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In most fairy tales, the fairies are the good guys. They’re godmothers or magical blue ladies who turn puppets into real boys. The problem with that is most fairy tales are sixty percent bullshit, thirty percent wishful thinking, and ten percent horrifying unknown. That’s not to say there are no fairy godmothers; I just never saw one.
More often than not, I saw the other side of it: the bloodsucking, strangle-you-for-fun variety of fairy. For every benevolent shoemaker or wish granter, there was a killer. Which meant I needed to be ready. Steel-toed boots were always a good idea, and they went well with my dark clothes and roughly twenty thousand talismans, all silver and iron and anti-fairy. I could have pulled off the punk goth thing, except living with a single father meant no piercings or blue streaks until I was thirty or he was dead. And with a pair of twelve-year-old brothers, there’d be no slipping a stud out before I got home.
About the most I could do was cut my dark hair up to my chin and draw on some black eyeliner. My dad tolerated that much. But then, he didn’t know exactly why I wore the steel-toed boots or why my jewelry included an iron nail on a chain. He probably suspected, though.
I checked the time. Eight-eighteen. The wind pierced through my dark jacket and into my skin like it had some kind of personal problem with me. I huddled into myself, drawing my knees to my chest. Somewhere out in the town, other high-school seniors were likely hanging out and drinking or smoking. Odds were they’d all die of lung cancer someday. Still, they were having fun and blissfully shortening their lives while I sat on a church stoop alone, waiting for some priest to get with the program and take me to kill some fairies.
The door to the church creaked open. I scrambled to my feet. Father Gooding stepped outside, a large, black duffel bag slung over one shoulder. He stooped just a bit, so it would be a little easier to make direct eye contact. Friggin’ tall people. Hard to name the greater injustice: that he was six foot four or that I was five two.
“I apologize,” he said, locking the door behind him. “The choirmaster called. I really couldn’t hang up without arousing suspicion.”
“So tell them,” I said, and I hated the tight, wheezy tenor of my voice after too long in the cold.
Gooding arched a brow. “That’s awfully rich coming from you, Miss Johnson. Does your family know about your extracurricular activities?”
“The whole reason my dad moved here was because of the fairies,” I reminded him. “And because he knows you protect people from them.”
Gooding gave me that oh-so-disappointed Catholic look of his and sighed. “Bryn, we discussed this. What I’m teaching you is dangerous. Potentially life-threatening. Your family deserves to know in case I have to call them to the hospital.” The same lecture he’d given me for the last three years, ever since he first agreed to take me as his apprentice.
“Well, you haven’t yet,” I pointed out. Gooding’s little half frown would have made a marble statue confess its sins. I diverted my gaze. “You know my dad’s got a lot on his plate, and Ash and Jake are just kids. Besides. You said it yourself: You need the help. There’s too many of them popping up lately.”
Gooding’s lips thinned, but he stopped angling for direct eye contact. Once again, Gooding chose the high road. He just loved to do that. Sometimes that worked in my favor; sometimes it drove me crazy. But it was too cold for me to decide whether his prissiness was a blessing or a curse.
“Come along, then, Bryn.”
Gooding took off across the long stretch of yellowed grass behind the church, and I had to half jog to keep up with his sweeping gait. Well, at least it warmed me up.
“You’re right, though,” he said. “This is the third call from Postoak Road this month. They’re getting more active.”
Another visit to Postoak Road, easily the crummiest place in Easterton, Pennsylvania, but not for the reasons most people thought. By day, Postoak Road was an overgrown stretch of dirt with a line of ancient houses held up by sheer willpower. At night, it turned into the hottest haunt for all of fairykind and the practical classroom for my anti-fairy education. Holy water for redcaps, gifts and thank-yous for brownies, seeds or salt for boggarts, dropping down and praying for a little good luck with garden gnomes.
And now an “exorcism.” Air quotes included. Clearly, we were helping some poor, terrified someone who had no idea what was happening.
I cracked my knuckles as I followed Gooding across the deadened field, down the dirt road, and up the creaking porch to number seventeen, Postoak Road. Petunia-filled planters hung from the eaves while charming plaques stating that HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS and LOVE IS ALL YOU NEED tried to distract visitors from the ancient wood and crooked steps. More than likely, it was all a newlywed couple could afford. Our house hadn’t looked much better when Dad moved the twins and me to the United States. If I wanted to be honest, it didn’t look much better now.
Something dark moved on the banister of the porch, just at the edge of my peripheral vision. Like a whistle on the breeze, there came a shrill voice. “Missy!”
My heart slammed like a piston in my chest. What was a shadeling doing out here? Had one of the boys lit the microwave on fire? No. The little imp would be in a panic if that were the case. Sometimes they followed me outside the house, but if this one crossed Gooding’s path, it would end up as a pile of dark goo. I closed my eyes and made a sharp, jerking motion with one hand. I’d have to deal with it later.
Fingers brushed gently against my elbow. Even though I knew who it was, I jerked away.
Gooding held up his hands. “It’s only me,” he said. “Are you all right? Will you be able to focus tonight?”
