SHORT STORY
Fair
by Lise Quintana
Writer of the Month

When I saw the goo all over the fallen leaves, I hoped Peggy from next door might know what it was. She came up the driveway in her muck boots, a tiny woman in her mid-50s with an indefatigable smile.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s beautiful! Do you mind?”

I shrugged, having no idea what she intended to do. The stuff looked like fresh snail slime, but thicker and iridescent white. Even in the shade it sparkled like hope and promise. This isn’t right.

Peggy dipped her finger into one of the trails, scooping up a little sparkling opal blob of the stuff. She raised it to her nose and sniffed it, then held it up to her eye.

“It’s even more beautiful close up,” she said. She rubbed the goo between her thumb and index finger, and I had to blink a few times. Peggy’s fingerprints blurred, the wrinkles softened, and her whole hand looked for a split second like it belonged to a much younger person. She bent down for more of the stuff, but I held her back.

“Don’t. What if it’s eating your skin?” I said, although it came out a lot less concerned than I felt.

“It’s fine,” Peggy said. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

“Should you be rubbing it all over yourself if you don’t know what it is?” I said, worried because my voice didn’t convey my alarm. “Is there such a thing as snail rubbing?”

“What?”

“Like toad licking, only with snails. Can this stuff get you high?”

“I don’t know about high, but this stuff makes me feel pretty good,” she said, her eyes sparkling again.

“Yeah, but heroin makes people feel good too. I don’t want to mess with the natural equivalent of glue sniffing.”

Peggy’s face went from radiant to merely blissful. “I guess you’re right. Tell you what. I’ll be the test case. If nothing bad has happened to me by tomorrow, you’ll know it’s safe.” She left, skipping down the driveway.

I raked up the goopy leaves before Peggy could come back and start rolling around in them.

I’m not just a prude hell-bent on taking away everybody else’s good time. This stuff’s making Peggy act goofy. I can’t just leave it lying around.

I touched a match to the bottom of my leaf pile. Billows of green, purple and orange smoke wafted up while it smoldered, then little tongues of pure turquoise and scarlet flame shot out from between the leaves. Before the whole thing caught, I snatched one slime-encrusted leaf with my gardening glove. As I watched the fire make a rainbow of little sparks dance in the air, I thought I could see figures of people or animals made out of smoke, but when I turned my head to look, I couldn’t quite catch them. I took my leaf inside and dropped it into a plastic zipper bag.

I was up the next morning before my alarm and went outside in my bathrobe to look under the sycamore. I didn’t get that far – the entire wall at one end of the deck was covered in a filigree of glittering slime paisleys, loops and whirls. Peggy, who’d already spotted the newest deposit, came down the driveway. Either the morning light or greed made her eyes glitter.

“I’ll make it short and sweet – you should thank all that’s holy that you found this stuff. What did you do with the stuff on the leaves from yesterday?”

"I burned it," I said.

“You didn’t.” She glared at me with undisguised malice. “Do you realize what you’ve done? Do you have any idea what you’ve thrown away?”

 “That stuff made you act weird,” I said, feeling a flush creep up the back of my neck.

“I wasn’t ‘acting weird,’” she said. “I had the best day of my life yesterday. My first meeting of the morning ran late because my boss was busy giving me a raise, and when I got to the break room, there was one bagel left – my favorite kind.”

Her favorite kind is pumpernickel. No wonder there was one left.

But the rest of her day had been filled with the same kinds of little miracles. She stood with her hands on her hips and her chin thrust out, while I just stood there in my bathrobe and bare feet, a chill starting to creep into my bones.

“I’m going to get dressed, get a hose, and clean this stuff off my wall,” I said, looking her in the eye and starting to back slowly away.

“I can’t let you do that.” She stepped forward between me and the wall.

“Peggy, I’m going to say this simply: I would like for you to go home. I’m going to clean this stuff up and pretend it never happened.”

But she didn’t budge.

