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Fairy Stuff

               Only after Marlon rang the doorbell three times did a woman wearing a bizarre creature mask pop up from behind the white wicker chair on the porch to shout “Hello!”

               Marlon cried out and clutched at his belly with both hands.

               The woman laughed and pulled the mask up to reveal her face. “You didn’t see me back there. I thought you would, but you didn’t. Good thing my knees are so good for my age. Imagine if I’d been crouched back there for 30 minutes on the knees of an average 64-year-old.”

               “Do you live here?” asked Marlon, trying to will his heartbeat back to a reasonable rate.

               “Of course,” said the old woman. “You think I’d hide behind this chair to pop out and frighten someone else’s guests?”

               “I don’t know what you’d do,” said Marlon. “Are you Priscilla? You’re the one selling the Halloween masks?”

               “What Halloween masks?” asked the woman. “Just kidding. Yes, I’m Priscilla, and yes, I’m the one selling the Halloween masks. I’m warning you, though, they’re very old. This is one of them!” She pointed to the mask on top of her head. It was made of thin plastic and held in place by a white elastic band around the base of her skull. “My father and his siblings wore them when they were just naughty kids! I haven’t put one on in, oh, years and years. I forgot about them, actually, until I found them the other day. But then this morning, I got the idea to get one last use out of them. I figured someone interested in buying these spooky old things would be able to take it.” She pulled the mask off her head, pushed out from behind the wicker chair, and offered Marlon her left hand, which he shook. It was warm, almost hot. Priscilla had long, wavy hair dyed rusty red but showing gray at the roots. She wore a shin-length denim skirt with pockets, flowers embroidered on those pockets. Her blouse was composed of an indeterminate number of layered, gauzy fabrics in pastel colors. Her bare feet had chipped green polish on each toenail. Stepping around Marlon, Priscilla tried her front door and found it locked. “Whoopsie,” she said. “I think I locked myself out.”

               Marlon considered giving up and driving home, but he really wanted those vintage Halloween masks. They were the exact kind of thing he wanted to be collecting. They were perfect possessions for the person he intended to become as he entered the second half of his early 20s. They would be so intriguing to the girls he wanted to attract. He could imagine the masks displayed in the living room of his eventual apartment in Heavenburg, when he finally got it, or in his bedroom there, maybe, so his not-quite-as-cool roommates couldn’t claim the masks were theirs when he wasn’t around. Of course, the vintage Halloween masks wouldn’t be the full extent of his collection of weird and fascinating items. They were just the beginning, his first bold move toward a chosen identity. But a strong beginning: the masks looked like they were in great condition in the pictures Priscilla has posted online, and the one she’d worn to frighten him confirmed that impression. And they were truly creepy, much creepier than anything sold at costume stores these days, Marlon thought, and he was sure his future friends, future girlfriends, and members of his future artists’ collective would agree. So he decided to stick around a few minutes longer in case Priscilla figured out a way to get into her house. He didn’t want to go home empty-handed.

               “Hmm,” said Priscilla. She cupped her hands around her eyes as she looked in through the window to the left of the door.

               “What are you looking for?” asked Marlon. “Is there someone else here?”

               “I doubt it,” said Priscilla. “Well, this is such a silly situation we’ve found ourselves in, isn’t it? I was so excited to pop out from behind that chair to scare you that I forgot all about making sure we could get inside. Would you object to breaking one of my windows? I won’t report you to the cops, not that the Dalcette police would do anything about it anyway.”

               “You want me to break a window?” asked Marlon. “You don’t have a spare key hidden somewhere?”

               “Yes!” said Priscilla, bopping her forehead with the heel of her hand. “I do have a spare key! It’s behind a loose stone in the garden wall! Come on!” She tossed the mask onto the seat of the wicker chair in a way that was a little reckless for Marlon’s taste, made a dramatic “follow me” motion with her arm, thumped down the porch steps, and ran around the side of the house pumping her arms like she intended to run a few dozen laps.

               Marlon didn’t understand why he couldn’t just wait for Priscilla to return with the key, but he also felt as if Priscilla could use some continued supervision to keep her on track, and he followed her at a jog. The house itself was not large, but at its back edge, a stone wall began, more than 10 feet tall and stretching along the boundary of Priscilla’s considerable property. The wall looked sturdy, but old, almost ancient, as if it had been built long before the house to which it was attached. It was covered in vines, ivies, and other crawling plants which snaked over the top from inside, weaving their way down to its base, clinging to the stones as if intent on holding them together should the mortar crumble away. Looking up, Marlon saw the leafy tops of trees rising above the wall, thickly and darkly green. “That’s your garden in there?” asked Marlon.

