By T. Eric Bakutis
My name is Jack, and I have a little sister. Her name is Dana. She was eleven when the faeries took her away.
It was Dana’s birthday. We had chocolate ice cream cake, rich, wet and squishy. It made what had happened to Ted in Willow Grove that morning seem like a bad dream.
I knew Dana would go looking for Ted, but I didn’t want to go to Willow Grove ever again, not after what they did to Ted. I told myself Dana wouldn’t either, and that’s why I wasn’t there to stop her when she did. I was scared.
Days passed. The police came and went. They showed Dana’s face on the news. I watched my parents panic and cry, but I didn’t try to tell them what had happened. I knew they wouldn’t believe me. They never had.
Almost a year before Dana disappeared, I told Mom about the humming trees, about the faeries, about Willow Grove. She thought I was playing with her. When she realized I believed what I was saying, she got concerned.
I got to see a counselor. Mrs. Banner. She was nice, easy to talk to, and had a very soft voice, but she didn’t know anything about faeries.
I kept seeing Mrs. Banner until I told her I knew trees didn’t hum and that Willow Grove wasn’t real. After that I never had to see her again, and my parents didn’t talk about it with me. Ever.
The moon was just a sliver when I stepped onto the lawn. The cold dug hard fingers through my old gray sweater — Dad’s sweater — and sweatpants. I checked my backpack one last time: flashlight, sleeping bag, Cheerios. Then I walked right into the woods that ate my sister.
The trees were thin and dark. All their leaves were gone, and their tiny little branches weaved together like veins on wrinkled skin. A mist clung to the space between their spindly trunks, shifting in the moonlight.
Rain-soaked leaves swished around my sneakers, and bark bits crunched like tiny bugs. Everything smelled like pine needles. I kept the flashlight pointed at my feet because I was afraid of it pointing at anything else. I walked an animal trail until it merged with Blue Diamond Path, then followed that through Peace Pine Park. Willow Grove was two miles up the trail, hidden from the adults.
Ted lived in this park before the faeries blinked him away. Nobody knew his name was Ted but Dana and me. He was one of those people everyone saw but no one ever looked at. He wore frayed pink mittens, a ratty gray cloak, and a blue hat with a fuzzy ball on top of it. Every day he sat at the corner of Main and Cloverdale, holding a Styrofoam cup. Our parents told us never to go near him.
We first met him when I took Dana for pizza. Dana walked right up to Ted and sat on the curb beside him. She stared at him, smiling her white-toothed little smile, while I stood there open-mouthed and stupid as a brick.
When Ted smiled back, it wasn’t mean or creepy at all. His smile reminded me of Dad’s. He said, “Hello, I’m Ted. What’s your name, young lady?”
Dana said nothing, so Ted took something from his Styrofoam cup. He made a quarter appear from behind Dana’s ear. Dana started giggling.
I grabbed Dana’s hand and tugged. She turned her white-toothed smile on me as she rose. I could see her triumphant certainty, her I told you he wasn’t a bad man!, but I dragged her off anyway. It was two weeks after that when Ted found his way into Willow Grove, and Dana and I watched the faeries blink him away.
The walk took forever, and the cold made me hurt. I watched every step I took, every crunch of my sneakers on the brown, wet leaves. I was certain the faeries would make me walk into a tree or trip over a coyote. I’d step off a cliff and fall, and fall, and faerie laughter would chase me down. I was shivering when I finally stepped into Willow Grove. Then its heat hit me like a wall.
It’s always warm inside Willow Grove, inviting and bright, a soft orange light that comes from everywhere. The mist is thicker than the woods, and it clings to your skin like spider webs. Six great willow trees grow around a cairn of dark rocks, green curtains of hanging leaves blocking you in on all sides. There’s no pine needle smell there — it’s all peppermint. Faeries really like it. I don’t know why.
I first found Willow Grove on a hike when I was eleven. Dana and I were the only people who could go inside. We spent hours playing with the faeries that lived there, watching the illusions they made and smelling all the faerie smells. They made honey and cheese and lavender and dozens of others we couldn’t smell anywhere else. We watched hikers and tourists stroll up to Willow Grove and pop from one side to the other faster than you could blink.
That was why I was so shocked when Ted walked in after us that morning. He didn’t even look surprised to be there, just relieved. Happy. The faeries went after him immediately, buzzing around him in a swarm. The trees hummed so loudly I had to cover my ears.
First Ted’s nose vanished. Then his ear. Then his chest, his right leg, the whole left side of his face. He all blinked away bit by bit. Ted’s left foot was the last to go, and then the faeries vanished. Dana just stood there, staring at the space where Ted no longer was.
When the trees stopped humming, I walked up and touched Dana’s shoulder. She looked at me and said it, the four words that took her away on her birthday night. “They can’t do this.” Then she dashed home to have her cake.
“I’m here for Dana,” I told all of Willow Grove. “I’m here for my sister. Please give her back.” I knew the faeries could hear me. They never stop listening.
“I know Dana probably yelled at you when she came here to talk about Ted. I know she upset you, but we miss her very much so please, could you give her back? I promise, if you do, neither of us will ever bother you again.”
