In the summer I turned seventeen, just two weeks after school let out, Thomas Lynne came rolling into town in that old heap of a car he stole from his daddy. It was a 1973 Chrysler LeBaron, the ugliest damn car you ever seen in your life. It had peeling flat red paint and a dent in the left side door the size of a meteor crater, and its name was Carter, Carter being the name of his dad’s high school girlfriend, though not the one that was Tommie’s mom. I always told him Carter wasn’t a good name for a car, but Tommie wouldn’t change it, even for me. He said that name was special, magic, luck—he believed in that kind of thing. I was more of a hopeful doubter.
That day he drove into town it caused a stir, sure enough. You see, folks had got it in their heads that Tommie was no good from the start, on account of the fact that his dad was half crazy even back then, and his ma was some high school girl that left them both as soon as she could to go to college in another state—probably a northern state, Mrs. Wyllis always said. And then she’d say, “And if the fact that she had that baby out of wedlock didn’t prove that she was an irresponsible hussy, running off and leaving a baby—a baby, mind you!—with that good-for-nothing Jeremiah Lynne sure did!” I’d always nod my head real sweet and proper, and sometimes she’d add, “Not like you, Janet, dear. Your parents raised you right,” and give me this look like she was daring me to contradict.
Jeremiah was known to be the town drunk, a career he probably started back in his own high school days. He claimed to anyone who would listen—and no one did—that he drank because he saw and heard things that weren’t there when sober, and if that ain’t some kind of twisty logic, I don’t know what is. He lived in a trailer right up on the edge of the Boundary Wood—the place he swore those things he saw and heard lived. That was a bit more credible, seeing as how the older generation claimed the woods were haunted, and the younger generation only ventured in when looking for a place to smoke or hook up. Anyway, it was no kind of place to raise a baby, what with Jeremiah half the time drunk and the other half in front of the TV, and both halves mean, and no one was much surprised when Tommie started seeing and hearing things, too.
At this point I should probably admit that Tommie and me was always friends. We met in kindergarten, both kind of outsiders on the playground, and when Tommie says, “I got secret friends in the woods,” of course I says I want to see them. I never did see them, back then, and called him a liar and whatnot and we had a fist fight right there under the pine trees, and after that we was always best friends.
We had a special tree that we liked to climb in the woods, an old oak not too far back from Jeremiah’s trailer. It was surrounded by a little clearing, its old branches twisting up into a circle of space it had claimed for its own. We’d spend hours up there, pretending we was pirates in a ship, or a robber gang with sticks and slingshots. When we got older and this weren’t exactly cool no more, we’d talk my own dad into carrying us to the movies on weekends, although he was never too happy about the matter. In my parents’ way of thinking, girls should play with dolls and have secret pony clubs, not climb trees with the son of the town drunk.
Last time before that summer that I seen Tommie was ninth grade, during which he beat his daddy back one night and ran away. Police say there were shots fired, too, but I ain’t too sure about all that. Anyway, he drove out of town at fourteen with no license and nothing but that damn car and the clothes on his back, and was gone for a good three years, me missing him the whole time.
So, when he came up the street that day in June, Carter stalling and clanking the whole way, and people started peeking out their kitchen curtains and even walking out onto their front porches, you can be sure I was right there with them. Mr. Thorton crossed the street in front of the car and stared, and Mrs. Wyllis gave a screech, and Mr. Flowers even mentioned something about going and fetching Jeremiah, but nobody felt much like actually doing it. Tommie didn’t mind. He was always one for attention, Tommie—he saluted Mr. Thorton and waved at Mrs. Wyllis like a Peach Queen in a May Day Parade, and I’m pretty sure I even saw him wink at Samantha Windham as she was walking down the sidewalk, though that little slut turned up her nose and took her clickity-clack heels the other way.
