Content warnings: blood, self-injury, child abuse (verbal and physical), non-consensual manipulation through magic, mention of alcoholism and drinking.
In our third week of third grade, after the Cincinnati Reds crushed the Chicago Cubs 9-1 and brought their lead over the National League West Division to 76 wins, Miss Grenadine had us shape our changelings from butcher paper, glue, and crumpled sheets of last week’s Dayton Daily News.
Miss Grenadine said, “Let’s be a bit naughty today,” and turned on a tinny radio. She swayed in her denim dress, her amber beads clinking in time to Poison and Jon Bon Jovi. She shuffled from group to group to eye their progress.
Rachel and I traced each other’s outlines in crayon in the back of the classroom, away from everyone else. Rachel claimed purple for herself. She asked me three times to make sure I captured her big curls, her picture-day-ready belted dress, and her bow. I was embarrassed that she was so close to me—my overalls and Bugs Bunny shirt hadn’t been washed since Meemaw got them from the Goodwill on Patterson Boulevard, and I knew I stank because I hadn’t washed much more recently than that—but Rachel traced me cheerfully, chatting about what wishes she should make.
My double could only be done in red, of course. I added pinstripes to my legs once she was done.
“I thought a lot about a pony, I really did,” Rachel yammered on. “But—where would I keep it? My yard’s too small. Unless it’s a fairy pony. Those you could keep anywhere. But what do you feed them? Pumpkins? Snakes?” She shuddered.
I stuffed my changeling with the sports pages, smoothing out the picture of Chris Sabo, luminous in perfect apotheosis the moment his ball cleared the fence. That one went in last, sheathing my heart, or where my heart should have been.
“One wish for each drop of blood, that’s the exchange!” Miss Grenadine reminded us, scarcely looking down before shimmying away toward her desk, clacking along to Cheap Trick. I knew she didn’t much care for me. She didn’t really care for problem kids.
Rachel and I looked at each other. She was silent, finally, too nervous to look at her own thorn. Mine was already in my hand.
Rachel squeezed her eyes shut and pinched the ball of her finger, proffering it to me before she could have second thoughts. “Do me,” she whispered. Her thorn was on the other side of her. I looked up for Miss Grenadine, but she was busy separating two boys who had started kicking each other over which green crayon was best for the army.
“Please,” Rachel said.
I pricked her finger with my thorn, and she yanked her hand back and glared at me while she measured out three drops, red red red, onto her changeling’s heart. “You did that on purpose,” she spat, suddenly near tears.
I only did what you asked, I said inside my head, but the words found a logjam behind my tongue. Rachel huffed as she turned away from me, gluing her shape shut without my help.
The classroom echoed around me, slowed, thick with magic. Dust in sunbeams. Bruce Hornsby murmured in half-time. Garfield’s lazy hunger eyed me from my lunchbox. My thorn still bore a single drop of Rachel’s blood, stubborn like her, refusing to fall.
I pierced the meat of my thumb.
Red, once for the pennant and the team.
Red, once for Dad and the bruises he left.
Red, once for Rachel and my awkward tongue.
A fourth drop, unnamed, unwished, unsaid.
Blood drifted in sunbeam motes to alight on Chris Sabo’s face.
Rachel played with her changeling at recess, skipping across the pavement and screaming from the highest arc of the swing. Other girls joined them with their own doubles, while the boys held mock-battles with theirs in the dusty baseball field beyond the monkey-bars: Cobra vs. GI Joe, Peter Pan vs. the pirates, cops vs. robbers.
I held hands with mine and wandered off with her to the creek behind the school. I was disappointed she looked so much like me. Despite my careful pinstriping, her butcher-paper skin molted to reveal the same ratty clothes I wore, the same home-cut hair falling around her ears. The only difference was in her eyes, which were the green of sunlight through beech leaves instead of mirror-familiar brown.
Magic could miss, just like even José Rijo’s fastball could miss the catcher’s mitt. Sometimes the batters were just too much to outmatch.
You resent me, my changeling said inside my head.
I stopped at the brink of the creek and dropped her hand. I looked between her still-papery skin and the muddy water I’d brought her to, guilt seeping up my chest.
She pressed her hand against my heart, tilted her head to listen to its beat.
You resent me, I said to her.
I do, she said, and we smiled at each other, a September sort of smile, the kind that knows its own daylight is waning.
I touched her chest, where I had drawn the blood-drop C of the Reds’ insignia. A trace of it remained, not yet flaked away from the thin denim of her overalls. I thought of her wearing this in the woods as the season turned, doing who knows what for the fairies under the silvery moon, shivering while the Reds redeemed my wish and won the World Series. I felt both spitefully happy and sick to my stomach.
You have my blood, I said, conscious even then that something had been taken from me.