“You know it,” I muttered, crossing my arms. “Just love killing me some Tinkerbell.”
Gooding pulled one of his “God is disappointed in you” faces, but before he opened his mouth, the door cracked open to reveal a plump woman in a floral top. Her bloodshot eyes flicked uncertainly to me, then to Gooding as if to ask, What the hell?
“Father,” she breathed. “I thought … Well, I thought we agreed to be discreet about this.”
“Miss Johnson is my assistant, Mrs. Barnett,” Gooding assured her. “Trust me, she’s a very capable young woman. Why, she even helped with Mrs. Clegg’s trouble.”
Mrs. Barnett’s lips twisted into a pained grimace. It took everything I had not to shift from foot to foot like an anxious toddler. I knew exactly what I looked like: dark hair, dark clothes, dark eyeliner, and let’s not forget the charming moniker of “Crazy Man’s Kid” courtesy of Dad’s reputation around town.
I bit the inside of my cheek and stole another quick glance at the banister. Lucky for us both, the shadeling had disappeared.
Mrs. Barnett nodded and stepped aside, gesturing us in. “It started a few weeks ago,” she said in a hushed voice. “I thought it was colic. But he was hungry all the time and…”
She led us through a pink-carpeted living room packed with the same kitschy cheer as the porch. I wrinkled my nose at a smiling porcelain fairy, holding a mushroom as an umbrella and beaming up at me like it was so innocent.
As Mrs. Barnett led us down her tidy hallway, I turned the fairy to face the wall and followed her to the door at the end. A bright blue plaque reading ARTHUR had been glued to the wood, surrounded by paper cutouts of a smiling sun, fluffy clouds, and plump little airplanes. Mrs. Barnett paused at the door, her fingers hovering over the handle.
“Sometimes … sometimes he doesn’t even look like himself.” Mrs. Barnett’s voice trembled as the words tumbled out. “I don’t know how to describe it.”
“Does your husband know what we’re doing here?” Gooding asked.
Mrs. Barnett’s breath hitched. She swiped at her eyes with an unsteady hand. “That’s why he’s not here. We agreed he’d only be in the way. He couldn’t sit still, knowing we were having an…”
“It won’t come to that,” Gooding assured her, resting one hand on her shoulder. Like magic, Mrs. Barnett’s hands stopped trembling. She looked, if not exactly sure of herself, at least a little less terrified. That was Father Gooding for you, a real Catholic Yoda. He offered a little smile and nodded at the nursery door. “Let us have a look, and we’ll go from there.”
Mrs. Barnett pushed open the door and recoiled, folding her arms across her chest, as though the doorknob might just bite. Gooding and I stepped inside and, of course, Mrs. Barnett closed the door behind us. My common sense screamed at me to pull it open again, but this wasn’t exactly a job where common sense prevailed. After all, common sense generally told someone to stay the hell away from demon babies.
If the situation bothered Gooding, he didn’t let it show. He strode over to the yellow crib in the corner and peered down at the baby inside. I peeked in after him.
Little Arthur Barnett stared up at us, squirming in his bright blue footie pajamas. He was about as baby-like as it was possible to be. More baby-like, in fact, than most babies actually were. When they’d been born, Jake and Ash had been cute, too. Of course, they’d also had baby acne; that’s how we knew they were real.
Gooding reached in and pulled Arthur’s legs straight. One stretched out longer than the other. “I thought so,” Gooding murmured. “Bryn, look closer.”
Here was where I got paid the imaginary bucks. I gripped the side of the crib and let my shoulder relax, then my neck, then the muscles in my face—just like Gooding had taught me. The world narrowed down to just me and the creature in the crib. Soft, delicate baby skin turned hard and leathery. Nails sharpened. Sparse hair grew coarse and wiry. Its eyes darkened and sunk into its haunted face. The sight made my stomach churn. It was like a baby Crypt Keeper.
“Changeling,” I muttered. “With one hell of a glamour to hide that face.”
“A newborn, too, judging by its proportions,” Gooding sighed. “I’ll bet it doesn’t even speak yet. Which means we can’t just ask it to leave.”
“As if it would,” I snorted. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the horrible little face. I’d seen pictures of more attractive mummies.
“Patience and optimism are valuable tools,” Gooding chided.
I had to roll my eyes. “So are caution, paranoia, and an iron fire poker.”
Gooding gave me the peeved-priest look before smoothing his features into his teacher-priest look. “Well, it’s a living changeling, not a doll or a golem,” he summarized. “And it has a very good disguise. What does this tell us?”
I took a deep breath. “It was put here by a more powerful Fae. Probably from a court. Means we can get Arthur back.” Even as I said it, my heart skipped a beat. But there was nothing to worry about. We didn’t get the court Fae here. They worked through others and never stepped foot on American soil … right?
“If we play our cards right,” Gooding murmured, pulling a small bottle from his duffel bag and popping the top off. The room flooded with a sharp, herby smell as he sprinkled a few drops onto the creature. The changeling’s monstrous face twisted into an awful grimace. It screamed, writhing in Arthur’s crib.
