Escaping from Otherland was supposed to be the tough part. And sure, it had been almost impossible to spot the door of colored glass among the thousand rainbow hues; to keep it in the corner of her eye long enough for its gnarled borders to solidify; to fool the hounds, distract the guards, then rush towards it headlong, ignoring the yelps and the screams and the threats of the Fairy Lords; to shatter the glass with the weight of her body, and the pure force of her desire to go home.
Yup, escaping should have been the hardest part. Instead, it had been the beginning of her troubles.
"Coming, mum. Almost ready."
"I know what 'almost ready' means, Melina. I’m off without you."
"Don't you dare."
"I’m leaving now. I’m heading for the door."
Nope. Escaping Otherland had been the easy part. What came next, when she finally reached home after months of fairy captivity, proved to be much, much harder.
Before the abduction, the city lights reflecting on the river used to conjure a thousand stories in Melina’s head. She would imagine herself flying over the water, entering the nightclubs she was too young for, dancing on rooftops to everyone’s thunderous applause. Yet now that she has flown over the gilded spires of Sillyria, and seen the domes of Tel-quiron light up at sunset, even the most beautiful parts of her mundane little city fail to inspire her in the least. Lying against the taxi window, she tries to squeeze as much pleasure as she can out of her mp4 player as she and Mother head toward what is probably the drabbest, ugliest theater in the whole world.
"I wish you would talk to me," says Mother.
"Yes," she answers and then retreats further into the music. She herself wishes for nothing. Wishing was dangerous business inside Otherland, so while in there she learned to control the urge to want anything at all. Come to think of it, this is the strangest change she went through in her captivity, stranger than her now-watery hair, and the way her feet are always en point and the translucent wings on her back. After all, nobody else can see those but her.
The taxi leaves them outside the theater, Mother pays and they walk in. She tries hard to smile -- her little sister isn’t playing Lady Macbeth every night, after all, and she doesn't want to be told again how she should be happy for her. Of course she is happy. It is just that having seen real witches for herself, cooking spells in the green moonlight with mortal dreams and dragon lashes as their sole ingredient, has taken something out of the theatrical experience.
All these sympathetic glances from her mother's friends do not help either. Oh, so she’s well enough to go out at last, they obviously think. Good, good, you are finally out and about, they say instead, like a chorus. I knew you would pull through, you are a fighter just like your mum.
Right. But she cannot begrudge them anything, really, for how can they know what she really went through? So she grabs a theater program instead, and studies it as intently as anyone has ever studied words on paper.
At least the performance itself proves halfway decent. And her sister is amazing, she has to give her that. Too good in fact -- nobody should play a shit like Lady Macbeth so convincingly, and not raise some suspicions.
The girl playing Lady Macduff on the other hand, makes the weirdest entrance. She walks onstage on two bronze hooves, her head bedecked with horns, the smell of autumn twilights all around her. Melina's mouth twitches – the costume is so off, even her boredom is offended. Not that anyone else notices. For them, as long as it is not a tracksuit or an astronaut’s uniform, it must be period-appropriate.
But once the girl turns to face the crowd, contempt dies in Melina's throat and her hearts start drumming up a paean. The girl’s eyes resemble the forest floor after the rain, she moves on her hooves as if dancing, and she conveys loss in a way that stabs Melina in the gut. It does not help that she is so, so beautiful, at least not while the lights are out.
Of course when the lights come up again, she will have to silence the drums. Another thing she never thought of when dashing for that colored-glass door: in Otherland, nobody cares who you want to lock in your heart forever. While in there, she had been turned into three different flowers at once, hung from trees like a living ornament and hunted like prey for giggles, but at least, nobody cared whom she desired -- boys and girls and everything in-between, they were all the same to the fairy lords.
Out here, everybody cares.
She pinches herself, the moment she thinks about it; missing Otherland is as dangerous as standing in the crossroads on a dare, with a dash of wine on your lips, begging the fairy lady’s kiss. How could she be so careless with herself, again? Did she forget they can smell your desire and come for you? She holds her breath and starts reciting Led Zeppelin lyrics backwards in her head.
Thankfully, Lady Macduff is executed quickly.