I was pretty disappointed when Tommie didn’t show up at my house right away, ready to make up for lost time, like. I mean, to be completely honest, Tommie never was hard on the eyes—must have took after his mother—and I’d seen just enough of his green eyes and flashy smile through Carter’s windshield to start a slow melt. A few days later, I found out that he had parked that car on the McDowell’s empty lot by the woods, and was living out of the car and working for Gus at the machine shop, doing automotive work. Mrs. Wyllis even told me that Gus was letting him take home tools to work on Carter, and that he’d offered to let Tommie room with him, but that Tommie’d said he liked being by the woods. “A strange boy, that one,” she’d ended. “Nothing but trouble from the start. I’m glad to see that you’re being a sensible girl and keeping away from him, Janet.”
Well, of course then I had to go down to Gus’s to try and see him. I figured a less private spot than hunting him down in the woods would be better for our first meeting with him back from the grave, as it were. Even so, I put on my favorite low-cut jeans and a dash of bright red lipstick, and I carried my only pair of high-heeled shoes in my hand so as not to get blisters on my heels from walking down the street in them. I gotta admit, the hopeful doubter part of me was feeling more’n a bit hopeful for some magic.
When I got to Gus’s, there he was, tinkering around under the hood of Mr. Wilder’s car, slouched forward easy as you please, a good six feet of tan, lean muscle. He had an old white T-shirt on with grease spots all over it, black and grimy up to his elbows. When he saw me lingering in the doorway of the machine shop, he slammed down the shiny black hood and wiped his hands off on an old towel. I tossed my hair a bit and tried looking confident. “Hi, Tommie.”
He nodded, soft hair flopping forward so that I wanted to run my fingers through it. “Hi, Jan. Come to gawk with the rest?” His accent was different, like music, somehow, tilted off kilter a bit like those celebrities on TV shows. I didn’t know what to say then, so I just shook my head.
He sighed like he was mad I was interrupting him at his high and mighty job. “Well, what then?”
“Can a girl not come for old time’s sake, like?” I huffed. “Because we was friends? Jesus, Tommie! Used to be I was the only person you talked to in this town, and you’ve been here for two weeks and I ain’t seen you yet, except for riding into town like the mayor in a parade!” At this point I held in the tears, rather delicately, I think.
Before he could say anything, Gus waddled by with the telephone to his ear. “Ain’t you off, yet? Git, boy! You can take those tools with you, for Carter. Hi there, Miss Janet.” He nodded to me and winked before disappearing into the dim room he called The Office.
Tommie sighed and gathered up his tools, sauntered past me to cross the street and head through town for the woods. I stood there all forlorn—like until he turned back around and asked, “Well? You coming?”
We walked side by side, but never touching, through town, ignoring some curious stares. “Well,” I said as we neared the woods, “you gonna tell me where you’ve been all this time?” Tommie bit his bottom lip and ignored me.
The McDowell’s lot was full of moss and patches of overgrown weeds, bordered by tall, dark pines and a few ugly old oaks, stretching away as far as the eye could see. I knew there was a highway on the other side of Boundary Wood, but sometimes it was hard to believe, especially now, with the sun setting behind the trees and all that dark gathering under their branches. Now the lot was also full of Carter, rusting quietly, a matching floppy red tent that looked as if any good wind were apt to carry it away, and the remains of a campfire. Tommie made a funny little bow and grinned at me. “Welcome to my humble abode.”
It was humble, sure enough. But there was a kind of magic to it, too. It was the kind of place we would have played when we were little, with secret hiding places and beds made of pine straw and food in a can to cook in the open. We had so much fun, him showing me his camp and what he was doing to Carter with all them tools he took back with him, that I forgot he had been so hesitant to make friends again, even forgot that my jeans were too tight and I was barefoot and carrying around heels.
“Carter’s like a legacy, see, between Dad and me,” Tommie said, as he pried her open and held up a flashlight for me to see her insides, how she worked. “She’s come a long way, been through a lot. There’s a special kind of magic in that.” He ran a finger over one tube, leaving a lighter gray streak in the sticky black grime. “I wanna fix’er up, who knows, maybe give her away to my own kid some day. She runs ok, but…” He made a face as he forced some cap or another open. “She could run a lot better. And be a sight prettier.”
