The Djinn of the Upper East Side
Helixtech Labs – Employee Entrance
Alison Loomis did her best to hide her nervousness as she passed by the security desk, waving her badge at the guard almost as an afterthought. He said something in greeting, but she barely noticed and didn’t respond, her mind entirely focused on trying to relax.
You’ve been working here for years, she insisted to herself. This is just another day at work. Never mind that you’re going to be directly alongside none other than Elias Spencer, the most important man in the whole complex.
And the most eligible, and the most attractive…
With some difficulty, she fought back against those thoughts. I’m a professional, she insisted to herself. Try to remain that way. It doesn’t matter that he said to call him by his first name! This is your job, not a hot date, for crying out loud!
She had a lot of trouble sleeping last night, and even more getting up this morning, but persevered thanks to a couple of extra cups of coffee and a lot of distractions. The cab ride took excessively long, thanks to unusually heavy Sunday morning traffic, but she only barely noticed. She normally would’ve had today off but never even hesitated to give that up in exchange for this latest opportunity. She occupied herself for most of the twenty-minute ride thinking about what it all might mean, and what sort of amazing secrets she might learn today.
Yesterday felt like something out of a dream. In the space of a few hours, she learned the truth about what the company did on the super-secret top floor—studying incredible creatures straight out of myth and legend, like goblins and trolls…who would’ve believed it? Yet she’d seen them herself and even allowed one of them—a smoky creature called a “djinn” that lived in an iron flask dangling about Elias Spencer’s neck—to cast a spell on her! After that momentous encounter, she found she could see the Fey creatures for what they were, their illusions and invisibility neatly countered by the djinn’s incredible magic.
As if that weren’t enough, her incredibly handsome boss effectively promoted her on the spot, inviting her to return today to begin her new job on the highest floor in Helixtech, domain of only the most elite scientists and researchers in the company’s employ. She still shuddered every time she thought of what awaited her now. A new chapter had definitely opened in her life, teasing her with promises of amazing things to come. She all but bounded through the front doors, eager and excited to begin.
As she passed by the receptionist’s desk, intent on heading for her office, she found Mr. Spencer approaching from down the hall. “Good morning, Miss Loomis,” he said with an affable smile. “I’ve been anticipating your arrival. Please follow me, as it’s time to introduce you to the project you’ll now be working on.”
“Certainly,” she replied at once. “I’ve been looking forward to it. Please, Mr. Spencer, don’t—”
“Elias,” he prompted.
“Um, yes, sorry,” she replied, nervously brushing at her forehead, as though a lock of hair might be out of place, which of course it wasn’t. “As long as you call me Alison.”
“Absolutely, Alison. Things will work out much better from now on if we proceed on a first-name basis, don’t you think?”
As he spoke, he continued smiling, leading her down the side hall to the laboratory elevator. “Of course, Elias,” she agreed with some difficulty, almost choking on the name—she’d been saying “Mr. Spencer” for so long, to do otherwise felt terribly unnatural. “As I was saying, please don’t hold it against me if I appear nervous or distracted this morning. I didn’t get much sleep, as you might imagine, and this whole situation has me quite rattled.”
“Completely understandable,” he admitted, ushering her into the elevator and holding his security card up to the reader. As he did so, he used his thumb to press the button for the top floor. Alison gulped softly, knowing that particular button used a special security reader that only he and certain others could access. The highest level of the facility was what those in the government would consider “top secret,” available to only a select few in the company. She’d hoped one day, perhaps in a decade or so, she might advance far enough to be trusted to go up there. Never in her life did she think such an honor would come so fast.
The doors slid shut and she struggled to stay composed. “I see from your reaction that you understand the gravity of your situation,” said Mr. Spencer (Elias, she reminded herself) directly. “You’re being granted a rare opportunity here, Alison. Yesterday, when we spoke about the nature of our research, I gave you a chance to decline this opportunity and walk away. I’m honor-bound to grant you a similar option right now. Should you wish to turn aside from this path, you may say so before we pass through the security station ahead. However, once we step across that line, as it were, you’ll receive no such chance again. Do you understand?”
She nodded, swallowing nervously once again. “You’re going to trust me with your secrets,” she replied, “and I promise you, I won’t let you down.”
Elias smiled at that. “I hoped you’d respond that way. I’ve taken steps to grant you access, but there are certain other security measures we’ll have to go through. I apologize if they might seem intrusive.”
“Whatever it takes,” she said with mounting confidence.
