Faerie Tale

I don't remember exactly how I met Breena. Mom has told me that it was Mrs. Richardson, Breena's mother's, idea to get together. My mom has three children—my two older siblings and me—and that made her a prime chose for Carol Richardson's companionship. "We should get together so our girls can play and get to know one another while we relax over tea or something," she had told my mother so many years ago.

Mom, of course had relented, only to confess to me years after the Incident. "Carol Richardson," she tells me tonight over a cup of midnight tea, "didn't know the first thing about raising kids. She thought she'd have one and that motherly instinct would immediately kick in to make her the perfect parent. She had Breena, her first and only, and found out in a panic, like all of us do, that it doesn't work that way."

Mom shakes her head, and I am terrified that she will send me back to bed. My room, with my bed next to that wide, beautiful window overlooking the yard edged with woods—woods that lead to the Creek—is the last place I wanted to go. It was a warm summer evening, humid and thick, and the fireflies are dancing. At least, I hope they are fireflies. Before the Incident, on that freezing, cloudless winter night so long ago, I would be sure they are fireflies. Now, I sit at a barstool in the kitchen, twisting my hair anxiously, and pray that they are only fireflies.

Mom sips her tea and continues. "Carol came to me because I was the closest neighbor with kids. The fact that you and Breena were the same age made a wonderful excuse to be buddy-buddy."

Mom shakes her head and stirs her tea slowly, thoughtfully, eyes boring into that hot, brown liquid as if it is a bottomless well holding all the answers we have been dying for these ten years past. She adds some more cream absent-mindedly and says, "There were many times, Allie, more times, lately, that I wish I hadn't accepted Carol's offer to be best friends."

I only stare at my short, bitten nails and think of the lights floating outside my window. Then, I drift away into my thoughts, into memories I wish I could forget, and wonder if it would have been better without Mrs. Richardson, without Breena, without the Incident.

I cannot remember a time in my life when there hadn't been Breena. Our births had been on the same day, synchronized even to the hour. Carol Richardson, who Mom said was superstitious by nature, saw it as a clear and definite sign that Breena and I were destined to be companions for life.

I don't remember Mrs. Richardson very well. She moved away after the Incident without leaving an address or a phone number. She's just a picture in my mind with a vague, foggy memory of a chattering voice. She is tall and spindly, all frizzy red hair and freckles dressed up in a bright yellow skirt, sitting at the table with a cup of tea. Breena looked nothing like Carol Richardson. If it hadn't been an accepted, known fact that she was Breena's mother, and, according to my mother, if Mrs. Richardson hadn't constantly discussed the wonders and horrors of childbirth, you couldn't believe that they were even distant relatives.

Like I said, I don't remember Carol Richardson, but Breena, on the other hand, I remember with such intense clarity that sometimes it's as if she's right beside me, six-years old, playing make-believe. I can still feel the warmth of her smile and her smooth, slender hand clasping mine. In my mind's eye, she is small, smooth skinned, and pale, a picture of strange, frighteningly loveliness. Dark hair and large, deep blue eyes, eyes of such depth they can swallow you in their dream world. It is a frightening beauty not because it is the shocking, head-turning loveliness that they post on movie screens and fashion magazines; it is an otherworldly look, as if Breena is too delicate, too singular, too dreamlike, to have been born into our harsh planet that thrived in cruel reality. Breena behaves like her beauty, as if she is from another world, dying, longing, and thirsting for some other existence. So Breena escapes, every day and every hour, into some other place, and she takes me with her. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been better if I had never entered her dream world, and, at the same time, I wish I had had gone with her and stayed there forever.

I remember our last play day with such clarity that I can still feel the browning, prickly grass beneath my bare feet. I can taste the hint of autumn in the rising air, see the green leaves tinged with gold, and hear the geese honking overhead as they fly to warmer places. And I can see Breena, just a if she were in front of me, kicking her legs up on the swigs, dark hair loose in the breeze, looking so very foreign and fragile in so common a place.

"You know we start school tomorrow," I say, swinging beside her.

