The Fairy King -1- The Queen of Woods and Meadows

Ethan makes friends in the new neighborhood,
including a tiny queen who wants him
as her replacement for

Part 1 - The Queen of Woods and Meadows

by Wanda Cunningham

Chapter 1

The Fairy Court

I looked out the picture window of our new living room and saw a lot of green. In the late summer of 1998, we had moved from the city up to the mountains and into the middle of a forest of pine trees. Well, the edge of a forest; at the end of the huge lot our new home occupied, a narrow black-top road wound further down the mountain to the state highway that led to the town of Pineview.

That's what I had right now, a view of the pines.

The new house had four bedrooms upstairs and a large den downstairs that Dad intended to use for an office. Mom planned to use a corner of the dining room for her writing and we would usually eat in the breakfast nook, just the three of us. The extra bedrooms would be for if we got company, like one of my brothers visiting or my sister coming home from college. One of the two extras was actually set up as Phoebe's room, full of all of her stuff she hadn't taken with her; she would be living there during holidays, probably.

I wasn't looking forward to that particularly, but at the moment anything would be better than looking at trees; even dealing with a sister who had turned the tormenting of little brothers into an art form.

We had moved for a variety of reasons. Mostly because the smog down in Los Angeles had begun to get to all of us but especially me. I kept catching colds and they kept turning into bronchitis and then pneumonia. I spent most of the seventh grade in the hospital and had almost flunked; summer school sucks but I finally caught up and had graduated eighth grade with the rest of my class.

Not that many of them noticed. I'm scrawny with hazel eyes and mouse-brown hair. I've been the shortest kid in class since the first grade, my cheekbones stick out and my chin doesn't.. My teachers only noticed me when I coughed and as for my classmates, well, better that most of them didn't notice me since it usually resulted in pain and suffering for me when they did.

A new school might mean that no one knew what an easy target a kid who can't run makes. On the other hand, the kids might just decide to pick on the new kid on general principles. In just over a month, October 5, I'll be fourteen and in three days, on Tuesday, September 3, I would be starting high school at Pineview/Mountain Home Union School, which had all the grades from K-12 all in the same school. Mom and I had gone down and signed me up earlier in the week. I didn't particularly look forward to starting school, but again, anything might be better than looking at trees that didn't even have squirrels or birds in them.

Dad's company had decided that they could do without him being actually in the office; if he came in at least once or twice a week, he could do most of his work anywhere. Dad designs sewage treatment plants. Being able to get out of the city, (even if his commute doubled in length, it halved in frequency), seemed very attractive to Dad.

Another reason we had moved was that Mom's writing had started paying off and a big bonus check made a nice down payment on the new place. She writes Romance Novels under the name of Vicki Bartlett, which is odd because that really is her name and I had always sort of thought that writers used pseudonyms to protect their identities; kind of like Superman pretending to be Clark Kent. So, she was in the dining room, trying to get started again on her latest book; her research stuff laid out on the big oak table and her new Macintosh with the gooseneck monitor waiting on her desk for her to start banging away at the keyboard or, at least, clicking the button on the mouse.

She claimed the novelty of living in the new house kept distracting her and she hadn't appreciated it when I had pointed out that since she was a novelist this should work out fine. I knew she wouldn't appreciate me complaining either, but I had a plan.

I stayed out of sight, so she wouldn't just invent some chore for me along with a lecture about how since Phoebe moved out she had to do all the housework or stand over dad and I to make sure we did it. I waited upstairs while she did all the moving things around and shuffling papers then I stood at the top of the stairs when I heard her start typing.

"Mom," I called out, "I'm bored."

"Well," she exclaimed, "for goodness sake, Ethan, go for a walk or something."

That was my plan, to get thrown out of the house so I could go exploring. "Take a jacket," Mom added. "It's after two and it gets cool here in the afternoon."

"Got one," I said, heading for the door.

"And don't go down to the highway, there's too much traffic and there's no where to walk."

"I won't," I promised. "I'm going over the hill behind the house. There's a market down the other side and they have comic books."

"Oh, you and your comics," she sighed then apparently had another thought. "That's a long walk and a steep climb to come back, Ethan?"

"I'll be okay, Mom. I'll stop and rest as often as I need to." I made it out the glass door into the little greenhouse garden porch on the south side of the house. She gave up trying to think of things to tell me and I made my escape. I've been sick so much that she tends to dwell on everything that can go wrong.

I went out the redwood gate and set out along the path behind the house. While it looks like there is no one living near us, actually several houses occupy our little hill, just with scads of trees screening them from each other. Paths from the backs of the lots all connect; one way the path leads on up the mountain, following the ridge. I didn't know what might be up there but the other way led down to a corner gas station, a mini-market and a trailer park on the edge of town.

The state highway turned into the Main Street of Pineview at the corner where Pineview Avenue crossed it. And there sat the Pineview Shell Station and The Pine View Market Liquor Deli. Mountaineers are so inventive; imagine putting a space between Pine and View to form a whole new name for something. Next to the market, where I hoped to find some comics if they actually carried any, the Pine Home RV-Park began and stretched along Pineview Avenue for about a quarter of a mile. Pine Home represented more inventiveness since along that road lay the town of Mountain Home about six miles away. I'd seen all this on the drive over to the school yesterday.

It felt good to be outside and even better to be breathing air that didn't make my nose and throat hurt. At just 2100 feet elevation, Pineview managed to escape the smog and yet the air wasn't so thin as to be a problem for me that way. I felt pretty good.

A person might think the Shell station would be visible from the path behind the houses at the very least, but in fact the trees grew too thickly to see more than glimpses of colors that were not green. I didn't worry about getting lost, the path looked pretty well-travelled and this really was the only safe way for people from the dozen or so houses on this hill to walk to town. On my left, occasional smaller paths led to big houses, like ours, built along the narrow mountain road.