The elevator stopped and the doors slid open. Beyond, she saw a set of gleaming metal doors lined with various cameras and sensors. Elias showed his card, touched his thumb to a sensor, and leaned in to use a retinal scanner. “Please repeat what I just did,” he told her. “The system knows to add you to the list. Use both thumbs, one after the other, and then scan both eyes. Oh, and be sure to suppress the instinct to blink.”
Alison complied, and nothing seemed to happen at first. No computerized voices spoke, and no guards appeared out of the shadows. She glanced into the alcove nearby, noticing cameras there, as well as small protrusions that might’ve been weapons. Pausing, she wondered if she might be done, but Elias indicated another small cavity and pantomimed sliding her fingertip inside. When she did, she felt the sharp prick of a needle, and withdrew the digit quickly, not the least bit surprised to see a small drop of blood welling there.
“I apologize for that,” Elias told her evenly. “It’s for the DNA records. Here, I have a gauze strip for you.”
Alison took it and pressed the medicated pad up against the slight wound, feeling the pain die away almost instantly. For a moment she considered asking him why they needed a DNA sample and then decided not to bother. Her path was set now, no matter what the answer might be. Still, she shuddered at bit at the possibilities, then jumped involuntarily as the doors opened up with a loud grinding sound. “S-sorry,” she mumbled, quickly wiping away a sheepish grin from her face.
Elias didn’t seem to mind her skittishness and casually led her down a short hallway to a wide open chamber resembling a small auditorium, the ceiling overhead festooned with skylights. In the center, an enormous circular table perhaps thirty feet across occupied the lion’s share of the space ahead. The vast majority of the platform’s surface contained natural outdoor terrain, designed to look like the sort of knoll one might find on the edge of a forest: closely cropped grass, small clumps of brush, the stumps of several small trees, and a bubbling spring creating a small stream running down one side to empty into a collection reservoir underneath. A Plexiglas hemisphere, lined with numerous locking panels, covered most of the table and, looking closer, Alison could see at least a few unusual creatures here and there in the artificial greenspace, some tucked into crevices or between rocks, while others simply lounged about in the open. She’d seen something of their like before, yesterday, in the cages up in the animal storage room, but never thought to see so many in one place.
The rest of the chamber featured numerous tables and research stations, some of them occupied by white-coated scientists she’d never met before, though she recognized them from company files. Each many years her senior, they were the top men and women in their field—Alison suddenly felt very insecure, as though she didn’t belong here. Yet if Elias had told her the truth about her having a gift to see these odd creatures, so too must these people, making her part of a very special group. You have to start somewhere, she told herself, pumping up her courage. Might as well be here.
“What you’re looking at now,” said Elias eventually, once she’d taken in the amazing sight, “is the core of this company. The scientists you see in this room right now, with the sole exception of Dr. Greene, who’s on vacation at the moment, represent everyone I’ve ever met—save you, of course—who has the capability to recognize these creatures for what they are. Like you, each has accepted the djinn’s gift and chosen to stay and work here. I think, in time, you’ll see just how rewarding this project truly is. What we do here has the potential to change the world.”
“What is it you—I mean, we—are really doing?” asked Alison breathlessly.
“Animal testing has always been controversial,” explained Elias patiently. “The Bible tells us God gave dominion over the animals to Man, but that’s just one way of looking at it. Another way is that the strong conquer the weak, although many consider that idea to be unnecessarily combative. The weak have their contribution to society, too, and that’s what we do here—we find ways these lesser creatures can benefit humanity.”
“Of course,” agreed Alison without hesitation. “I wouldn’t be working at Helixtech if I didn’t agree with that.”
“The difference,” her instructor went on, “is that animals, while possessing a certain level of trainable intelligence—such as with dogs and cats—and even approaching sentience, as one might suggest of chimpanzees or orangutans—they lack self-awareness and higher intellect. The beings we’ve collected here, which we collectively call ‘Fey,’ are not animals. They can think and communicate, and they can use magic, which of course we humans don’t understand. To them, magic is their technology, and I suppose to them, our technology must seem like magic.”
“I imagine so,” replied Alison. “Does that mean we can’t talk to them and find out?”
“One of our main efforts here in the lab is attempting to learn to communicate,” Elias went on. “Kalisha Cummings is in charge of that project.” He indicated a slim, dark-skinned woman halfway across the lab, leaning down over a small Plexiglas container with a miniature figure inside. “So far, she’s had limited results. We aren’t sure if we simply lack the proper foundation, or if the creatures themselves are resisting our efforts. In any event, that’s but one of a great many issues we’re attempting to address. To return to my original point, however, these creatures are not animals, but intelligent beings that share our planet, yet have remained hidden from us for most of human history. Only now, as our technology has advanced far enough that we can finally discover and document their existence, have we become aware of them.”