I laughed at that. “That she could. Why, she looks like she’s been through hell and back! Pure hell, Tommie!”
That sobered him up quick. “Maybe she has.” He grimaced and slammed the hood shut. He turned on me quick. “Let’s build a campfire. It’s getting dark. And I think I’ve got some marshmallows left in that bag I picked up at the Stop’n Shop.”
There were some left, and we sat side by side with sticks in our hands, curled against the campfire’s heat, the trees and the dark at our backs. “I’ve got some things to say to you, Jan, if you want to be friends now. I might not be here for long.” His voice dropped off in the night and I shivered.
“That’s ok, Tommie. You ain’t got to stay if you don’t want to. Hell, nobody wants to stay in this town. But I would like to be friends again, for a little while.”
He smiled a bit and touched my arm, leaving little electric shocks tingling on my skin. “I’d like that, I think. Yes, I’d like that,” he said as if he’d just now decided. “I’ve been through a lot of shit, Jan. Not just with my da. These past few years…” He trailed off and grinned a bit. “Well, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. They’ve been the best kind of good and the worst kind of bad, all in one. Bad enough that I’d never want to go back, that I have nightmares—and good enough that even sitting here with you I crave it. But that’s the past now, right?” He smiled at me then and my heart about broke in two. “We’re gonna be friends again, for a little while.”
I guess I don’t have to tell you how it went, after that. If you’re anybody over grade-school, you probably saw it clearer than the town even did, turning up their noses whenever I’d pass now, too. It weren’t too bad, though, as a price to pay for having Tommie back. We took Carter to the next town over to see the movies, went for walks in the park, and spent whole evenings by Tommie’s campfire, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows and making up silly songs, though we never crossed the edge of the lot and went into the woods. My hopeful part got stronger and stronger, and my doubtful part might’ve gone into hiding.
Jeremiah never once showed his face—shows what a good-for-nothing father he was. My own parents showed quite a bit more than their face, if you catch my meaning, before throwing up their hands and deciding there was nothing they could do.
When it finally happened, it was August, getting on toward school starting back and my senior year. Tommie had already stayed longer than he expected to, I think. We were coming home in Carter after watching yet another God-awful action movie, driving on the back road along the woods, when Tommie suddenly gave a shout and swerved over onto the shoulder. I screamed and ducked down in the seat, certain we were about to get hit.
“Now what in Jesus did you go and do that for?” I griped when I realized he was only parking the car and I wasn’t meeting my maker any time soon.
“Look!” Tommie pointed into the trees.
It were fireflies. The boy had pulled over for fireflies—but great big ones, white lights close to the size of my fist, drifting with the breeze and winking out to reappear again a few feet away, turning the edges of the leaves around them silver. Now, I don’t know what fireflies has to do with climbing in the back seat, but that were the way of it, see, and I’m apt to blame it all on the magic if pushed, which were out in abundance that night. It was so easy, at first, easier than I expected it to be, until it hurt, but that was ok, too, because it didn’t last for long. Afterward I was up late in bed, thinking about what Tommie had said about the magic of a car that’s been through hell.
Of course I missed a period. Two periods, before I went to the Stop’n Shop and bought one of them little sticks you pee on, and of course it turned pink. Tommie took me to the doctor to confirm what we already knew—magic is powerful stuff. At first I wanted a ring, to protect me from Mrs. Wyllis pursing her lips and not speaking to me and my parents crying their eyes out, but I didn’t get one and it all happened as I’d predicted. I can still hear my mother, bordering on good Southern hysterics—”By Thomas Lynne, Janet? Thomas Lynne?”—and my father’s gruff, “Well, what did you expect, Laura? She spends all her free time with that boy, doing God knows what down in them woods.”
