The Miller household was a charmingly standard Mission Viejo property: a spacious two-story home with terracotta roof tiles, white French doors, and peach stucco walls. Every evening its cul-de-sac fell into the same routine: television, hardly audible beyond the stucco, evidenced only by the shifting lights in the windows. The Miller household appeared to conform to this same routine, except that their television was off. For them, the lights come from a different source entirely.
There was a unicorn in their living room composed of wisps of magic. The creature hovered in the air, stooping to graze on unseen grass. All around it, bells chimed, and voices sang. It was an airy song, with the same rhythm and brightness as laughter. On the rug below sat Nissi Miller, with her baby Alvin in her lap. One hand rubbed his belly while the other twirled through the air, conducting.
“They aren’t here anymore, but back home Mommy knows just where to find them. Can you say, ‘unicorn’?”
“Yoo -- yoocorr…”
She heard the jangling of keys, followed by the scrape and thud of the deadbolt coming open. Her heart fluttered the same way it had every night for the last four years. Gene slid through the cracked door and pressed it shut behind him. In the dark, she could make out a smile on his face, but not much else.
“Hey sweetie,” he said, “did I miss the palace?”
Nissi shook her head.
“I was going to do that next.”
With a twist of her hand, the wisps rearranged themselves into tall towers and grand archways, all hung with flowing banners and strewn with clumps of ivy. Gene put his coat away then took a seat next to her on the rug. His arm sat across her shoulders, tense and wooden like the length of a bow.
“Always my favorite part,” he said.
The boys sat in silence as Nissi shifted the wisps again and again, illustrating glimpses of the Fae: their dress, their food, their instruments. While the lutes were playing, inserting their part seamlessly into the existing tune, Gene whispered in Nissi’s ear.
“Could you take Alvin upstairs?”
Nissi looked back at him.
“It’s a little early for bedtime, isn’t it?”
“It’s not bedtime. I just want to talk.”
Nissi’s stomach sank. They had agreed never to fight in front of Alvin. It didn’t matter that he was too young to understand their words. He would feel the tension. Although, who was she kidding?
“All right,” she said.
She waved off the wisps. As they dissipated, the song went with them, leaving an uncomfortable quiet in the dark living room. She then took Alvin up to his crib. When she came back down, the living room was still dark, but the light was on in the kitchen. Gene was sitting at the table with his hands folded. She poured two glasses of water then kissed him on the cheek as she set them down.
She sat next to him and rubbed his shoulders. They used to melt under her touch, even if she only brushed. Now the knots only twisted and hardened as she dug into them. He took a long sip of water then spoke.
“I just have a few questions.”
Nissi nuzzled his cheek.
Gene shifted so he could look her in the eye.
“You’ve been spending a lot of time at the Schulers.”
Nissi leaned back. Her own shoulders went rigid, and her breathing went a little faster, a little shallower. She forced a smile.
“That isn’t really a question.”
Gene chuckled. Or grunted. Something in between.
“Tell you what: if I got that raise last month because of you sleeping with Dick Schuler, I’ll give you a medal.”
They both laughed. She tried to picture it. With Mr. Schuler’s belly in the way, at least there wouldn’t be any risk of him leaning in for a kiss. She painted the picture for Gene and his laughter exploded into a wheezing cough. As he caught his breath, she squeezed his hand.
“Just to be clear: no, there’s nothing between us.”
“Right, right,” said Gene, “so why are you spending so much time with them? If it’s Kathy then that’s a whole ‘nother thing.”
Nissi shook her head and smiled.
“No. She’s a good role model, though. She knows what it’s like to run a big house.”
Gene’s face fell. He finished his glass of water then went to pour another. When he came to sit back down, he sat across from Nissi, not next to her. She reached across the table to grab his hand. His hand didn’t budge one way or the other, so she just rested her fingers on his knuckles. He stared down into his glass, breathing heavily.
“You know, that’s the problem with having a wish come true,” he said. “You aren’t prepared for it. It feels great at first, but then you get buried alive in the follow-through.”
“What do you mean?”
Gene looked up at her. His eyes were watering already. She wanted to reach over, press against his chest, and squeeze the tears out. The Fae were not so terrified of feeling. She had tried her best to teach him this.
“I know I’m not the best provider. For years, I assumed I’d never get the chance. And I never got a head start. I’m not an Irvine or a Huntington or a Schuler.”
She squeezed his hand. He pulled it back.
“We all have our fantasies, right? I check out other women, you walk around Casa Schuler and pretend you live there. But there’s a line. At some point, it’s just...sick.”
“Gene, what are you talking about?”