“What do I have to do to get you to leave? I have to get my kids to school.”

“Promise that you won’t destroy this. That you’ll share it with everyone. Say that you understand that this is something…” she looked around as though the word she wanted were floating on the air somewhere close by. “Something magic.”

“Okay…” I said mechanically. “I promise not to destroy it. I promise to share it with all mankind.”

Peggy looked at me for a long minute. “Do you mean that? Because I’m serious.”

“Of course I mean it,” I said. The amazing thing was, I didn’t feel the least little bit bad about lying.

I ran into the house and dressed without showering, then started putting the kid’s lunches together. From the kitchen window, I could see Peggy jogging back down my driveway with a spatula and a jar.

"What are you doing?" I yelled out the window.

She jumped at the sound of my voice. “Well, you said you’d share,” she said.

“Peggy, just because I said I’d share doesn’t mean ‘come over and help yourself,’” I yelled as I came outside.

“You just said,” she started, scraping frantically at the wall.

The sight of her scooping that beautiful goo into her jar as though it were hers – as though she had some right to it – infuriated me. I raised my hand as if to hit her, and when she put her hand up in front of her face, I snatched the jar out of it.

“I’m going inside to call the police. You might want to go home.” When I opened my kitchen door, there were my daughters, standing with their backpacks.

“Mommy, why were you yelling at Peggy?” Becky, the 7 year old, asked me.

“Don’t worry about it,” Nancy, the 15-year-old, scolded, trying to push her back toward the bedroom. Becky twisted out from under her sister’s grip.

I started to make an excuse, but behind me, the fabulous pattern on the retaining wall caught the girls’ eyes.

“Mama! Did you do this?” Becky asked.

“Don’t touch it!” I yelled. Too late. Becky had traced first her finger, then her whole hand over a section of the glittering pattern.

 “Becky,” her sister said in her exasperated mom-in-training voice. “Mom said not to touch it!” She grabbed the offending hand, getting the goo on herself in the process. The two girls stared at each other and it struck me that Becky’s eyes were the bluest sapphires I’d ever seen, while Nancy’s were the color of an enchanted ocean. Even as they exchanged conspiratorial looks, they were perfect.

“Come on, time for school,” I said reluctantly, a hand to the backs of their blonde halos.

After I dropped the girls off, I walked through the garden and up the steps, noting that Peggy hadn’t come back. Inside the house, the jar I’d taken from Peggy glittered on the kitchen counter, and I thought of taking it to the college and asking someone in the biology department about it. I stuck the jar in my carryall. This is stupid. I’m acting irrational.

I headed over to the campus and entered the tiled, smelly biology building. There was no central receptionist, so I ended up wandering around until I found a woman wearing a long skirt and a t-shirt, sitting on a couch in the break room grading papers.

"Are you in the biology department?” I asked.

“No, no. I’m Professor Sidda. I’m in comparative religion, but our coffee maker’s broken. What can I help you with?"

Comparative religion won't do me any good unless this is an attack of Buddha beetles or angel mites. I pulled the leaf out of my carryall and showed it to her.

"Can you tell me what this is?"

She took the baggie and looked at it, then opened it up, sniffed and was about to put her hand in when I snatched it back.

"Let me ask you a couple of questions," she said. "Where did this come from?"

"The fence behind my house."

"How long have you had it at your house?”

“This is the second day,” I said.

“And do you have any children?” she asked.

“Two. Is this relevant?”

“Are they…there’s no good way to ask this. Are they attractive children? Nicely groomed, smart, good features?”

“Ye-s-s-s…"

“I think that what you have is an infestation of fairies.”

I waited for the smirk – for the “gotcha” that I was sure was coming, but she continued to stare at me with a serious expression.

“Gee, thanks Professor Elrond.”

 “It’s silvery white, glows like opal, it’s irresistible to look at, and makes whoever touches it lucky, am I right?”

“How could you know that just from sniffing it?” I asked.