“I think I see where you’re going,” Alison replied after a moment’s thought. “You’re going to ask me if I’m bothered by the fact that we’re oppressing these creatures. I assure you, Elias, I’m not one of those bleeding heart activists like the protesters that keep showing up outside the building whenever they want to score media points or get accolades by their professors. If these…these Fey creatures have been hiding from humans, they must have a reason for that, don’t you think?”
“Yes, of course, and that’s one of the reasons for this project, as you may have already guessed. Their use of magic is proof enough of that. I think—and the rest of the scientists here agree—that if we can learn to use this magic, we can benefit humanity in ways not yet dreamed of. These little creatures are the key to that, and we intend to do whatever it takes to learn their secrets.”
Alison smiled, tapping her fingertips together eagerly. “Good,” she said without a hint of regret or doubt. “I can’t wait to get started. What do you want me to do first?”
Elias looked her straight in the eyes and smiled warmly. “I was hoping you’d say that,” he replied at once. “Come, let me show you to your station.”
Helixtech Labs – The Dome
Under normal circumstances, Bongcor would’ve been awake most of the night and retired to bed just before dawn. Even in the confines of his comfortable, now faraway tower, in the safe but frightfully boring Morningside Tunnel, he could tell when sunrise approached and then the yawning would begin, growing in intensity until he at last flopped down on his soft bed-mat to sleep the day away like most other ordinary gremlins. Save for a scattered few who couldn’t sleep, or had business that kept them up beyond normal hours, the Tunnel would grow quiet and still, the glow-globes overhead dimming automatically as the lightsmiths adjusted the brightness accordingly. They followed this same ritual each and every morning, as they had for as long as Bongcor could remember.
Once he began hunting with Sithlac, though, the lesser gremlin found his ordinary routines disrupted beyond imagining. A hunt might last all night and then, upon their return, some construction task could keep them on their feet far beyond the dawn; then when sleep finally came, Bongcor might find himself waking halfway through the night. A hunter, it seemed, had to adapt to a less ritualistic schedule in order to get by. Then, of course, recent events had destroyed what remained of his routine, keeping him up almost throughout a full day, so that even as the Moon began to rise, he felt his eyelids drooping of their own accord.
He managed to last long enough to seek out a small hollow along the edge of one of the larger branches protruding from the smallest stump. As he lay there, partly covered under a pair of large, oval-shaped leaves—the best he could do for a blanket—the crescent Moon appeared in the edge of the furthest skylight overhead. He reached out, drew in its magic to replenish his supply, and fell asleep within moments. He hadn’t realized how much the events of the day overwhelmed him until he passed into the deepest sleep of total exhaustion.
The light of the morning Sun brought him back to reality. He rose, blinking and cowering under the bright rays, holding up one of the dried-out leaves as a shield until he could find shade. The light appeared amplified by the clear pane high overhead, and the curve of the Dome as well, making the rays almost unbearable to look upon.
For a moment, as he clawed his way back to reality, Bongcor thought perhaps he must be home, with some neighbor playing a trick on him, hauling him Outside into a world of green growing things and brown coverings of leaves. His swiveling eyes, blinking and focusing, took in the false nature of the Dome with something akin to desperation. The feelings from the last few days came swiftly flooding back: anticipation at the possibilities offered by his partnership with his fellow gremlin Sithlac, followed soon after by the awe and amazement at his discovery of a world far greater than he could have imagined. Then, bringing him crashing down from those lofty heights of elation, came the utter terror of being captured by Men, put in a cage, and carried off to some unknown place. To awaken now, in what looked initially like natural surroundings, left him momentarily confused and bewildered, as if perhaps it had all been but a dream.
His conscious mind soon took over, catching sight of the rinitani wall surrounding the knoll on which he’d been sleeping, and the unnatural structures of humans filling the room beyond. He remembered, then, that he’d been released underneath an enormous Dome, into a fake environment filled with trees and plants and other Fey captives, the whole thing built by Men for reasons he had yet to understand. Bongcor slumped slightly, one eye peering out through the glass to find one of the giants standing there, still as a statue, watching him closely. The other eye caught movement as something shifted in the brush a short distance away.
“I see you’re awake,” came Jozan’s voice. “I hope I didn’t have anything to do with that. I’ve been trying to keep quiet.”
