High school was over much too soon. Ava was a striking graduate, tall and slender with her silvery blonde hair pulled back in a long braid underneath the graduation cap. All our family came out for the ceremony, Billy and his wife and kids from the midwest, and my two older ones, though most of their kids, my other grandkids whom I seldom saw, were grown and had lives of their own, and couldn't be bothered to attend their 'cousin's' high school graduation.
Evan didn't come, either. I didn't think he would.
We had a party at our house afterwards, and lots of Ava's friends were there, even though they probably should have been attending their own graduation parties. That was not unusual for our Ava, who drew people to her as easily as breathing. Her boyfriend of the moment was there, too, though she knew I didn't approve of him.
Soon it would be time for Ava to join her father for the summer. She was supposed to go to college in the fall when she returned, and we'd picked a nearby school so she could commute. Evan said she needed to remain close to her woods. I could believe it, looking at her now in our backyard, as she sat among her admirers at the very edge of the trees, surrounded by flowers we'd planted together. She looked like a faerie, one of the beautiful people as I'd come to think of them. Though technically she wasn't. I still wasn't sure I understood all of it, but that was what Evan said.
"Grammie, we're going for a walk." Ava breezed up to me and kissed my cheek. She'd changed, and now had on shorts and a crop top. Her hair cascaded down her back, still wavy from the braid.
I frowned at her choice of outfits. "Walk where?" I asked suspiciously. She was her father's daughter, after all. But Ava smiled and shook her head. Not there.
Her boyfriend had followed her into the house. I frowned at him, too. "A bunch of us are going down to the river. There's going to be a bonfire." He threw out his hands and smiled ingratiatingly. "No drinking, I swear."
The river was at the end of the old tobacco road, past Evan's domain and beyond the fields of grapevines that had replaced the old tobacco fields. I glanced beyond her boyfriend and saw the rest of Ava's friends gathered outside my front door, waiting to hear what I would say. "Oh, go on," I relented. "But be back before ten. And bring a sweater."
Ava squealed and hugged me.
This had been the pattern of our lives for the last few years. The old tobacco road held an understandable attraction for Ava. She walked there quite often with her school friends,
though never actually into Evan's domain unless she was going there to stay with him for the summer. She'd be doing that soon enough.
I tidied up a little, said good-bye to the family members who had shown up for the graduation, and went to bed. The front door was unlocked and the porch light was on. When I heard a commotion a little later, I thought it was Ava coming home. I sighed, settling back into sleep now that all my people were where they were supposed to be.
Flashing lights woke me up some time in the middle of the night. William beat me to the door. "What's wrong? What happened?" he demanded, still half-asleep.
The police officer, who didn't look much older than the kids who had graduated today, looked past William and locked eyes with me. "Ma,am," he said in a low voice, "is your granddaughter home?"
"Ava? Yes, I heard her come in . . ." My voice trailed away. Had I heard her? I ran to her room. She wasn't there. Her bed hadn't been slept in. My hand flew to my mouth.
The police officer and William had followed me down the hallway. "Ma,am, sir, you'd better come with me."
"What's this all about?" William asked gruffly as I scrambled to pull a jacket over my pajamas and grab my purse. "Where's Ava?"
"That's what we're trying to find out," the officer replied. "A bunch of kids were hanging out by the river and something happened. Your granddaughter's missing."
"Please come with me," the officer said again.
We followed him out to his patrol car. Ava's boyfriend was in the backseat. His shirt was spattered with blood. He leaned forward excitedly, and I could see that his hands were cuffed behind him. "Did you find her? Is she home?" he asked. When the policeman shook his head, he slumped back.
"Why is he covered in blood?" William asked, leaning into the car. "What did you do?" he barked at the kid, who stared back at him with too-wide eyes.
"That's what we're trying to establish," the police officer said.