“Because I’ve heard of it. I’ve never seen it with my own eyes, but my doctoral professor did.”

I reached into my carryall to pull out the jar of glittering, glistening slime. Professor Sidda’s eyes grew huge, reflecting the shimmer of the stuff in the jar. She reached her hand toward it, then drew it back.

“Why did you want to know if I have children?” I asked. Half my mind was said See? I told you so!

“Fairies are malicious, evil things,” she said. “Not just mischievous or silly - evil. They like being cruel and destructive.”

“Okay, you’ve officially crossed over into weirdville,” I said, turning away and walking down the hall.

“It’s only a matter of time before they try to take your children,” she called after me.

Once I got to the parking lot I ran, clutching my jar with a white-knuckled hand. I threw my carryall into my car, where I could see that even in the shade, the goop glowed and sparkled. But just past the sparkle I could see something dark. The glittering sparkles sucked up all the light out of what was right behind them.

On my way home, I stopped to pick Nancy up from school. A boy stood with her, his arm touching hers casually. I caught a quick hand-squeeze before she broke free and came to the car where she sat down, screwed her earbuds into her ears and began texting.

At the elementary school, Becky and her teacher were waiting for us at the bus turnaround, holding a giant piece of poster board.

“Hey, Beck,” I called. “Hello, Mrs. Mattheson!”

“Becky was selected as student of the month,” the teacher said, approaching the car. “I wanted her to make a collage of photos of herself and your family for the display case. There’s an assembly on the 23rd, and she’ll get a special award.”

I shut the car off and got out to open the trunk for the poster board. I looked inside at Becky and Nancy leaning, heads together, talking to each other and looking at me. “That’s great,” I said. “ I won’t keep you – I have to run. I’ll have this back to you by Friday.”

I got back into the car and the conversation hushed the minute I got in. As we pulled into the driveway, Peggy was talking to my husband. When she saw us, she leaned into him as though she didn’t want me to overhear, then patted his arm and walked away without looking at me.

“What was that about?” I asked.

 “Peggy says she’s worried about you. She says that she thinks that stuff on our deck had some kind of toxic effect on you. You tried to hit her.”

 “I didn’t try to hit her,” I said. “I just took a jar away from her.”

“That’s the other thing. She wants her jar back with the contents in it. She says that you gave it to her and then threatened her for it.”

I looked into my husband’s face. “Do you believe her?”

 “Sweetheart, you’re not acting like yourself,” he said. “You’re not usually this…” and then patted his chest the way he does when he can’t think of the right word to express himself.

“Who are you going to believe?”

“It’s not a question of believe, sweetheart,” Dale said, pulling me close to him. I buried my face in his chest, but he wasn’t with me. Normally when I was upset, Dale would pull me to his chest and hum so I could feel the vibration against my cheek. But I was standing in silence now.

“What is it, then?” I asked, looking up at him.

“You haven’t been yourself,” he said. “For the past few days you’ve been angry and tense.”

It was getting late and there was still dinner to make, so I stalked inside. Over dinner the girls were bursting with news about their fabulous day and all the amazing things that had happened to them, all directed at their father.

 “I want more of the shimmery stuff tomorrow,” Becky said around a mouthful of lasagna. “Sierra was crying at recess and I told her that if she stopped crying I would bring her some.”

“I’m sorry, there isn’t any.” I felt a tiny twinge at lying to my baby, but it was justified.

The girls exchanged looks.

“What about the stuff in the jar?” Nancy asked.

“I threw it out.”

The girls stared at each other for a full three seconds before Becky elbowed her sister in the side.

 “Martina’s mom told us that this stuff means we have fairies,” Nancy said, her chin jutting out like a prosecuting attorney’s.

“And how would Martina’s mother know about this?”

“She said that she’s seen it before in the old country.”

I gave a laugh that sounded nasty even to me. “What country would that be?”

“Scotland.”