On my right, the land fell away much more steeply for a hundred feet or so before sort of leveling off. Below the tree and brush-covered slope, a wide, slightly tilted meadow opened out. When Mom and Dad and I had been along this path a day or so before, Dad had suggested that deer probably came to graze in the meadow. This time, I paused to look at the postcard-like scene for a moment, stopping to sit on a rock.

That's when I heard the giggling.

It seemed to be coming from the brushy, ditch-like gully between the slope and the meadow. I sat very still and tried to see who might be making the noise. I hadn't really met any kids since we moved in, though the giggles sounded as if they might be made by a little kid rather than someone my own age, still it would be nice not to be completely surrounded by adults.

The giggles started and stopped and started again, it almost sounded as if someone might be playing a game. Finally, I saw someone, a girl who might be about my age, moving carefully and stealthily through the brush. I looked where she seemed to be looking and spotted the giggler, a younger girl, four or five years old probably. She crouched beside a large rock and seemed to be looking at something on the ground.

They dressed similarly, in jeans and long-sleeved pullover shirts and they both had dark blonde hair pulled back in pony tails, two on the little girl and one longer one on the older girl. I decided they must be sisters and that the bigger girl intended on sneaking up on her kid sister to give her a scare. Being the youngest in my family, I felt some sympathy for the little girl; I didn't think she had any inkling that her stalker had crept so close. She seemed absorbed in whatever had attracted her attention and continued to spark giggles.

I stood and called down the hill, "Hey! Hey! Little girl?" They both looked up at me for only a moment before springing into action. The bigger girl rushed out of hiding and made a grab for her sister, calling out, "Melody!" but the smaller girl had moved too quickly. The short chase ended when the bigger sister tripped over something and went sprawling head first into a large bush. Her giggling little sister, presumably named Melody, made good her escape, moving further up the gully before disappearing from my view.

I laughed and maybe even clapped my hands. The bigger girl scrambled back to her feet and glared up toward me, "Idiot! I've got to catch her and get her home before she gets lost! Mom's going to kill me if we're still out on the mountain when she gets home!" She stamped her foot at me and started off after her sister, calling again, "Melody!"

"Sorry!" I yelled down. "I thought you two were playing a game!"

"It's no game!" she yelled, still angry. "And if you are really sorry, you'll come down here and help me catch her."

I thought about it, the slope could probably be climbed down safely if done at an angle. And they might be neighbors, it would be good to get acquainted. Besides, she looked kind of cute. "All right!" I called. "Be right down!"

She looked up at me and started to say something but I had already started down what I thought looked like an angled path leading toward the group of rocks the little girl had been so interested in. I must have taken a misstep, it happened so suddenly. One moment I had been picking my way carefully down the path, the next, my motion turned into a headlong, staggering, out of control, downhill run.

I didn't run well, I'd been an asthmatic all my life and running and I just didn't get along. I probably expressed my terror in a scream. In fact, I'm sure I did.

The rocks at the bottom came up suddenly, I tried to steer around them, still screaming. I managed to jump over the first one and stumbled over the next couple, flat-out tripped over a medium-size one and knocked the wind out of myself pancaking onto a fairly big one. Just before the collision I thought I saw something very strange between the rocks. Then I just lay there gasping for a bit, trying to get my breath back.

I heard the laughter of the bigger girl, and the giggles of the smaller one as she emerged from her hiding place. To give them credit, they both rushed to my side to see if I were seriously injured. But besides their voices, I heard other sounds, like tiny voices crying out, first in alarm and then in amusement. For a moment I seemed to hear laughter like the tinkling of miniature bells.

"Don't I get to see birdies?" I gasped, trying to make a joke of it as the girls reached me. "I see the stars and hear the bells but I wanted birdies?" My voice sounded a bit odd, I'd bruised or bitten my tongue somehow though I didn't taste the metallic tang of blood.

"You idiot," said the bigger girl, kneeling beside me.

"You were funny," said Melody, still giggling.

I tried to roll over and sit up, but things weren't working that well yet. The bigger girl took advantage of the distraction I represented to nab her sister, grabbing Melody by the wrist and tugging her close. "Got you!"

"No fair," Melody protested but she didn't put up much of a fight, instead letting herself be pulled into a sisterly embrace. They both smiled down at me, looking very much alike and very cute.

"It's Ethan," I mumbled, wondering just a bit if I had damaged my clothes or myself in such a way as to require lengthy explanations to Mom. My tongue felt swollen and partly numb; stupidly, I stuck it out to try to get a look at the damage, crossing my eyes in the process.

The girls frowned at me.

I expanded on what I had said a moment ago, "My name, it's Ethan. Not idiot, despite the evidence." I grinned when they both giggled at that. I seemed to have acquired the smoothness to make slick jokes in adversity, which was better than making faces at pretty girls, at least.

"I'm Melody," said the little girl. "And you're funny."

Her sister laughed, "I'm Dorothy Hawthorne."

"Ethan Bartlett." I stuck out my hand.

She took it, still smiling and we simply clasped hands for a moment. I think I may have blushed first but we quickly let go when we both noticed how warm it had suddenly gotten. Melody promptly stuck out her hand and I covered my confusion about what had just happened between myself and Dorothy by giving little sister's hand a quick, gentle but emphatic shake. "Pleased to meet you, Melody," I said solemnly.

She giggled. Dorothy stood, keeping a hand on the potential runaway. "We're going to have to get home," she said.

I pointed up toward the ridge, "We just moved in up there, my folks and I. Number Nine, Pine Ridge Road?"

"Uh," Dorothy seemed reluctant. "We live down that way," she pointed vaguely toward the town.