By this time it was October, and Tommie was being a bit more evasive than I would have liked. I finally was fallen to enlisting the help of Gus to corner him in the machine shop. After a whole lot of stormy tears on my part, Tommie finally sighed and glanced around to make sure that we were alone.
“What are you doing on Halloween night?”
I stared at him, certain that my poor ears had failed me. “Halloween night? Tommie, I’m gonna have a baby, and all you can ask is what party I’m going to on Halloween night?” The tears started again, a bit stronger this time.
Tommie ran a hand through his floppy hair. “Not what party—what are you doing? I’m serious. What do your parents do?”
“Stay home and give out candy, same as everyone’s parents.” I sobbed, not sure what he expected.
Tommie nodded. “Good. Tell them you’re going somewhere. Hell, tell them you’re going to that kids’ party down at the First Baptist. The one Mrs. Wyllis is always trying to get you to help with? They’d let you go to that for sure. Just make sure they think you’ll be gone all night.”
I nodded. “Alright Tommie. I can do that. What are you planning? We’re not gonna run away, are we?”
He looked startled. “Run away? No, I need your help with something.” He slid down the concrete wall to sit among the grease stains, and I did the same, feeling like a flat tire.
“You’re gonna think this is crazy, but I need you to trust me, Janet.” I nodded. “You remember those things I used to see?”
I nodded cautiously. “You mean those things your crazy old man saw, too? Yes.” I crossed my arms, realizing this wasn’t going any direction I had hoped for.
He bit his lip. “Well, they’re real. They’re called faeries and that’s where I was—with them in the woods—for all those three years, and they’re immortal, see, or almost, and so they have to pay a tithe to Hell every seven years to pay for it—you know, ‘The price of immortality ain’t cheap’ and all that—and, well, they want me to be it. They’re gonna make me be it. They let me go for a little while, first, like someone on death row’s last meal. But they’re watching me. They’ll be back. And, you know—death row and being given to the devil don’t sound so great.” He finished and took a big breath, trying hard to grin although it wasn’t working.
I must have stared like he’d hit me over the head with his wrench. All I could think about was a murderous Tinkerbell, and that my baby was gonna be bug-shit fucking crazy.
“I know it sounds crazy, Jan,” he rushed on. “Hell, it even sounds crazy to me. But if you could just see them! And you will…” He grabbed my hand. “You will, if you’ll do this for me.”
I took back my hand. “Do what for you?”
“Rescue me.” His eyes were bright, too big in his face. “They’re coming to get me Halloween night. It has to be then. They’ll take me through the Boundary Wood, to that big oak we used to climb back in elementary school, remember?”
I knew the place—about half a mile straight into the forest, directly behind Jeremiah Lynne’s trailer. I had already started shaking my head, but Tommie plowed on.
“They’ll be on horseback, all dressed up. You have to pull me off the horse and hold on to me, no matter what happens. The queen will be there. It’s like the rules. I’m not even supposed to be telling you this.” He was babbling already.
“Fine, Tommie. Fine, I’ll do it,” I said, more to make him stop talking like a lunatic than because I believed his life was in danger. He gave me a look like a man been rescued from drowning.
On Halloween night I parked Carter a hundred yards down the street from Jeremiah’s trailer, and snuck through the waist-high weeds in the back yard, past the blue TV light, cringing instinctively. It already was more of an adventure than I wanted, and I was cold, too, dressed up in some ridiculously fringed costume, all because I wanted my parents to think I was out with Mrs. Wyllis, atoning for my sins by giving out candy to the town’s children.
The woods were so dark my eyes wouldn’t adjust, and branches kept poking me with hard fingers, leaves slapping me in the face. I did eventually find the old oak, and wouldn’t you know there was nothing special about it. It was dark here, too, and cold, and full of scurryings and rustlings that I didn’t care to think about. I was just on the point of taking my stupid costume and going home, and God—or faeries—damn Thomas Lynne to where he deserves, when I heard bells. I froze and climbed up into that oak mighty quick, hiding in the darker dark inside the leaves. Someone laughed, like more bells ringing, a horse snorted, and I peeped through the leaves for my first glimpse of faeries, still half expecting some kids up to Halloween pranks.