William got into the front seat of the cruiser, and I slid in next to Ava's boyfriend, who looked shaken now that he knew Ava really hadn't just gone home. "What happened, Ted?" I whispered. He had never been my favorite person, always loud, always trying to insinuate himself into my good graces, but now I saw a scared teenager. He wasn't that much older than Ava and her friends, but he'd dropped out of school two years ago and I wasn't sure exactly what he did now.
Ted shook his head miserably. "I don't know. We had a fight. She walked off. I don't remember all of it."
I wasn't surprised; I could smell the alcohol coming off him in waves. So much for not drinking. "Is that Ava's blood?" I asked in a low voice, indicating his stained shirt. I didn't want William to hear me and come after the kid before we knew what had really happened.
"No—maybe, I'm not sure," Ted mumbled. "We were walking up in the fields and we fell— "
"You fell?" I asked, incredulous. "Both of you?"
"Well . . . it was a little more than that," Ted answered. "We were making out, and she must have got scratched or something."
My eyes narrowed. "Was that before or after you had a fight?"
"We're here." The cruiser pulled over at the bottom of the tobacco road where the river met it. A knot of high school kids and some of their parents stood by the remains of the bonfire.
"Did you find Ava?" Freddie, who had had a crush on Ava since middle school, rushed over to us. He peered into the backseat where I sat next to Ted, and his face fell. He glared at Ted.
Another police cruiser was already parked by the river. The officer came over to us now and conferred quietly with his colleague before they went back to the people who had been waiting. Several of the parents glanced up at William and me where we waited by the second cruiser.
Freddie told us what he knew. "They were here for a while, then they went for a walk. Ava was upset when they got back. She said she was going home." He looked at me with wide eyes. "She didn't go home?"
I shook my head.
"Ted followed her up the road, and that's the last we heard until Ted came back after midnight—like that—" He gestured towards the open car door where Ted still sat in the back, his t-shirt rusty with blood. "—and he told us he couldn't find Ava. That's when Monica called the police. The rest of us wanted to go out looking for her, but the police made us stay here, and then they went to get you."
I glanced up the tobacco road. Did she go to that home, I wondered. But there was no way I could check with all these people around. Ava, be safe, I prayed.
The police officers started to send the kids, and their parents, home. Dawn was just starting to lighten up the sky. Our police officer came back to talk to us. "We are going to organize search parties. He deliberately didn't glance at the water. In the meantime, I'd like you two to come down to the station with me so we can get some more information."
They took Ted to the station, too, and then separated us. William and I filled out pages of paperwork regarding Ava, and answered questions which made my husband bristle in anger. "Has Ava ever run away from home before?"
"No!" he practically shouted. "She's a good girl."
I was numb. In the back of my mind, I wondered if Ava had, perhaps, run away, back to her wood, to her true father, over something that boy had tried to do. The blood worried me; was she hurt? I needed to try to get to Evan. He might not respond, that was the thing.
"We found something."
Everything stood still for an instant before time resumed its relentless crawl. William grabbed my arm and I grabbed onto him as the police officers ushered us back into a cruiser, sirens blaring, as we headed back towards the tobacco road.
We didn't go to the end this time; in fact, we didn't even go as far as Evan's driveway. Several police cruisers and a news team were parked along the side of the tobacco road closest to the grapevines. By now the sun was beating down on the bright green canopies which covered the grapes. A policeman lifted it up so we could go inside.
I saw her before we got too close, my Ava, crumpled on the ground beneath the grapevines, her little shirt pushed up to expose her midriff, and her bright hair stiff with black blood. Another policeman hurriedly covered her up with a blanket.
I don't remember going to her. I don't remember kneeling down and moving the corner of the blanket off her face. I don't remember screaming or crying. I just remember how still she was, how empty her body seemed without her presence to fill it. Lifeless. I finally understood what that means.
William identified her. He was crying, but he took care of everything. I was numb through the whole funeral and for a good while after. There was no sign of Evan, and I didn't see the point anymore of seeking him out. Didn't he even care? Why didn't he care?