Backstage, Mother has brought her sister flowers. Melina has gone for champagne chocolates but there are too many people congratulating the actors for her ever to get near.
"And you, Melina? When are you going back onstage? You used to dance so beautifully."
"Uh, not yet, aunt."
"Need to rest a bit, huh? Get back on your feet."
Again with the misplaced sympathy. She nods back. Lying has become this ball of iron, trapping her two feet inside, ankle deep.
"Coming right back," she mumbles, walking outside the dressing room. She wishes she smoked just to have something to do when she bolts out of gatherings like that, but she found out quickly that cigarettes turn her wings a dirty grey she cannot stand. Thankfully, her sister is the center of attention for tonight so she can just walk out the back door and be by herself for a few minutes.
And that's when she spots them, as the door shuts behind her, at the darkened parking lot: two figures tall and gnarly like trees, birds made of glass shards nesting in their branches, bending over hoof girl, who is lying on the ground, panting. She can hear them from where she stands, too, their voices like the whispers of trees: Told you, you had nowhere to go. Told you not to run. Hold still, and it will be over soon.
Melina doesn’t think twice (never did, why start now?); she grabs the fire extinguisher and dashes forward, nozzle in hand. She did read somewhere the foam from one of these hits like a battering ram -- or she could hit them in the stomach with it if needed. Luckily she does not have to find out. They see her charging and they fade out, back into the midworld that spawned them.
Hoof girl is panting, her cheeks scraped, her costume torn. She sits up and Melina sees what she would have already seen hadn’t the face stolen her breath onstage. This isn’t a costume. These are the girl’s own hooves, her own horns.
Another feytouched – another like her.
"Thanks," the girl says wiping her mouth, standing up. She is so much taller, yet she looks fragile like a branch. Melina stands there mute, holding the fire extinguisher in her hand and her breath in her throat.
"Don't mention it," she says at last. Can she see her as she is, too? Wings and all? She cannot tell. What if it’s her imagination, playing tricks again, seeing hooves and horns where there are none? And out of the blue, the fear: what if I am not a fairy either – what if I am just crazy after all?
What if there are no fairies and no place where nobody cares who you want and where the lights on the water have a mind of their own?
Hoof girl opens her mouth and Melina tries to speak first and then the door opens wide. It's her mum and her aunt and everyone else, cell phones in hand, eyes widening in dread.
And Melina finds out there’s no good way to hide a fire extinguisher behind your back.
"They did find some weird tracks but nobody saw them," mum whispers into the phone. "No, I am not worried. The other girl saw them too, so all is well. Some bullies in costume, probably. As well as it can be, I mean. No, she’s fine, just fine. Poor thing, and just when everything was going so well for her."
Sure, Mother, whatever you say. Melina waits patiently for the phone call she is eavesdropping on to end, so she can go back to her music, but her mum doesn’t hang up.
"Oh." Oh what? "Oh, I see. Oh, I... didn’t know that. But how could they have..."
Mother's voice drops. Melina has to know, so she leans backwards from the balustrade. If she didn't have wings this would have been way too dangerous but darn it, let them serve some purpose for once.
"And she was hospitalized there too? For how long? I see." Big Sigh, sign of Big Trouble. "No, it could be a coincidence. I don’t know, Persa. I am trying not to freak out at everything, I am not helping her if I do. The doctors said she’s fine now, and I have to take them at their word."
Oh, mum. Melina folds herself back into the room. You can never go home again, they say. Well, you can. It's just not always the best idea.
Her eyes fall on the theater program and she picks it up. Hoof girl is called Kleio, and attends acting classes three blocks away from her home. Her smile is so radiant in the photo, it could dispel even homecoming blues. Melina bites her lip again, then pinches herself. Sure, let’s lose our heads at a time like this. Wish for a kiss, wish for a smile, what harm could it possibly be? Idiot, do you want to invite them back? They say the door opens when you want something really bad and these gnarly things last night came out of somewhere so put two and two together if you don’t want to lose your home for good: wanting Kleio will only summon them again, and they will both be lost.
But three blocks down is way too close and she is going to stumble upon her anyway sooner or later, so why not be done with it tonight?