It weren’t no kids. These glowed. The first was all white, tall white horse and a white lady riding it, shining through the gloomy pines like one of them fireflies made huge. The second was black, that one a man, the third green, and so on. I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but it weren’t these tall, elegant, wispy things like moonlight or mist. They moved like no human ever would, even their horses were unnaturally graceful. I was so awed I almost didn’t notice that the green was Tommie. They’d dressed him up like one of them, though now I can’t remember what it was they wore. Leaves, maybe, or something like Cinderella. They were so close now that they’d soon pass under the tree, and I had to do something quick. I wavered a bit, balanced on a branch the size of my wrist, and, if truth be told, as Tommie passed by up under me, I fell.
Well, I hollered as I fell, and landed right on top of Tommie, dragging him off his horse, and maybe they took that for an attack, I don’t know, but there was sure an uproar then. I paid no attention at all, because about this time I noticed it wasn’t Tommie I was holding, but a big green frog wiggling in my arms. And then that thing was a snake, and I almost dropped it quick, but it changed too fast, this time something slimy and thrashing like a fish on a hook, with teeth. That’s when I remembered what Tommie had told me, leaning against the concrete wall. “Hold on to me no matter what.” After that I closed my eyes, and it went better. I felt fur, and scales, and claws, and slime, but I never let go. Eventually I realized it was naked skin and muscle I was holding, and someone was laughing like bells again, so I opened my eyes and let go.
Tommie was stark naked, panting in the glow from the faeries, and it was the white lady laughing.
“Our attacker from the trees is brave indeed, for a little mortal girl.” She looked down at me from her horse with a face like the moon. Up close I could see that it weren’t no real horse, but something scaly and a bit see-through, like a white sheet on the clothesline, that I might be afraid of. “Tommie, dear, who is this savior?”
Well, I didn’t like her calling Tommie “dear,” not one little bit, and so I spoke up for myself. “My name’s Janet. I’m the mother of his baby.” And I stuck my chest out right proud, stood on my tippie toes, too, forgetting I was dressed up like a rhinestone cowgirl for Jesus.
There was a hush in the group, then, and the queen—by now even I had figured that one out—backed her horse away a few steps. “The mother of his baby.” She repeated it like she was gonna throw up on my toes.
Something crossed her face then, the only unpleasant emotion I ever saw in any of them. “And you, Tommie, you choose this…” She paused, like she was thinkin’ something mighty different than what she was sayin’. “… Girl over your duty to us?”
Tommie had been standing there silently shivering all this time, but he nodded then.
She narrowed her eyes, glanced one last time at my still-flat belly. “So be it.”
I don’t rightly remember what happened then. Somehow they were gone, and I got Tommie out of the woods. He was shivering so bad though, we made it as far as his dad’s trailer and ended up knocking on the door. Jeremiah Lynne didn’t seem too fearful an enemy after a faerie queen. Eventually Tommie ended up driving me home in Carter, and I slept for a full two days. My parents still think I came home exhausted from good works and saving souls. Seeing as how they’re right, I haven’t ever had to tell them any different.
I ain’t seen the faeries again in a good five years, though I’ll feel better when it’s seven. I ain’t seen that Thomas Lynne in four, though he was here when I gave birth to Thomas Junior. We figured it was a lucky name, seeing as how he dodged Hell and all. I’ve still got Carter, too, his daddy’s legacy, since Tommie went thumbing this time he left. I’ve been teaching little Tommie all about magic, and the strength of things that’s been through hell and back, even if they aren’t very pretty on the outside. Even Jeremiah Lynne’s been around once or twice “just to see the baby.” How I figure, that’s two good things that’s come from all this—my sweet little boy and a sometimes-sober Jeremiah. Those faeries better think twice if they’re thinking on taking any of that away from me.
© 2015 by Jordan Taylor
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