“I think you just pissed him off.” I dug through my own pockets for my handy tube of rock salt, perfect for angry fairies and the occasional bland pretzel in the school cafeteria.
“Saint John’s wort almost always works,” Gooding muttered thoughtfully. I shoved the salt at him and, just to be safe, retrieved the little packet of rowan ash I always tucked away in my jacket. Gooding emptied both over the crib.
The changeling’s wails grew louder with each unwelcome substance we dumped on it. I clapped my hands over my ears. Every cell in my body seemed to vibrate. Usually by now the offending fairies just hissed at us, maybe got in a good bite or two, then disappeared.
“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” Gooding boomed over the screeches.
Crap. The Lord’s Prayer was the Hail Mary of fairy hunting, the equivalent of throwing a flare in a bear’s face. Gooding had given up all pretense of knowing what else to do with this little beast.
Someone pounded on the door, but the baby’s inhuman screeches smothered the sound.
“Thy kingdom come,” Gooding shouted. “Thy will be done—”
The changeling cries beat harder, like a subwoofer at a metal concert.
Maybe we’d been wrong. Maybe this was a banshee, not a fairy. Bright blood trickled from one of Gooding’s ears, standing out against his tanned skin. With one shaking hand, he touched the blood and gaped. Gooding whirled around and yelled out something that was lost under the screeches. I couldn’t possibly hear him, but I could read his lips.
My favorite way to dispatch a little hellspawn. Of course, the Barnetts didn’t have a fireplace. So scarring Mrs. Barnett for life was officially on the agenda.
I pulled my hands from my ears and almost lost my balance as the full force of the little monster’s cries crashed into me like a tidal wave. I snatched the ugly thing up from the crib, eardrums throbbing. The changeling kicked and clawed at my arms, ripping right through the black denim of my jacket as I kicked the nursery door open and stormed past an alarmed Mrs. Barnett. The glass picture frames in the hall quivered from the monster’s piercing cry.
Gooding must have figured out where I was going because he raced past me into the kitchen, threw open the oven door, and spun the temperature knob to the highest setting. Here went nothing. Even though I knew it was a fairy and it was just going to end up back where it came from, part of me still felt like I was going to hell for this.
I hurled the changeling inside and slammed the oven door shut. The muffled screams sounded more like a wild animal than a child. The lights flickered around us.
I jumped back as a jagged fracture appeared in the glass of the oven door. If this didn’t work, we were going to have to evacuate Mr. and Mrs. Barnett …
The screaming stopped. For one horrible second, I thought I’d gone deaf. I held my breath, waiting. The Fae had to take it back now. It wouldn’t leave the changeling to die just to keep a human baby. Even they wouldn’t do that. Well, I had to check sooner or later.
Preparing myself for the very real possibility of baked fairy, I cracked open the oven door. The changeling was gone. My legs wobbled like jelly, but in a good way.
The door to the kitchen flew open, and in burst Mrs. Barnett. “What’s happening?” she gasped, her eyes wide and red. Yeah, this wasn’t going to help my reputation. “I-I heard a screaming … Where’s Arthur?”
A loud, shrill, human cry rang out from the nursery. Mrs. Barnett whirled around to stare down the hall.
Gooding swiped at the blood trailing down from his ear, somehow smiling. “I believe your son wants his mother.”
Mrs. Barnett turned and rushed down the hall. Within seconds, the child’s wails dissolved into distressed hiccups, then, at last, blissful silence. It was a happy-ending sort of night. Those were the best ones.
I stretched and rubbed at my scratched arms. I was going to have to put antiseptic on them. God only knew where that thing had been before it ended up in baby Arthur’s crib. At least I wasn’t as bad off as Gooding.
“How are your ears?” I asked.
Gooding glanced back at me and smiled incomprehensibly. “Good work tonight,” he said, patting my shoulder with his bloody hand.
Maybe I was a little punch-drunk, but I couldn’t help grinning up at him. “Think I’ll stop by the church on my way home,” I said, jerking my thumb at the door. “You know. Switch out the holy water with the tap. I doubt anybody’ll notice.”
“Yes, I think we both earned some good rest,” Gooding replied.
“I may also superglue all the hymnals to the backs of the pews. Nobody reads the words anyway.”
“I think so, too. And a cup of tea would be just the thing. You should make one, too, when you get home.”
He probably wouldn’t be good to take confessions for a while, but he was no stranger to injuries on the job. Sometimes I suspected he kept me around because I had an uncanny knack for avoiding little things like broken noses or split eardrums.
“I’ll get on that,” I said, slapping his arm cheerfully. “Take it easy.”
“Bryn.” Gooding caught my arm, his thin lips twisted into a grimace. “This activity’s been picking up. Soon it may spread to the rest of the town. You need to tell your family. Especially your brothers.”
The lingering adrenaline dried up, leaving behind a sick feeling. Of course. Gooding was never going to let that drop.
“When Jake and Ash demonstrate that they can change the toilet paper rolls, then maybe I’ll decide they can handle fairies.”
Gooding watched me, brows furrowed. Then, he pressed a hand to one of his bloodied ears.
Copyright © 2020 by C.M. McGuire