"Number Forty-Two, Pine Home Park," Melody supplied.

"Shh!" her sister scolded. "Don't tell strangers our address!"

"Ethan's not that strange," said Melody. "He's just funny. And he told us his."

"Logical," I commented, grinning.

Dorothy rolled her eyes, "Don't encourage her, we can't invite you home. Um, I'm not allowed to bring boys to our place when Mom isn't home."

"I can!" said Melody.

"Boys your own age!" said her sister.

"How old are you?" I asked.

"I'm four," said the little girl, holding up one hand, fingers spread wide, thumb folded awkwardly to the palm.

"What a coincidence," I said. "I'm four, too."

"No, you are not," they both said, and I had to laugh.

"Yes, I am. If you add both numbers together," I teased.

Melody looked puzzled and Dorothy just rolled her eyes, "Thirteen, he means he's thirteen, Molly."

"Thought your name was Melody?" I asked.

"Uh-huh, but sometimes they call me Molly, 'cause she's Dolly."

I nodded. "Dorothy, Dolly, Melody, Molly, I get it."

"We've got to go," said Dolly, starting to pull her sister away. "Thanks for helping catch her."

"I catched myself," Molly protested. They both had big blue eyes, turned up noses and waist-length blond hair. And they were leaving.

I wasn't sure I could safely stand yet, so I just sat and watched while they made their way out of the rocky gully and into the meadow. Besides, I felt fairly certain that Dolly would measure four or five inches taller than me. When Molly looked back, I waved and she giggled and waved back. "Dolly," I called. "Do you go to high school here?"

"Yeah?" she answered. They were about midway across the meadow, probably heading for another path that they knew about.

"Good," I said. "Maybe I'll see you there on Tuesday."

"I doubt it," she called back before they disappeared into the brush and trees beyond the open area. "I'm six."

"No, you're not," I heard Molly say.

"But I like older women," I said to myself. I sat there a while longer, wondering if she were in the 10th grade and whether we might have some classes together even if I was only a 9th grader.

Then I tried to get up. I couldn't seem to move my butt, it was as if I'd been glued to the rock where I sat. At first this just puzzled me but very quickly I progressed to frightened once I had braced my tennis shoes against the rock to try to push myself off. and then I discovered that I couldn't move my feet either.

Maybe I've really hurt myself, I thought. I'd better call for help before the girls get out of earshot. I opened my mouth and then I kept it open while I stared at the apparition that had appeared between my feet.

She seemed to be all of eight inches tall, a woman dressed in a green and gold gown. Her hair was golden, too, a reddish blonde and it fell around her almost touching the rock she on which she stood. On her head she wore a tiny coronet, sparkling with jewels no bigger than pencil points. In her left hand she held a rod or sceptre or wand; I wasn't too sure of the correct terminology, partly because I had decided to doubt my sanity.

I couldn't be seeing what I thought I was seeing, therefore I must be out of my mind. Perhaps I had hit my head in my uncontrolled plunge down the slope. I might be lying on the ground bleeding inside my skull. Or maybe I'd already been taken to the hospital. I knew I had to be hallucinating because, behind the tiny apparition, a pair of shimmering arcs rose above her head. Wings.

She lifted her right hand and pointed at me. "I am Lady Tintabelle, Queen of these Meadows and Woodlands. And you, Ethan Bartlett, mortal, are the assassin of King Fritharic, my royal consort."

Dimly I realized that while I had been staring at Her Tiny Majesty, I had been surrounded on the rock where I lay by several dozen additional miniature beings. Many of them held swords no bigger than nail files but probably sharper and some of them had tiny bows loaded with silvery shafts about the length of ballpoint pens.

Something else had joined the tiny queen in front of me. It looked like a weasel dressed up to play Abraham Lincoln in the Mother West Wind Theatre. I decided I had been watching too many cartoons, a weasel in frock coat and top hat? I must have hit my head really hard.

"He must pay the penalty, Your Majesty, assassination of a Royal Person carries a sentence of death," said the weasel sounding remarkably, unbelievably, like the guy who plays James Bond.

"Now, wait a minute!" I exclaimed, struggling a bit to get myself off of the rock but it was no use, whatever held me where I sat would not yield to my struggles. "You're nothing but a pack of cards!" I shouted, in desperation.

That took them aback a little, literally; the weasel and the little fairy actually took steps backwards. "Do you think it is mad?" asked Lady Tintabelle.

"Yes, I'm mad!" I said. "I'm mad that you won't let me go, or at least let me wake up!"

"We'll have to have a trial, Duke Leandro," said the queen, looking slightly pleased. Somewhere I heard other murmuring voices, and a few titters.

"Do you really think that's necessary?" asked the weasel. "We all saw him do it, it's not as if there were any doubt that he's guilty." This time he sounded more like Eric Idle.

"There's the question of motive," said Lady Tintabelle, "and then, he's claiming to be mad, so we have to make a decision on whether we should allow the insanity defense."

"Insanity defense!" Now the weasel looked slightly hydrophobic. I tried to kick him but I could not do more than twitch.

"Mom!" I called out. "Mom! I'm having a nightmare, come wake me up!"

All the fairies giggled at that; the sound I had heard before, like tiny silver bells. And suddenly, I saw in my memory something I had barely glimpsed as I careened down the hill and leapt over rocks. A scene like out of a book of fairy tales; the little queen and her court gathered beside a small puddle of water. Tiny knights and ladies-in-waiting; the humanoid ones had irridescent wings sprouting from their backs; the animalistic ones, like Duke Leandro, wore human clothing.

And my foot coming down on a richly dressed frog wearing a crown. That was the last thought I had before hearing the twing of tiny bows and feeling the sting of the needle-like arrows.