And you’ll have two of your wishes, she said. Feel blessed. That’s more than most get.
Her eyes flitted across me once, as if memorizing. For a moment she lingered on my pocket. We weren’t supposed to keep our thorns. Miss Grenadine had gone around the classroom with a trash pail, making sure each kid dropped theirs in, now burnished with a sheen of blood, for the janitor to burn behind the cafeteria kitchen. But Miss Grenadine never paid much attention to me. Somehow (because she was me?) my changeling knew I had stowed my thorn for safekeeping.
She turned and jumped across the creek and ran without a word into the woods beyond the school.
Lots of the other kids cried when their changelings ran off at the appointed time at the end of the school day. Rachel didn’t. She folded her arms and glared at me as if it were all my fault, then turned her back without saying a word. She sat with the popular girls on the bus, leaving me no choice but to sit with Billy Cornwall, who picked his nose and never washed his hands and tried to put his palm on my thigh until I punched him in the ribs. We rode the rest of the way to my stop in silence, punctuated by his sniffles. When I got up I feinted a fist at him to watch him flinch, then stomped off, ignoring Rachel’s loud “Some people just weren’t raised right” behind me. One of her friends stuck her head out the window as the bus pulled away, yelling “Dirty hick!” until the bus turned the corner.
I counted my steps up the porch and made a leap so that I reached the door at twelve, not thirteen. I let myself in and found Dad passed out in front of the TV. For a moment my heart jumped—had this been one of the two wishes to reach home? But no, he breathed still, and his recliner—nicest piece of furniture in the house—had a halo of brown bottles, which flickered in the light of syndicated afternoon reruns. Nothing had changed here.
If that wish hadn’t flown true, though, maybe there was hope for me and Rachel.
I shoved my backpack under my bed upstairs then crept back down to scrounge something from the kitchen. Meemaw was still at work, so I helped myself to one of her “secret” fruit pies, bought by the bagful at the Hostess outlet store next to the Goodwill and hidden away in an upper cabinet, behind some jam jars she had washed and saved. I looked around while I ate, then froze. My changeling watched me from the window.
She vanished before I could cut out through the back porch. I hunted her for a time, first in the backyard, then up and down the alley behind the house. I nearly turned my ankle on a fallen green walnut, and wondered if she had set fairy traps against me.
I wanted to tell her I meant her no harm, that I wanted to talk. Secretly, way down deep in a place I scarcely sensed, I had hatched an idea of running away with her, of taking my chances with the fairies. I wanted to say all of that to her. Instead all that came out was, “You asshole.”
I threw green walnuts at neighborhood trashcans for a while, until barking dogs and thrown bottles coaxed me into moving on. Our neighborhood had been nice once, or so I’d been told. Great big houses from the 1910s, identical except for paint, their roomy backyards strung with clotheslines and blooming with apple trees, redbuds, forsythia. A movie theater had once lit up inside a building on the corner of Main Street, now dim and cracked and blotted with graffiti. My grandfather had moved here from Kentucky after the war, becoming a county surveyor. He and Meemaw bought the house and raised two kids and took summer vacations to Natural Bridge and the Blue Ridge Parkway. But a rot had set in, somewhere.
My grandfather drank and didn’t say much of anything, withdrawing into himself as their kids grew up, engaging with them only to hit them. He died of throat cancer the year I was born. Dad had a hungry gleam in his teeth whenever he talked about how his own dad needed to have his jaw cut out to stop the cancer, and how he died despite it all. Now, Meemaw was working herself thin in a restaurant up in Trotwood, taking the bus back and forth every day, while Dad drank and fumed about homosexuals and Freemasons and yelled at me from his recliner. He always made me answer the phone in case it was a collection agency coming after him.
I had a vague sense that my mother still existed in some way, but I had no memories of her, and no desire to seek her out. When I thought about her at all, it was with a certainty that she was just as bad as the rest of us.
The rest of the neighborhood went the same way we had gone. The big old houses accumulated plywood in place of windows. The fences and garages that lined the alleyway were now choked with mulberry and honeysuckle, tangled jungles that ate any ball I hit from our backyard. A few kids still played in the street each summer, but they threw sticks at me and asked if I was a boy or a girl. I stopped trying to play with them.
One time that summer, not long before school started, Dad announced that his old high school best friend, the one who’d landed an aerospace job and moved out to Englewood, had bought us tickets to a Reds game. I put on my very best clothes and my red baseball cap (not a Reds baseball cap; Dad said they cost too much) and jumped in the car. I think I talked more on that drive than I had in months. I clutched Chris Sabo’s 1989 baseball card and I chattered about how I wanted to sit where we could catch his home run. I went on about how I would be the first girl in the Major Leagues and outwit the fielders and steal a hundred bases each season. And then Dad’s car broke down on I-75 near Middletown, and I never got to see the game, or any other. Dad’s friend never offered tickets again. I stopped asking about it after Dad hit me.