               “No, not mine,” said Priscilla. She reached through the vines at the level of her shoulder and extracted a fist-sized stone from the wall. With her other hand, she reached into the hole left by the stone and produced a key. She returned the stone to its place. “Now, let’s get you those masks,” she said. “As long as you promise not to come back to get your revenge by using them to scare me! Just kidding, you can. I like to be scared!”

               “I probably won’t,” said Marlon. He looked again at the top of the garden wall, and the canopy of the trees within was stirred by a breeze that he couldn’t feel. Standing in the shadow of the wall, he felt only a hint of what it must feel like to be inside. It was as if the garden were filled with a quietness that came lapping over the wall and running down around Marlon.

               “Are you coming?” called Priscilla from the front corner of the house.

               Marlon nodded and walked toward her. She waited for him, tossing the key back and forth between her hands, dropping it in the grass every second or third toss.

               “Don’t you own this place?” asked Marlon.

               “Yes, the house is mine,” said Priscilla.

               Marlon followed across the lawn and up the porch steps. “But not the garden?” asked Marlon. “Who owns the garden?”

               “Oh, well, I own the garden, I suppose,” said Priscilla. “It’s on my property. But it isn’t mine in that it isn’t for me.”

               “Who is it for?” asked Marlon.

               “Come in and see!” said Priscilla, and she pushed the front door open, put one hand on Marlon’s shoulder, and ushered him into her living room.

               When Marlon realized what he was seeing, he inwardly recoiled. There was fairy stuff everywhere: paintings of fairies hung on the wall, figurines of fairies shared the mantle over the fireplace with decorative plates adorned with fairies, a blanket stitched with a scene of fairies playing whimsical instruments was draped over the back of the couch, even the clock on the wall had plastic fairies astride the hour and minute hands riding circles around a central toadstool. Looking back at Priscilla, Marlon now saw that there were faces among the flowers embroidered on the pockets of her skirt. Fairy faces. “Wow,” said Marlon. “You really like fairies.”

               “Guilty as charged!” said Priscilla. “I love fairies. My whole house is fairy-themed. And then the garden is theirs, of course.”

               “Whose?” asked Marlon.

               “The fairies,” said Priscilla. “It’s not just a garden, it’s a fairy garden.”

               Marlon was not tempted to challenge her. He wanted to get the masks and get out. Humoring Priscilla seemed like the most expedient route to achieving that end.

               “You’re probably wondering if I really believe in fairies,” said Priscilla.

               “Hey, whatever makes people happy,” said Marlon. “I don’t judge.”

               “Well, I don’t believe in fairies,” said Priscilla. Her face fell, and it was the first time Marlon had seen her without some variation of a smile. The effect was pitiful. “I wish I did, but I don’t. Little magical people living just out of sight, flitting about on gossamer wings, living in perfect harmony with nature, getting into mischief? Who wouldn’t want to believe in something like that if they could? I can’t, though, fairies aren’t real. I wish they were! But I know they aren’t. But I wish they were! Or I at least wish I could believe in them even though they aren’t real. I know people who do, but I don’t. I wish I did!”

               “Well, I don’t want to take up any more of your time,” said Marlon. “If those masks are handy…?”

               “I keep the garden for them anyway,” said Priscilla. “Even though they aren’t real. I do it to compensate for not believing in them. It’s how I make it up to them. I keep it exactly how they would like it if they were real. Wouldn’t that be nice! If they were real, and they lived in my garden? Oh, that would be the best.”

               “Yes,” said Marlon. He would let this subject work its way through Priscilla, then try again to steer her back to the masks.

               “You’ve seen paintings like these,” said Priscilla. “Haven’t you? Come here, look at this one.” She guided Marlon over to a large painting in a white frame hung on the wall above a roll-top desk.

               Marlon didn’t want to look at the painting. Liking it would not be consistent with who he was trying to be and he didn’t want to have to come up with neutral things to say about it. But it felt too harsh to refuse to look at a painting. He was worried that if he hurt Priscilla’s feelings, she might not sell the masks to him, and then where would his collection of weird and fascinating items begin?