“Well first off, all Scotland has is sheep and kilts and those hairy miniature cows, because there’s no such thing as fairies. Secondly, anyone who knows anything about fairies for real knows that they’re evil.”

“Why?” Becky asked, letting a piece of sausage slide from her fork onto the tablecloth unnoticed.

“If you meet a fairy, it’ll want to steal you away. Where fairies live, it’s always dark and dirty and they’ll make you their slaves to clean for them forever.”

“Nuh-uh!” Becky said. Her 7-year-old experience told her that fairies are sweet, sparkly little sprites, and the ones who are bad will only hurt you if you’re a princess whose parents have wronged it. Nancy didn’t even dignify my explanation with a reaction.

“I’m serious. I want you girls to stay away from that stuff. I don’t know what it is, but I’m worried it’s something gross. Like some kind of weird termite poop.”

“It’s not poop,” Becky said. “Poop is gross. Grosser than dead rats and chicken feet.”

“Mom!” Nancy yelled “Why are you doing this? I swear, one good thing happens to us and you can’t stand it.”

I grabbed the jar of fairy goop and locked myself in the bathroom. By the time Dale knocked on the door, the neck of my shirt was damp with tears and my face felt sticky and hot. Even through the blur of tears, the jar glittered like a distant universe.

“Are you okay?”

“No,” I sniffed.

“Honey, this has me freaked out,” Dale said. “The girls are right. Becky comes home with great news and you tell her that it’s not real – it’s just fairy dust. And then you tell her that Tinkerbell is going to put her in prison. What next? Are you going to tell her that Santa Claus is a Nazi?”

 “What’s happening?” I said as the tears flowed down my face again. “I see that everyone’s happy and wonderful things are happening, but deep inside me I know that something’s wrong. This is all too good to be true.”

Dale slid down the wall to sit beside me.

“What’s too good to be true? That Peggy had a good day after she touched it? That the girls had a good day? Nancy didn’t even get to tell you her news – some kid on the soccer team asked her to homecoming. She was afraid that you’d say she couldn’t go. But are those things really out of line? What if everyone’s just having a good day?”

"There was a woman at the college who told me the same thing as Martina’s mother,” I said quietly.

“That thing about the fairies?”

“Yeah. She’s the one who said that fairies are evil and that they’d be after the girls.”

Dale took a long, deep breath as he stood up.

“My poor sweetheart,” he said, kissing the top of my head. “Someone threatened your babies. No wonder you’re acting freaked out.” He stood up and held me close to his chest and as I heard the hum from deep inside him, I burst into tears again.

The next morning, I decided not to look outside. As I made the girls’ lunches I felt the tickle of curiosity behind my breastbone pulling me toward the back door, but I ignored it.

The girls were on their way to the car when Becky remembered it was sharing day and ran to the deck where she’d left her quartz rock. A second later Nancy and I were frozen in place by an unearthly squeal. As we ran to the back yard, we saw Becky walking toward the retaining wall, eyes fixed.

The entire wall was covered in fairy poop graffiti. “Hello Becky!” “Come and see us!” “Nancy is beautiful!” “Who’s the fairest of them all? YOU!” The entire wall was covered with greetings, compliments, come-ons in sparkling fairy snot. Before I was done reading it, I realized that both girls were running their hands around in it while looking back at me.

“Stop! What did I tell you?” But it was too late. With their hands covered in glittering goo, both girls ran into the house, and I ran after them. As I came inside, they were heading into the garage.

“Wash your hands!” I yelled.

“We did!” Nancy said. She nudged her sister, and both held out their defiantly clean hands for inspection. I shepherded them back into the car, and they sat in the back, heads together, excluding me.

I called Professor Sidda again, desperate to find out what could be done to get rid of these fairies. Even if they didn’t steal my children, they didn’t feel like they were mine anymore.