Chapter 2

The First Wish

I woke up suddenly, in the act of trying to dodge the arrows. Something seemed partly wrapped around my body and I struggled with it and cried out. Then I fell out of bed.

I lay there on the hardwood floor of my bedroom in the new house, a bit dazed; the quilt and blankets in a puddle of multi-colored cloth on top of me. What the heck had just happened? Had I dreamed all of that?

"What in the world happened?" I heard my mother's voice just before she opened the door of my room.

"I was wondering the same thing?" I said. What day was it? Had I even left the house? Had I really met Dolly and Molly?

Mom laughed but asked, "Are you okay? You haven't fallen out of the bed in years." She came in and squatted beside me to feel my forehead. Why, I'm not sure; mother reflexes, I suppose.

"I'm okay, Mom," I said. "Just--a new bed, I guess?" I tested myself for broken bones and contusions. Everything worked. My dream memory of fairy bows and dead frogs kept trying to get my attention but I ignored it.

Mom pulled the bedclothes off of me and piled them back on the bed then helped me up. I didn't feel like I really needed that, though there had been times in my life where I'd been too weak to stand. "I'm okay," I said again. "In fact, I feel pretty good?" And I did. I felt really good, actually. Just confused.

Mom laughed. "Well, you look and sound fine, I guess you'll live."

"Is it morning?" I asked, a little inanely.

"Yes, dear," she said. "Saturday morning, August 31st, and it's just after eight; do you want some breakfast?"

"Uh, yeah?" I nodded as well but felt a little bit panicky. It couldn't have been more than 3 p.m. when--when I got shot full of fairy arrows; I had lost a big chunk of time. "When did I go to bed?" I asked.

"I'm not sure," Mom said, heading toward the door. "You came back with your comics; we had dinner and you went up to your room about seven. You seemed pretty tired from your walk, that's a stiff climb."

"I guess." I didn't really want to tell Mom about what I'd imagined happening; but the missing time did worry me. Something she had said came back to me, "I got comics?" I looked around as she left, still chuckling; Mom was in a good mood; the writing must have gone well last night.

Two comics lay on my desk, next to my computer; I went over and looked, curious because I didn't remember buying them and because I hadn't even known for sure if the little store carried comics. They weren't ones I usually bought, and it surprised me to think that a little convenience store in a small mountain town would even carry translated Japanese manga. Normally I only glanced at the manga titles and confined my purchases to more mainstream stuff. I took the comics and hid them under a stack of books and magazines; they weren't ones I wanted to have to explain to Mom and Dad what the storylines involved.

After breakfast, Dad left for the city; Saturday traffic being light going down the mountain, he decided to make that one of his days to join the rat race. Mom got her research material out again and I went back to my room to play computer games for a bit.

I couldn't resist, I surfed the web for some info on fairies, too. Way too much stuff to read it all, and most of it contradictory. I did find out that Tolkien's elves were really fairies but he used the e-word because the f-word had already come to mean homosexual. The tall handsome elves in Lord of the Rings seemed to have very little to do with the tiny, winged creatures I may or may not have encountered on a California mountain.

Did it really happen? I couldn't decide. Maybe I just banged my head on a rock and had hallucinations while wandering around in a daze and buying copies of two comics I didn't want anyone to find. I took those out and read them, too; pretty wild stuff involving magic and super-science and weird, slightly sexual themes.

By eleven, I was thoroughly bored again. I wondered, also, had I imagined Dorothy and Melody? That would be a shame though it might explain how easily I managed the conversational end of things. Normally, I can't think of anything at all to say around strangers, especially girls.

It hadn't always been that way; when I was younger we lived in a small neighborhood where all the kids my own age happened to be girls. But that caused me problems in school; I knew entirely too much about jacks and jumprope rhymes for my own good. That probably helped along the loner tendencies my nearly constant illnesses had fostered. I couldn't play with the girls anymore, too dangerous; and the boys didn't want me around, either.

Things had changed a bit in the last few years but missing most of the seventh and eighth grades hadn't helped. My grades were good now, after two sessions of summer school, I had officially graduated junior high with a B+ average. But while I felt good about that, I also felt socially retarded.

After moping around a bit, I managed to annoy Mom at lunch enough to get tossed out of the house again. Grinning a little at my cleverness, I headed along the little pathway, enjoying the day, the warm sun and the smogless air. I found the place where I had careened down the hillside and sat down on the rock where I'd been sitting when I first saw the girls.

Off to the north, or maybe east, across the meadow, I could see what looked like a junkyard and beyond that the aerials and satellite dishes and rooflines of the mobile homes in the Pine Home Park. Dolly and Molly lived there, in number 42. Unless I had dreamed them up.

I felt an irrepressible need to go and see, even if boys my age were not allowed to visit. But how to get there? I could walk on down the path to the gas station and then along the street to the entrance of the park, but Molly and Dolly had gone across the meadow. Presumably, there would be a back entrance to the place.

First, though, I wanted to see the spot where I had run into the rocks and dreamed up the little people who were more and more becoming phantasms in my mind. The only worry I had now was the lost hours; the Court of Queen Tintabelle just could not be real.

I made my way down the steep path to the meadow, sitting on my butt to slide through the steepest part so I wouldn't lose control and go running into the rocks again. I found the place where I had stepped in some mud but no signs of an assassinated frog king.

I laughed out loud to think I had still half-believed it might have actually happened, then I set off across the meadow along the path Dolly and Molly had taken.

The junkyard turned out to be surrounded by a chainlink fence topped with barbed wire. Very discouraging until I noticed a clear path leading to a hole in the fence. The hole was triangular, about four feet high and three feet wide at the bottom; it wouldn't be that hard to negotiate but the ragged ends of the broken chain link mesh would present some hazard.

