Some days start out bad and only get worse. This morning was the alarm not going off, missing the bus, half of first period, my lunch having fallen out of my bag as I ran to school, having no money to get something from the cafeteria. But it’s all small things, things that don’t matter, so I’m doing some homework I forgot to do last night when Cassie sits down across from me without asking if the seat is free. We’re friends. Well, sort-of friends some days. Sometimes I think high school is just a long procession of sort-of friends. Cliques change, styles move on, people keep up, fall behind, move into different groups. We’re all treading water, grasping onto any lifeboat we find, swimming for islands only to find most of them are mirages.
And all the while teachers expect us to pay attention to lessons.
“Tisha told me you lost your lunch and you’re just doing school work?” She pauses, her silence a waiting thing, her eyes searching mine. “You missed the bus this morning.”
“It does happen.” I close the textbook. “You came over to sit with me because of that?” I ask, pretending mock-outrage.
“I remember last September, when the bus was late getting us to school because of a traffic accident. You were bouncing in the seat with worry.” She pushes her glasses harder up her nose, is trying to hide worry of her own and failing. “Last week, Bruce made one of his rants picked up from some shitty comedy show, making sure you’d hear him since he has six friends around him. You told him last month if he spouted that crap again you’d be picking his teeth out of your fist, remember? And you just ignored him this time.” Her pause stretches, then: “Are you on meds, Kate?”
“No.” I don’t look down at my textbook at all now. Cassie doesn’t pry, not really. Her family has money, not that you’d know it. She’s taller than me, solid, with old coke-bottle-thick glasses. Her older brother is solid, but Joe’s is all muscles and clenched fists. No one thought they had money, and if kids in high school hide the wealth of their parents there are all sorts of reasons. Most not them involving the wealth not being legal.
“Family trouble?” she asks, not wanting to, concern overriding her defenses.
“Not more than usual.” I think my voice is even, but I’m not sure. I hadn’t even noticed. Some Other place filled with shapes in shadows tries to kill you, a magician saves you. You can’t expect to leave that unchanged, but I’d thought no one would notice. That I hadn’t changed that much. “Just distracted. Things, you know,” I say with a shrug, holding her gaze, knowing she won’t press the matter further.
She doesn’t, turning the conversation to normal school topics. I only half-listen, thinking about the last few minutes. About whether I’d known Cassie this well before. About the troll I’d seen a few days ago in the park.
The magician had told me I wouldn’t have magic, not unless I knew his name, that he’d hidden it in my heart. But part of me is thinking that there is magic and magic. You don’t escape weird shit unscarred, and part of that might be being able to see the scars of others. I don’t want this. I don’t know how to stop it.
I don’t trust anyone enough to tell them I talked to a troll under the bridge in the park. It hurts to know that, to have to admit it is true. I don’t have the same lies to tell myself I used to have; all I can do is hope it doesn’t make me think I’m more than other people. I’m seeing things other people don’t; I have to think everyone else does the same. They aren’t seeing trolls, haven’t been pulled from our world into a place of false dark and things made of twisted lines hungering to be real. I want to ask Cassie why she’s stopped wearing a cross around her neck, want to know where her own way of knowing took her.
I don’t. I offer up a smile, thank her for asking, for worrying, make an excuse to head out of the cafeteria. I need space, time for breath, for sorting out, but it isn’t given. I might have gone days without seeing her – our school only boasts four hundred students, but it is narrow and old, a windery of small corridors – but instead it happens today. I know Bethany Cormier as a cheerleader, also the life of any party she goes to, the person with so many friends it’s almost dangerous to be her enemy.
I’ve seen trolls under bridges, but what is inside Bethany is something else altogether. A hungering, a Something, an Other wearing her face, walking in her body, smiling to everyone and taking something from them as they smile back. She’s chatting about a party, inviting select people she knows and no one seems to realize she’s doing it in the way of someone ordering food. I keep walking, holding myself together. I don’t know if she knows I know what she is; I think she might if I look too long. I think monsters know when they’ve been seen. I wonder how long this creature has been Bethany but I have no way of knowing that.
I know what she is going to do in the same way I understood Cassie. People talk in so many voices, and I’m underhearing them and don’t know how to stop. I have one class left before the day ends, but I’m out of the school almost without thinking about it, heading toward the park half on auto-pilot. Part of me wants to scream; the rest is terrified of being heard. The magician bound my magic. He told me that, and when he tells true things you know they are true. But I changed. You can’t have your understanding of how the world works be ripped apart and not change.