"But it's not tomorrow," Breena says in a voice as delicate as harp strings. "Come on, let's play Darcy and Meriel one last time. We didn't finish when Darcy and the Snake-King were fighting over the bewitched Meriel. You have to be Darcy, now, Allie, and break the spell."

I sigh and take a flying leap out of my swing. "Aren't you excited about starting school?"

Breena's sapphire eyes look up at the blue sky. "It hasn't started yet."
"But it will tomorrow."

"It's not tomorrow yet."

I sigh heavily with aggravation and push my bangs out of my eyes. They are getting too long, and Mom has promised to have them cut before my first day of school.

"Stacy says that we won't be able to play so much. Teachers give out this stuff called homework."

Breena's eyes suddenly focus and light on me. "Is that what she does every night, when she tells your mom we're playing too loud?"

I nod. My sister Stacy is fifteen years old, nine years my elder, and knows everything there is to know about school, clothes, movie stars, and boys. Frankly, I don't know who on earth wanted to know anything about boys, but Stacy tells me that one day, I might know all about them, too. I shudder at the thought.

"So, what is homework?" Breena asks.

"Oh, just stuff like numbers and letters and all that junk," I say casually, twisting my short straight hair around my fingers.

"Gosh, it takes her that long to do that?" Breena asks in amazement.

I shrug.

Breena's smart, real smart, and everybody knows it. Breena can read all the first-grade primer books, count to a hundred without stopping, and spell Mississippi just as easy as a wink. Stacy is smart, I guess, but not that smart. Nobody really intelligent spends all their time chasing after boys. My brother Hal, who is only four years older than me, is even stupider than Stacy, except he doesn't waste his time learning about girls the way Stacy studies boys; he just sits in front of his television and plays all those brainless star fighter video games. Honestly, Breena's the smartest person I know, and even nicer than having a friend who's a genius is having a friend who doesn't act like she is one. No throwing her brains in your face or making you feel like a moron every time you say something stupid, like the time I stated matter-of-factly that Stacy puts curlers in her hair to warm her head. Honestly, I don't think Breena knows just how smart she is. What I do know is that the moment that first school bell rings, every first grader in Oaks Elementary will know that Breena Richardson is a bona fide genius.

Breena lightly hops off her swing and looks up at the sky. "Arm yourself, brave Darcy, to battle the wicked Snake-King, who has bewitched me."

Breena talks funny like that, but I have learned to overlook it.

"Aw, Bree, I don't feel like playing, right now. What are you going to wear to school tomorrow? That pretty blue dress your mom just bought you?"

Breena doesn't answer. Her eyes are looking elsewhere. Anyone else would be annoyed with being ignored like that, but I'm used to it. Breena will come back, eventually, and we will talk. For now, I keep chattering.

"I'm going to wear my new jeans. Mom got me this skirt, and she says I have to wear it, but I won't." I make a face as if I've just eaten something sour. "Gosh, I hate skirts. Are you going to bring a ball or anything? Hal says they've got hoards in the gym. More balls than you've ever seen in one place at once. I don't know whether I'll play soccer or kickball first."

I'm a whiz at soccer and a deadly threat in kickball. Stacy told me that this will either make the boys love or loathe me immediately. Not that I care or anything.

Suddenly, Breena turns very, very white, and her eyes grow wider than I'd ever seen them, wider than I think is humanly possible. "Did you see her?" she whispers in awe.

I practice my kickball home run kick. "See who?"

Breena points at the old oak. "Her."

The way she says the word, as if it is something very holy, makes me stop in mid-kick and look at her. "Who?"

Breena's face twitches, caught in that strange crack between terror and uncontainable joy. "The fairy."

I roll my eyes and return to my imaginary ball. "I told you I didn't want to play right now, Bree."
Breena's mouth falls open, and her eyes glisten. "But I wasn't playing—"

"Yeah, sure, Bree," I mutter, loosening my pitching arm.

"But I wasn't." Great tears spill down her cheeks. "Honest, Allie, I wasn't playing. I really saw her right there." She points again. "She's gone now. Flew away."

I wrinkle my nose at her. "Stop it, Bree."

