A Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Leslie.

The year she turned eight, two things happened: her mother left Leslie and her father to move to California with a stockbroker; and, in the middle of a sensational murder trial, the fae of story and song admitted to their existence. Leslie never heard from her mother again, but the fairies were another matter.

When she was nine, her father took a job in a strange city, moving them from the house she'd grown up in to an apartment in Boston where they were the only black people in an all-white neighborhood. Their apartment encompassed the upper floor of a narrow house owned by their downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Cullinan. Mrs. Cullinan kept an eye on Leslie while her dad was at work, and by her silent championship eased Leslie's way into the society of the neighborhood kids who casually dropped by for cookies or lemonade. In Mrs. Cullinan's capable hands, Leslie learned to crochet, knit, sew, and cook while her dad kept the old woman's house and lawn in top shape.

Even as an adult, Leslie wasn't sure if her dad had paid the old woman or if she'd just taken over without consulting him. It was the kind of thing Mrs. Cullinan would have done.

When Leslie was in third grade, one of the kindergarten boys went missing. In fourth grade, one of her classmates, a girl by the name of Mandy, disappeared. There were also, throughout the same time period, a lot of missing pets - mostly kittens and young dogs. Nothing that would have attracted her attention if it weren't for Mrs. Cullinan. On their daily walks (Mrs. Cullinan called them "busybody strolls," to see what people in their neighborhood were up to), the old woman began stopping at missing-pet notices taped in store windows and taking out a little notebook and writing all the information in it.

"Are we looking for lost animals?" Leslie asked finally. She mostly learned from observation rather than by asking questions because, in her experience, people lied better with their lips than they did with their actions. But she hadn't come up with a good explanation for the missing-pet list and she was forced, at last, to resort to words.

"It's always good to keep an eye out." It was a not-quite answer, but Mrs. Cullinan sounded troubled, so Leslie didn't ask her again.

When Leslie's new birthday puppy - a mutt with brown eyes and big feet - went missing, Mrs. Cullinan had gotten tight-lipped and said, "It is time to put a stop to this." Leslie was pretty sure her landlady hadn't known anyone was listening to her.

Leslie, her father, and Mrs. Cullinan were eating dinner a few days after her puppy's disappearance when a fancy limousine pulled up in front of Miss Nellie Michaelson's house. Out of the dark depths of the shiny vehicle emerged two men in suits and a woman in a white flowery dress that looked too summery and airy to be a good match for the men's attire. They were dressed for a funeral and she for a picnic in the nearby park.

Unabashedly spying, Leslie's father and Mrs. Cullinan left the table to stare out the window as the three people entered Miss Nellie's house without knocking.

"What are they...?" The expression on Leslie's father's face changed from curious (no one ever visited Miss Nellie) to grim in a heartbeat, and he grabbed his service revolver and his badge. Mrs. Cullinan caught him on the front porch.

"No, Wes," she said in a strange, fierce voice. "No. They are fae and it's a fae mess they've come to clean up. You let them do what they need to."

Leslie, peering around the adults, finally saw what had gotten everyone in a tizzy. The two men were carrying Nellie out of her house. Nellie was struggling, her mouth wide-open as if she were screaming, but not a sound came out.

Leslie had always thought that Nellie looked as though she should be a model or a movie star, with her sad blue eyes and downturned soft mouth. But she didn't appear so pretty right then. She didn't look frightened - she looked enraged. Her beautiful face was twisted, ugly, and, at the same time, breath-stealingly scary in a way that would haunt Leslie's dreams even as an adult.

The woman, the one in the airy-fairy dress who'd come with the men, exited the house about the same time the men finished stuffing Nellie in the backseat of the car. She locked the door of Nellie's house behind her, and when she was finished she looked up and saw the three of them watching. After a pause, she strolled across the street and down the sidewalk to them. The woman didn't appear to be walking fast, but she was opening the front gate almost before Leslie realized that she was heading for them.

"And what do you think you're looking at?" she said mildly, in a voice that had Leslie's father thumbing the snap that held his gun in the holster.

Mrs. Cullinan stepped forward, her jaw set like it had been the day that she'd faced down a couple of young toughs who'd decided an old woman was fair game. "Justice," she said with the same soft menace that had sent the boys after easier prey. "And don't get uppity with me. I know what you are and I'm not afraid of you."

The strange woman's head lowered aggressively and her shoulders got tight. Leslie took a step behind her father. But Mrs. Cullinan's retort had drawn the attention of the men by the limousine.