               The painting depicted the sun-dappled floor of a lush forest in deep blues, greens, and purples. Delicate flowers sprouted from between moss-covered rocks. Mushrooms grew clustered near a crystalline stream. The undergrowth at the edges of the painting was dense with plant life, dew-damp blossoms poking out among the foliage. And there were, of course, many fairies. They were nude but asexual, smooth-skinned and pale; most of them wore garlands on their heads. Their facial expressions were either beatific or pouty. They reclined on leaves, played pranks on bumblebees, whispered in each other’s ears, and frolicked in the unassuming splendor of their woodland home.

               As Marlon looked at the painting, he silently rejected it again and again. This painting was the exact opposite of everything he stood for. Or rather, the opposite of everything he would eventually stand for once he got his new identity properly established. This was not the kind of thing he would like, not even ironically. It was a painting for people like Priscilla, not for the Heavenburg-based founder of an artists’ collective approaching his mid-twenties. Allowing himself to like a painting such as this would be a major step backward, the kind of mental compromise that would undo any progress achieved through the acquisition of creepy vintage Halloween masks. He could imagine the kind of potential girlfriends who would appreciate a painting such as this, and, no, they would never do.

               “Look at this one,” said Priscilla, and she guided Marlon to another painting. This selection was smaller and focused on two specific fairies. They were more distinctly female and wore diaphanous white gowns. It was nighttime in the painting, and the fairies stood on a budding twig with their wings extended behind them, gesturing at a full moon framed amidst branches bearing bell-shaped flowers glowing faintly white.

               “Can’t you almost smell it?” asked Priscilla. “Don’t you want to crawl into this painting and live the rest of your life there?”

               “No,” said Marlon. Fearing he hadn’t said it firmly enough, he repeated himself. “No.”

               “I do,” said Priscilla. She didn’t seem put out by Marlon’s bluntness. “Maybe if I crawled into the painting, that would make me as unreal as the fairies, but then I’d be unreal with them, and then people like me could not believe in me right along with not believing in the fairies!”

               “That would be…” Marlon didn’t know how to finish the sentence.

               “Come look at this one,” said Priscilla.

               “Actually,” said Marlon. “I’m running late for another appointment.”

               “Oh, of course,” said Priscilla. “I’m taking up your whole day. I apologize! I just thought you seemed like someone who would appreciate my fairy paintings and all my fairy stuff. I just got the feeling you’d really connect with them!”

               Marlon didn’t think Priscilla was trying to insult him – she clearly meant what she said as a compliment – but he felt hot indignation welling up within him. “That isn’t the case,” he said in a measured tone. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t like the paintings and I don’t like the other fairy stuff. It isn’t my style. Not at all. The masks are much more my style. Everyone who really knows me knows that old Halloween masks are my style, and fairies are not.” No one who actually knew him had any idea where he stood on old Halloween masks or fairies, but they would soon, that’s why he was here in the first place, that’s what he was trying to rectify.

               Priscilla gave Marlon a long, appraising look that made him uncomfortable. He didn’t want to know what she saw. He never dared to look long and appraisingly at himself. At last, Priscilla said, “I’ll get the masks.” There were hints as to the results of her appraising look at Marlon written on her face, but Marlon refused to interpret them.


               Back at home in his grandfather’s spare room, Marlon displayed the vintage Halloween masks on his bed. There were six of them, and none of them corresponded to recognizable creatures: no zombies, no vampires, no witches. Nor were the masks violent: no dripping gashes, no stitched-up wounds, no knife handles protruding from foreheads. Instead of these modern Halloween signifiers, the masks emphasized oddly-proportioned facial features. There were lumpy noses, ears that looked melted, eyes mismatched in size, color, and shape, noodley lips parted to bear cuboid teeth. They weren’t just creepy, they were original, unique, creepy in ways for which the average person was not prepared, which made them even more creepy. Marlon could easily imagine the reactions of his future friends. They’d say, like, “Dude, what even-” No, they wouldn’t say that, they’d be more like, “Are you serious with-” No, they wouldn’t say that either. So it was less easy to imagine the reactions of his future friends than Marlon had thought it would be, but that was because he hadn’t had many interactions with those kinds of people yet, which was exactly why these masks and the larger project they represented were so necessary. Marlon needed to become the kind of person who could easily imagine how the people with whom he wished to associate would react to the sight of vintage Halloween masks such as those he now possessed.