"But I wasn't playing!" Breena shrieks and stamps her foot. "I saw her! She was real!" she wails at the top of her lungs, white with wrath, hysterical. "I saw her! She was real! I saw her! I SAW HER!"

Then Mrs. Richardson pokes her head into the backyard and calls Breena to her side.

Breena stops screaming immediately. Her tears dry up in an instant, but the look she gives me, that deep, dark stare that pierces my very core, sends a chill all through me. Breena has never looked at me like that before, ever. But I have never ever called Breena Richardson a liar before, either.

The first day of school finally arrives. Mom succeeds in making me wear my new skirt, but I hide my jeans under it. When I am around the corner halfway to the bus stop, I will slip the skirt off, stuff it in my bag, and then change again before I get home. There is nothing I can do about the pink shirt Mom has made me wear, though. Breena meets me at the door in her new blue dress, books tight under her arm, staring at me blankly.

"Hey," I say.

"Hello," she says back. She sounds half asleep.

I go to shove my hands into my pockets only to remember that the stupid skirt doesn't have any. So, instead I kick at the sidewalk awkwardly. "Listen, Bree, I'm sorry about calling you a liar yesterday."

Her eyes light up. "So, you believe me?"

I open my mouth and then clamp it shut. Breena's my best friend; I can't let her down again. So, I shrug and say nothing, but she believes the shrug means yes, and her solemn, beautiful face breaks into a smile.

"You excited about school today?" I ask cheerfully, ready to change the subject.

Now it's Breena's turn to shrug. "It's just more books and numbers, and I have plenty of those at home."

Carol Richardson had long ago discovered Breena's brains and felt it a necessity to stock up with flashcards and books with big words and no pictures then force them on Breena. Breena didn't seem to mind, though. She always came to my house with the most interesting stories to tell.

I kick a rock and check over my shoulder at my house. It's almost out of sight. "You aren't scared?"

"No, not of the books or anything." Breena tucks a black curl behind her ear, and her blue eyes focus on me in a wide-eyed, anxious stare. "Do you think they'll—the other kids—you think they'll like me?"

"Sure, why not?"

Ha! My house was hidden behind the corner, now, and it was time to unleash my plan. I dash behind Mr. Dixon's mailbox hedge and get to work on that cursed flap of fabric draped around my legs.

Breena's eyes nearly explode. "Allie, what are you doing?!"

"Just taking my skirt off."


"Yeah, see?" I step out from my makeshift changing room and display my blue jeans with pride. "Smart huh?"

Breena's still gulping in air, slowly realizing that I still have clothes on.

"Gosh, you didn't think I was going to go around naked, did you?"

She shakes her head and says again, "Do you think they'll like me?"

"Yeah." I jump up and knock a few brown leaves off a tree. "I mean, you're really nice and pretty, and you're the smartest kid ever. I bet you everyone will love you."

Her eyes glisten hopefully. "Really?"

"Cross my heart and hope to die."

Breena smiles again, and then, with a squeal of glee, points at the hedge. "Oh, Allie, look! Another one!"

I spin around, heart racing with the fear that I'd been discovered. "Another what?"

"A faerie, silly!"

I turn back to Breena, frowning. Once had been by far enough for this sort of thing. We were six now, real first graders on our way to school. This was no time to play pretend, but I wasn't about to upset Breena again. "Yeah, that's what it is," I say.

She grins at me. "So, you do see it?"

I shrug. That's the best thing to do when you don't want to answer. When you shrug, people just assume you're agreeing with them.

Breena takes my hand gleefully, joy bubbling out of her in a chorus of little girl giggles, and we stroll to the bus stop, feeling ready to face a fire-breathing dragon. Unfortunately, a hoard of leering first-graders is much harder to subdue than any of King Arthur's dragons.

Recess. The one event of the school day every child loves—every child, that is, except Breena. I think, had things gone differently, she would have loved it, too, but, after that first day of school, recess was a living nightmare. The nightmare had an angelic face framed in a halo of yellow ringlets and a perfectly lovely name: Carolina Hope.