He grabbed his phone, pulled up a photo, and showed it to Nissi. It showed Alvin seated next to Kenny, the Schuler’s youngest, in a wooden boat. The boys had always shared a striking resemblance, and here the matching sailor outfits made them look like twins. Nissi’s heart pounded in her chest. She forced a quizzical expression and looked back at Gene.
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Seriously, what? We were having some fun.”
“Fun, huh? Not research?”
Nissi sat up straight and folded her hands in her lap. She looked away from Gene.
“I don’t think we should talk about this right now,” she said. “You’re clearly in the mood to have an argument.”
“Nope,” said Gene. “I just need you to look me in the eye and tell me you aren’t planning to swap our son with Kenny Schuler.”
Nissi bit her lip.
“You’re being paranoid. I would never do anything like --”
“Like what other fairies do all the time? Like your own family does back home?”
Nissi stood up and walked to the kitchen doorway. She lingered in the frame, staring into the darkness of the living room. First, she needed to reassure herself. Of course, she wasn’t like them. She was compassionate. She had the right reasons. She loved Kenny as if he was Alvin’s own brother. In the quiet, she could hear Gene sipping his water. She pictured a tiger, so assured of catching its prey it could stop to lap at a nearby stream before it pounced. She’d show him. She stuck up her chin.
“Changelings serve many purposes,” she said. “All of them benefit the Fae. Few, if any, benefit the child.”
She turned to face him.
“If you think I hate our son so much…”
“Don’t even start with that. I know you love Alvin. You clearly love him more than you love me since you’re ready to adopt him into a ‘better’ family.”
“Okay Gene, then what am I? A terrible mother or a liar? Make up your mind.”
Gene stood up.
“Neither. I think you’re confused and you don’t know what you want. Four years ago, you told me you wanted a ‘normal human life’ with me. This thing you’re doing right now? This ain’t that.”
Gene sighed and folded his arms. Nissi had heard the patience in his voice. She could see the furrow in his brow. Sure, he was angry, but he was trying to understand. She came over to him. In previous arguments, this was when his arms would unfurl and let her duck into his chest. Then they would wrap around her as tight as they could, and Gene would remind her that she smelled like honeysuckle, and she would tell him he smelled like fake pinewood. Then they would laugh, and kiss, and cry if there was any crying left to do.
This time, though, his arms stayed shut. He wouldn’t meet her gaze. Gene’s chest may have been skinny and boney but, to her, it was the safest place in the world. She wanted back in. She squeezed his biceps, hoping to find some hidden mechanism there to unlock the gates. He started whispering.
“Every morning, I watch you comb your hair over the points of your ears. You promised to always be honest with me, but you lie to the world every day. It’s weird trusting someone like that.”
Nissi stood back and clenched her fists. She started shaking.
“Well, Gene, this is what life with a real Faerie woman is like. I’m not your little EverQuest love doll. I’m a person. It takes time for me to figure out what I’m feeling. I can’t just print you a spreadsheet of what I’m going through.”
Gene glared at her. Suddenly, she wished he would go back to avoiding her gaze. There was something dark in his eyes.
“Okay, here’s a thought experiment: let’s say some thug broke into our house one night and kidnapped Alvin for ransom. Would you want me to give him time to understand his feelings?”
“That’s completely different. The Schulers are a good family and you work for Dick. We would have -- ”
She stopped herself. Gene’s eyes went wide as she covered her mouth and backed away.
“What?” he said.
Nissi said nothing.
“We would have what?” he said, raising his voice.
Nissi shook her head.
“What?!” he yelled. “Finish that sentence! Finish that sentence or you’re a lying, two-faced -- ”
“EASY ACCESS!” she yelled. “Easy access to our son while he gets the opportunities he’s NEVER going to get here. And before you dredge up all that self-pitying dung about your student loan debt and your poor family listen to me very closely: this has nothing to do with you.”
Gene’s mouth hung open. He blinked rapidly as if flipping through a slideshow of wounds. She continued.
“I did come from money, Gene. I came from power unlike anything in this world. That’s how I learned there isn’t any justice to it. Not here, and certainly not back home. You look out for your own, you take what you need, and you’re not choosy about your methods. I’ve made my decision already. I’d love to see you try to stop me. You’re the one who needs to make a choice here: your misplaced pride or your son’s future.”
Gene put his hands over his face and took a deep breath. Then, his breathing sped up and erupted into a scream. He picked up his glass of water and smashed it on the table, sending water, shards, and blood all over it. He charged at Nissi, face red.
