Lois Cloarec Hart
“Hey, hon, have you seen my reading glasses?” Annie had been searching for her reading glasses for over twenty minutes.
Her wife, Pam rounded the corner from their bedroom. “Aren’t they on your laptop? That’s where you always leave them.”
Annie shot her an exasperated look. “If they were on my laptop, wouldn’t I have them by now?”
“I’m sure you’ll find them, dear. You always do.”
Pam tucked in her shirt and put her arms around Annie. “I know you’re stressed, love, but you have to quit worrying. You’ve had ‘writer’s block’ before. You always work through it eventually. Just watch, you’ll come up with a new idea any day now and be on fire again before you know it. In the meantime, be gentle with yourself, okay?”
Annie yielded to her wife’s embrace and felt marginally better for the encouraging words and warm kiss. “I know you’re right. I’m just pushing too hard. “The problem is that I’m supposed to have the first draft completed within five weeks, and barely anything of what I’ve written so far is worth keeping.”
“Is that your editor’s deadline, or a self-imposed one?”
“Then why don’t you give yourself the day off, maybe just do some reading or something.”
Pam smiled and pulled away. “Which means you’ll be at the computer trying to write two minutes after I’m gone.”
Annie chuckled. Her wife knew her well. “Hey, thanks for bringing the pumpkin home last night. It’ll save me having to carve one today.”
“Sure, no problem. The drawback of being a children’s hospital means parents bring so many pumpkins in at this time of year that it overwhelms the wards. An e-mail went around yesterday that anyone who wanted to could take a jack-o-lantern home. I snagged this one from the third floor when I went up to talk to Connie. By the way, she and Jess accepted our invitation to come to dinner next Saturday.”
“Oh, that’s great. I haven’t seen them since they got back from England. Tell Connie I’m looking forward to hearing all about their trip.”
“I will. I did mention that we enjoyed the photos she posted.” Pam glanced at her watch. “Oops, gotta go, love. I’m running a little late, and you know the admin office would fall apart without me.”
Pam gave Annie another quick kiss and grabbed her briefcase. “I’ll try not to be as late tonight, but you might want to have the candy out by six. You know the younger trick-or-treaters like to start early, before it gets totally dark.”
Annie waited until the door closed behind Pam before resuming her search for the missing glasses. She finally gave up and retrieved her older, back-up pair from the desk.
Back in her easy chair, Annie picked up her computer tray from the floor. She pressed the power button on the laptop and instinctively reached for the mouse. Her hand settled on emptiness.
What the hell?” Annie peered over the edge of her chair to see if she’d accidentally dropped the mouse on the carpet the previous night when she’d shut down. When the mechano-rodent failed to appear, she thrust her hands down the sides of her chair. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d lost it that way. But the only thing that met her groping fingers was a long forgotten nail clipper.
“So that’s where that went. I haven’t seen that thing in months.” Annie’s momentary satisfaction vanished as she continued her search.
“For crying out loud, what is this? Some kind of Halloween prank: ‘Let’s tease the nearsighted writer by taking her tools?’”
Even as she uttered the words, Annie knew it would’ve been radically out of character for her sober minded partner to play a practical joke. She doubted that Pam had ever pulled a prank on anyone, let alone one that was apparently designed to drive her wife crazy.
“Unless she’s gas-lighting me.” Annie shook her head at the ridiculous notion. She and Pam had recently celebrated a quarter century of joyful union. Pam was not about to morph into a villainous Charles Boyer. “And I’m sure no Ingrid Bergman.”
Annie took off her glasses and patted her stomach reflectively as her gaze scanned the living room. “Since it’s not her, it’s got to be me. If I get any more absent-minded, I’m going to forget where I live.”
Something moved in the periphery of her vision, and Annie looked at the jack-o-lantern Pam had placed on a stand in front of the picture window. She frowned as she studied the innocuous squash. Nothing.
“Huh, guess I’m seeing things too.” Annie was about to rise to continue her search when the lid of the jack-o-lantern shifted.
With a shriek, Annie erupted out of her chair. Still holding the laptop tray, she jumped halfway across the room with her eyes fixed on the pumpkin. She knew she’d seen it move as surely as she knew she was standing in her living room.