We walk in the door to a pristine classroom that smells like dry erase makers and floor cleaner. As we look for out seats, Breena reads all the bright nametags out loud, and one girl with short, golden curls squints at us suspiciously. She has a round, fair face with very red cheeks so she looks like those little naked angels you see everywhere on Valentine's Day. She looks Breena up and down and says in a high, squeaky voice, "What are you doing?"

"Reading the names," Breena says innocently. She glances at the desk next to the cupid look-alike. "You're Carolina, aren't you? That's pretty name."

Carolina's brown eyes narrow until they're nearly lost in those apple cheeks. "You can't read," she says slowly.

Breena's smile vanishes. "Yes, I can. My mother taught me."

"Liar." It's a cold, vicious word, bearing all the venom of a hundred vipers. "Liar."

I jump in front of Breena and ball my fists. "She's not lying," I snap angrily.

Carolina's eyes grow wide then disappear again into those rolls. "You going to hit me?"

"I will if you don't shut up."

Carolina sniffs and plops into her seat with all the show and flair of Shirley Temple. In fact, that sort of who she looks like, and I decide that I hate Shirley Temple.

"Freaks," she mutters under her breath, and I let all hell loose.

She can call me any name she likes; I have two older siblings who call me all sorts of things, and I don't care. But no one is going to call Breena Richardson anything but wonderful. I smack Carolina right in the middle of that cherubic face of hers, and her chair tumbles over, skirt and curls flying. She screams and swats at me, but I keep punching. She fights like a girl, and girls can't fight except like cats. Cats can make you bleed and sting for a little while, but speeding balls of knuckle can smash and leave you sore for a week. I wanted Carolina to be sore for a month. The next thing I know, someone's pulling me off of a sobbing mussed-up cherubim clone. I'm pushed into my seat, and the teacher kneels before Carolina to nurse her bleeding nose. I sniff with disappointment. I want her whole stupid face to be punched in.

"Honestly, before class even starts, someone starts a ruckus," the teacher mutters. "Why is it always my class? Always mine on the first day of school? Why me? Why?"

I point at Carolina. "She called Breena a freak."

"Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me," the teacher quips.

I frown. That's the biggest load of bull I've ever heard.

Breena takes my hand quietly, and I see her eyes are wide with fear and admiration.

The teacher grabs my arm and says, "You're coming with me."

She takes Carolina gently by the hand and leads us down the hall. Over my shoulder, I see Breena watching, hands over her mouth, blue eyes moist with tears as if she knows this was the tiny pebble that will begin the avalanche that destroys everything.

Caroline never forgave me for beating her pretty face (and she never let me forget it all through grade school, middle school, and high school), and she hated Breena for being smart, sweet, and lovely all at once. She started all the trouble on the playground, all the cruel words that pierced like poison darts, the quiet, innocent, mean-hearted torture that only children can inflict. Breena wilted like a plant without water. I remember every recess as if it were a bad dream, each day playing in my mind as a bitter reminder of how our childhood was stolen. Everyday, it was the same story. Breena would be Breena, and the kids would tease, laugh, and taunt. She never did anything really wrong, but singing on the playground and dancing with invisible faeries aren't considered right, either. Soon, she would do nothing at all, and they would howl at the very sight of her. I was sent to the principle so many times on account of the trail of bloody noses and broken teeth I left in my wake that Mom warned me viscously that if I got in one more fight they would throw me out of school. It wasn't like I could help it. Friends are supposed to defend each other, aren't they? But I stopped fighting. My reputation was almost enough to shut the kids up. All I had to do was give them "that look" and ball my fists and they scampered off like scared rabbits. Slowly, they were learning to be quiet, and it seemed our troubles would soon end. Still, there was that one last day, that day I will never ever forget. The day of the Incident.
Charlie Davis is laughing, and that is never a good thing. He's the meanest kid on the playground, and I hate his oversized guts. His thin lips are pulled back into that hideous sneer he's infamous for, and he's pointing a grubby finger at Breena and at me.

"Look, the freak and her bodyguard!" he jeers. "What, you can't call on your dragon friends to save you? Or maybe you can say a spell or something. Go ahead, witch,"—they all call her witch, now, and many other horrid names as terrible as they can be without being a four-letter word from the bathroom walls—"say a spell. Turn me into a frog or something, weirdo."