I don’t know how to change back. I don’t know if I can. I’m not sure anyone can, not from real changes. All you can do is hide from them or embrace them, and I don’t know what one I am. I just know I can’t keep this inside, and so I walk down the narrow path in the park, and under the bridge where the troll lives.
To normal eyes, the brickwork under the bridge is only that. One might wonder at the lack of graffiti or how neat the walking path is, but doubtfully for long. The troll comes out of of the rock and is the rock, a solid flowing like liquid for a moment, a weight of presence on the world. It’s eyes are deep and calm and the troll merely stares down at me and waits.
“I don’t know who to talk to. I saw – I’ve seen –.” My voice cracks, breaks apart.
“It is always dangerous to see what you cannot unsee,” the troll rumbles.
“Bethany isn’t human. She looks human, but she’s not. There is a hunger, a – she is going to kill them.” The words feel flat. I try again. “No, something worse. Hollow them out and leave something Else behind.”
“They will die anyway, in time. Not even magicians escape death.”
“But not like this.”
“That is true.”
I sit, back pressing against the stonework of the bridge, half-facing the troll. “There is another thing. The magician I met. How does he – how do they –?”
“I am not human, but I have seen many humans in my time.” The troll crouches down like boulders don’t. “One deals, gets on with life, moves. Because that is all there is to do. You may fall apart, you may fall down, but you get back up. Do what you must, because it is always and ever about more than just you.”
“Do what I must? I don’t even know how to be me!”
“You are young. You may define yourself by what you do not want. You can see clearer than others, but you have no wishing in you to be a magician, to be deeper than them?”
“That, yes.” I don’t look up.
“There is a small house a half-block from the park, at the end of Parker Drive. The one who lives there may be able to aid you.”
“Okay.” I stand, not looking at the troll. People might die because of what I don’t want to be. Because I’m scared, afraid, won’t let the magic change my world this much. Because I’m a coward and I am certain I will see that truth in the eyes of the troll.
“Child,” the troll rumbles behind me as I begin to leave the bridge it lives under. “You do not desire power. That is not a weakness but a strength.”
It takes everything I have not to run away from the kindness under those words.
Parker Drive isn't much of a road. Narrow and winding, a dead end street crowded with two dozen small homes. If there were anti-beautification awards, Parker Drive would be in the running for them. Which makes the house at the end of the street almost remarkable, if only because someone was brave enough to consider it a home. The shack is small, almost devoured by surrounding grass and trees trying to turn lumber back into part of a forest.
A rusted mailbox lists the house as #33 Parker Drive but there is no mail in it, not even a single junk flyer. The windows have no glass and the front door was barely hanging onto hinges as I make my way up the path. The troll had said someone could help me here. I remind myself that appearances are often very deceiving. It doesn't help much.
The man who opens the door is pale behind grime, fingernails blackened by dirt, hair an unkempt mess, clothing that has more holes than fabric. And skinny. The kind of painful thin that would make anorexics ask if he should eat more. Only it took a few seconds to notice that, and somehow it didn't seem wrong with him.
“I have a problem I was told you might be able to help me with?” I say, trying not to stumble over words, trying not to breathe too deep.
“Oh?” His voice is rough and scratchy, his eyes
his eyes are a shade of brilliant green I've never seen before, and I’ve seen colours in places humans don’t go. They're blue as well, his eyes, a shade the sky would be envious of. Alive. If forest green and sky blue were true, they would be his eyes. They shift between colours and somehow it seems entirely natural, as if everyone should have eyes like his but we don’t.
I take a deep breath. I can see more than most people do now, but it’s not only sight. I smell dirt. Filth. But under it loam and moss and the smell of a fresh spring day. His fingers are as thin as twigs. “The troll sent me, the one under the bridge?”
“How is Rocky?”
“Rocky? I didn't know it had – I didn't even ask –.”
His chuckle is soft and low. “It's the name I use. Trolls don't bother with names. Humans do.”
“Kate.” I don't hold out my hand for him to shake.
“Dylan. What do you need?”
“I don't know. There is this girl at my school. Bethany. She isn’t human anymore. I don’t know how long she hasn’t been human, but sometimes I see –.” I gulp, try not to think about it. “She’s going to make people into things like her. Hollow them out.”
“And you think I could help you?”
That wins a hint of a smile. “And if I suggested you do not need my help, Kate?”
“I don’t – I’ve met a magician. I don’t want to be one. Please,” I add.