Still not quite yet awake, the gremlin needed a moment to remember who this was. For an instant he thought of Yog, his friend and guide for the last several days, but remembered then that the elderly goblin had been left behind, with the others. Not Yog, but the goblin traveler known as Jozan, a fellow prisoner like myself, recalled Bongcor at length, whereupon he realized the other was awaiting a response.
“The light of the Sun pierced my sleep most effectively,” replied Bongcor unsteadily, his voice cracking as he realized how dry his throat felt. “I must drink, lest I dry out under that harsh glow.”
“There’s plenty of shade over here, and all the water you want coming out of the spring,” Jozan answered. He led the way over a short rise where Bongcor paused, taking in the sight of a small fountain next to another of the enormous tree stumps. The water bubbled out of the ground, trickling away down the slope to pass through a small grating somewhere out of sight. The three elves he’d seen yesterday stood near the spring itself, talking quietly among themselves, but didn’t seem to notice the gremlin’s arrival.
As Bongcor moved to a spot about halfway down the stream and quenched his thirst, Jozan remained alongside, looking out through the glass. “I don’t know about you, but I passed out right away last night,” said the goblin. “The others have dug out a little cave on the other side of the stump across the way. They had plenty of room for me, but no bed, just a spot in the dirt. I didn’t mind—like I said, I was out within moments. How about you?”
“Most strange it is,” replied Bongcor, feeling better already now that his throat had been properly moistened, “that I slept so soundly through the night, for day is my normal sleeping-time. The strain of yesterday’s trials left me worn out most surely.”
“Yeah, same here,” agreed Jozan with a nod. “I got up with the dawn, and the others took me up on top of the stump to watch the Men arrive. You might not be able to see them all from here, but there are several, including that female who stares at us so intently. I’m told that’s her way, as they all have some feature about them, but the one of most importance stands there.” He pointed with a claw toward a figure visible outside the Dome, having a conversation with a female who looked far more animated than the others.
“What importance does he have, I wonder?” commented Bongcor, moving slightly closer for a better look. The Man outside paused, glancing in his direction, and the gremlin thought for a moment he saw a dark flicker in the watcher’s eyes. At the same moment, Bongcor’s skin twitched of its own accord, causing him to pull back slightly, before shaking off the strange sensation as mere jitters.
“He is their leader,” came the reply. “He often arrives early, or so I’m told, and commands the others. The elves say he has a—how did they word it again? He has a…a fearsome presence, as though he owns us, and considers us all his property. Tomluk said none of the other Men make him feel as uneasy as this one does, especially when he stands and stares with those cold, calculating eyes.” The goblin shivered for a moment and then pressed on. “In any event, he was there when I awoke, but departed a short while ago, only to just now return, alongside this other—the same one who looked in upon us last night, before we were brought to this place.”
Bongcor started to ask another question, but just then the pair of Men approached, moving right up to the glass. The male stood with arms behind his back, not the least bit interested in the goings-on within the Dome, instead paying close attention to the female. She leaned over, staring inside with a look of excitement on her face, eyes flicking back and forth between the various Fey creatures with obvious eagerness.
As Bongcor remained still, just behind the edge of the brush and in the shadow of some leaves, Jozan shrugged and moved forward, heading out to the edge of the Dome. The woman, surprised, leaned closer for a better look at him. He put his claws on the glass, slid them along slightly, then turned to Bongcor. “Come and have a closer look,” he called out. “With this great wall between us, they don’t seem that threatening.”
The gremlin felt his flesh quivering, but he stilled it with a quick tightening of his jaw muscles and strode forward, trying to remind himself of Sithlac’s courage. These Men can do what they wish to us, he reminded himself. We are their prisoners. If in some way I can show I am not their enemy, perhaps I might convince them to let us go.
A faint hope, to be sure, but something in the woman’s face and demeanor suggested she didn’t mean him harm. She looked excited, curious, and amazed, not murderously evil, as he’d been taught to think of Men. In fact, compared to the male, who did indeed make him noticeably uneasy, she appeared quite approachable, even friendly. She waved her fingers and whispered something, but he couldn’t make sense of the words.
Bongcor stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do or say, until at last he raised his arm in greeting. “Hail, Man, I am Bongcor of the Morningside Tunnel,” he croaked weakly.
The goblin grinned at him. “They can’t understand us, you know. Come on, let’s get out of here. I just wanted a closer look, and I got it. Disgusting creatures.”
