It was a girl’s voice: “Why are you sitting in a tree?”
Egon looked down at his sister standing by the pond. She was wearing a pullover pleated dress he didn’t recognize. She’d taken off her purple backpack and dropped it beside her. It took a moment for him to register she had actually returned.
With a smile on her lips, she added, “That girl must really like you. The way she ran off screaming.”
Egon hopped to the ground. “Dad’s going to be really mad.”
“Why? What did you do to her?” she teased.
“Nothing. I was talking about you. Running away.”
“I didn’t. Let’s go swimming.”
Egon stopped her. “We need to get back home.”
Faye brushed his hand away. “You don’t own me.”
“Faye, I know what Dad did to you.”
“I’m Jenna. Not Faye.”
Egon stared at her. Her hair had been tied into braids. And on her head, she wore a wreath of wildflowers, stems woven together. Not something Faye would do. She had a spritely squint of a grin. Egon frowned and asked, “What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing’s wrong with me,” she said. “What’s wrong with you? Are you in love or something?”
“What do you mean?”
“With that girl. Who is she?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to me.”
“I was afraid you’d never come back.”
“That’s sweet,” she said.
“Don’t call me that. Faye was captured by the Spriggans.”
“Don’t you ever listen to your mother?”
“What are you talking about?”
“How they steal children and leave changelings in their place. That’s what happened. That’s who I am.”
“Dad’s not going to buy that crap.”
“Why should I care? Faye ran off. She got captured. And I escaped. End of story.”
“You were raped, Faye. Dad raped you.”
She turned from him to rummage through the backpack. “I’m not her. I told you. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She dropped the pack. “They stole everything. That’s what they do.”
“The Spriggans. Do you have any food? I’m hungry.”
Egon patted his pockets. “A candy bar, I think.” He pulled a melted Snicker’s bar from his pocket. “You want it?”
“Of course I do. I’m famished. “Faye snatched it from him and tore off the wrapper, sucking and licking the gooey mess, as much as she could get into her mouth. With her face smeared with chocolate, she stopped to look at him. “Why didn’t you run away too?”
Egon couldn’t understand why his sister was acting so strange, or what kind of game she was playing. All he could think to do was play along. “Faye didn’t tell me she was running away.”
His sister licked chocolate off her fingers. “Yes, she did.”
“She told me she never wanted to see me again.”
“Listen to what she’s really telling you. I like your sister. So do the Spriggans. That’s why they exchanged her for me. What? You don’t believe me?”
“I don’t know what to believe. Jenna.”
His sister went over to wash her hands and face in the pond.
Egon followed her. “For what?”
She rose from her crouch to wiggle and dry her wet fingers in the warm air. “Pretending to believe. And coming to look for her.” She took hold of her brother’s hand and kissed his fingertips.
He pulled his hand away. “What are you doing!?”
“Trying to make you feel better. I lost brothers and sisters too. All the water faeries, except for me, were killed. When they found out I had been a princess they turned me into their slave. They made me do horrible things. It was horrible.”
“Faye, come on.”
“I’m not her.” She pouted, then smiled. “But I’ll pretend to be her, your sister, if that’s what you want.”
Egon didn’t know what to say or think. Faye was acting weird. Not herself. She liked to play act. But never like this. She seemed out of her mind. “What happened to you last night? I mean, you know, when you were captured? By the … ah, Spriggans?”
“But you said—”
“No. I was already there. I told you that. They traded me for your sister.”
His sister picked up the backpack, swung it over her shoulder. Then she dropped it to the ground and said, “I don’t need her bag. It’s full of nothing. Are we going, or what?”
Egon pointed to the wreath in her hair. “You made that?”
“They told me to wear it. A crown of flowers for the dethroned princess. To make me look innocent. But I’m not.”
“You’re not, what?”
“Innocent.” She widened her eyes to appear playfully sinister, then grabbed his hand. “Okay. I’ll go home with you.”
Egon let his sister pull him along. Quickly she let go and sprang like a sure-footed mountain goat to the top of the riverbank. From the shadows below, Egon saw his sister glowing in the blazing sun, her dress sparkling as if set on fire.
“I’m so happy to be free!” she shouted. “Hurry!”
Egon struggled to get his footing, slipping twice before reaching the top. “Slow down, okay?”
“I haven’t seen the sun for so long. Come, I’ll race you!”
“No. Faye, it’s too hot!”
But his sister ran off. She followed the rut of dried grass he’d trampled down earlier. He was only halfway across the field by the time she had reached the main trail. She waved back at him, then disappeared. Egon was soaked in sweat when he reached the path. Faye was standing on one leg, balanced on a log. When she saw him, she hopped off. She seemed unfazed by the heat.
“This is fun,” she said. “Which way?”
“You know which way. Down. Aren’t you hot?”
“Water faeries are unaffected by heat. I’ll race you.”
“No! Faye. I mean, come on. Stop doing that. Please?”
She came over to him. “Are you mad at me?”
“No. Slow down. Walk with me.”
“Okay. It’s so beautiful. I really love it here.”
She walked beside him with an airy bounce to her step. As if she might sprint off any second. Egon observed his sister’s movements, noticed her fingers, splayed and pointed, so straight her digits were arched backward, tapping the air, as if creating soundless music. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d seen Faye this happy. He hesitated to say anything, not sure if he should break whatever spell she was under but felt compelled to ask her.
“What will happen to Faye?”
His sister looked him in the eyes. His eyes were the same blue. They were the same height. She blinked. “I don’t know. Spriggans can be nasty.”
“How nasty? What did they do to you?”