Without flinching, Nissi raised her hand and uttered a spell. Gene became a cloud of butterflies, which crashed harmlessly against her before scattering. Some went through the open window. Some went into the living room. A few remained perched on Nissi. Then, she watched as the spell entered its final phase. The butterflies, which were only magic, began to disappear in little puffs of smoke. She screamed.
“No, no, no, no…”
She ran and grabbed the biggest jar she could find, then tried to scoop up as many butterflies as she could. She scrambled to shut the kitchen window before flying around the house to check all the others but, by the time she got back to the kitchen, there wasn’t a single butterfly left. Even the jar was empty. She put it back in the cupboard.
She could feel another scream swimming around inside her, but this one wouldn’t come out. Instead, she found herself picking up a shard of the glass Gene had shattered. She took it over to the sink and held it out over her wrist, slender and cream-colored, which formed a perfect contrast to the still dripping blood. There would be something poetic about it, she thought. She would take a little bit of Gene with her. Except…
Nissi tried to picture it: Alvin in a foster home, asking a social worker about the parents he couldn’t remember. What would they tell him? At what age? “You’re the child of a murder-suicide, Alvin!” What kind of future would that give him?
She set down the shard of glass then walked up to Alvin’s room. The light was still on, illuminating the scenes she had painted on the walls herself while she was pregnant. The palace. The unicorn. The dashing prince, who looked like her best guess at a grown-up Alvin. She walked over to the crib, which was secretly inscribed with every protection rune she knew. There, on a cotton blue blanket, slept her beautiful boy. When she saw him, all the air in her lungs made a slow, numbing exit.
She sat on the floor, curled up in a ball, and wept. She didn’t deserve to have him. She never had. She didn’t deserve the four years of mostly bliss she had had with Gene, either. She had stolen them like Faeries do. She was an imposter. Worse, she was a monster hiding behind a gilded mask, slinking among the innocent in broad daylight. She shouldn’t have put that piece of glass to her wrist -- she should’ve put it to her face then cut and peeled to reveal the abomination beneath.
As she shivered, another question appeared. But this one did not lurk and threaten like the others. Rather, it beckoned her, shining with a piercing, clear light. If she could answer this question, she felt, maybe she would be okay. She reached for it, stretching her heart and her mind until they felt ready to snap. And then the question was hers.
What would be best for Alvin now?
She had an answer. It wasn’t fully formed yet, but she knew one thing for certain: it wouldn’t be easy. It wouldn’t be pretty, either. To abandon both ease and beauty was against Faerie nature, but it had to be done. She stood up, took a deep breath, and shook herself out. She wiped the snot and tears from her face and nodded. Then she picked up Alvin and took him down to the car.
The road down into Trabuco Canyon had a haunting beauty even the Faeries had to admire, especially at night. As she crested the hill just after Cook’s Corner, she remembered the local legend of the “Blue Lady” -- a wandering spirit looking for her lost child. She found the irony fitting, if not amusing. Alvin was awake, burbling cheerfully in his baby seat.
She parked outside O’Neill Regional Park, swaddled Alvin in an extra blanket, then carried him into the forest. The chirping of insects formed a dull roar as the leaves crunched under her feet. Somewhere, an owl hooted. She knew the path by heart, although she almost never came back here. She knew which hiking trail to follow and when to break from it. Soon, she arrived at a wide ring of stones and mushrooms tucked into a close-knit copse of trees. As she walked to the center, the din of the insects was replaced with a hum so deep she could feel it in her bones. That, and snickering.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Nissi Miller,” said a tiny voice, followed by many others.
“Runaway. Human lover.”
“But no -- didn’t you hear? She made quite a mess of her little pet.”
“I heard it was a pretty mess. Pretty, pretty, pretty, just like her!”
“And a mess that cleaned up itself, just like magic messes do.”
Nissi cleared her throat.
“I have come to use the Faerie Ring for a spell,” she announced. “And, compared with the trifling of you pixies, I promise it will be the most powerful spell you’ve ever seen. You’ll want to keep your distance.”
In true pixie fashion, they only crowded in closer, tiptoeing down the branches of the trees. Nissi could see their little, glowing forms pointing at her and waving over the others. She ignored them, squared her feet, closed her eyes, and began her incantation. As she spoke, the deep hum rose to a thumping pulse. Even in her concentration, she could feel the air billowing around her. The trees rustled and creaked as the Faerie Ring’s power surged outward. At last, the pixies’ panic beat out their stubborn curiosity and they began to peel away.
“It’s too much!”
“She’ll hurt herself!”
“Quick, tell her family!”