I squatted down for a moment to consider this when a large yellow and black dog appeared from between two wrecked vehicles. He snuffled his way toward me, still on the other side of the fence for the moment. He wouldn't have any difficulty getting through the hole though, I reflected.

While I debated getting up and just walking away as if minding my own business, he flopped down in a small dusty pit about fifteen feet from the hole. He lay his chin on the edge of the pit and blinked his eyes at me, making one of those teeth-clopping sounds big dogs sometimes make.

He didn't seem particularly aggressive but that didn't mean he wasn't the proverbial junkyard dog put there just to guard things.

Beyond him and beyond the wrecks and piles of rusting metal, I could see an open gate that led into the mobile home park. So, this was the way Dolly and Molly had likely come. Still, Cerebus, here, was somewhat daunting. Yes, I know, it's Cerberus who guards the underworld but there is a comic book character named Cerebus the Aardvark, too. I thought I saw a resemblance and with only one head he couldn't really be Cerberus.

"Good dog," I said tentatively. He cocked an ear at me. "Nice dog," I added and he sat up a bit to get a better look at me. " I wish I knew what you were thinking."

"What are you up to, bub?" I heard a voice say and I looked around wildly to see where it might have come from and if someone had sneaked up on me from behind. No one in sight, though someone could have been lurking in the piles of junk or the tall bushes of the meadow. I glanced back and saw the dog looking around too, as if he had heard the voice also and wondered where it came from.

"Who said that?" I stood up to get a better look around.

"What are you looking for?" asked the voice.

I looked back at the dog. He had both ears cocked toward me now. This time it certainly seemed that the voice had come from him. "Did...?" But I didn't ask the dog if he had said something; that would have just been too silly.

Besides, he opened his mouth, made one of those clopping noises again and whined at me. The voice said, "You're making me nervous, bub."

And it definitely came from the dog.

He heaved himself out of the dust pit and ambled slowly toward the hole in the fence, tail waving amiably, head held forward, nose sniffing. "I don't know you," said the voice.

"Um, no," I replied. I felt idiotic, talking to a dog, but it seemed somehow rude not to answer.

The dog looked away from me. "Didn't think so," said the voice. It wasn't that the dog moved his lips when the voice spoke, he didn't do anything overtly un-doglike but unless Edgar Bergen was hiding in that old Buick behind him, the voice was coming from the dog.

The dog blinked and glanced at me then looked away again. His tail stopped wagging. "You keep staring at me like I've got three heads or something."

"Uh, sorry." I looked past the dog and tried to peer into the shadowy insides of the wrecked vehicles. "Nobody here but you and me, kid," the--dog!--reassured me.

"Okay, yeah, uh-huh. So, do you work here?" I asked inanely.

The dog waved his tail again and shook his head. "Nah, I'm just hanging around. Sometimes there are gophers or squirrels to chase and maybe deer to look at."

I felt dizzy and disoriented so I squatted down again. The dog and I looked at each other through the hole in the fence. The dog smacked his lips and the voice asked, "You hungry?"

"Uh, no? I just had breakfast an hour or so ago," I said.

The dog sniffed. "Eggs and toast with butter?"

"Uh, yeah, right."

"Must be nice," the dog looked a bit--envious? "All I ever get is that canned stuff in the morning and some of those kibbles at night."

"Well," I said. "You're a dog." My head felt buzzy and my mouth dry; I wondered dizzily if I would still have to go to school when they locked me up in the looney ward.

"Huh?" The dog turned his head suddenly and bit himself in the flank, as if trying to get at a flea. "Sometimes," he said, "people who want to get through the fence here bring me something? A piece of bread soaked in meat grease is so-oo good."

"Uh, right."

The dog grinned at me.

"So, well, I don't have anything this time, but, uh, next time? I'll remember to bring you something?" I couldn't believe this but it really seemed to be happening. It felt as if it would be even more insane to deny the reality of what was happening.

The tail wagged more enthusiastically, "Okay," the dog agreed.

Having made a bargain with the guardian of the gates, I crab-walked my way through the tear in the fence and looked around. It wasn't Hell but it did have a sort of feel of abandoned desolation to it. The unreality of the talking dog I tried not to think about. If I did, I'd be heading home and asking to go to the hospital.

But the conversation had just been so ordinary, except for the part of being with a dog. It didn't occur to me till much later to wonder why I didn't just chuck the idea of finding Molly and Dolly and go home and hide in the closet.

I walked between piles of old appliances and the hulks of stripped luxury cars and eventually through an open gate forty feet wide into the mobile home park. Cerebus walked alongside me, his tail still waving like we were old friends out for a stroll together. He stopped at the gate and barked once, looking straight at me. His narrator voice--why did I think it sounded like Bruce Willis?--said, "Don't forget the snack, next time."

"Okay," I agreed. I must have got a concussion yesterday, I decided. I shouldn't be walking around. I definitely shouldn't be talking to dogs.

Mobile homes of various ages and design were arranged in haphazard little rows among the pines, oaks and cedars of the park. Big double-wides with landscaping all around them seemed to occupy most of one side of the park while here closer to the junkyard sat smaller travel trailers and even a few motor homes. Concrete pads served for patios and little tongues of blacktop for carports.

I walked on down the middle of the little street until I heard Gilbert Gottfried ask, "Eh? So who are you?" I looked around, expecting to see--I don't know, a person or at least a dog.

It was a monkey. One of those white-faced little guys with the prehensile tail, the kind they always draw in cartoons. He looked at me, then away, then back. "You don't live here," he said. And no, his lips didn't move either.

It's one thing to talk to a dog in the privacy of a junkyard, it's entirely another to strike up a conversation with just any stray simian in the middle of a street with homes all around.