Dylan cocks his head to the side. “An interesting goal,” he says softly. “Very well. I will aid you if you tell me what I am.”
“Don’t you already know?”
The hint of a smile widens. “Consider it a test.”
I step back, stare into eyes like the dream of the forest, then walk about him in a half-circle. “The sky and earth, the smell of loam,” I say, the words sounding oddly formal. “A body as thin as twigs, as sticks, a home made of wood.” I stop, shake my head a little. “You’re part of a forest, aren’t you?”
His eyes are blue and cold. “Clever.”
“I made a guess.”
“Sometimes not being clever can be quite clever in itself.” His smile is a flash of teeth so yellowed they are almost green. “It has been a long time since I left my home, though the troll is hardly one to speak. Very well. I will aid you, if only because your goal is both noble and doomed to fail.”
I thought he was talking about Bethany, and not being able to do anything about her without his aid. It never occurred to me that he could mean anything else.
The interior of Dylan’s home is even smaller than the exterior of the shack suggested. It’s also the inside of a tree. The walls are thick wood, the floor moss, roots woven into a bed and chair. Sunlight streams in through the ceiling despite the cloudy sky. It’s like something out of the Hobbit, only more natural. I sit carefully in the chair as he sits on the bed, trying not to jump as the doorway and windows fill with vines between one moment and the next, nettles of every size and shape flowing out of the walls or the air itself.
“Privacy,” he says, blue-green eyes dancing with cool merriment, thin hands in his lap.
“Okay.” I take a deep breath, smelling fresh spring rain. “I’m going to be really rude I think, but Bethany is something other, something monstrous in human skin. What can you do, in general and against her?”
Dylan smiles strangely. “The troll has not offered aid, nor told you all it can do.”
It isn’t a question, but I nod anyway. “I don’t know much about this. Magic, weird things I’m seeing, any of it. I guess it’s like true names, or superheroes? You don’t tell people everything you are or can do in case they use it against you?”
“Superheroes,” he repeats, his voice calm, face carefully blank.
“I’m doing this all wrong, aren’t I?”
“Oh, yes. I have been called many things over the years. Until now, that wasn’t one of them.” His smile is softer, almost kind. “I am a forest spirit. Some of us remain even as the forests fade into woods and parks. Others have passed on or become other things. This area is still my forest, even if most of it no longer remembers what it once was.”
“So you can make vines.”
“And other things, if I have need. I am no magician, to banish a creature such as this Bethany back Outside the universe. If, indeed, they are from Outside, but I imagine I can convince Bethany to depart.”
I want to ask why the town is here, how the forests became parks, how the woods became fields and farms, but I have no idea how I could even bring it up. Not without hurting him, maybe even more than he must be hurting himself.
Dylan doesn’t have a car. Of course he doesn’t. What self-respecting forest spirit would own a car? He confesses to having a Segway, but I’m pretty sure he’s joking. I call a cab and check Facebook on my phone to find out when the party Bethany is hosting is going to be. I’m a little relieved Dylan knows what Facebook is and not sure how I should feel that the creature inside Bethany doesn’t know how to manage privacy settings. The cab is one of the dozen in the town and if the driver is surprised at the location or Dylan’s appearance, she hides it well.
“What do we do?” I ask as the cab drops us off at the end of Hemingway Street. The street is all larger homes, part of a series of dead-end roads designed for privacy. The homes weren’t gated but might as well have been: you didn’t own one unless you Were Someone and that required far more than mere money. I have no idea if that is why Bethany was picked as a host or if that is entirely a fluke. I don’t know enough at all.
“The home is not protected,” Dylan murmurs. “We walk in the front door and see what happens.”
“Just like that?”
“Anything else would be rather suspicious.”
I’m not dressed for a party like this and Dylan definitely isn’t, but I follow him down a marbled driveway and to the open front doors of the Somerset house. Bethany’s parents had made their money as lawyers in the city, away as often as not and somehow trusting Bethany. We didn’t move in the same circles, but it’s not as if the house had been trashed or burned down before. Bethany had been a lot of things, but not foolish.
A guy I didn’t recognize was standing outside the front door. Dylan held his gaze and did nothing I could tell, but he didn’t offer a word of protest as we went inside. The interior of the home was surprisingly normal. Nice without beng more than that, feeling like a house rather than a show home. A dozen people in the living room were clustered around a large tv getting drunk. Watching some talent show and drinking shots. I wondered for half a moment what Dylan would do if I joined in and just walk down the wide hallway and into a large kitchen.
