were not the only ones enraptured, a cricket crawled out of the grass to the waters edge near Milith'aonga and joined in the song, and then another, and more all over, ringing the still water in harmonious sound.
What happened next tipped Latrell from his seat, tumbling off of the log backwards in surprise. In the pond lie a glow without a source, which congealed into a reflection of those crossed lines he had recognized before. Those lines flickered again on land and water above, hugging it's contours, appearing as bits of distinctly colored static. They drew power from the source where the lines crossed, and faded in proportion to nothingness many yards away.
It continued to rise from the water and earth until several feet high, and finally became opaque. At the crossing the contrasting colors clashed, and similar merged, becoming masses of green, globs of blues at it's base with more at it's peak, lines of browns branching as they rose, bits of reds and yellows. It was her marshy home, a fantasy, it's bright colors had even a texture to them like an oil portrait you could reach out and feel. Another world lie just a transposition away from ours.
"I don't understand any of this." Latrell had righted himself, and stood next to the siblings near water's edge.
"It's magic, you don need to," Autumn explained.
Nicolas's backpack had rested against his leg, and he pulled a small paper lunch bag from it. "Milly, you don't have much time. Here, take this."
"I cannot possible carry all of that."
"Oh, it's light. It's just a few thing to remember us with, that matchbox car, and a plane, a little Micky, and some of my aunt's granola bar, just in case, and I threw in that money...oh and there's also a photograph of us. Just take it and go, the sun is almost here."
"I have nothing for you." She flew up to Nicolas, regretfully taking the bag and holding it next to her chest.
"You have given us more than you will ever know."
"The hole will hold itself long enough, here, take the key."
"No, give it to Autumn, she deserves it. She believed in you first."
Tears welled up in Autumn's eyes as her young mind began to realize what was really happening here. "Milly, You can't go! You're my friend. I don' wan' your flute...I want you! Don' leave..."
"Autumn, she has to go home now. That's what we came her for."
"NO! She's mine! She's my only FRIEND!" She began to stomp and fume. "I'll have no frien's again...an school...an ev'yone will hate me there...an'...it's YOUR fault. I paid for her!"
Nicolas kneeled, and took one of her hands, Milith'aonga the other. "I promise you, we are fiends always. I will keep you in my heart, all of you, and be with you someway. Autumn, there are only endings for something new to begin again."
"O'...OK. Milly don' cry too." Reluctantly, Autumn took the flute as it was pressed into the palm of her hand.
"And you, Latrell, you brought us here under a fallacy. I am sorry." Milith'aonga gave him a soft kiss on the cheek.
"Aww, that's alright. I've never met a fairy so tall." He was not going to break down like everyone else. He was a high schooler.
"All of you, farewell. Someday, if possible in a better time, let us all come together again." Milith'aonga finally hugged Nicolas around his neck and turned to go, but in the low light, new creatures could be seen flying out from the shadows. About a dozen dragonflies and damselflies had been drawn to her, and together surrounded her. Thousands of new eyes saw her. "Oh...guardians...and who are you people?"
"Those are dragonflies, and I think you have something in common with them."
"But why, and named after the guardians? But why...the are no stories, no place for these on my world. They do not tell me their names. Are they angry? Tell me why they do not speak!" The urgency of the moment was lost to the mystery, and she flew among them as a queen among her subjects.
"Milly...you need to go home. The sky is lightening. Go!" Nicolas pointed to the portal, which seemed to flicker, and the far sky. Time, it seemed, had slipped past without their notice.
"I do not understand this..."
"Neither do they. They are not like you. You HAVE to go!"
The tears had not stopped. They fell in sadness, in joy, for the innocense that soon would be lost and the pain caused. Milith'aonga crossed the water followed by these creatures so like her. One time, she turned back to see them, and wave to her humans stranded on the beach, and the boundary was crossed right as it seemed to loose coherence. Light rocketed down the ley line that went to the southeast. The fairy was gone.
The red rays of the sun creeped down the hill. They followed a trio who walked in quiet conversation, lighting their path just enough to where the flashlights were not needed anymore. The sun and what it meant did not threaten them anymore, and they had lingered at the pond, just in case it was not over. The creek was the only thing bidding them farewell.
Greeting them were a pair of patrol cars belonging to state troopers, along with a BMW that closely matched the one that they had borrowed. "Nicolas Albert Reuel, what on earth could have possessed you to seal your mother's car and to take out here to the middle of nowhere!"
For a long time he hated that cashier who had tipped off the cops. Through months of intensive therapy the hatred lessened while his every motion was watched and judged. In the years of follow-up, he learned that it was his own fault as any flicker of imagination was quashed. It was absurd, a magical world of fairies and dragons. Everyday, Nicolas was marched straight along into adulthood.
When night fell, when no one was watching, he would reach under his matress for a small blue paper box. Inside was a lot of well used tissue paper, a nest in for a small object of silver shaped like a bell. If he tried really hard, he could still hear something from inside. A little sound, a little resonance from another world.
End of part one