What was a monkey doing sitting on a picket fence in front of an old mobile home, anyway? "Hi, there," I ventured. "Do you live here?" I tried to keep my voice in that register you use to talk to things you don't expect to answer.

"Yeah, sure I do," said the monk, "at least, for a while." He wiped his face with one hand and bounced a bit on his heels. I saw the other hand gripping a wide leather strap attached to a canvas collar around his neck. The strap, or leash, ran from his collar to the trunk of a dead tree about fifteen feet behind the monk; it would probably be just long enough for the monkey to stand on the ground outside the fence if pulled completely taut. Right now it hung in a low arc from the monk's neck to the base of the tree.

I stepped a little closer, trying to look casual as if I wanted a closer look at the curious animal. He grinned at me, which I seemed to remember, in monkeys was a threat, not a sign of friendly intentions. "What's a little guy like you doing outside? It can get cold out here, you know?" I said.

"The missus tossed me out for making too much noise," he explained. "She's watching something on the box; I wanted to watch Animal Planet."

I held a hand out toward him and he held his out also, reaching for me. I moved close enough that we could just link fingertips comfortably without straightening our elbows completely. He looked up at me with a very serious expression. "You're someone special, ain't you?" he asked. "You understand me, I understand you. I mean, better than with most people?"

"Yeah," I agreed. "Maybe I am. I dunno, weird things have been happening. You seem like a bright little guy? I'm looking for two girls, named Molly and Dolly?"

He glanced down the street and squinted a little. "Yeah, I know them. A little one and a big one about your size? Down that way," he released my fingers to wave. "The blue trailer with the white awnings."

I saw the one he meant. "Thanks," I said. "And you are smart. Do they treat you okay here?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah, I guess so? I got to wear this noose when I'm outside all alone but mostly it's okay?" He picked at his eyebrow with finger and funny little thumb. "I've even got a coat and hat to wear when it gets cold? But me and the old man, my partner, we'll be moving to where it's warm before the real winter gets here."

"Getting acquainted with Bowser?" someone asked and I turned to see if a bluejay or a badger or maybe a baluchitherium had spoken. Instead I saw a tall boy walking toward us, what a surprise.

"Hi," I said. This guy looked a lot like the sort of kid who used to make things difficult for me back home. He was even tossing a football up between his hands, making it twirl and catching it again. He had dark brown hair on his head, the slight shadow that said he'd started shaving already and he even had hair on his arms. And jock written all over him in capital letters.

"Do Bowser," he commanded. I stared at him, baffled, but he gestured to indicate I should look at the monkey. The little beast was posing, scowling, miniature chin outthrust and right hand clenched, arm flexed. I still felt baffled but the pose looked familiar.

The boy grinned. "It's Bowser from Sha Na Na," he said.

"Who?" I asked.

"I don't know either, someone on the teevee," said the monkey. "Guy growls a lot."

"Guy from some old rock and roll band," explained the boy. "Hey, I'm Troy. Troy Clark. They call me T.C."

"Uh, hi. I'm Ethan Bartlett." We didn't shake hands. Troy stood six or eight inches taller than me and I didn't really want to give him a chance to get a hold. Besides, he had the football.

The monkey chattered like monkeys do; at the same time, saying in the voice that apparently only I could hear, "T.C.! T.C.! Gimme a nut, gimme a peanut, gimme a chip!"

T.C. laughed. "Old Bowser smells Fritos on me, I had a bag on the way back from practice. All gone, fella. Those things aren't any good for you anyway."

Bowser screamed and tried to lunge at T.C. but the leash caught him up short. "The sonoffa's holding out on me! Knock him down and I'll look in his pockets!"

T.C. laughed.

"Bowser," I said calmly. "He doesn't have any more, he ate them all."

The monkey stared at me. "You sure?"

"I'm sure." I nodded. T.C.'s pants were much too tight to conceal a bag of chips in the pockets, though I wasn't going to say that out loud.

The little monkey cursed, profanely and obscenely, but he stopped trying to attack T.C.

The tall boy laughed again, "He's a riot. He belongs to my Uncle Matt, they used to be in the carnival."

"Matt's my partner," agreed the monkey. "We're in show business."

I had to grin at that. I put out my hand and Bowser moved close enough I could scratch him under the chin.

"You're not afraid of him and he seems to like you. You visiting somebody?" T.C. asked, apparently having no intention of beating in my brains or tossing me on top of any roofs.

"Uh, we just moved in," I pointed up toward the hill. "I met a couple of girls from the park here yesterday and I...came over to see them?"

"Yeah?" said T.C. "What girls?"

"Dolly and Molly?" I said.

He laughed again. "How old are you?"

"I'll be fourteen in two months," I said.

"Yeah? You going to go to school here? Ninth grade?"

I nodded.

"Me, too. I was just at Frosh football practice." He grinned, twirling the football again..

Great. This moose was going to be a classmate "School doesn't start till next week," I said.

"Yeah, but we do football practice before school even begins. You play any sports?"

"Me? No." I may have actually shuddered at the thought. I don't think the organized mayhem that is intermural sports would appeal to me even if I had the health and physique for it.

He laughed again. "It's a small school, the coaches try to get everybody to go out for something. There's only fourteen guys going out for frosh football, we'll have to play in an eight-man league."

I had no idea what that meant so I just nodded.

T.C. looked me over and sighed. "Dolly lives down that way," he pointed with the football. "Number 42. Blue trailer. But she won't let you in, her mom sleeps days. You can talk to her over the fence."

"Okay," I said. "Thanks. Bye, Bowser."

The monkey waved at me and said mournfully, "Goodbye, Ethan. It was nice talking to you."

T.C. just laughed as I turned away and started toward the blue trailer. It seemed amazing that T.C. hadn't actually understood what Bowser said.