I didn't find out what happened to Ted for months. It finally came out that he had tried to force Ava to have sex with him, and in his drunken state, either he pushed her or she fell and hit her head on a stone marker at the end of a row. He was arrested for assault and a slew of other charges, but not murder. I wasn't sure whether I was angry or sad about that.
I felt empty more than anything else. William was very supportive, and even my kids took turns staying with me. I had always wondered how much William really understood about Ava, but in the end, it didn't matter. He loved her as much as I did.
All Ava's lands, Evan's lands which I had held in trust for Ava, became mine at the time of her death, with the stipulation that nothing be changed. That meant the company that handled the vineyard would continue to do so, though if I had my way, I'd burn down every last one of those grapevines. Worse, they seemed to be thriving this year more than ever. I shuddered. Bought with blood—Ava's blood.
I couldn't bring myself to walk anywhere near the tobacco roads where Ava had died. I imagined I heard her voice everywhere. I wanted to leave, to run far away where I would never have to think about her any more. I wished I had never met Evan and his mercurial fae. Or maybe I just wanted to give him a piece of my mind.
As if wishing had made it so, my doorbell rang one sultry summer day, and when I went to answer it, a whirlwind swept past my legs and into my living room. I turned around to find a scowling S'ae perched on the arm of my sofa, arms folded. "Are you going to sulk forever?" S'ae demanded.
Sulk! Is that what she thought I was doing? I slammed the door shut and stomped over to confront the little she-devil. "Ava is dead!" I shouted.
S'ae stared at me, expressionless. "You're not dead," she said bluntly. She hopped down off my sofa. "The way is open for you. Will you come?"
She didn't wait for my answer, but took my hand as if I were the child and led me out the door. I balked when I realized where she was taking me. "No," I murmured. "I can't."
S'ae tsked at me and pulled me past her tree, now as thick as I was. I couldn't look at the sun-drenched fields to my right, so I concentrated on Evan's woods, dark and impenetrable as ever . . . . oh. The way is open. I understood finally as we turned down Evan's long drive. I jerked my hand away. "I don't want to see Evan," I muttered sullenly. "He couldn't be bothered to come when . . . when . . . ." I had to stop.
S'ae was annoyed. She stamped her tiny foot. "You are so stubborn," she said, taking my hand once more. "Just come. You're invited." She practically sneered the last word. It was certain she hadn't invited me.
As usual the way darkened the further in we went, only this time, with S'ae leading me, I didn't get turned around. After a few moments I saw the house, its jewel-tone windows alight from within.
He stood in the doorway, young as ever, his distinctive white blonde hair throwing off light. He smiled and held out his hand as if nothing had happened. "Finally," he said. "It took you long enough."
I felt my blood beginning to boil. I wanted to scream, to tear at his perfect face, so like hers. I opened my mouth—and S'ae interrupted.
"I brought her. Else she would still be wallowing in grief. She did not know the way was open for her."
What was S'ae talking about? I turned back angrily to face Evan. "How could I know that? You told me I could never enter your woods. Why didn't you come?"
Evan's smile slipped. "I could not leave this place. Not so soon. Marie, I didn't realize . . . ." For once, he was at a loss for words instead of me.
"Didn't realize what?" I spat back. "That your daughter was dead? Did you realize what it did to me? To William?" I did not want to cry. I wanted to be angry. "You used me. You used all of us—Sarah Beth, me, your own daughter! What was it all for?"
To my horror, Evan's lips curved into a smile. He came forward and caught my hands in his own. "I didn't realize you didn't understand. I thought, since you had seen so much, that you knew."
"Knew what?" My voice rose and nearly broke. Behind Evan, the house was filled with globes of light. I was pretty sure I knew what—who—they were. I didn't care. Dark fae, light fae, what did it matter? I shook my head, suddenly deflated. "Just—send me home."