Magic wasn’t taught much, not in public school. Highschoolers learned some low-level alchemy. We were never taught the hows and whys. But I had the dim sense that this was all payment for something.
I also had a feeling of unfairness, a feeling that most of us making the payment hadn’t been able to enjoy whatever it was we were paying off.
“Asshole,” I said, and flung another walnut far down the alleyway, where it dinged off the hood of someone’s old Impala.
“Rude child,” a familiar voice purred. I spotted something like a fat orange tabby-cat smiling down at me from a tangle of honeysuckle, its back and tail hatched with black stripes. Its eyes, though, were uncomfortably human.
“I wish nothing from you,” I said, blurting one of the few rituals we had been taught. I spun in place three times, just to make sure.
“Ah,” the tabby said, borrowing a voice I knew well from Saturday morning cartoons. “But you’ve used your wishes already, child. Unless you desire a new exchange?”
I bit my tongue, but refused to lower my eyes from the tabby’s.
The tabby folded its paws and sighed. One ear flickered with impatience. The voice, though, remained as lazy and detached as before. “You have it still, there in your pocket. It will bring you only ill favor, dear child. Give it to me freely, and go with my blessing.”
The thorn, I wanted to ask, but said nothing.
“Don’t think to bargain with me.” The tabby rose and stretched, splaying its whiskers with a yawn. “Return it, and go in peace. This is my only offer. I give you until midnight. That’s when the Queen awakens, child. You’d do well to avoid her.”
The tabby leapt down and sauntered away up the alley. My fingers stole to my pocket—what would I ever need with a bloody thorn?—but before I could fumble inside, the tabby vanished through a broken fence. I realized the crickets were loud around me, and it was nearly night.
Dad had a good scream at me when I got home. I was fast enough to get away before he could pin me by the arm, but he threw a bottle that got me right in the shoulder. I clattered up the stairs and jammed my door shut and cried for a while, hating him and hating Miss Grenadine and hating Rachel and hating the fairies and hating the Reds too, just for good measure.
They won their game that night, demolishing the Cubs 6-2. I heard it when the news came on. That made 77 wins for the Big Red Machine. Well, that was one of my wishes coming true. I felt stupid for wasting a drop of blood on something that would have happened without my help. My shoulder stung whenever I shifted my weight against the door.
I dozed off, drained from crying and from everything the magic had taken from me. I knew enough about magic to know I wasn’t dreaming when I found myself floating through Rachel’s room, a pink paradise tucked all by itself in her parents’ attic. I had always been jealous of her, whenever she would invite me over. Her clothes were always new. Her parents hugged her and only rarely yelled at her. Her house, like all the houses on her street, was still beautiful, its windows intact, its furniture bought new from a furniture store. They had a dryer instead of a clothesline. She had boardgames that used up batteries and lit up our faces, instead of the same old copy of Parcheesi her dad had grown up playing.
Yet the room I found beneath me had grown wild, a tangle of nettles beneath the blankets, drifts of oak leaves spilling from her dresser.
Rachel sat in bed, hugging her knees, listening to a tape on her Walkman. Tufts of grass sprouted around her, feeling their way around her calves, her wrists. She looked feverish, maybe on the verge of puking. She buried her head when I drifted closer.
Rachel, I said, though I had no voice.
She looked up at me. She had been crying.
“You’re such a jerk,” she said to the ceiling. Her tears looked sticky, like sap.
I’m sorry. I don’t even know what I did. I don’t know why you’re mad at me, or why any of this is happening.
“Your thorn. You did it on purpose. You knew it would hurt me!”
Sweat ran down from her hair—usually perfect, now bedraggled and forgotten beneath her headphones. Dead yellow petals shook loose from her scalp.
“You’re just like your dad,” Rachel said, and I felt myself pushed, repelled, banished back to my own body, where I woke with a grunt of pain.
My little clock-radio said it was 11:47 pm.
I pulled the thorn out of my pocket and set it on my pillow. It glistened as if it were still wet with our mingled blood.
I pulled my backpack from under the bed, and dropped my Garfield lunchbox next to the thorn. I hated my lunchbox. I’d gotten it in first grade. I had been so excited to show it off to the new friends I would make, and then we’d never had the money to replace it as I’d grown older and the other kids taunted me about it. I flicked the latches open and found only a half-eaten jam sandwich from lunch, a bruised banana peel, my thermos still full of tap-water. I dumped them on the bed, but still nothing. No fairy emerged, no lazy-voiced tabby curled into my room.
“Asshole,” I said to the lunchbox.