               But one thing nagged at Marlon. As he looked over the vintage Halloween masks arranged across his bedspread, he found that he didn’t like them very much. He found them ugly and unpleasant. Not that he was creeped out by them. He didn’t find them unsettling or disquieting, just distasteful. It was almost as if he didn’t approve of them in some way. He had been so excited when he’d seen the pictures of the masks online, but now that they were his, the excitement was gone. He felt no satisfaction at having acquired the masks. Why did they have to make use of such abrasive colors? Why did they have to be so grotesque? Why couldn’t their facial expressions be less aggressive, less sinister? What was wrong with a mask more evocative of a peaceful glade freshly showered by a passing springtime raincloud? Why couldn’t there be vintage Halloween masks that disguised their wearers as those who long to idle their days away chatting with dragonflies in their buzzy native language, assembling ceremonial garb from dandelion fluff, dangling bare feet over the edge of an abandoned bird’s nest while blowing iridescent bubbles from an impossibly delicate wand?

               Marlon’s head spun, and he nearly threw up. He cast his eyes about in alarm for a clock, landing at last upon his alarm clock. It was 6:49 p.m. He had not lost any time. He had not been unconscious, not been dreaming. His thoughts had just gotten away from him. Well away from him. He was horrified at where he’d found them. He had been longing for fairy stuff, there was no use denying it. If he wanted to ensure it never happened again, which he did, then he had to admit it and confront it directly. He looked at the masks and said aloud, “This is what I like. This is what I like.” He felt something resisting within him, something bucking and thrashing, but he would not let it loose. “This is what I like,” he said again. “I think these masks are cool. I think fairy stuff is…is…I don’t like it.”

               As Marlon gathered the masks to store them in the closet, he caught sight of himself in the mirror hung on the closet door. Other than the masks in his arms, Marlon thought he looked as non-distinct as a person could look. He looked like someone whose hobbies it would be impossible to guess. He looked like someone who had chosen his favorite song at age 12 and would never consider another. He wore shoes and jeans and a shirt, each of which made no statement, and, in fact, politely declined to comment at all. His haircut looked as if it had been bestowed upon him by the well-intentioned Goddess of Prudence. But he did have the masks in his arms, and they made a difference. They promised the coming of a day in which he would rise up and adorn himself with the symbols of his true personality, long-dormant within him. Which excited him, yes, this was what he’d spent the last three years of his life imagining. But that excitement was now tinged with fear. The slip into a Priscilla-like perspective, no matter how brief, forced Marlon to consider the dangers lying in wait along the path to his new self. He had always assumed that when his upgraded persona emerged, it would be in the form that he had always imagined it would be. After all, he was the one working on it behind the scenes, assembling the pieces, crafting, refining. But now Marlon saw that he could not fully trust himself to guide the project to its desired conclusion. There was a chance that if he was not vigilant, he might become one of those people who refers to fairies as “fae folk” before he even got to his eventual Heavenburg apartment, much less launched the artists’ collective.

               At dinner, Marlon asked, “Grandpa, how much do you remember about me when I was little?”

               “How little?” asked his grandpa. He was the thinnest grandfather Marlon knew of. He’d seen other men of around his grandpa’s age who were as thin, maybe thinner, but he didn’t know if those men were grandfathers.

               “Oh, two or three,” said Marlon.

               “Not much,” said his grandpa.

               “Do you remember what I liked?” asked Marlon.

               “What you liked?”

               “Yeah,” said Marlon. “Did I like trucks? Dinosaurs? What kinds of cartoons did I like?”

               “I don’t remember you ever liking anything specific,” said his grandpa. “Made it hard to buy you gifts. Shopping for you has always been a nightmare.”

               “Do you know if I was ever exposed to fairy stuff around then?” asked Marlon.

               His grandpa put down the fork he’d been using to cut chunks off of his egg salad sandwich. “Fairy stuff?”

               “Like paintings of fairies,” said Marlon. “Or fairy toys. Maybe some books of fairy tales that focused on actual fairies?”

               “You’d have to ask your parents,” said his grandpa. “Why do you ask? Are you into fairy stuff now?”

               “No!” said Marlon. “And I never will be!”

               “That’s a shame,” said his grandpa. “I thought I might finally be able to find gifts for you.”


               Over the next few nights, Marlon never dreamt about fairy stuff while he slept, which would have been a relief if not for the fact that his thoughts were plagued with fairy stuff whenever he was awake. He suspected that he didn’t dream about fairy stuff because dreams were expressions of the subconscious, and the fairy stuff had too much influence in his conscious mind to bother with the subconscious. No matter the subject to which Marlon tried to direct his focus, the fairy stuff was there, depictions of fairies cavorting or lounging, but always beckoning, inviting him to ponder their ways more deeply, inviting Marlon to envision every detail of their sylvan revelries.