Now there was heat. It became so hot beads of sweat dripped from her brow and tried to worm their way past her eyelids. Without breaking the spell, Nissi blinked them away, catching flashes of white light. Her hands unwrapped the extra blanket from Alvin. His wailing was the hardest part to ignore. She wanted to take him out into the cool air beyond the ring, kiss his forehead, and calm him down, but that would have to wait. His future depended upon this spell.
“Nissi, this is ridiculous.”
She recognized this voice, which had had to shout over the pulse of the Faerie Ring. It sent a chill down her spine. Luckily, the spell was building on its own momentum now. As long as she stayed within the ring, she could safely break away for a moment.
“This doesn’t concern you.”
“Of course, it does!”
Nissi shook her head, not knowing where her mother was standing or if she could even see past the whirl of the light.
“It’s just another plea for attention. No different than the last time you took a human lover.”
Nissi said nothing. Then, she felt a ripple in the spell. She opened her eyes. There stood a tall, slender woman, draped in a silk gown dyed a rich purple. Her hair, a shimmering weave of silver and gold, was tucked into a high braid. Rings and pearls hung off her pointed ears. For all this, her most unmistakably noble feature was her frown, thin and cold and practiced. Nissi frowned back. Hers was petulant, and she knew it. At least she resisted the urge to stamp her foot.
“I can see one difference,” she said. “This time, you’re trying to stop me.”
“Because this time, my dear, there may be permanent consequences.”
She produced a mirror and held it up to Nissi’s face. It was her face, to be sure. The same flowing, golden hair she combed over her pointed ears every morning. The same emerald green eyes that melted human and Faerie lovers alike. But now, those eyes were starting to sink into her skull, making her high cheekbones appear more stark than elegant. She turned away.
“This shouldn’t surprise you,” her mother said. “You know the Faerie Ring is only an amplifier. Why else would you…”
Nissi only glared. Behind her, the spell continued roaring and spinning. Her mother drew back and raised her eyebrows. She looked Nissi up and down as if she had mistaken a total stranger for her daughter and carried on a whole conversation with her by accident. Then she laughed.
“You’re serious? Well, far be it for me to dictate the whims of a Faerie heart. Let me just see if I can tip the scales back toward reason…”
She reached out to Alvin, and the tip of her middle finger landed on his forehead as gently as a butterfly. Nissi looked down and gasped at her son’s newly pointed ears.
“A simple enough glamour,” her mother said, “and, for the privilege of our alliance, any number of houses would send a man to play his father.”
“I…I told you I’m not coming back.”
“You made that abundantly clear then, but consider this: what human family could give him the same power he would enjoy among his true people?”
Nissi could see it: Alvin, a little prince, strolling through the halls of Faerie court while the finest warriors, scholars, and nobles all bowed at his passing. And, later, as he grew into a duke, shaming them all in the hunt, thanks to the added strength of his human blood. Later still, as he settled into his duties, taking the most gorgeous little Faerie girl for his wife. He would be magnificent. But, of course, he would need a different name. Not the one his father chose. Her mother drew back her hand, and the points disappeared from his ears.
“Now,” she said, “put an end to this spell and come home. You’re starting to look dreadful.”
The spell was perfectly balanced now. If she gave it even the slightest tug, it would rush back into her, and the Faerie Ring would absorb whatever she couldn’t handle herself. The greatest change it would affect would be a splitting headache and a dizzy spell, in the colloquial sense. But, with the slightest push…
She looked back down at Alvin. He was sucking his thumb, still sobbing softly. His huge, soaking, emerald eyes met hers. All she could think was that she loved him. Every part of him. There was no choice to be made. She would do what was right for him, and that was that. She closed her eyes and kissed his forehead.
“Very well, Mother.”
There was a blast, then silence.
When she opened her eyes, all the trees around the Faerie Ring were flattened. Her mother stood with one hand over her mouth, the other holding up the mirror again. Nissi caught a glimpse of something strange, so she took the mirror.
The woman in the frame appeared twice the age of her mother. Gone was any of the gold in her hair. Now, it was only gray wire. Her eyes, once so clear, were now dim, gelatinous, and red around the edges. There was not an inch of smooth skin left on her face -- only wrinkles and liver spots and blue veins. She turned to look at the downed trees and felt a pain in her hip. She took a few steps forward and found she could not move at quite the same speed as before. Behind her, she could hear her mother sobbing. She turned to look at her.
“My son,” she told her, in a voice that now cracked and squeaked, “will live the life he deserves. With his family.”