“Oh my God, is that a freaking mouse?” The thought of an actual live rodent taking up residence in their jack-o-lantern was almost enough to send a very squeamish Annie running for the door. She didn’t do bugs or rodents. That was Pam’s department.
Trembling, Annie set her laptop on the couch and backed against the wall. She could call Pam for help. Her wife wouldn’t be at work yet, and it wouldn’t take Pam long to return home.
Annie bit her lip as she imagined the exasperated look on Pam’s face. Pam hated to be late for work.
“Maybe Jeffrey would come over.” She shook her head at the idea as soon as she said the words. Their next door neighbour had just come off a stretch of nightshifts, and from what Jeffrey’s wife Gloria said the previous day, it had been a tough week for the EMT. Annie couldn’t in good conscience bother him either.
Drawing a deep breath, Annie prepared to make a rush for the kitchen to grab whatever defensive tools she could find—thick oven mitts and a rolling pin were tops on her list. But she froze as the pumpkin lid shifted again; this time it moved sideways at least two inches.
Annie held her breath. Her knees trembled as she waited for a rodent’s head to pop out. When something did emerge, her legs gave way and she slid to the floor.
A winged creature crawled out of the cavity and onto the lid of the pumpkin. For one wild moment Annie thought it was an oversized moth. But the tiny creature leaned back against the stem with its delicate legs crossed in very human fashion and nonchalantly nibbled on a piece of pumpkin.
“What’s gas-lighting?” a voice tinkled through the silence.
Annie blinked in amazement.
The apparition scowled at her; the expression appeared comical on the miniature face. “Mommy says it’s rude to ignore questions.”
It was like listening to far-away chimes sounding on the wind, though Annie could hear the creature’s words distinctly. “Uh, gas-lighting?”
It nodded. “I don’t know what that is.”
“Um, do you know what movies are?” Have I fallen asleep? Am I dreaming this? Annie surreptitiously pinched herself, unable to believe she was engaged in a conversation with...whatever this was.
The faerie-like creature snorted. “Of course I do. They play movies at Mommy Flea’s work, and she lets me and my brothers watch when we’re waiting for her to finish up. Saving Nemo is my absolute favourite. Sometimes Mama Nem says I watch too much. She says they give me ideas, but I have ideas even when I don’t watch movies so I don’t think that’s right.”
“Okay...well,” Annie blinked rapidly to assure herself that it was still there, then took a deep breath and continued, “gas-lighting is a term from an old movie called Gaslight. It means to try to make someone question things that really happen by making them doubt their own sanity.” Like right now.
“Oh.” She—for Annie was now quite certain the little creature was female—tilted her head as she considered the concept. “So when I try to convince my brothers that they don’t really smell fresh cookies so I can have them all, I’m gas-lighting them?”
“Sort of, but not really. It’s more like if they noticed the cookies then somehow you made the cookies vanish so they didn’t see them the next moment, then you’d be gas-lighting them. You’d be making them doubt they’d ever seen them at all.”
From across the room Annie could see the mischievous grin emerge on the little faerie’s face. “Um, look—who are you? And what are you doing in our pumpkin?”
“My name is Phleam. What’s your name?”
“Annie. Did you say your name is Phlegm?”
The faerie scowled. “No. Not Phlegm. Phleam. It’s actually Phleamidaelia, but hardly anyone calls me that.”
“Sorry, it sounded like phlegm to me.”
Indignantly Phleam began to beat her wings and rose several inches above the pumpkin as she stared angrily at Annie. “I know what that means. I thumped my brothers when they called me that, so you take it back.”
Annie started to laugh at the absurdity of something the size of her thumb threatening her. Then she sobered as she realized she had no idea what this tyke could do. The situation was surreal in the extreme. “I’m sorry. That was disrespectful of me. Phleam is a lovely name. Were you named after a relative?”
Mollified, Phleam drifted down to resume her seat on the pumpkin. “Great-aunt Phleamidaelia. She’s Mommy Flea’s favourite relative.”
Annie hesitantly made her way back to her chair and took a seat, eyeing Phleam as she considered possibilities, including that she’d gone insane. “That’s nice. So, uh, how is it that you came to be in my living room?”