My shoulder ached. I picked up the thorn and thought about sneaking out, but the TV was still on downstairs and I didn’t know how I could get past Dad.
Something tapped at my window. My changeling, her eyes lit green in the moonlight.
I shoved the window wide and she elbowed into my room, her skin chill from the September night. I held the thorn out to her but she ignored my hand, looking into every corner of my room: my pile of sweat-stiff clothes, my ratty sheets, my lamp, my Chris Sabo poster, my shoebox of baseball cards, the paint peeling from the ceiling. The little barricade I piled against my door to keep Dad out.
This is me, she said in my head, tracing fingers along the edge of the poster. This is what I was made to be.
Paying for a bargain we didn’t even strike. Cycles of payment, recurring like collection agencies circling the phone.
How do I return the thorn? I pleaded with her.
She looked at me, her thoughts a million miles away, as if her eyes saw through me into fairyland and the toil that awaited her.
I am bound by what I can say, she said. Midnight approaches. I can tell you this: think of the thorn.
I saw myself pricking Rachel’s finger. A sense of shame as I realized, deep down, I had wanted to bind us, to tie her to me, to mingle our blood in sisterhood. The three drops, red red red. My wishes. A fourth drop, its wish unspoken even to myself. Pocketing the thorn, after.
The janitor burned the other thorns, behind the school. Every kid had their thorn burnt after the exchange. Miss Grenadine didn’t care about mine because she didn’t care about me. Just another dirty briar-hopper brat from a poor hick family who showed up to school with bruises and problems that meant extra paperwork for her. Miss Grenadine ignored my thorn the way she ignored every other problem my existence brought to her.
The thorn wasn’t a vehicle of power, it was a threat. An instrument of control that the fairies would be exquisitely interested in obtaining. Garfield’s hungry smile greeted me from my lunchbox.
I need to burn the thorn, I said.
My changeling sighed, her shoulders slumped. My shoulder throbbed in sympathy.
You have three minutes left, she said.
I paused, my hand halfway to grabbing the matches I had hidden under my mattress.
Payments for bargains we hadn’t made.
I need to use the thorn, I said.
My double froze, birdlike, as if wary of approaching footsteps.
I cannot say, she said.
“I’m sorry for making you,” I said. I crossed the room and plunged the thorn into her chest.
She smiled, closed her eyes, and the room flooded with the scent of mushrooms, of deep rot, of subterranean growth. My blood wicked up out of her, my blood and Rachel’s, red and red and red. I plucked the thorn out, and the fourth drop wavered on its tip.
She opened her eyes one last time, the light of the summer forest waning. “Two of your wishes come true,” she whispered, a voice of paper, of newsprint fading under my fingers. She crumbled into sheets, into scattered words. The picture of Chris Sabo, stained dark, drifted to the floor.
“You broke your bargain,” a familiar voice purred from the windowsill. “Naughty child. The Queen won’t be happy.”
The fat tabby smiled down at me, tail swishing like a cat ready to pounce on a baby bird. I smiled back, dropping the thorn in my lunchbox, dropping to my knees to grab my stash of matches.
“It isn’t midnight yet,” I said, and lit a match.
The tabby vanished the moment the thorn caught fire. I made sure it burned down to nothing, then tossed the lunchbox out the window.
Rachel was cold to me at school, but if her friends ever grabbed at my hair or called me a dumb dirty hick boy, she stamped her foot and scolded them quietly until they gave up and found a better game to play. I brought my lunches in castoff grocery bags and avoided a certain Saturday morning cartoon.
The Reds swept the World Series in October, beating the Athletics four games to zero. I felt my fingers tingle each time, a parcel of power spooling out into the world.
I watched the final game in the dark from the stairs while my Dad drank in his recliner. Oakland Coliseum, way out there in the magical land of California, seemed as remote as fairyland. José Rijo gave up a run in the first inning, and the A’s kept our batters smothered inning after inning. Eric Davis and Billy Hatcher, two of our powerhouse hitters, got injured and had to leave the field. But I felt the tingle in my fingers, and I whispered into them, breath like a touch of summer. In the eighth inning we finally gained the upper hand, thanks to loaded bases, a groundout, and a sacrifice fly. When that second run crossed home plate, the power left my fingertips, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was just as happy to be done with the damn thing as I was at sweeping the pennant.
By the end of the game I knew what that fourth wish had been. I swore in my heart it would be the next wish to come true.
Rick Hollon (they/them or fey/fem) is a nonbinary queer author from the American Midwest, with family roots in Appalachia. Feir stories and poetry have appeared in Strange Horizons, Kaleidotrope, Prismatica, perhappened, and elsewhere. Find them on Twitter @SailorTheia.
photo by Julian Paolo Dayag (via unsplash)