No one answered. I walked over to the cairn, rocks of all shapes and sizes and colors, gray and brown and black. They were piled on top of each other in a pyramid that was taller than me. I noticed then that the cairn was humming. I didn’t remember it ever doing that before.
“Hello?” Right away, I knew it was a stupid thing to say to a pile of rocks. “Have you seen Dana?”
I touched the cairn with two fingers, dragging them down the rough ripple of stones. The rocks were slick and warm. It hummed louder. I had never touched it before that night. It just seemed impolite to do so.
“Dana’s my little sister. She means everything to us. If you’ll just give her back, I’ll do anything.”
I shuddered when I said that, but I refused to take it back. Anything was a big word to faeries, but I would do anything to get Dana back, even if it meant I had to live in the dark forever. Nothing was scarier than a life without her in it, with my parents empty and sad.
The faeries didn’t answer, and I knew then they weren’t going to. They were excited by my fear, amused by my grief, but that was as far as it went. I got so mad. I kicked the cairn, hard. My sneaker went right through it.
Rocks scattered. All the trees stopped humming as the whole cairn collapsed right there. The clattering was horrible. I scrambled away from the cairn as rocks slipped away in all directions, sliding like they were on ice.
I expected buzzing, blinking, or pine needles jammed into my eyes. I watched the faeries do that to a bird once, one day when Dana wasn’t there. Instead, I found a clear blue glow, a shimmering pool beneath the cairn.
When I finally got brave enough to walk up to it, I realized I couldn’t see the bottom. It was blue forever and ever, the bluest thing I’d ever seen. It called to me like a warm bed.
“I want you to give back Dana,” I told the shimmering blue pool of light. “She didn’t do anything to you.”
There was no answer, but I thought I knew why. “Is this what you want from me?” I stared at the silent willows. “If I step into this pool, you’ll let Dana go?”
The willows hummed. It might have been a yes. Even if it wasn’t, I didn’t have a choice. Talking, yelling, and kicking had not worked. I set my flashlight and my backpack beside the pool. I didn’t want them wet.
“I’m going,” I told the shimmering pool, the faeries, and the mist in the cove. “I’m going to step into the pool just like you asked and you can do whatever you want to me. I’m trusting you to keep your word about Dana.”
I stepped in before I could think about it. It wasn’t water but something else, something thick and sticky. It pulled me down with clutching, chilly fingers. Then the faeries taught me what it felt like to drown.
When that was over, I opened my eyes and stood up in Willow Grove. Everything was different. The air shimmered like water, and the place was filled with faeries.
Before they drowned me, the faeries had always been tiny blurs of bluish light about the size of dragonflies. These were all adult-sized. Their skin was gold and red and silver, their wings green gossamer and black ink. There were dozens of them, and their eyes glowed blue.
“I’m Jack.” I swallowed hard. “I’m Dana’s brother.”
“Hello, Jack,” Ted said softly.
I turned around to find Ted standing shyly by the pool. He looked just like he had always looked, with his pink gloves and his gray coat and his funny blue hat.
“You.” I swallowed again. “You took Dana?”
“No,” he replied.
I shook my head. “I don’t believe you.”
“Dana told me about Willow Grove,” Ted continued. “She showed me how to get in. Don’t you remember?”
I did, but I didn’t want to admit that to Ted because I didn’t know why he was there. Was he here to help me? Hurt me? Or was he just another faerie trick, like the fake spiders they send crawling up your spine?
“I’m sorry the faeries blinked you,” I told him, and I meant it, “but you’re a grown man, and my sister’s only eleven. Please give her back.”
“I didn’t take Dana.”
Ted pointed behind me. I didn’t turn around.
“Why did they take you?” I thought he might know something. I thought he had the clue I needed.
“We were like you.” Ted sighed. “Long ago. You and your sister. Her name was Marlene.”
I glare at him. “Her name’s Dana.”
“Your sister,” Ted said. “Not mine.”
“You had a sister?”
“She was eleven.”
“Where is she now?”
Ted pointed behind me. I knew then why his smile had always been so sad.
“There’s … no way to ever get her back?”
“Marlene is never coming back,” Ted said, and all the strength fell out of him. “I tried. I begged. I pleaded and cried, but they never, ever give them back.”
I refused to believe that. I couldn’t. So I turned on the faeries and gave them my hardest glare.
“Where’s Dana?” I shouted.
Wings fluttered. Eyes blinked. Nothing else happened, so I stomped out into the crowd.
“Jack!” Ted cried. “Don’t go out there! They’ll lock you in the dark forever.”
“I don’t care!” I stomped up to a golden-skinned fairy with wings of black ink. “Give me back my sister!”
The faerie didn’t answer, so I kicked him. My foot went right through his leg, and then he was behind me. I went at him with both hands, furious, but he melted into the same orange mist that filled Willow Grove.
His peppermint smell was sickening. Nothing I did touched him. Nothing could. When I was too tired to keep swinging at him, I fell down and cried. I knew they liked crying, and I didn’t have anything else to trade.