Phleam looked around the room with a puzzled expression. “I don’t know. I went to visit Mommy at work after school. But she was really busy and told me to go watch TV with the children in the hospital sunroom until she was done. I did what she said, but they were watching that show How to Train Your Dragon, and it was just plain stupid. All that silly stuff in there, that isn’t how you train a dragon at all. So I went exploring until I got really tired. I lay down for a nap, and the next thing I knew, I woke up here.”
“Did you by any chance lay down inside a pumpkin for your nap?”
“Uh huh. I like pumpkins. They’re very comfortable, they smell good, and when you’re hungry, you can eat your bed.”
“That solves that mystery.” But doesn’t explain a thousand other things. “My wife accidentally brought you home last night. I guess I’d best drive you back.”
“No need. Mommy and Mama will come for me. They always do.”
“They do, eh? Do you go missing a lot?”
“Yes, have you disappeared on them before?”
Phleam bit her lip and studied the curled toes of her shiny slippers. “Sometimes I like to go exploring.” She looked up indignantly. “Why would I have wings if I wasn’t meant to use them?”
Annie grinned. She suspected her tiny visitor had used that argument before. She wondered if it was effective with her parents. “I imagine your mothers would prefer you use your wings for exploring only when you’re with them.”
Phleam gave an exaggerated groan. “But they’re always busy, and we never go anyplace fun.”
“What do your parents do?”
“They’re Guardians at the children’s hospital. Mommy Flea is the Third Floor Guardian and Mama Nem is the Head Guardian for the whole place. They look after the sick kids and the people who take care of them.”
Annie could practically see Phleam’s little chest puff up with pride in her parents.
“I’m going to be a Guardian some day, too.”
“I’m sure you’ll be a very good one. Look, Phleam, on a whole different subject, you wouldn’t by any chance have seen my glasses or computer mouse, would you?”
Phleam looked at Annie sheepishly. “I wasn’t going to steal them. I got bored and I just wanted to play with them. Mama Nem won’t let us touch things when we visit her at work.”
A very good rule to follow in any environment. Annie smiled encouragingly. “I understand, but I do need both of them to do my work today.”
“Okay.” Phleam dangled her feet over the inner edge of the lid that sat askew and slid inside.
Before Annie could move, she saw her glasses emerge from the jack-o-lantern’s mouth. Phleam flew out the top and around to the front where she tugged the glasses free.
Though the glasses were far bigger than Phleam, she carried them with apparent ease as she flew to Annie and settled on her thigh. Annie opened her hand, and Phleam nudged the glasses onto her palm. The spectacles were smeared with pumpkin goo and seeds, but Annie was grateful to have them back. Phleam returned to the pumpkin while Annie cleaned and polished her glasses. She brought back the mouse, and Annie set it on the side table as she settled her glasses firmly on her nose.
Finally Annie could see her extraordinary companion with clarity. If Annie had thought about faeries at all, she’d imagined something like Tinker Bell, but Phleam didn’t resemble her cartoon forebear in the least. She was as delicate and finely formed as a miniature porcelain figure. Phleam had dark eyes, shiny silver hair, and crystalline wings. Annie itched to pick Phleam up for a closer look, but didn’t want to frighten her, or be rude.
“Phleam, it’s not that I’m not glad to have met you—I’m very glad you dropped by—but won’t your parents be worried about you?”
Phleam’s toe toyed with a loose thread on Annie’s pant leg, and she grabbed her wings nervously and wrapped them about herself. “Noooo. They won’t be worried.”
“Yes, we were.”
Before Annie could react, the air shimmered before her. Two larger faeries materialized and floated down beside Phleam. One of the faeries wrapped her arms and wings around Phleam. She spoke to her daughter in a language Annie didn’t understand, but the tone was universal. Phleam was in the doghouse.
The other faerie regarded Annie steadily. This was the parent Phleam most resembled, at least in appearance. Annie met the faerie’s gaze without flinching.
“I trust our daughter has not been bothering you?”
Annie resisted glancing at the pumpkin, which might well hold other pilfered baubles.