He meandered off, and Bongcor reluctantly followed, back into the comforting shade. However, one of his two eyes remained on the enormous woman, who kept watching him and talking in loud voices with the other Man—definitely their leader, from the way he stood and spoke. Bongcor could tell from just a few moments of watching that that one commanded the others most surely. Perhaps that explained the strange “fearsome presence” the goblin mentioned—as the one in charge, he had ultimate power over those within this place.
The two humans spoke a bit longer before moving off to one side. Bongcor hopped up over the exposed stump-root and caught sight of the trio of elves, now seated on some flat stones near the water’s edge. From his position, Bongcor could just barely hear their words as the Men stopped nearby, the woman once again peering in excitedly. The taller elf, the one called Nolzun, looked at her carefully for a moment before speaking in Telan’s direction. “That face isn’t known to us,” he explained. “She must be a new recruit, now joining the others out there for the first time.”
“Yes, you can see the excitement in her face, can you not?” replied Tomluk, shaking his head and frowning. “The way these foul creatures take delight in our suffering makes me long for a weapon capable of putting out their eyes in a most painful way. Come, let us retire and not give her the satisfaction of witnessing our despair.”
Telan nodded, scooped up a last drink of water using a hollow seed-cap, and downed the liquid quickly before hurrying off. Bongcor sighed and looked over at his companion. “I see the way of this place is to avoid and resist the Men,” he said cautiously, “but I wonder if there is more to be gained by seeking their friendship.”
“Friendship?” inquired Jozan, cocking his head sideways in the way Yog used to do when something vexed him. “What does a gremlin know of friendship?”
“Not much, I fear, oh yes, but in nights recently passed I’ve come to learn its worth. Sithlac, my fellow gremlin, far greater in status than I, took me in of his own free will and trained me in the ways of the hunt. Working together we are more than we would be alone—in this way we have become friends. In our travels we did meet Yog the goblin outcast, forced from his tribe for no crime other than age, and he is now my friend as well. Soon after did we encounter Ithess the zephyr, Lyza the elf-maid, and Meathead the cooking-troll, and while I have known them very little if at all, I feel they too are, if not friends, at least well upon the path to friendship.”
Jozan nodded, listening carefully, and finally clapped a hand on Bongcor’s hip. “Well said, and I do believe you must be truthful, for what purpose would it serve to lie? I would call you friend as well, gremlin hunter, when the passing of time makes it so, but to what end would you seek the friendship of those Men, who wish us naught but ill?”
“But do they?” inquired Bongcor, bobbing his head up and down. “We know not what they wish from us, save what these others tell. I will judge them by what I see and hear myself, and learn if friendship could even be possible. If it is…”
“If it is, then what?” demanded the goblin.
“Then perhaps,” replied his companion, patting him on his bare head, “they might one day set us free.”
Central Park West – Near 102nd Street
The battered-looking, red Chevy Nova screeched to a halt as its driver, a youth with long, unkempt brown hair, spotted another car pulling out of a parking spot. Even on a Sunday, open spaces could sometimes be hard to find along this particular edge of Central Park. The tall, gangly youth slid his vehicle into the vacant area slightly askew, momentarily considered straightening out, then shrugged and decided not to bother. When he turned the key to the off position, the decrepit Nova shuddered and coughed a few times before finally going silent.
Kyle Morris patted the cracked and pitted dashboard softly. “Hang in there, old girl,” he chuckled to himself. “Winter’s almost a quarter of the way over already. You’ll get through it…I hope.”
He exited with barely a glance at passing traffic and headed down the sidewalk toward the nearest entrance to the park, shaking his head (not for the first time) at his decision to keep his friend’s old car. Dave certainly had no need of it anymore, that’s for sure, and Kyle always thought it somewhat silly to drive one’s own vehicle in the city, yet he hung onto it anyway—partly out of respect for his friend’s property, and also because he had to admit being able to go where he wanted without dealing with rideshares or taxis (or, even worse, the subway) made things a whole lot easier. Before Dave’s departure, Kyle rarely had to go anywhere but the vicinity of Columbia University, but now he found himself traveling out to Central Park, and other locations, on a somewhat regular basis. Having a car made such things easier in many ways.
Plus, he mused with a smile, it sure helps that Dave’s trust fund already pre-paid for that private spot in the garage for the rest of the school year…
Nearly a month had passed since his friend’s life abruptly changed—for the better, at least for him—and Kyle still hadn’t quite gotten used to the new state of affairs. Dave had been at Columbia for a short while, and hadn’t really fit in yet, despite all Kyle’s attempts to work his friend into the social scene. At the time, he figured Dave just needed more time to settle in, but that didn’t prove to be the case at all. Kyle didn’t see it at the time, but Dave had been floundering in a state of nearly constant depression, unable to figure out how to adjust to university life—and that’s when he found the faerie.