"They aren't dragons," Breena says softly, her eyes focused on the ground. "They're faeries."

Charlie guffaws, and I hate the sound more than I hate him.

I elbow Breena gently. "Stop," I hiss. "You'll just make it worse."

Breena looks up, her eyes dark, hollow and moist, and I see just how much our peers are killing her. There is no light, no joy her eyes' deep wells. There is a deep, dark, shame there now, and the dreaminess of the wells have swallowed all reality. She's hiding in their shadow, now, wishing for the shadow, hoping for the shadow.

And I ache for her.

"But there are, faeries, Allie," she whispers. "They come to me on the playground and at night when I feel so very much alone. They walk me home from school when you leave me. I see them, Allie. Can't you?"

Before I can answer, Charlie hurls a wad of dirt at Breena's pretty face. Carolina is there, now, too, laughing her high-pitched tinkling laugh. I think that is the sound that haunts people in Hell.

"No, wait," she pipes. "She'll find a tiny person, maybe another dirt princess in there, won't you, Princess Breena?"

Breena wipes the dirt out of her face, and I see tears mixed with the filth.

Carolina flounces up to us, her perfect little nose almost touching Breena's. It twitches like a rabbit's with distaste. "What? Is the princess crying, now? Where's your prince to save you? Or"—and she gives a wickedly adorable smile in my direction—"is your ugly warrioress going to save you?"

My hands are burning to sink into that soft angel face and pound it into goo, but I stick to my promise to be peaceful. All the while, something clicks in my brain, Ugly? Am I ugly? Surely, I don't compare to Breena's gentle loveliness or Carolina's showy looks, but I never thought I'd be ugly. The thought paralyzes me for a moment, but I snap back to life and pull Breena away from the ring of mockers. "Shut up!" I growl. "Leave her alone."

"Oh, Allie, it's just a joke," Brett says.

I like Brett; he has dark curls and a nice smile and scores all the points when we play soccer. He doesn't make fun of Breena and I, usually, but, now, I frown at him. "She's crying," I growl.

Brett sticks his hands in his pockets bashfully. "Aw, Allie," he says lightly, "it's just funny, that's all. We all like Breena, really. She's just kind of . . . well . . ." He shrugs. "She's just a little weird, you know?"

I say nothing. Yes, Breena's weird. I know that now more than I ever did because now they've told me what normal means, and Breena is definitely not normal.

Brett flashes me a smile. "Hey, you want to play kickball?"

I smile and nod, my troubles carried away on the wintry breeze. Then, Breena catches my arm. "Allie," she says in a hushed, holy voice, "dear, sweet Allie, you've been my closest friend all my life, and now I must tell you something most important."

The funny way Breena sometimes talks is beginning to get on my nerves, but I let her continue.

"Allie, they are coming for me—for us." Her eyes are shining so brightly it is almost blinding.

I frown. "Who?"

She leans very, very close to me so that our breath forms a single cloud in the chilly air. "The faeries."


Breena fidgets excitedly. "One of them, Mayberry—she's one of the prettiest ones, I think, but they are all so lovely, Allie—told me last night that tonight the others will come to me in the woods, and will take me away with them. I'll be one of them, Allie! I'll be a faerie!"

I am so shocked I don't know whether to laugh or run away screaming that she's insane. Breena loves make-believe, but she's never acted like she actually believes it. Not until now, when the shadow in her eyes is beaming and growing, threatening to swallow me in its dream.

"And what's more," she whispers breathlessly, "Mayberry said that you've been so good to me, a true and noble warrior, that you can come to."

I am beyond the point of words, now.

"Oh, isn't it wonderful!" she exclaims. "All our dreams will finally come true, Allie!"

My dream is to become a famous soccer-player and win the World Cup.

"Our games won't be games any more, they'll be reality! We'll be living our make-believe!"

My make-believe isn't supposed to come true for at least another ten years on a soccer-field with bright lights, television cameras, screaming fans, and ESPN.

"The magic is real, Allie! Can you believe it? It's real!"

No, I can't believe it because it isn't. It can't be.