“No, not at all. I’ve enjoyed our conversation. I hope you haven’t been too frantic about her.”
Annie was amused when the faerie did a classic eye roll that would have done any human parent proud.
“She takes after her Mommy Flea. This is not the first, nor will it be the last time she’s gone exploring on her own. Your world fascinates and lures our Phleam. We only hope she will temper her wanderlust with discretion as she matures.”
“I am so mature, Mama.”
Annie covered a smile at Phleam’s protestation.
“Mature juveniles do not cause their families to spend all night searching for them. You had every Guardian in the hospital out looking for you, Phleam. I can tell you right now, you won’t be going anywhere, including the Halloween party, for the next two weeks.”
Phleam’s eyes filled with tears. “But Mama...”
“Respectfully, if I might interject,” Annie broke in, “in fairness to your daughter, she didn’t deliberately leave the hospital. She wound up here accidentally. Phleam lay down for a nap in the pumpkin my wife brought home last night. Pam didn’t know there was anyone inside.”
“Well, she wouldn’t have, since adult humans can’t typically see us. Is this true, Phleam?”
“That does make a difference, Nem,” Flea observed. “And I did instruct Phleam to go to the sunroom. There’s no way she could’ve known that the pumpkin she napped in would end up miles away, and you know how soundly she sleeps.”
Annie almost laughed aloud when Nem shot Flea the same look of exasperation that she’d given Pam that morning.
“You always take her side, Flea.”
Nem turned back to Annie. “Our firstborn can do no wrong in my wife’s eyes.”
“Perhaps it’s because she looks so much like you.”
A silvery laugh from Flea underscored Annie’s point, and Nem couldn’t help but smile.
“Alright, we’ll talk about it later.”
“Does that mean I can go to the Halloween party, too, Mama?”
“We’ll see, Phleam. But first we have to deal with this situation.”
Nem regarded Annie with some puzzlement. “I’m not sure why you are even able to see and hear us. I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered an adult who had that ability. Usually even children lose the perception by age six or seven.” She shrugged. “No matter, though, I’ll just erase this whole encounter from your memory, and we’ll be off.”
“Whoa, what do you mean you’ll erase my memory? I don’t want you messing with my mind.”
“Mama, I want to come back and visit Annie.”
“Out of the question.”
“Nem, it’s not out of the question. You know full well there have been faerie-human friendships before.”
“They’re rare for a reason, Flea. Do you really think our daughter is mature enough to handle such a bond?”
“I am, Mama, I swear it.”
Nem studied Phleam, still standing in the shelter of Flea’s arms.
Annie could see the troubled look on Nem’s face.
“We could establish a bridge thread between here and the hospital, and allow Phleam to follow it only when we give her permission.” Flea shot a pointed look at her daughter.
Nem shook her head at Flea’s suggestion, but Annie thought it was more reflexive rather than rejection.
After a long moment, Nem turned to her.
“What about you, Annie? How do you feel about accepting our daughter as a friend? You would never be able to speak of such a friendship, even to those you love, for none would believe you.”
“A friend, a faerie friend? I’m not...well, I guess I’m not sure what that means.”
“Do you not understand the concept of friendship?”
“Of course, but my friends and I do things like have a barbeque and watch the game with a couple of beers. I doubt Phleam would be interested in that.”
Annie smiled as Phleam wriggled out of her mother’s arms and piped up. “Yes I would.”
“If we are to allow this to proceed, you must swear you will keep our daughter safe while in your world. Do I have your promise?”
Annie was suddenly struck by what she was being offered. She had no idea how old Phleam was on a faerie scale, but she seemed very young. If her parents, powerful with the magic and mystery of their existence couldn’t keep Phleam in line, what hope would she have.
“I’ll be good, Annie, I promise. Please can I come back and visit? Please?”
Annie looked at Phleam, who broke from Flea’s embrace and ran forward on her thigh. Without thinking, she offered an open palm and Phleam crawled onto it. Annie sensed how tense her little friend’s parents were as she carefully raised her palm up until she and the faerie child were face to face.
“I’m a writer, Phleam. I don’t exactly live a very exciting life most of the time. Are you sure you want to spend time with me?”