She fell out of the sky onto his car one evening as he drove back from a trip to Central Park, and although they both initially thought she must be some kind of doll, the truth eventually came out. Kyle still felt a bit ashamed about how he couldn’t stop thinking about how to best use the amazing little creature for personal gain, but Dave became at first protective, then sympathetic, and finally captivated by his little flying houseguest. In the matter of just a few short days the two fell deeply in love and then, pursued by a nasty tabloid reporter named Travis Hellerman, they made their way to the forest, where…
Well, that’s where things got weird. Somehow, in a way Kyle never quite understood, Dave decided to give up his humanity, permanently transforming into a faerie to be with his new love. Upon learning of this, Kyle thought he must be dreaming, and perhaps would discover the next day he’d simply been watching a movie or experiencing some other kind of altered reality, but as it turned out, everything happened just as he remembered it. Somehow, his best friend was now a little winged critter straight out of Peter Pan, and that really took some getting used to.
At first Kyle wondered if he’d ever see his friend again at all, but after a couple of trips back to Central Park, he managed to make contact. Dave seemed completely happy with his decision and had no regrets, and that left Kyle with the unenviable task of informing the university that Dave had dropped out of school and wouldn’t be returning. Of course, explaining everything to Dave’s mother proved the most challenging part of the whole process, but a helpful audio recording did wonders, leaving her with the truth-stretching story that her son had met a girl and they decided to run off to see the world together. Dave’s mother pretended to understand and be supportive, but Kyle knew she’d been worried sick since she heard her son had dropped out of school—something he had yet to tell his friend about, but would get around to one of these days, if he could ever figure out how.
Shaking that unpleasant duty aside, Kyle made his way through a gate along the edge of Central Park, heading down one of the walking paths toward the Pool and taking a moment to enjoy the view. He passed by numerous leafless trees, their frosted branches coated in a thin layer of snow, and soon came to the edge of the water, where the edges had partly frozen. The winter Sun, still nearly overhead this early in the afternoon, cast multiple reflections on the pond’s surface, where a single hardy duck floated, completely ignoring the passersby—many of whom pointed and laughed at the odd sight, some even snapping off a quick photo.
Kyle hadn’t really ever bothered looking at nature before, but now, he had a new appreciation for Central Park and other places like it. Dave had already shown him dozens of things he probably never would’ve noticed on his own, and neither would anybody else, most likely. The details fascinated him, and as a film studies major, he fully intended to make use of that information for a few student movies later on—just not yet. First he had to make it through the rest of the school year, then find a way to earn lots of money in the summer so he could afford some good equipment…
He put those plans aside as he approached the Glen Span Arch, the chosen meeting spot for the day. The paved walking trail wound under the bridge beneath West Drive, heading on toward the Loch, a picturesque stream featuring a small waterfall near the Huddlestone Arch farther east. Kyle idly wondered if the falls would be frozen today, but considering the Pool hadn’t quite gone solid yet, he figured it wouldn’t be. However, there might be icicles on the edges, which would look pretty cool and might even be worth a photo or two. Still, he didn’t proceed that way just yet, instead stepping off the path and up onto the rocky outcroppings surrounding Glen Span, picking his way over some of the slippery spots to a flat stone he’d used as a resting spot several times before.
Here he removed his backpack, unfolded a stadium-style padded seat, and placed it carefully on the makeshift bench. Then he sat down, took out an electronic tablet, and switched it on. The small device had no built-in Wi-Fi of its own, but could connect to other devices, so he set his phone up as a hotspot and then set that aside. Nearby, he placed a power brick and hooked both the phone and tablet into that before finally calling up the live feed of today’s football coverage. A quick check of the time showed he still had a few minutes before kickoff.
A few passersby smiled in his direction as they saw what he was up to, but nobody tried to chase him off. This time of year, a day like today—with above-freezing temperatures, very little wind, and some actual sunshine—would probably draw more than one football fan out into the park, at least for as long as they could stand the chilly air. Kyle, wrapped up in a heavy coat and thick scarf, expected to be here for at least the first half of the game, whereupon he’d go grab a bite to eat from a hot dog stand someplace and warm up before returning for the second half. If all went well, he’d have company for at least part of that time—or more likely all of it, if the day went as he hoped.