Acknowledging the problem was well and good, but where was the solution? What good was taking the first step if it did not naturally lead to the second? Marlon’s life to this point had not prepared him for obsession. Even his planned evolution into a cool Heavenburg artists’ collective founder with a girlfriend had always performed for him an abstract function. Until he bought the masks, at least. The masks were solid, they represented a move from the theoretical to the actual, and Marlon wondered if they had been responsible for the rapid deterioration of his defenses against unwelcome preoccupations. He had shown up to Priscilla’s house unaware of his vulnerabilities, ignorant of the gaping gaps in his fortifications, and she had, probably unwittingly, sent a swarm of fairy stuff fluttering into the heart of his in-progress operation, corrupting its very foundations with their representations of tiny merriment. In a way, his lifelong aversion to becoming anything in particular had now, when it was too late, been proven reasonable, even wise. Because what was the point of allowing yourself to become something if that something could turn out to be, against your wishes, a person who loves fairy stuff? Better to stay in limbo and imagine that you could become something good than step one foot into reality only to immediately succumb to the worst of many bad options, your vague fantasies of deserved esteem driven into nether realms by likenesses of pixies wielding sharpened sticks.

Marlon tried to retreat, to stash his plan deep in the closet with the vintage Halloween masks so he could drag it all back out when the coast was clear, but it was too late. The fairy stuff did not, it seemed, want to hang around for years waiting for him to again poke his head up. It had him now and it wanted to finish the job. But was the slide inevitable, was the trajectory decided? Or was that just what the part of Marlon that was infested with fairy stuff wanted him to believe? The truth was that as much as fairy stuff and the aesthetic qualities thereof had dominated his thinking, Marlon had not encountered any actual fairy stuff since the paintings at Priscilla’s house. He had not indulged himself. He had not typed “fairy painting” into a search engine nor browsed among the knickknacks of the deceased at Multioak-area thrift stores where fairy stuff was ubiquitous. While his brain scampered where his heart willed, his eyes and hands and feet remained subject to the authority of his higher principles.

               He began to wonder if he should return to the place where all of this had started. He recalled that while he was looking at Priscilla’s fairy paintings, he had not been impressed. He had not felt drawn to them. It was only later that their impact upon him was made manifest. So maybe that meant that fairy stuff itself held no power over Marlon. Maybe his true adversary was only the idea of fairy stuff. The distinction felt important. And while he could have tested this hypothesis on other fairy stuff – the online images, the thrift store knickknacks – it also felt important, for scientific purposes, to restrict his contact to only the fairy stuff which had precipitated the crisis. There was a risk, of course, that repeated exposure to Priscilla’s fairy stuff would exacerbate the problem, burying Marlon deeper, but there was also a chance that he would look at it and feel nothing, which would prove to Marlon that the problem could be contained within him, and that he could live the rest of his life as a fraud, which didn’t seem so bad, or perhaps, even better, the fairy fixation would fade as he became more accustomed to being a person with individual tastes.

               Donning his most anonymous clothing, a title which could have been shared by most of his clothing, Marlon descended from his bedroom and headed for the side door.

               “You’re going somewhere?” his grandpa called from the office where he spent most of his afternoons going over his personal paperwork to make sure it was all in order.

               “I’ll be back soon,” called Marlon. “I’m borrowing the car.”

               “Wow,” said his grandpa. “You really like that car recently. Or, cars in general, even.”

               “Not really,” said Marlon, and he left.

               There was no one lurking behind any of the wicker furniture on Priscilla’s porch, nor was anyone hiding in the bushes next to the porch. Marlon had made a thorough examination of every possible hiding place before knocking on the front door, but even so, after every knock he looked over his shoulder to make sure Priscilla wasn’t sneaking up on him. Eventually, though, it became clear that Priscilla was not home. That or she was choosing not to answer the door, but as Marlon peered through the window like Priscilla had done on his first visit, he saw no sign of anyone inside. The lights were off, the TV was off, he saw no half-drunk beverages on coasters or books opened face down on cushions, their spines strained and creased. The house – what he could see of it – was still.

               Marlon wondered what he should do. He’d come all the way over here in hope of gaining some clarity regarding his fairy stuff problem, and now it seemed he would have to accept a delay, which meant another day, at least, of constant anxiety about the fate of his future self. He could just wait on the porch, of course. Use the wicker furniture for its intended purpose. But what if Priscilla was out of town? What if she wouldn’t be back for weeks? There was another option. Marlon knew where she hid her key. But what if she came back and found that he’d let himself inside? She’d been openly disdainful of the Dalcette police, it seemed likely that she would refrain from calling them even if she were upset. Also, she had invited Marlon to come back to scare her with the masks. She had said she wanted him to, that she liked to be scared. Granted, Marlon hadn’t brought any of the masks with him, but he didn’t think that made a difference. And Priscilla hadn’t made any effort to conceal the location of the key from Marlon. She had seemed happy to show him where it was. He thought it all added up to a pretty solid justification.