With that, she threw the mirror in the dirt and walked back up the path, through the woods, and down to the car. Between the sun spilling its first amber light over the hills, and the babbling of Alvin in her arms, she felt some fragment of her strength return.
Nissi parked the car across the street from “Casa Schuler.” This time, she found she could see it with new eyes. She counted at least six different window shapes, scattered beneath a roofline seemingly drawn by an Etch A Sketch. The muddy paint color, which must’ve been sold as “rustic,” made the stucco walls look like melting chocolate ice cream. Then there was the turret. The turrets back home were designed for combat and beauty alike. Humanity hadn’t needed turrets for the former in centuries, and thus theirs lacked any semblance of the later. The Schuler turret was the most human she’d ever seen.
“Bah!” she said.
She drove down to the end of the cul-de-sac, where the Miller household stood, and parked in the driveway. She drank in its sensible modesty as she took a deep breath. It had been home. She looked down at the steering wheel. She thumbed the key in the silent ignition.
“Come on,” she told herself.
Before, she had a way of snatching the keys, dipping out of the car, and swinging around to the car seat all in one fluid motion. Now, she found herself planting a hand on the car roof and catching her breath. When did moving around become so hard? When her heart was done pounding, she hobbled around to the car seat and lifted Alvin twice as gingerly as she used to -- for her benefit and his, alike.
The woman who answered the door was not unlike the Miller household itself. She had flat, auburn hair, which she was just removing from a bun as she swung the door open. She was an inch taller than Nissi and several inches thicker, although Nissi knew -- thanks to her tennis game -- those inches were mostly muscle. Her eyes, a dusty hazel, lit up as much as they could when she saw Alvin. She reached out her arms.
“There’s my little boy!” she said.
Nissi felt the urge to spit in her face. Or, better, hit her with a spell. Instead, she smiled and handed over Alvin.
“The doctor said he’s the picture of health, not to mention good behavior.”
“Of course, he is,” cooed the woman while tickling his belly.
Alvin laughed and kicked his feet. He seemed to recognize her, which was good. His eyes flitted between her and Nissi.
“Thank you so much for taking him. Normally I would myself, I just…”
The woman stared at the floor and squinted hard. There was no need for her to pick at the seams, Nissi thought. Yet, before she could say something to distract her, the woman snapped back.
“Just a second, let me grab my purse.”
Nissi put up a hand.
“Please, Brianne, it was just a quick favor.”
“Still, let me…”
Brianne trotted back into the kitchen. Nissi could hear cups and boxes scrape along the counter as she searched. Then Brianne came back to the living room and tossed around pillows and blankets to no avail.
“Gene!” she shouted. “Is my purse up there? Can you grab it?”
“Sure, be right there.”
Nissi’s heart raced as she heard the heavy footsteps down the stairs. As soon as Gene reached the bottom, he noticed her in the doorway. He cocked his head. She imagined him running towards her and knew that if he did so, she could find the energy to leap into his arms and let him spin her through the air. She could feel it in her bones. As old as they might be, that feeling was as young as ever.
Instead, he brought the purse over to Brianne, who fumbled through it and extracted a wad of cash. She then shoved the money into Nissi’s hand, which was open and outstretched.
“Consider it a gift from a friend,” she said. “Get yourself a nice lunch somewhere.”
Gene plopped the purse on the couch and came to wrap his arms around Brianne and Alvin. He gave them both a firm kiss on the cheek. Brianne chuckled and kissed him back. Alvin let out a happy scream and grasped at his face. When he looked up, he was beaming.
Nissi wanted to be disgusted with this plain woman kissing her husband and holding her prince. But she had chosen this. And she had to admit, this picture made so much more sense than anything she had lived or imagined before. It was a normal human life, or at least the closest approximation a Faerie could conjure. This was the image, beautiful in its simplicity, she had imagined long before she had even met Gene. The only thing that looked wrong was that she wasn’t in it.
“Is there anything else I can do to help?” she asked.
“No thank you,” said Brianne. “We were just about to head over to my sister’s place.”
She turned her attention to Alvin, switching to her baby voice.
“Ready see your cousin Kenny? Ready go play in Casa Schuler?”
Brianne and Alvin disappeared into the kitchen again. Gene shook his head and smiled at Nissi.
“Sorry, I promise we don’t mean to brush you off. She just…well, you know how they are. Busy, busy, busy.”
Nissi made a tiny bow.
“Think you’ll be available next weekend? Brianne and I will both be traveling.”
Nissi found something caught in her throat. She put her hand to her lips and cleared it. Then, she gave Gene an affirmative nod.
“I’m always available for little Alvin. Just think of me as his very own Faerie godmother.”