“Hi, you probably don’t remember me,” I said. “I met you yesterday and you told me that I have an infestation of fairies.” I went on to describe to her what I’d found on the wall this morning. After I’d finished my waterfall of panicked explanation, delivered at a speed that discouraged interruption, she sighed.

“Where are your children?” she asked.

“At school.”

“Is there somewhere you can take them? The further away the better. Do you have any relatives out of state?”

“Uh…no?”

She told me she'd call me as soon as she'd talked to a few people about our "course of action," which sounded military and active and good. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had to keep moving or something horrible would happen. Hours later, I was still too edgy to eat lunch. I fought the urge to wipe the rest of the schmutz off the back wall, but now it had become a matter of pride. I wasn’t going to let my husband and children think that I was bitter and panicked.

I picked the girls up from school, and they went straight out to the backyard while I cursed myself for not scraping that stuff off the wall earlier. Before I could get to the kitchen window to spy on them, they were rubbing themselves in the stuff. They pressed their faces against the walls and spread their limbs out, moving their arms up and down to make fairy goop angels.

“Stop!” I screamed, bolting out the back door. “What do you think you’re doing?”

The girls looked at each other and then went inside without saying anything. I wanted someone to comfort me, to tell me I was right, but in my head a voice like shrill discordant chimes, like the wheezy squeakers in children’s toys whispered "We'll get your little girls."

 At bedtime that night, I got Dale to sleep in Nancy’s room while I tucked the girls up into bed with me.

“It’ll be like a sleepover,” I said, even as they gave each other that look again. But they piled into my bed without argument. Becky snuggled up to her sister and surrendered consciousness without a fuss. Nancy gave me a perfunctory kiss on the cheek and turned her back to me, spooning around her sister. I bent over to kiss her head, and she looked annoyed as she brushed away the tear that fell onto her cheek.

My intention had been to stay up all night and keep watch. I made a pot of coffee and took it into my bedroom, but somewhere, one of my neighbors was playing music - something like a fiddle, or bells. I shook my head, but the music only got louder.

I looked out the window, but with the light on I couldn’t see anything, so I walked out my bedroom door into the darkened living room. I looked outside where I could see one side of the deck, the kitchen window, the sycamore, a bit of the wall. The moonlight twinkled through the leaves and made eerie dancing, glittery shadows. Was that dew? I sat down on the sofa, wanting to get a better look but knowing that I had to stay inside with the girls. The harder I looked, the more the shadows danced. What was that little black shape? Could that have been a bird at this time of night?

The more I strained, the more clearly I saw them. They were gray and silver and blue, and looked like gnarled bits of branch and swirls of leaves. They spun around the deck, and then made for the window. I wanted to get up and run, but I was rooted to the spot as they pried it open and flew in. They were taunting me, and I couldn’t do anything. One of them tied my hair into knots, another tore my pajamas and a third stabbed the soles of my feet with a tiny thorn. I opened my mouth to scream, but one of them leapt to my mouth. With a flash of light, my mouth filled with glittering goop and I was choking. I gagged and wretched, and tried again to scream, but the noise coming out of my mouth was the song of a tiny bird. The fairies lifted me up and carried me off. I could see the girls, still asleep on the bed, growing tinier, but I it was only me growing smaller and wondering what it would feel like to wink out of existence. I looked into the giant faces of the fairies who, close up, were covered with scales that shone with poisoned slime. The last thing I heard before I disappeared was their laughter.

I made pictures of them next to my bed. Their eyes are pieces of stones stuck to the wall with sap. The pink of their cheeks is berry juice, and their hair is bits of down. I’m not an artist, and these are the only materials I have. During the endless days of scrubbing filthy pots and sweeping dusty halls, I remember that look they gave each other, and each day, I give it a new meaning. 


Lise Quintana is the EIC of Zoetic Press. Her work can be found at Drunk Monkeys, Red Fez, Role Reboot, Extract(s), and other fine journals. In addition to writing, Lise is the developer of the Lithomobilus ereader, which can be found at www.lithomobilus.com.