Chapter 3

The Second Wish

I actually made it to the blue trailer without encountering any more talking animals or football players. Molly was in the yard, looking much as she had yesterday. She waved at me as I got close. "Hey! Efan!" she called excitedly, "Efan's here, Dolly!" She ran to the door of the trailer to call inside then turned back toward me, jumping up and down in little kid enthusiasm.

"Hi, Molly," I said smiling at her. "It's me. Ethan."

She looked at me oddly. "I fought your name was Efan?"

"No, it's Ethan."



"That's too hard to say! Your name is Efan!" She grinned at me and repeated it several times. "Efan, Efan, Efan! That's a boy's name, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is," I agreed.

"It's too bad you're a boy. If you weren't, you could come over anytime and we could all be best friends and play!"

"Yes, Molly, I suppose I could and we would and wouldn't that be fun?" I said.

Molly sighed expansively, "There aren't any other girls in the park. Efan, I just wish you could be a girl so you could come over and be our friend and play with us."

I grinned at her but turned my head when I thought I heard something. Somewhere tiny bells were ringing--or maybe it was fairy laughter?

Molly danced around me and laughed but that wasn't the sound I had been hearing.

Dolly came out of the trailer and shushed her. "Molly, don't be any sillier than usual. And try to be quiet. Mom's asleep, you know?"

Molly nodded. "She works nights," she confided in me. "And she never wakes up before it's time to get ready no matter how much noise I make outside!" She stuck her tongue out at her sister.

I laughed.

Dolly smiled and ruffled the little girl's hair. "What are you doing here, Ethan? I told you that I'm not allowed to have boys over."

"Uh, well..." I began. One problem had become immediately apparent now that we were both standing up. Dolly lacked only an inch or so of being as tall as T.C. At fifteen, she was already taller than my mom. The quick wit and easy conversation I had yesterday had evaporated. "I just wanted to see where you lived," I said lamely.

Dolly frowned, glancing around at the aging trailers and the cracked blacktop between them. I realized that she might be a little embarrassed about where she lived.

Molly piped up. "I wishded that Efan was a girl so she could come over and play with us ever' day."

Dolly just sighed and looked at me aplogetically.

I glanced around a little nervously. I heard the bells again and they seemed closer. My insanity seemed about to break from a trot into a full blown gallop. One of the scrubjays common to the area gave me the eye from the branch of a sycamore. The leaves, prematurely gone all golden, made a beautiful picture with the blue feathers of the bird. A squirrel on a nearby limb seemed to be admiring the bird too. It struck me that if someone had painted such a thing it might have become famous. The colors gleamed so vividly, like a drum solo or the smell of brownies baking or the way a snake feels when you expected it to be slimy.

The air had a crystalline quality and the greens of the pines on the mountain seemed to leap at me, suddenly appearing to be close enough to touch.

"Are you okay?" I heard Dolly ask.

"I don't know," I confessed, staggering a little and catching myself against the fence. "I've felt a little odd since I hit my head yesterday."

The jay flew down from the tree and perched on the fence about six feet from me. "You've been summoned by the queen," he piped.

I shook my head. "What?"

"I didn't say anything," Dolly said.

"Lookit the bluejay!" squealed Molly.

I looked. It was a bluejay I saw, a real one, little pointy topknot as blue as a crayon. The local scrubjays don't have topknots and are not quite so blue. "Greetings, Ethan Regicide, thou art summoned to the queen," the foreign jay said more pompously.

Regicide? I'd have to look that word up but I whispered, "Where?" My heart began hammering so loud I almost couldn't hear his reply.

"By the pond, thou knowest. Within the half hour." The bird paused to preen himself, dropped ballast on the white board atop the fence, then lifted into the air, squawking like the miniature painted crow my dad says all jays really are.

"Funny bird," said Molly. "He was at the party."

"What party?" her sister asked.

"Only, he was wearing a jacket then," Molly explained. "A yellow one with three buttons."

"I've got to go," I gasped. I let go of the fence and turned to leave, and kept on turning, spinning myself down into a sort of yoga position. I felt not just dizzy but suddenly weak and unable to stand.

Dolly came out through the gate to help me up, "You can't go anywhere! You're sick."

I didn't feel sick, at least not in any of the usual ways. Besides the weakness, I felt a little lightheaded and more than a little confused. Talking animals, fairy bells, friendly football players, pretty girls who were taller than me--it all seemed a little unreal. "I'm okay," I said when Dolly had helped me to get vertical.

"No, you're not!" she said fiercely.

That surprised me, why should she care? "I'll be fine. I have to go."

"You're not going anywhere right now. Hold the gate open, Molly," she ordered. I couldn't seem to resist, she tugged and pulled and pushed and my feet went where she wanted. I ended up on the patio beside the blue trailer. We sat down in a pair of redwood chairs there, she by choice and I by direction. "Sit down."

I sat. I wanted to say, "Yes, ma'am," but I was half-afraid she might think I was smarting off. When I smarted off to my mom, I got chewed out but getting sarcastic with my sister was likely to cause knots to grow on my head. I squinted at Dolly and wondered if she were the sort who would hit you for saying an ink smear on the cheek was an improvement.

She grinned suddenly. "You're not faking this just to get onto the patio?"

"Uh, no? I--I don't know what happened. Just I suddenly felt, well, like I should be going then I guess I turned around too fast?"

She looked at me seriously. "Are you sick a lot?"

I shrugged.

"Mmm, hmm." she said. Now she sounded like my mom.

We sat there for a moment more. I had half an hour to reach the pool to meet the queen. The queen of fairies? I closed my eyes and tried to convince myself that I had imagined all of the happenings with the fairies and the animals. It wasn't working so I opened my eyes.

"Shhh," said Dolly. She pointed to where Molly had apparently coaxed a squirrel down from one of the pine trees.