"Eve," said one of the men mildly, his hand on the open car door. His voice was mellow and rich, as thick with Ireland as Mrs. Cullinan's own, and it carried across the street and down the block as if there were no city sounds to muffle it. "Come to the car and keep Gordie company, would you?" Even Leslie knew it wasn't a request.

The woman stiffened and narrowed her eyes, but she turned and walked away from them. When she had taken his place at the car, the man approached them.

"You'd be Mrs. Cullinan," he said, as soon as he was on their side of the street and close enough for quiet conversation. He had one of those mildly good-looking faces that didn't stand out in a crowd - except for his eyes. No matter how she tried, Leslie could never remember what color his eyes were, only that they were odd and strange and beautiful.

"You know I am," Mrs. Cullinan said stiffly.

"We appreciate you calling us on this and I would like to leave you with a reward." He held a business card out to her. "A favor when you need it most."

"If the children are safe to play in their yards, that is reward enough." She dried her hands on her hips and made no move to take the card from him.

He smiled and did not put down his hand. "I will not leave indebted to you, Mrs. Cullinan."

"And I know better than to accept a gift from the fairies," she snapped.

"Onetime reward," he said. "A little thing. I promise that no intentional harm will come to you or yours from this as long as I am alive." Then, in a coaxing voice, he said, "Come, now. I cannot lie. This is a different age, when your kind and ours needs must learn to live together. You could have called the police with your suspicions - which were correct. Had you done so, she would not have gone without killing a great many more than the children she has already taken." He sighed and glanced back at the car's darkened windows. "It is difficult to change when you are so old, and she was always in the habit of eating small things, was our Nellie."

"Which is why I called you," Mrs. Cullinan said stoutly. "I didn't know who it was taking the little ones until I saw Nellie over by our backyard two nights ago and this child's puppy was missing in the morning."

The fae looked at Leslie for the first time, but Leslie was too upset to read his face. "Eating small things," the man had said. Puppies were small things.

"Ah," he said after a long moment. "Child, you may take what comfort you can that your puppy's death meant that no more would die from that one's misdeeds. Hardly fair recompense, I know, but it is something."

"Give it to her," Mrs. Cullinan said suddenly. "Her puppy's dead. Give her your reward. I'm an old woman with cancer; I won't live out the year. Give it to her."

The fae man looked at Mrs. Cullinan, then knelt on one knee before Leslie, who was holding very tightly to her father's hand. She didn't know if she was crying for her puppy, the old woman who was more her mother than her mother had ever been - or for herself.

"A gift for a loss," he said. "Take this and use it when you most need it."

Leslie put her free hand behind her back. He was trying to make up for her puppy's death with a present, just like people had tried to do after her mom had left. Presents didn't make things better. Quite the opposite, in her experience. The giant teddy bear her mama had given her the night she left was buried in the back of the closet. Although Leslie couldn't stand to get rid of it, she also couldn't look at it without feeling sick.

"With this you could get a car or a house," the man said. "Money for an education." He smiled, quite kindly - and it made him look totally different, more real, somehow, as he said, "Or save some other puppy from monsters. All you have to do is wish hard and tear up the card."

"Any wish?" Leslie asked warily, taking the card, more because she didn't want to be the focus of this man's attention any longer than because she wanted the card. "I want my puppy back."

"I can't bring anyone or anything back to life," he told her sadly. "I would that I could. But outside of that, almost anything."

She stared at the card in her hand. It had one word written across it: GIFT.

He stood up. Then he smiled - an expression as merry and light as anything she'd ever seen. "And, Miss Leslie," he said, when he shouldn't have known her name at all, "no wishing for more wishes. It doesn't work like that."

She'd just been wondering...

The strange man turned to Mrs. Cullinan and took her hand in his and kissed it. "You are a lady of rare beauty, quick wits, and generous spirit."

"I'm a nosy, interfering old woman," she responded, but Leslie could see that she was pleased.

As an adult, Leslie kept the card the fairy man had given her tucked behind her driver's license. It looked as clean and fresh as it had the day she'd agreed to take it. To the shock of her doctors, Mrs. Cullinan's cancer mysteriously disappeared and she'd died in her bed twenty years later at the age of ninety-four. Leslie still missed her.

Leslie learned two valuable things about the fae that day. They were powerful and charming - and they ate children and puppies.