She looked into the trees. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Did they hurt you?”
“I said, I don’t want to talk about it.”
Egon stopped to take a drink of water from his plastic thermos he had clipped to his belt. “You want some?”
Faye examined the bottle with it twist-top and spout, as if it was the first time she’d ever seen such a strange contraption. She put the nipple to her lips and squeezed, sucking. “Umm, water.”
“Faye, talk to me. Tell me what happened.”
His sister rotated the plastic container around in her hands as if she was turning the question around in her mind. Before aiming the bottle and squeezing hard – squirting him in the face.
She giggled and dropped the bottle, then ran downhill.
“Damn you, Faye. Stop running away!”
Though she’d surprised him, the water had felt refreshing. And, at least, she was acting more like the sister he knew, thought Egon. While trudging down the path, he saw several butterflies, a squirrel, finally glimpsed a bird, but saw no other humans hiking on this hot afternoon. Any second he expected Faye to leap out from behind a tree to surprise him, but she never did.
They were more than a mile up the mountain, far from their home. When he reached the last stretch of the fire trail he noticed torn flowers and stems littering the path. Same colors as the wreath his sister wore. He came around a bend and saw her standing at the bottom of the hill. In her hand was what was left of the garland from her hair. Both arms hung at her sides. And she wasn’t moving. It was as if she’d turned into stone. Into a statue. He approached her and lightly touched her shoulder.
She let out a startled gasp. She looked at him, then down at the broken wreath of flowers in her hand. She dropped it. “Where am I?”
“We’re almost home.”
Egon was puzzled by her blank expression. Tears were welling in her eyes, trickling down her cheeks. Her lips began to tremble. Egon placed a hand on his sister’s shoulder and she fell into his arms and sobbed against his body.
“It’s going to be okay,” said Egon.
Faye shook her head to say it wasn’t.
Egon held his sister until her body was calm. She pushed away and seemed embarrassed and confused. She clutched the sides of her dress. “Why am I wearing this? Where’s my backpack?”
“You left it by the pond.”
Egon took hold of her hand. “Let’s go home.”
Faye pulled away, “No!”
“Faye, come on.”
“What are we doing here?”
Egon was exhausted, getting annoyed again. “Because you ran away. Two nights ago. Stop playing games.”
“We need to get home,” said Egon.
Faye refused to budge. “Dad will kill me.”
“I’ve been covering for you. I don’t think Dad or Mom know you were gone last night.”
“Where was I?”
“Faye. Stop it. It’s getting late.”
He pulled her along. She didn’t resist this time. His sister now felt like a zombie he’d captured, the way she shuffled her feet as if she was incapable of monitoring herself. Their house was at the edge of the woods. It was one of the older homes, built before the tract houses which had turned the area into a sprawling neighborhood.
They came off the trail and passed across an undeveloped patch of land that was flat and surrounded by a grove of trees. The place where kids played softball and soccer. No one was playing today. It was too hot. Vacant, except for them, kicking up dust.
Egon decided they should sneak in through the back door. He pulled Faye with him, squeezing them through a hole in their wood fence. They next crossed the length of dirt and crabgrass his parents jokingly called a backyard. He glanced back at Faye, put a finger to his lips, before opening the screen door. It made a wrenching noise. To Egon, it sounded like a haunted house.
The interior was dark. No lights were turned on. Even with its two stories, their shack of a house was dwarfed by the forest of oaks, pines and eucalyptus. Light rarely found its way through the dense foliage. Egon was hoping they’d made it back before their father arrived home from the service station he worked at. Their mother would be drunk, most likely unconscious in front of the television. He heard nothing, not even static nor the usual chatter from a soap opera or game show.
It was then he noticed the dark shapes of his parents standing in the living room. Followed by his father’s gruff voice.
“Where in the hell have you been?”
“We were worried sick,” said his mother.
“Gone for two days! Two nights! Answer me!”
This was directed at Faye. Egon felt his sister squeeze into him, trying to hide behind his body.
Their mother sighed. “We were about to call the police.”
“Not me. She was.” The silhouette of their father came closer. The faint light revealed the rage on his face. “You think I’d let you do that? Make me look foolish. Again. The cops showing up – for nothing! Get out of my sight! You’re grounded. Go!”
Faye pushed away and ran up the stairs.
Egon remained still. “Why are you mad at me?”
“Get out of my sight! Go—I said!”
“I did nothing wrong.”
“Are you challenging me, boy?”
“Shut the fuck up. You want to end up like your sister?”
“Ray!” howled his mother.
Egon stepped backward. “I went looking for her.”
His father bolted toward him. Egon fled up the stairs but then stopped halfway.
His dad shouted, “Move! Keep running!”
Egon screamed back, “I know why she left! It’s because of you! It’s what you do to her at night!”
“You shut up! I’ll deal with you later. Go!”
Egon ran to the top of the stairs and stopped. He crouched at the wood banister. He listened to his parents arguing.
“What is he talking about, Ray?”
“Kids don’t run away for no reason!”
“What’s that supposed to mean? You blaming me!?”
Egon heard a loud slap, followed by his mother’s scream.
The sound of broken glass – something thrown against a wall – made Egon back away and retreat into Faye’s bedroom. He saw her on the floor wedged between her bed and dresser. Her knees were up against her chest, a pillow clutched to her face. She was shaking. Her eyes were swollen from crying.
Egon told her, “We’ll be safe tonight. He won’t come after you. I won’t let him hurt you again.”
Faye looked up and glared at her brother.
Egon flinched, startled by more glass breaking. “I promise.”
“I wish you had never found me.”