I shake my head, trying to think, and say finally, slowly, "Breena, stop playing, please."

Her face falls, joy shattered into a thousand pieces. "But I'm not playing."

"Neither am I. Stop it."

She gives me that dark, painful glare she gave me that day in my backyard when she said there was a faerie in the oak tree, that look I'll never forget. "You mean you don't believe me?"

"No." It's as flat and unfeeling as a word can be. "You want to play kickball with us?"

Breena sits down against an old tree and pulls her knees up to her chest, curled into a miserable ball. "No."

"You sure? It'll be fun."

"Yeah, I'm sure."

I pretend that I don't see the single tear, like a perfect diamond, slide down her cheek.

That night, I woke up in the middle of the night to a tapping on my window. Breena was there, only in her pajamas, long dark hair trembling in the breeze. There were a few stray snowflakes caught in its tresses. "Allie," she says through the glass, "come with me, please. They're waiting for us."

"Breena, you're going to freeze to death!" I scold. "Come inside!"

She shakes her head. Her cheeks are flushed with the cold, and her eyes are very bright, like the eyes of someone very feverish. Still, there is an uncontainable joy in her face, wrapping her in a warm, bright aura. "Please, Allie. This is your last chance. They won't ask another human to join them for quite a while."

I shake my head. "Bree, the cold's made you nuts. I'm coming out to get you."

"No, you're not," she says, shaking her head again, her hair sticking to her face like strands of black cobweb. "They told me that you might try to stop me, but you can't Allie. No one can. I'm going to live my dream, Allie, and I'm running away, running away from all those monsters on the playground. I'm going to prove that I'm beautiful, that I'm worth something. They call me crazy, weird, freak, and witch, but I'm going to show them. I'm going to be beautiful, stunning, and magical—a real princess. Just wait, Allie, I'll come back, and I'll show you. I'll show them all! Oh, you're missing out, Allie! You're missing out!"

But I was already hurrying to the back door with a thick blanket. I throw open the door, shocked by the cold, and called for Breena, but she wasn't there. Snow was falling, and the my backyard was very dark and very empty with the woods at its edge looking like a wide, black abyss with tiny lights twinkling at me from within its nightmare.

I never saw Breena again. Missing child alerts covered the TV and the radio, but no one ever found her. Two weeks later, someone stumbled upon a body in the creek—a little girl's body. Everyone said it was Breena, but I didn't believe them. I went to the funeral, and that pretty, dressed-up plastic face was not Breena. It was a fake, a hollow shell. I didn't know where Breena had gone, but that was not she. All I knew was that there had been a tiny voice at my window that night, followed by dancing lights. I found traces of gossamer on the windowpane, even though I hadn't seen any spiders in a month. Breena had told me that sometimes faeries wear strands of spider web.

Sometimes, on nights like tonight, the lights come back and I think of Breena. I do not know if they are the lights of fireflies or Breena's lights. I do not know if faeries are real or if Breena dances on my window just to prove to me what I have missed. I do not know. Maybe I will never know. I go to class at school, and they tell me that there is nothing beyond what you see or explain, but Breena is gone and I can't explain it. Then, I go to church on holidays and hear the preacher say that there is a world beyond sight and sense, the spirit world where God and Jesus and the angels are. Neither help or soothe me. Breena is gone, and that is that. At times, I think I can believe in God and faeries, but then I open my science book and it screams "No! Never!" Still, Breena is not here, and I wonder if it can never be explained. Sometimes, people just believe even though it doesn't make sense. Breena believed, and I'd like to think it made her dreams came true. Still, there's that plastic corpse six feet under with a tombstone reading "Breena Marie Richardson." I want to believe and as badly as I want to know, but I can do neither, and that is as sad as the Incident. I know nothing, and maybe I will never know. But I oh so desperately wish to believe that there is something else beyond what I can see. In my gut and deep inside my heart of hearts I know there is.

My mother says something about me going back to bed, waking me from my thoughts, and I obey. I am too weary to stay in the waking world and think of Breena anymore. So, I climb back into my bed and, as I close my eyes, I fancy I see a tiny face, covered in light and beauty, grinning in the window.