He glanced around cautiously, trying to see if he could spot anything unusual, but of course he didn’t. While within the park’s environs, the faeries couldn’t be seen by most humans, Kyle included. Once Dave showed up, though, Kyle found he could tell his friend had arrived because, after a little while, he could make out a faint faerie shape flitting about nearby. As lifelong best buddies, they had enough of a connection to partly pierce the veil of Fey magic, and soon enough they could, with some effort, have an actual conversation. Kyle had to be careful, though. He’d already caught that annoying reporter following him once or twice, and sometimes he’d spot someone else trying to tail him, or sneaking photos from a distance. He felt pretty sure the nosy busybody from the Citizen’s Reporter wasn’t going to give up on this story quite as easily as Kyle hoped.
A few minutes after kickoff, when the home team missed a field goal and the coverage went to commercial, Kyle caught the first hint that his friend had arrived. The classic sensation of being watched resembled something out of a bad movie, but that’s exactly what he felt—the hairs on his neck raised up slightly, and he realized he could almost make out something from the corner of his eye. He smiled, nodding, and glanced that way, even though he couldn’t really see Dave at all. “Good, you made it,” he said in a quiet voice. “Wasn’t sure you could get free of the ol’ ball and chain on a day this nice.”
He didn’t hear any reply, other than what might’ve been a faint little laugh. Kyle smiled and nodded, turning back to the screen. Then he felt something else, almost like an electric charge running up and down his spine. He jerked upright, almost dropping the tablet, and shook his hands involuntarily. “What the actual f…?”
This time he heard the laugh quite clearly. He glanced over to see a little winged figure standing on one of the stones protruding from the Arch, dressed in a faerie-sized pair of jeans and sweater bearing a prominent football team’s logo. His friend just kept right on laughing, pointing at the comical look of amazement on Kyle’s face. “Oh, yeah, I thought that’d get you!” Dave chuckled. “My first spell! What do you think?”
“Spell?” Kyle just stared at him in wonder. “Really? You’re casting spells now?”
“Tilly’s been teaching me,” Dave answered, flying over to take up a position where he could better see the screen. “It’s not easy, either. As hard as it is for me to learn, I think it’s harder for her to explain it because for someone born a faerie, it comes naturally. For me, it’s like…well, learning to read, I guess, without even knowing what the alphabet is yet.”
Kyle nodded at that, a bit amazed at how easily he could see Dave now—the first time he’d really seen him fully since the transformation. He still looked much like the friend he’d grown up with, only much smaller, with a bit more angular features and ears, and no more mustache. “What’s with the clean upper lip?” Kyle inquired curiously, waggling his finger under his own nose to make his point. “I haven’t seen your face that clear since…well, puberty, I guess.”
Dave shrugged. “Apparently faeries can’t grow facial hair. Who knew? Anyway, I don’t really miss it.”
“You do miss some things, though, right?” inquired Kyle curiously. “Hamburgers, probably, and maybe driving…”
“Yeah, of course,” Dave agreed. “Lots of things, but it’s more like nostalgia now, you know? I can do without all that stuff—I love my new life more than any of that. The car’s still working, I take it?”
“Yeah, got a good spot on Central Park West today. Lucky me. She’s tough to get started, then when we get where we’re going, she doesn’t wanna stop.”
Dave nodded with a smile. “Typical. Did Mom send the title?”
Kyle sighed. On the screen, the opposing team went three-and-out and had to punt, and the action moved back to commercials. He settled the tablet back in his hands and turned to the hovering miniature figure, his expression suddenly serious. “Yeah, but Dave, about your mother…”
“She’s really worried, isn’t she?” Dave looked a bit distraught.
“Yeah,” Kyle replied honestly. “Look, I don’t think she’s upset with you about quitting school or anything. She really just wants you to be happy, especially after that business with your father running off. The problem is she doesn’t hear from you, except what I pass along to her, and I think she’s starting to doubt I’m really telling her the truth. You need to call her yourself.”
“How?” Dave asked, throwing out his hands in frustration. “I can’t really use a phone like this, you know, and besides, Tilly’s already a bit annoyed by how I keep meeting with you. I’m supposed to be leaving my old life behind completely—every time you show up, I think she feels like maybe I might be having second thoughts, or want to go back. I don’t, of course, and in her heart she probably knows that, but—”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it,” Kyle interrupted. “If you start talking to your mother, you might feel like you want to see her again, which you think you can’t.”