Tonight becomes three nights after -which is fitting, because this is fairies we are talking about and fairies always end up doing things in three- and Melina walks to Kleio’s acting classes by herself. Buys a coffee and a cookie, then a second cookie to use as a bribe if needed because you have to like a person bearing cookies, don't you?
Hoof girl -Kleio- walks out after half an hour, among a group of friends so noisy, they remind Melina of the amber bees in the Forest of Tears, so no way she goes near them. They scare her. But luck is on her side and Kleio checks her phone and something she sees makes her bid her friends goodbye. They move along and the theater closes down while Kleio talks on her phone, and Melina waits for no reason other than watching her horned shadow fall on the graffittied wall behind her. When the last attendant bids her goodnight and turns the corner, Kleio pockets her phone and walks straight up to her.
"Ah, hi." No, no biting her lip. "Uh, nice shoes."
Good one, Melina. A line for the ages. But hoof girl laughs and everything brightens.
"They do stand out, don't they? Hey, where is your glittering spear?"
"The, the fire extinguisher? Don't remind me. I got about a thousand lectures on not doing that ever again. Call an adult, they said, as if adults could ever do anything useful against such creatures. So..." So you saw them too. "So did you get a good look at them?"
Kleio turns towards her and up close, autumn dancing in every line of her face. "I did. But what good will it do? The police is not likely to go after this kind of people."
Melina nods. "I’m sorry."
"Why? It wasn’t your fault."
"I… I think it is. I think that for a moment, when I saw you up on the stage, I wished for something so hard that I knocked on the door."
Kleio doesn't speak. So I am crazy after all, Melina thinks, and for a moment an awful relief washes over her.
"So what?" hoof girl says. "Let them come, in all their thorn-and-iron glory. You can’t live forever in-between, can you?"
You can't? she asks herself in a daze, but then she snaps back to reality, this new reality where she found another and half-confessed to her, in the span of thirty seconds. She holds her breath, but no-one makes the move for her.
So she is going to give Kleio one more chance to run.
"I was in the psychiatric ward for a while,” she says. “At least, this is what they told me when I broke through the colored door, and came back to my body."
Kleio snorts. "Oh, this was your fey captor’s cover? Pretty Victorian. I was thrown in a Christian camp for lost girls, which is of course code for bloody queer.” Her hands cross on her chest. "My parents drove me there, and the superintendents told them not to attempt any contact with me until notified. We were easy pickings for the Otherland’s lords; they are getting with the times too, I’m guessing. Anyway, trade you anytime."
"Spoilt for choice, we are not." She looks down at her chocolate stained fingers. "Would you like a cookie?"
"If you didn't offer soon I’d have to steal it from you," hoof girl says. She gulfs it down in two bites and Melina watches, feeling the iron ball melting from under her feet.
"If we do keep talking, if we meet again,” if I kiss the chocolate off your lips, “they will keep coming," she says, thawed heart beating now hard.
"Then we had better stick together, you and me. Right?"
Kleio smiles a chocolate stained smile and offers up her black-clawed hand. Melina takes it, and the warmth spreads from her fingers to the tips of her fluttering, shimmering wings.
Somewhere close, she can hear the colored-glass door swing open into the world; she can hear the iron-and-thorn brigade howl her name; she knows she shines like a beacon in the night. And so she smiles at Kleio wanting to shine even brighter, even more full of colors, because for the first time in her life, she is not afraid anymore.
Dimitra Nikolaidou is a Greek author. Having discovered the 36-hour day, she also researches RPGs and speculative fiction at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, acts as head editor at Archetypo Publications, and is the co-founder of Tales of the Wyrd, which organizes creative writing workshops and seminars. Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Metaphorosis, See the Elephant, Starship Sofa, and Gallery of Curiosities as well as in several published and upcoming anthologies (After the Happily Ever After, Retellings of the Inland Seas, Nova Hellas and more). Her non-fiction work has been published in Cracked.com, Atlas Obscura, and Future Skies as well as in several Greek magazines and history anthologies. Rumors of her radicalizing fairies in her spare time have been greatly exaggerated.