               It took Marlon a few minutes to find the correct stone in the wall, scraping his soft fingertips with the effort while the greenery, which seemed thicker than it had on his previous visit, tickled his forearms. But once the correct stone was located, it slid right out, and there in the cavity was the key. Marlon took the key and put the stone back, although it didn’t seem to fit quite right. As he walked back to the front of the house, he spared another look at the treetops peering over the garden wall. They were so dense, packed full, crammed with leaf life, a natural bulwark against airborne interlopers. Today, though a warm breeze tousled Marlon’s hair and flapped his shirt sleeves, the trees inside the garden did not move. It had to be their idea, it seemed.

               The key worked and Marlon let himself into Priscilla’s living room. He stood holding his breath for a moment, listening for movement in other rooms, letting the house get used to his unaccompanied presence like a wary dog sniffing his knuckles. Then he closed the front door behind him and locked it, isolating himself with Priscilla’s fairy stuff.

               He first allowed himself to take in the general feel of the living room, the overall impression of fairy stuff supremacy. He saw a few things he didn’t remember: fairy candles on the windowsill, an umbrella leaning in the corner with a wooden handle carved to look like a fairy with its wings folded around itself, a remote control for the ceiling fan covered in glittery fairy stickers. Maybe this fairy stuff was new, although it was just as likely that he simply hadn’t noticed it among the crowd. He was pleased to note that he did not feel a surge of desire for any of this fairy stuff. He did not wish to possess it, he did not wish that this living room could be his or that his living room could be like this one. He could think of it as tacky, as insipid. But he had ensured that he felt similarly the first time he’d seen it, and look where he’d ended up. Still, it was comforting to catch a glimpse of his correct self, if only for the moment.

               Marlon moved on to the paintings, first examining those to which Priscilla had drawn his attention last time. They did not move him, he did not want them, he did not like them. He was admittedly new to these kinds of opinions, but he was confident he would know if these paintings were seducing him. He would feel something. Last time, he had not liked them, and had then gone home and been crushed in the iron grip of fairy stuff fascination, but if the paintings had been the true source of that fascination, if they had planted the seeds that had then sprouted a few hours later, then surely seeing the paintings again now would elicit a different response. There would be a recognition, an acknowledgment that, yes, now he understood the appeal. But there wasn’t. Marlon was cured. Or, if not cured, then equipped to endure.

               He was about to leave when he was struck by a pang of curiosity to see what the inside of Priscilla’s garden looked like, the one she said belonged to the fairies in which she could not believe. Instead of returning to the front door, Marlon headed down the hall, through the dining room and kitchen, and into a small mud room where a rough wooden door led out the back of the house. Though he wasn’t quite certain of the layout of Priscilla’s home, Marlon was surprised that there were no windows looking out on the garden in any of the rooms through which he’d passed. He would have thought that a garden would make a nice view while breakfasting in the dining room or washing dishes at the kitchen sink.

               The handle on the inside of the mud room door was made of rusted iron, and it creaked as Marlon turned it. He was surprised at the door’s heaviness, and its hinges groaned as he swung it outward.

               The fragrance of the garden hit Marlon first, and he was dizzied by its heady insistence. He staggered backward and bumped against the door, not having realized it had swung closed behind him. Marlon rubbed at his watering eyes and attempted to regain his wits as the botanic perfume filled his nostrils, his lungs, and soaked into his gasping pores.

               After a few seconds, the initial shock of the smells’ intensity wore off and Marlon was able to look around. The trees in the garden were spaced out in the middle, but grew much closer together along the inside of the wall, Marlon’s vision of which was almost completely obscured by the unhindered growth. The trees’ trunks were thin and knobby, and the canopy their branches formed overhead filtered the sun’s rays such that everything Marlon saw was cast in dusky green but for a few thin beams of light that had, against all odds, found their way through to bless scattered patches of abundant shadow-dwelling plant life on the ground. At Marlon’s feet, a ribbon of dirt path ran off into the depths of the garden, disappearing among the shrubbery. He could not see the back of the garden, could not get a good sense of the garden’s extent. From where Marlon stood, it felt like the garden could go on for miles or days, whichever measurement made more sense. From somewhere ahead, he heard gentle splashing.

