Malcolm still smelled like industrial hand soap from his sink bath at the gas station. He wiped the pocket fuzz from the black plastic comb that was only missing a couple teeth and then battled the knots in his too long hair. His reflection in the store window winced back at him. The skater boy hair served a purpose beyond just announcing to the world that he didn’t have the cash for a haircut. The unruly waves covered the telltale point to his ears.
Even after he beat the worst of the dirt off his clothing, Malcolm still looked like what he was, a homeless teen.
It wasn’t like he couldn’t go back. They’d take him back. He knew they would. Only, if he went back home they’d never let him leave again. “For his own protection.” That’s what they’d say. That’s what they always said. Like house arrest was what it was. Some kind of fey witness protection program or something.
Only, if they’d ever let him get out at least once in a while, he probably would know something. Like how to get money. Or food. Or a warm place to crash. Instead of having to figure a way to steal what he needed.
Malcolm crouched down behind the lunch special sign, waiting for customers to venture into the Fairy Circle shop. Probably a waste of time, only Malcolm lacked for any better ideas. Not like he could ask someone for directions to a fey hangout or anything.
Mostly, Malcolm would’ve figured the place for a joke, if not for the smell. The smell turned his head the first time he walked past. The smell promised something. Proved something.
Malcolm couldn’t put a finger on what, exactly. But something.
Something not normal.
Maybe even magical.
The moment a middle aged woman walked in the shop, Malcolm hopped up. Not the best of distractions, but waiting made him fidgety. The bell on the door clattered way too loudly as Malcolm entered. He clenched it, silencing it, as he closed the shop door.
A mishmash of curiosities crammed every available wall shelf and island display. A short bookcase provided cover and he crouched as he slipped along beside it. He peeked around the far side to catch sight of the customer discussing crystals with the shopkeeper.
Malcolm had seen the shopkeeper through the window before. Probably early thirties, the woman decorated herself in a flowery, gauzy hippy skirt and floppy, knit sweater that somehow screamed both “new age” and “thrift shop” at the same time.
Ducking back, Malcolm scanned the titles. His fingertips danced over the spines. Some had a feel to them, like heat or static, but the titles didn’t jive with his search. His sharp hearing kept tabs on the conversation, trying to note if it was coming to an end or if the speakers moved closer or further away.
Until he found the book.
Malcolm’s palm hovered over the spine. The gold embossed title simply read, “The Secrets of the Fey.” What if it contained garbage? Then why did his hand tingle? His excitement bubbled through him. He had to have the book. Had to find the answers to the questions that clawed at him mercilessly.
He slipped the book from the shelf and tucked it under his shirt.
Only then did he notice the bell clanging at the door. His head snapped up. Had someone come in? Or the customer gone out? Distracted by the search, he’d forgotten to keep tabs on his surroundings. Hugging the hidden book to his chest, Malcolm crept to the edge of the bookcase.
The place was dead silent.
He peered around the bookshelf. Oh… so… slowly… No one seemed about. The place had an abandoned stillness. Creepy.
A hand touched his shoulder.
Malcolm yelped. He spun about, eyes wide. Heart ready to burst from his chest. The shopkeeper just smiled. “Who are we hiding from?” she asked, and then peeked around the shelves herself in a conspiratorial way. “I don’t see any scary monsters.”
He backed away, clutching his chest. The book made an obvious bulge under his t-shirt.
“What are we reading about?” she asked, all kindergarten teacherish.
Malcolm stammered, not making much of a coherent answer as she reached beneath his shirt and plucked out the book. He backed away, ready to bolt.
She simply turned it over and smiled at the cover. “You have questions about the fey?” She flipped to the table of contents. “How to find them perhaps?”
Malcolm gapped at her. After a long pause, he blinked. “Uh... yeah.”
“The fey are real, you know,” she said. “But, of course you do.” She gave him a knowing smile.
Malcolm trembled, the urge to run nearly overwhelming.
She pretended not to notice his reaction, but instead simply flipped through the book. “Ah, yes. So simple, really.” She closed it with a thump. “Let me jot down the directions.”