"He thinks I've got a nut," Molly whispered and I could see her holding her fingers together as if she were offering a treat. I almost believed the squirrel had been fooled until he spoke.

"Audible tells me you're going to be the new King of the Fairies," said the little gray rodent. "Pleased to meet you, Your Future Majesty!"

"What?!" I squeaked.

The squirrel flinched but didn't retreat. He regarded me from the edge of the patio, ignoring Molly only a few feet away. "Call me Nick, sire. That's short for Nicafekanichinechichinicnick."

I must have made another noise. "Don't scare it away," said Dolly. Sirens were going off inside my head and some of those Fourth of July fireworks that are just a boom loud enough to make your teeth hurt and she wanted me to be quiet. I tried to sit up straighter, I tried to make sense of what had been happening but I remained too weak for the first and too sane for the second.

Molly reached toward the squirrel and Dolly warned her not. "He might bite, just look at him and don't try to touch."

"At your service, Your Betrothed Highness," said the rodent and he made a little squirrel bow, bobbing his head two or three times.

"I don't want him to leave," Molly whispered in a tight voice. "He can stay and I can get him some popcorn."

"Nick," I said, I'm not sure why.

"Yes, Your Consortship?" said the squirrel.

"What did you say?" asked Dolly.

"His name is Nick," I muttered.

Molly looked up. "Nick? What kind of name is that for a squirrel?"

"Uh, it's short for Nicafekanichinechichinicnick."

The girls giggled. Nick glanced at them. "I'm pleased to meet your other ladies but they do not understand squirrelish, do they?"

I shook my head. "Do you like popcorn, Nick?" I asked inanely.

I swear the squirrel nodded. "Oh yes, when I can get it but it doesn't keep as well as pine nuts."

"He likes popcorn!" Molly squealed so loudly Nick, Dolly and I all three jumped.

"Yes, he does," I said. Dolly grinned at me and Molly looked up with a shining face.

"Is there anything you require of me, Your Fortunate Grace?" asked the little gray fellow.

"I'll go make some popcorn!" said Molly, jumping up.

"No, you won't," warned Dolly. "I'll do it. Would you like some popcorn, Ethan?"

"I..." I couldn't get my brain around the two separate conversations fast enough. And I didn't want to look like an idiot by talking to the squirrel in front of people who could not hear his Martin Short-like voice. I rubbed my eyes and temples gingerly but the world refused to become normal again.

Dolly headed inside. Molly looked at me sideways. "Ask him if he wants to invite other squirrels 'cause when we make popcorn there is always lots!"

Of course, Molly would see nothing odd in my talking to the squirrel. I relaxed a bit. "Nick, Dolly is going to make some popcorn, and Molly says you can invite other squirrels to come and share as there will be plenty."

Molly giggled and clapped her hands.

"Very well, thank you," said Nick. "I'll tell the clan." He started back toward the tree then stopped. "But I wanted to talk to you, Your Future Majesty, about the cat. When you have the time." Then he dashed away, going back up into the pine boughs, chittering audibly and calling in squirrelese to his family members "Windfall, fellows! Jaqichekachikanicanichinic! Rickafeknekafechinichinicnick! Run and tell your uncles in the oak tree!"

I decided I'd better leave before all the squirrels in the trailer park showed up looking for handouts. Dolly couldn't stop me this time and my strength seemed to have returned. I got out of the chair and out the gate quickly. "You'd better make lots of popcorn," I told Molly. "Nick went to get his cousins!"

"Yay!" she squealed and ran to tell Dolly the news.

"Sorry!" I called back. I left before she could answer. I knew I had to find the Fairy Queen and get some answers.

Bowser wasn't on the fence anymore but T.C. was standing in the same yard, throwing the football up into the limbs of the dead tree and catching it as it tumbled back out. Typical moronic behavior for a jock I figured but for some reason I slowed down. Something seemed different about him now and I couldn't figure out what it might be.

If anything he looked even more muscle-over-brains than before. With the world knocked off its axis, why not? He caught me staring at him and waved. "Hey! Wanna toss the ball around some? The tree is a butterfingers and can't throw worth a shit!"

I felt my face turn hot, I was blushing and that baffled me even more. I shook my head. "I've got to go," I said, intending to hurry on past him.

He kept grinning. Normally a look like that on the face of one of the jock heads at my old school would have meant I was about to receive a beating. But now I found myself smiling back at him. He looked--interesting, somehow. And what the heck could be so interesting about a big, muscular, football player with nearly-black hair, dark brown eyes and dimples?

"I've got to go," I repeated, desperately trying to ignore the strange heat and tingling I felt when he looked at me. His eyes seemed magnetic and I couldn't look away from them.

"See you in school, next week," he said. "Or sooner?"

"Maybe," I mumbled and scurried past his yard. "Bye, T.C." I almost tripped from walking nearly backwards.

"Um, yeah. Bye--Eaton?" He grinned hugely.

Close enough, I didn't correct him. I managed to break the spell or whatever it was and turned away from him. Right at that moment, I looked forward to another encounter with Cerebus the Watchdog.

I went out the backgate of the trailer park, into the junkyard, looking around carefully for its unofficial guardian. I found him asleep in the dustpit he had dug near the old Buick. Remembering the old saying, I let sleeping watchdogs lie and tried to make my way out through the rip in the fence as quietly as possible.

It seemed easier, less of a strain, to duckwalk through the gap this time. When I stood up on the other side, I heard Bruce Willis say, "Remember, you owe me next time." I looked back, but the big yellow and brown animal still appeared to be sleeping.

"I'll remember," I whispered. Then I walked quietly into the meadow behind the junkyard and, as soon as I dared, started running for the rocks where I had met the Queen of the Fairies.

to be continued

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