“Uh huh. We don’t have to do exciting things, Annie. We don’t even have to leave here. I just want to talk to you.”
Faerie and woman studied each other for what felt like an eternity.
Annie realized it was as unique a situation for Phleam as it was to her. Acceptance would mean an unprecedented opportunity for communication between their worlds. Finally Annie nodded.
“You are most welcome in my home, Phleam. But you must be careful to come only when I’m here alone, alright?” Because Pam already thinks I’m crazy when she hears me muttering to myself.
Phleam jumped up and down in excitement. “Yes!”
She spun around and leaned over the edge of Annie’s hand, looking down at her parents. “Annie said yes, so is it okay?”
Nem and Flea looked at each other, then at Phleam.
Nem answered. “For now, yes. We’ll see how it goes. If you behave yourself, we’ll allow it, but if you misbehave...”
Nem trailed off. Annie hoped it was just a stock parental warning, but the threat of having her memory washed lingered in the back of her mind.
Flea beckoned to their daughter. “Come, Phleam. We need to get back to the hospital and let everyone know you’ve been found.”
Phleam flew back to Flea’s side and took her hand.
She waved enthusiastically to Annie, and as they faded from sight, Annie heard her say, “Do you know what gas-lighting is, Mommy? I do. It’s all about cookies…”
Nem took Phleam’s place on Annie’s palm. “I don’t believe in accidents, Annie. I think our daughter came to your home for a reason. I don’t know what that is yet, but I’m willing to give it a chance.” She walked forward until she stood on Annie’s wrist. “Like her mommy, Phleam has a tendency to be impulsive, but also like her mother, she works from a core of pure love. Cherish her, and your friendship will benefit you both.”
Nem knelt and touched Annie’s skin.
Annie felt a deep, warm penetration, and saw a brilliant glow momentarily surround her wrist.
“If you ever need Flea or me, simply tap this spot three times and one of us will appear.” Nem stood and shot Annie a wry look. “Call it a failsafe, in case my headstrong daughter manages to get into trouble.”
“Will she be safe in my world?” As much as Annie wanted the opportunity to get to know Phleam better, she couldn’t bear the thought of any harm coming to her tiny, delicate friend.
“Despite appearances, our people are strong and resilient. We have defences against your world, and our young mature swiftly. I’ve known since Phleam was born that she was created with a purpose. I think it’s a possibility that she is meant to be a bridge between our worlds. In finding you, she may have found her destiny. The fact that you are uniquely able to see and hear us confirms to me that you are the other half of that destiny.”
“Whoa, wait a minute. What exactly do you expect from me?”
“To teach Phleam about your world—all parts of it. As she grows, she will need to learn about the bad along with the good. You’ll know what to teach her, and when. In turn, she will teach you about our world. For now, that will be enough.”
Nem spread her wings and lifted off Annie’s hand. “We will speak again.”
Before Annie could ask any of the thousand questions ricocheting in her mind, Nem vanished.
“Wait!” Annie raised her hand to tap on her wrist, then let her hand fall away. She didn’t want to abuse the gift Nem had left her simply because she had questions—many, many questions. She sensed that time with Phleam would ultimately erase her confusion.
Annie sat for a long time and puzzled over the morning’s events. Then, with a smile, she wiped off her mouse, picked up her laptop tray, and opened a new file.
Annie closed the front door on two goblins and a princess, just as she heard Pam come in from the garage.
“Hi, hon. I’m in here.”
Pam greeted Annie with a kiss, then glanced in the bowl of candy. “Have we had that many trick-or-treaters already?”
“We’ve had quite a few, but I may have sampled one or two along the way.”
Pam grinned and brushed her fingers over Annie’s lips. “My sweet chocoholic. So, how did the writing go today?”
“Brilliantly. Actually, I started in a whole new direction.”
“Really? You abandoned the mystery series? But those books have done so well for you. Your fans can’t wait for the next one to come out.”
“I know, but I had this inspiration and I have to follow it.”
“Good for you. So, what are you writing then? More adult fiction?”
Annie smiled. “A children’s story. About a mischievous little faerie who gets lost in a human world...” And what an adventure this is going to be!
© Lois Cloarec Hart