Malcolm checked the hand drawn map, then the surroundings. The little stone bridge spanned the stream there. Check. Clumps of trees down the little hill to the left. Check. So far so good. So where the hell was the circle of stones? He turned the map upside down. Didn’t make sense that way, though. Was he supposed to build the circle of stones? Hell, there were not even any stones around.
According to Flora’s supposed expertise, some fey fella named “Rand” hung out around here. Seemed a pretty unlikely place to Malcolm. Not even any houses in sight. She’d said if he followed the instructions it would call him out somehow. Maybe this Rand guy fished the river or something.
“This is so stupid.” He jammed the paper back in his pocket. “So bloody stupid.” Stupid or not, Malcolm hiked back to the stream. He jerked his shirt off and used it to gather a load of egg sized river stones. Back at the trees he spilled them out in more or less of an oval. He kicked them around until the shape was as close to a circle as he could manage.
Once satisfied, he fished out his lighter and the pocketful of herbs Flora gave him. Malcolm thought her name sounded phony, but who cared? She’d not given him the book, just the instructions and a nickel’s worth of dried out weeds.
After a couple of failed attempts to set fire to the fist sized pile in the middle of the circle, Malcolm scooped the herbs back up and wrapped them up in the paper from his pocket. He put the wad on the ground and set it alight. The flame died down to a glow of smoldering ash, threatening to burn itself out, when with a sudden whoosh the herbs ignited into a massive smoke bomb.
Coughing, Malcolm stumbled back. The sooty smoke burned his eyes and he scrubbed at them. The smoke rose through the trees, reaching like a beacon into the clear sky.
Flora instructed Malcolm to hum or sing to lure the supposedly timid fey out of hiding. Seemed about the dumbest thing, on top of all the other dumb stuff he’d done already. Malcolm gave the ring of rocks and smoke signal about five minutes to kick in. When no fey showed up he started humming “Danny Boy.”
“Is your head a Marley?”
Malcolm spun about. “Rand?” The guy glared at him. Whoever he was, he was no farmer peeved at some punk trespasser. Not in those pressed slacks and clean button-up shirt with the purple sheen of silk. Realizing he was shirtless, Malcolm shook out his wet and dirty t-shirt and yanked it back on. “I… Just…” He scrubbed his dirty hands on his jeans.
“Put it out, fey boy.” The guy pointed to the smoldering bundle.
Malcolm stomped out the ashes, choking on the smoke. Fey boy? Without even asking, Malcolm could feel the difference in the guy. Felt the vibe from him like prickling heat on his skin. “You are fey, right?”
“Shut up and come here already.” Rand snatched Malcolm by the back of the neck. Before Malcolm could squawk a protest they vanished from the bright sunny wood.
One second he’d been in a summer wood. The next second Malcolm found himself in the shadowed depths of a cave. Luminescent moss glowed with ambient light as if by some enchantment. The weak light glinted off the wet cave walls. The place stank like molded socks and over-used cat litter. Malcolm brought the back of his hand up to his nose, as if that might prevent the onslaught to his nasal passages.
“Dark Rot! Get your filthy arse out here!” Rand shouted into the depths of the cave.
Disoriented, Malcolm dropped to his knees, which hurt like heck on the uneven stony ground, but that pain didn’t completely cut through the confusion frying his brain. His questions gasped out so fast they almost tumbled over each other. “What happened? How’d we get here? What is this place?”
The guy only sneered at Malcolm.
A scuttling sound echoed from the deep. Malcolm scrambled to his feet and ducked behind Rand.
A platoon of green-skinned creatures scurried up the cave, filling it from wall to wall with their leathery, naked bodies. Goblins? Huge eyes reflected evilly. Sharp irregular teeth protruded from their opened mouths, like their teeth were too big to wrap their lips closed over them. They hissed and snarled, but Rand didn’t appear the least bothered by it. Between the slurping and guttural mumblings one word kept repeating. “Sidhe.”
So not good.