               Marlon could not help but think that even if Priscilla had not told him that this garden was intended for fairies, he would have known instinctively that it was intended for fairies. It was perfect, like a setting straight from a fairy painting, but better because you could really breathe it in, really bask in it, really savor the atmosphere. He was amazed at how separated from the outside world the garden felt. It was hard to believe, looking at the top of the garden wall, that his grandpa’s car was out there, that the Halloween masks were tucked in a closet out there, that his future Heavenburg apartment was out there. He set off down the path, eager to find the heart of the garden, its most potent spot. He wanted to lie down there and let himself be enchanted, lulled into a stupor by birdsong and whispers which may or may not be there.

               And he wanted to see a fairy. And here was the surge of desire for which he had been waiting. Here was the recognition, here was the acknowledgment, the confirmation that he had found His Thing. This was not a manufactured interest. This was not a forced opinion. This was not orchestrated enthusiasm. It had never been fairy stuff that his mind couldn’t let go, it had been fairies. Not images of fairies, not portrayals, not renderings, not imitations, not descriptions, but fairies, actual fairies themselves. He wanted to observe them from a distance at first, watching them at work and play. Eventually, he wanted to make contact, to communicate with them, to earn their trust and befriend them. Ideally, then – and he knew this was a big ask – but ideally, he would become one of them. They would use some kind of fairy magic to shrink him down, give him wings, painlessly neuter him, the whole bit, and then he would be indistinguishable from the rest of them, and he would live among them as if he had always belonged, and he would stay in a fairy dwelling with a few other fairies sleeping on bunk beds made of – what? Spider legs? No, probably just twigs. And he would date a fairy, too, he didn’t see why being neutered should negate all romance. And maybe he would introduce the fairies to the concept of an artists’ collective. He knew fairies were into music and crafts, so they were probably into other kinds of art as well, and he could really imagine them taking to an artists’ collective, the idea seemed better suited to fairies than it ever had to cool people from Heavenburg.

               “Are you looking for me?” asked Priscilla. She sat on the edge of a stone fountain which was covered in purple lichens and burbling into a reservoir full of water concealed beneath a layer of lily pads and algae. A frog on one of the lily pads slipped into the water with a sound like “splorp.” Priscilla looked much as she had the last time Marlon had seen her, except this time her skirt was the clothing item composed of several layers of gauzy fabric and her top was the clothing item made of denim with flowers and fairy faces embroidered on it. It was as if the principle players in the other day’s outfit had agreed to switch places for a time, just to see what it was like. When Marlon said nothing, Priscilla answered her own question. “You’re not looking for me. You’re looking for them.”

               “This is the best place to find them,” said Marlon. He spoke with authority because he was a person who believed in fairies and Priscilla was not.

               “Yes,” said Priscilla. “It would be, wouldn’t it?” She studied Marlon for a moment, then said, “For you, deciding to be someone who believes in them is enough to get the job done.”

               Marlon didn’t understand the point she was trying to make. How else would you be anyone? He thought he saw something in his peripheral vision and spun to face a thorny bush. But there were no fairies there.

               “Out of the corner of your eye, huh?” said Priscilla. “You’ve already got the basics down.”

               “Why are you out here?” asked Marlon. The fact that Priscilla did not believe in fairies couldn’t be helping his attempt to encounter them. As long as she hung around, they would certainly stay away.

               “I’m pretending they’re real,” said Priscilla. “It’s my favorite activity.” She smiled. “You think that’s pathetic.”

               She was right. Marlon found it pathetic. He also didn’t like the way she had emphasized the word “you” as if it shouldn’t be possible for him to find someone else pathetic. “You don’t know anything about who I am,” he said. It was a claim he’d often made before in full confidence.

               “Yes, I do,” said Priscilla. “You’re a person who believes in fairies.”

               Marlon’s protest caught in his throat. He felt pinned to a board, his limbs flailing in slow motion. “Hold on,” said Marlon. “You hate me?”

               Priscilla said, “I wish I could be like you. But since I can’t…”

               Marlon said, “It isn’t my fault that you’re too weak to-”

               “Or too strong,” said Priscilla.

               The conversation lapsed into bitter silence. A sweet breeze perfect for wafting fairy song to believing ears did not do that, it merely murmured in the foliage and cooled Marlon’s face. “So you’re always going to be here,” he said. “Whenever I come here, you’ll be here too, ruining my chances. All so you can pretend.”