The kitchen turns out to be Martha Stewart modern, filled with gleaming appliances that look as though they are seldom used. Two fridges, two stoves and microwaves, island and small breakfast nook. Bethany is in it making snacks for people. She is even wearing an apron. I remind myself that people wear aprons. The thing inside her is a rolling mass of thick grey the colour of mucus, like a fog crossed with some sea slug found on an ocean bed.
“Kate.” She doesn’t sound surprised at seeing me. “And you brought a friend.”
I’m trying to decide on a lie when I hear footsteps behind us. The hallway is blocked by two quiet, tall girls with fogs inside them. The exit from the kitchen leading outside is blocked as well. Bethany is smiling tightly as she walks toward me and Dylan.
“I thought you had seen Me,” she murmurs. “I do so enjoy being right.”
“What? Is this some initiation no one ever told me about; I’ve never crashed a party before and –.”
“And you really should have at least had a plan. No matter.” Fog writhes about her fingers, visible in the air.
“I would ask what you are doing and why,” Dylan says quietly, not moving.
“You are nothing. A forest spirit with no wood. This is not your forest,” Bethany says flatly.
“Even so. You may consider this a polite request.” Dylan didn’t move, a thin presence beside me, but something about him causes Bethany to step back a pace, the swirling inside her shifting colours to paler hues.
And then Bethany smiles, and the smile looks so human and ugly that I almost think the real Bethany is still there inside her own mind, as if there was a mind inside her body at all. “You have brought us the child. For that we shall let you live.”
“What do you intend?” Dylan asks, his voice cool and empty. I can’t look over. I have to hope that’s not true.
“She has a small gift; we will harvest her and it will never grow.”
“I begin to understand. Small towns, small places. You expand slowly, picking hosts that are visible in the community. Find those who might be magicians and murder then so that there is no one to stop you.” And Dylan’s laugh is soft and fey, coldly amused. “You honestly think that is going to work? The fae will dispose of you even worse than the wandering magician might. He has been so many places. There are those who can summon him by name.” His voice drops, harsh and ugly as winter. “I will give you one chance to leave. Just the one to end this and return Outside the universe.”
The people behind us don’t move. There is no flash of light, the temperature doesn’t alter, but something causes me to spin about. One of the two people that was guarding the hallway has fallen, the skin lying on the ground like a discarded costume, the mist of it all green suckers covered in ugly barbs hurling toward Dylan.
The thing in the air twists abruptly; the human skin on the ground is green, being consumed by moss that is somehow inside the creature, eating it from the inside out.
“They have walked in my wood,” Dylan says calmly, as though he was chatting about the weather. “They have breathed my air. How does it feel, little parasite, to have one inside you in turn?”
I turn away as the air twists about Bethany, the world rippling unpleasant – I almost think I hear tearing, like the skin of the world being peeled back, and between one moment and the next the bodies strike the ground, empty of ogans and bones, sacks of skin tinted green.
“Bring them,” Dylan says, not looking at me as he walks out the back door.
I gather up sacks that were bodies, picking up skin and trying as hard as I can not to think about them as people as I walk into the back yard and set them down.
Dylan reaches down, running his fingers over each, whispering words in a language I don’t know. The words are green. I know that without knowing how I know it, but each body fills up as roots wriggle into them, replacing bones, making them seem human again. It takes the longest ten minutes I’ve ever known, hoping no one comes out the back door and sees me with the bodies.
They look normal as he stands up, movements slow and stiff. He looks somehow even thinner than before, and there are lines on his face I could swear weren’t there earlier. “The simulacra will last long enough. You will need to go to the morgue, speak to whoever does the autopsies.”
“And tell them what?”
“I do not know.” He lets out a heavy sigh. “I have done what I can here.”
“I know, I –.” I move in close, and snag his hands. They feel far too thin as I squeeze them, and he winces as I let go. “Thank you. I don’t know what I would have done, could have done, had to do – thank you,” I get out.
He smiles weakly at that. “They were an infection; you were right in that, Kate.”
“You’d best go before they find the bodies.”
“There will be an explosion,” he says. “I woke power that remembers what it used to; it needs an outlet for old hatred.”
This is too deep for me. Too deep by far, but even so I hesitate, searching his face. “What you said, Dylan. Could you have done it?”
“To all of them, that quickly? No.”
I wonder what he would have done instead, think about lost forests and ancient anger. I ask nothing else, manage a nod and walk away.
I make it half a block before I start crying, and I’m certain I don’t know even half of why I am.