“Yeah.” Dave nodded sadly. “As much as I’d like to think she’d understand, eventually, that this is what I really want…well, I wouldn’t like the consequences if she didn’t.”
Kyle looked away, flexing his fingers a bit, trying to decide how much further he should take this conversation. Eventually, he bit his lip and took the plunge. “Dave,” he said firmly, “you’re going to have to tell her, sooner or later. She deserves to know.”
The faerie flew a short distance away, settling down on a branch from one of the nearby trees. He turned his back for a minute or so, lost in thought. The football game returned to live play, but Kyle lowered the volume and set the tablet down, waiting patiently. Finally, Dave sagged his shoulders, lifted off, and flew back over.
“I know,” he said in a defeated voice. “I think I’ve always known, but I’ve been dodging it left and right. How am I supposed to tell her, Kyle? Invite her to the park, fly up and say, ‘Hi, Mom, it’s me. I’m a faerie now and I live in Central Park!’ What if she has a heart attack?”
Kyle tried to suppress a smile at that, and only barely succeeded. “I don’t know how you’re going to do it,” he replied after a bit of struggling, “but I’ll try and help any way I can. Maybe there’s a way to soften the blow. You might start by recording a video or something. I’m sure I could set up a camera in such a way she can’t tell how small you are, or see the wings. Just seeing you again would make things so much better.”
Dave nodded at that. “Okay, then, I’ll talk it over with Tilly and see what she wants to do. She’s not going to like this any more than Mom will, but I’m sure she’ll understand. Just because I turned into a faerie doesn’t erase my old life completely. Plus, remember how she seemed so fascinated by everything when we first met? She’s still like that, you know. For every little detail she’s shown me about the park, I’ve probably told her ten different things about humans. She might enjoy the opportunity to meet another one face to face.”
“Yeah, assuming that spell of yours lets you turn visible for her, too,” replied Kyle. “That reminds me—I thought you said faerie magic can’t affect people?”
“It can if you agree to it,” said Dave, “which you basically did because as soon as you sensed I was there, you started wishing you could see me. Tilly showed me how to tap into that—the song I used was kinda like the one she used on me when we first figured out how to communicate, just not as intense.”
“Good because, seriously, that would get weird,” Kyle laughed. “So if I wanted some other magic spell, you could do that too, right? Like give me bodybuilder muscles? Or better yet, super powers! I could shoot lasers out of my eyes, or run like the Flash…yeah, that’d be awesome!”
“No, no, there won’t be any of that!” insisted Dave. “Magic isn’t something you play around with, Kyle! Sheesh!” He gave a quick laugh to indicate he knew his friend wasn’t serious. “But anyway, the spell should work on Mom, if she really wants to be able to see me, which I’m pretty sure she will. Who knows, maybe she’ll love the idea of what I’ve become, and come out here to visit all the time. I bet she’d love to see some of the things I’ve shown you, too.”
“What she’ll say,” noted Kyle directly, “is this: ‘Does this mean I’m gonna have faerie grandkids?’”
Dave rolled his eyes at that, but couldn’t help but laugh. “You know her all too well! Do you think that’d be the first question out of her mouth, or the second?”
“No idea, but definitely in the top three,” Kyle agreed. “Speaking of which, is that even a possibility, really? Do you have any idea? You being formerly human and all, I mean.”
His friend shrugged. “Who knows? Tilly told me faeries are born for a reason—hers is to care for the park, you see. Her parents and sister all left of their own accord, following some other path, leaving her here alone, to take care of things as best she could. With me here, by whatever quirk of fate, she at least has company—but whether there’ll be any kids won’t have anything to do with me—they’ll come if they’re needed. Does that make sense? Well, that’s how Tilly explains it, anyway.”
“So…it’s not from lack of trying, then?” chuckled Kyle good-naturedly.
“That’s none of your damn business!” Dave retorted, flying up to slap his tiny hand across the top of his friend’s ear. “Now knock it off and put the game back on! We didn’t miss any scoring plays, did we?”
Kyle flipped the screen back up, but the numbers in the corner still showed a zero-zero tie. “Nope. Looks like another boring defensive struggle to me. Wanna switch to one of the other games?”
“No way,” Dave told him, pointing down at the fake sweater he wore—the one bearing his favorite team’s logo. “Do you have any idea how long it took to find someone wearing one of these so Tilly could copy it for me? Y’know, she’s never going to understand why I like this game so much.”
Kyle broke up laughing. “That’s great,” he managed between guffaws. “You’ve only been with her a month, and you’ve already made her the world’s first faerie football widow!”