               Priscilla nodded. “It’s my garden.”

               “You told me it wasn’t,” said Marlon. “You said it was theirs.”

               “But they don’t exist,” said Priscilla.

               “You wanted me to be like you,” said Marlon. “Miserable!”

               “But you could have pretended you weren’t,” said Priscilla. “The fairy stuff helps.”

               “I don’t want fairy stuff!” Marlon was now shouting.

               “Then maybe you’ll end up miserable after all,” said Priscilla.

               “Leave me alone,” said Marlon. “Leave me alone out here without your interference and we’ll see how miserable I am. If I don’t see a fairy within an hour, I’ll never bother you again.”

               Priscilla hesitated, then stood. “Agreed,” she said. She seemed on the verge of saying more, but didn’t. Instead, she brushed lichen fragments from her skirt and followed the path toward the house and out of sight.

               Marlon hurried to the fountain and sat on the ground, leaning back against the reservoir and wrangling himself into a receptive mood, putting aside all the tension with Priscilla. He knew the fairies would come. How could he consider himself a person who believed in fairies without that confidence?

               He waited. The spirit of his surroundings kept him afloat as the minutes drifted off. Marlon decided that if the fairies agreed to make him into a fairy right away, then he would appear to Priscilla personally when she came to find him when the hour was up. It was more than she deserved, but he would be gracious. He would advise against letting her get turned into a fairy too, but maybe, if she proved herself a staunch supporter of the fairies, he would allow her to become the only official human member of the fairy artists’ collective.

               So lost was Marlon in this reverie that he didn’t notice the fairy creeping toward him along the edge of the fountain reservoir until it was almost to his shoulder. When he did see it – catching the movement out of the corner of his eye – he gasped not in surprise (he wasn’t surprised), but in delight. The fairy was small enough to fit comfortably on the blunt end of a pencil. It wore a belted green tunic and had a sly expression on its face. Only after he watched it amble along for a few moments did Marlon realize that the fairy’s limbs did not move independently from the rest of its body, and that its body was surrounded by a white, rubbery background, and that the fairy was, in fact, a pencil eraser with a fairy printed on it.

               Scrambling to his feet, Marlon almost stepped on a music box next to him in the grass. As he backed away, the lid to the music box popped open and a plastic figurine of a fairy pirouetted while a classical piece of music that probably had the word “fairy” in the title tinkled away at a fluctuating tempo.

               “No!” shouted Marlon. “I want real fairies!”

               Two collectible drinking glasses with fairies on them peeked at him from behind a rock. A ceramic figure nearly a foot tall that frankly looked more like a gnome with wings than a fairy came toddling around the trunk of a nearby tree. A t-shirt that read “I love you FAIRY much” snagged on a branch at eye level. Marlon could not see the illustration on the shirt, but it didn’t take a genius to guess.

               Marlon fled toward the house, and as he ran, pieces of the path flaked off under his shoes. The scenery around him flattened and blurred. He saw the brush strokes in the tree bark. The flower blossoms were only blobs of color. When he arrived at the wooden door leading back into the house, he found that it was two-dimensional, the handle was painted on, there was nothing to grab. Crying out, he tried to pound on the door, but when his fists struck its surface, they tore right through it and he tumbled into the mud room.

               Priscilla stood in the doorway leading to the kitchen sipping tea from a cup with fairies painted on its side. “It just accumulates,” she said. “Once people figure out you like something, that’s what you get for every birthday, every Christmas. They’ll be at a flea market, see something with fairies on it, and be like, ‘Oh, Priscilla would love this, let’s just pick it up for her.’”

               “I don’t like anything,” said Marlon. “Not really. Not really.”

               Priscilla laughed. “You’ll never get anyone to believe that.

Discussion Questions

  • Describe a healthy perspective toward fairy stuff.

  • If could crawl into any painting and live there, which would you choose and how would you then justify the abandonment of all your responsibilities?

  • Do you know how Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading ends? If not, no need to look it up! If so, this is an homage!

  • If we were to form an artists’ collective, would you want to be one of the good artists, one of the bad artists who happens to be friends with the good artists so they get way more attention for their bad art than they should, or one of the people who appears in all the group photos but never actually makes any art?

  • What percentage of your identity is the result of careful planning and what percentage of your identity is the result of one line from a commercial jingle from your youth that you don’t even remember having exerted pressure on the part of your brain that decides whether or not you find puns funny, or the equivalent?