“Jack,” Ted said.
I hated him for talking to me, even though I knew he didn’t deserve it. His sister was gone just like mine.
“Go home. They let you come here so I could tell you what happened, so you could know that Dana was gone. If you don’t leave soon, they won’t let you out.”
“I don’t care.” I glared at him and stood up, wiping my nose and eyes. “I won’t leave Dana here alone.”
“Your sister isn’t here anymore. She’s gone. Think about her. Would Dana want you to trap yourself with the faeries, even though it wouldn’t help her one bit?”
“Is that what you did?” I wanted to strangle him. “Did you go away when they asked? Did you leave Marlene here all alone?”
Ted looked down. “She was already gone.”
“You can’t know that!” I screamed at him. “You can’t ever know! They’re faeries! They change everything!”
That’s when I realized that Ted wasn’t the only one ignoring what faeries could do. I was too. I tried to think like something that existed for playtime and tricks. Fear amused them. All our emotions did, but I was only one part of their play. What were they doing to Dana?
Ted made sense as he was, filled with despair and guilt, so I thought he was probably real. Ted left his sister here years ago. That made him so sad he ended up homeless, wandering Peace Pine Park looking for Marlene.
But Dana? What was her part in this? What would amuse the faeries as much as Ted’s guilt and my fear?
There was nothing that annoyed Dana more than when I ignored her. I didn’t do it often — only when I was angry. But when I did, it drove her absolutely nutty. When she was six, I came into my room to find she had pulled all the tape out of my favorite cassette — every bit of it. The tape was ruined, and she had strung it around my room.
I wanted to scream at her right then, but I didn’t. I was that angry. So I just looked at the glittering black tape as she ran up to me, grinning wide.
“Made you a present!” she yelled.
I looked at the ceiling, the tape, anything but her.
“Jack! It’s pretty!”
It wasn’t, of course. It was my favorite tape with my favorite music, ruined for all time. I walked to my bed. Dana followed me.
“You like it? My present?”
I sat down on the bed and looked at the wall. Dana grabbed my hand in both of hers. I let her pull on it as if I didn’t even know she was there. I stared at the wall as if she didn’t exist at all.
“Jack! Stop doing that. Stop ignoring me!”
I settled myself on the bed. I used my free hand to flip open a book. I started reading it. Dana hit me, but she was only six. She started crying.
“I’m sorry I hit you! I’m sorry I made you mad! Don’t forget me! Please, tell me that I’m real!”
Dana was more upset than I’d ever seen her, and that’s why I forgave her for the tape. I made her terrified she wasn’t real. It wasn’t fair. Almost a whole week later, when I finally apologized, Dana told me she had never been so scared as that in her whole life.
I knew then what the faeries had done to her, what they were still doing. Her worst fear. I closed my eyes and reached a hand behind me. I almost felt her clutching at it, clutching at wisps of sticky mist.
“Dana, listen to me. You’re real. You’re with me, and I can hear you and see you and feel you.” Those were lies. “Take my hand and don’t let go. We’re leaving here together.” That was the truth.
I opened my eyes and walked past Ted to the brilliant blue pool. I kept my hand stretched back into the mist. Ted just watched me. His whole body was shaking.
“Dana and I are leaving,” I told Ted. “Do you still want to find Marlene?”
He nodded. His eyes were wide and sad.
“She’s out there.” I didn’t look back. “With them.”
“How do I find her?” Ted whispered.
“Think of her worst fear.” I stepped into the pool with my hand still behind me. “Fix it.”
The pool sucked us in, invading our mouths, our eyes, our lungs. We felt ourselves drown. When it finally ended, Dana and I were standing in Willow Grove, the real Willow Grove, and she was sobbing. I hugged her tight.
The whole way back to the house Dana kept making me tell her she was real, and I kept telling her she was. I didn’t even realize I’d left my backpack and flashlight in Willow Grove until we got back home.
We didn’t try the window. We knocked on the door. It opened and then our parents were yelling at us, Mom and Dad both, crying and hugging as tight as they could.
I don’t remember much after that. I fell asleep sometime after, snuggled up against Dana and sandwiched in between Mom and Dad. It was days before we went to school again, and months before Mom would let either of us out of her sight. None of that mattered. We were together again, Dana and Mom and Dad and me, and that was better than all the ice cream cake in the world.
I never did find out what happened to Ted. I don’t know if he ever found Marlene. But I do know that almost three years after that, on my sixteenth birthday, someone left my flashlight and backpack right outside my window.
I like to think Ted found my flashlight in Willow Grove. I like to think he found Marlene, brought her back, but I don’t know what Marlene’s worst fear was or if Ted remembered it. All I can tell you is that Dana and I never went to Willow Grove ever again.
T. Eric Bakutis is an author and game designer living in Maryland, and one of the lead developers for the Elder Scrolls Online. His short fiction will soon appear in the “Fairly Wicked Tales” anthology from Angelic Knight Press. His debut fantasy novel, Glyphbinder, will be released by McBryde Publishing in summer 2013. You can find out more about Glyphbinder’s story, characters, and world at tebakutis.com.