Evan's eyes searched my face. "Would you rather forget?" He seemed disappointed, somehow.
I shook my head vehemently. "No! I don't want to forget any of it, especially Ava. I wish it had never happened. I wish—"
One of the lights seemed to swell until I was blinded and had to look away. "Dark" fae was a misnomer. Evan chuckled and let go of my hands.
Before me stood my Ava, ethereal in a pale blue gown which pooled around her ankles. She was my beloved grandchild, and she was—other. There was no other way to explain it. Her body glowed as it had once when she was a child and had led me through these frightening woods. Her feet—I glanced down to where they peeked out from under her gown—resembled S'ae's—brown and—earthy. I recalled once, Evan, fused to a tree. He had broken away and pieces of the tree had clung to his arms as if they were his own skin. My eyes widened, and I glanced again at Ava's feet, and at her arms, though those seemed normal to me.
Normal! How could this be—how could she be here? "Ava." My voice did break then and I held out my arms. She came to me willingly, and I hugged her. She felt the same, flesh and blood. I cried as I hadn't cried yet since she died.
Evan spoke softly. "She is the spark that quickens the land. I'm no longer young." He smiled, knowing how he looked, barely older than Ava. "I cared for Sarah Beth, in my way. I care for you. I could never have done it all without your help. Now, Ava will continue what I began, and the land—both yours and ours—will thrive."
"But, but why did Ava have to die?"
"She didn't belong in your world any longer," Evan said. And he grinned his familiar lop-sided grin. "And she didn't die. She's right here."
"But how?" I couldn't let it go. I stroked Ava's long hair and held her close to me. "I saw her body. I saw the blood."
"Her blood was necessary to begin the transition and link our lands," Evan said. "Do you really need to know how it was done? The boy played his part, though unwittingly. Even so, he hurt my daughter." Evan's eyes darkened, and the globes of lights—pulsed—before winking out completely, leaving me, Evan, S'ae and Ava alone in the house. Ava's own glow, and Evan's, and S'ae's, I realized, reflected off the windows and lit up the interior of the house so that I could see them clearly. I almost wished I hadn't.
"No, I don't want to know. Ava is here. She's alive." I heaved a shaky sigh. "I understand why she can never come home again, but would it be alright if I come to visit her—here?" I asked.
As one, they all shook their heads. Ava regarded me sadly, but Evan spoke. "The way will close when you leave and it will not open again. This is how it must be. Our world is not yours, nor yours ours, save for brief moments." He grinned. "Like when we met you."
I hugged Ava tighter. "Are you okay with this, honey? Do you really want to stay here?"
Ava straightened up, and I saw that her cheeks were wet too. "I am here, Grammie. Here is me." She kissed my cheek. "I love you, Grammie. Look for me in the flowers we grew together. You won't see me, but I'll know you're thinking about me." She stood carefully, as if it were painful walking on feet that were meant to be planted in one spot.
Evan led me back down his driveway, and waited as I walked to the tobacco road. "I can't accompany you all the way to your home anymore," he said regretfully. "As we tied our lands together with blood and tears, we strengthened the gates that keep us separate. Do not look for us again, for the way will not open."
"Ever?" I asked.
"Not for a long time. Not in time for you to see."
I nodded, and watched while Evan disappeared around a curve in the long driveway. I blinked, and when I looked again, the matching trees, and the matching flowering bushes which had marked the entrance to Evan's lands, had disappeared. A line of trees, young but thick enough that I couldn't see but a few feet past them, covered the place where his driveway, his gate, had once been.
They were gone.
To the relief of my husband and family, I started to take an interest in life again, beginning with my garden. I couldn't tell them about Ava, but she would always be a part of us, even though she was gone. I never walked down the tobacco road again. There was nothing there for me. But in the springtime, I was often out in my garden, softly talking to the plants which bloomed more beautifully year by year. I sometimes imagined I could hear them talking back to me.