THIS was what Maggie heard after school.
She sat on the basement floor and listened to Madam Fairchild’s and Tilda’s voices trickling down through the vents. “We’ve had this discussion, Tilda. It is for the best.” Madam Fairchild was cold and logical.
“I know.” Maggie felt a pang of sympathy for Tilda. The faery girl always sounded taxed whenever she tried to reach the same level of blunt apathy as her mother. “It’s just… We’ve had her for so long,” she continued.
“That’s the problem, isn’t it? Maggie is old. Quite frankly, I am amazed that the girl lived this long. Most changelings don’t, from what I’ve been told. She is also not as good with young children as she used to be. Kane, Tessa, and Charise clearly do not care for her.”
“But Maggie is mine,” Tilda weakly argued. “Who cares if the little ones don’t like her?”
Maggie held her breath. She could just imagine the way Madam Fairchild would shake her head in disapproval of her daughter’s sentimentality.
“Darling, Maggie is in pain. She needs those numbing spells for her hand every day, not to mention the headaches she suffers. You are an adult now, Tilda. It’s time to let the poor creature go. I’ve already made an appointment with a friend of mine. She will do the deed gently.”
The silence that followed Madam Fairchild’s statement was chilling. No more protests from Tilda, no change of heart from the lady of the house. The longer the silence went on, the more Maggie’s insides twisted into knots. After what seemed like an eternity, Tilda relented, agreeing with her mother’s decision.
No, no, no. They were going to put her down like some kind of animal! They couldn’t do this to her! Tilda wouldn’t let her mother go through with this. Maggie just had to talk some sense into the girl.
She gained little from speaking to Tilda in the library. If anything, the faery girl seemed to dig in her heels and defend her mother’s position. It became starkly apparent that talking would do nothing.
So, this was what Maggie did.
For ten minutes, she allowed herself to cry and feel sorry. Then she sat motionless on the chair Tilda had vacated, numb and shocked at the turn of events. The expiration date on her life had just been made very concrete. How long until this appointment that Madam Fairchild had scheduled? A week? Two weeks at most, likely no longer than that.
The clock ticked on as she sat in the chair. Everything seemed to fade into a distant, gray blur. Nothing was real.
As the sun set, Maggie stood up, dazed. It felt like she floated down the stairs to the basement. She stripped out of her school clothes, didn’t bother with night clothes, and laid on top of the covers just in her underwear. Only then did it hit her.
Very soon, she was going to die.
And then, whatever had been holding the world up in the heavens putting a hazy film over everything, disappeared. Everything came crashing down, crushing her, smothering her. Of its own volition, Maggie’s body flew out of bed and hurtled toward the bathroom. She heaved until her stomach was empty, and then she heaved some more every time she thought of that dreadful conversation.
“Lela?” she croaked and coughed on the lingering acid burning the back of her throat. She wanted someone’s sympathy; she wanted someone to comfort her. There was no answer from Lela. Maggie reached up and grasped the edge of the sink, bracing herself as she struggled to her feet.
The sound came from the sink. Maggie looked down at it. Both her left and right hands gripped the edge of it. Slowly, she let go. A crack about six inches long cut the edge of the sink where her right hand held it seconds ago. She stared at her fingers. Even when she was terrified, Maggie’s right hand had never broken anything. And it always snapped back to its deformed state within seconds of the danger passing. Not this time.
“That’s never happened before.”
Perplexed, she turned her hands over, palms up. The left one was shaking. The right one was steady. Maggie turned her eyes to the crack in the sink. In her peripheral vision, something else caught her attention. The trash bin beside the toilet was full of torn paper, letters or notes by the look of them, but there was something else. She sunk to her knees again and rifled through the shreds of paper until she fully uncovered the object of her interest.
A pregnancy test. A positive pregnancy test. She looked from the unassuming stick to the crack in the sink. It hadn’t been difficult to damage it, though it should have been. It should have been impossible to do that given her old injury.
In her steady, right hand Maggie held the pregnancy test while the rest of her body quaked.
She wandered back into the bedroom with the pregnancy test, feeling as if she was on the precipice of a tall cliff searching the dark, endless abyss below for some definable shape. She was just on the verge of seeing something.
Lela wasn’t in her bed. Probably, she was spending the night in Charise and Tessa’s room. Annabelle was in her bed, but Maggie wasn’t sure if she was asleep. She twitched and jerked under the covers, odd movements to make even if she was conscious. Maggie walked to the girl’s bed, not certain what she wanted to say, only that she needed to talk to someone right then—anyone.
She sat on the lip of Anna’s bed. When the dip of the mattress didn’t prompt the other House Pet to pull the blankets away from her face, Maggie did it for her.
Annabelle was awake all right, but her bright blue irises were surrounded by broken blood vessels. Blood trickled from her nose and mouth, and her lips were turning a grayish-green color. Clenched in rigid, twitching fingers were two opened bottles containing some type of faery dust pills. Pulling the blankets back further, Maggie uncovered a third bottle.
For just a moment, she expected to feel horrified. She stood on that precipice staring into the abyss thinking that she was about to see a monster emerge. But rather than seeing a monster, Maggie saw an opportunity. Or perhaps it was a monster wearing the mask of opportunity—whatever it was, it just might save her from her fate.
She left Annabelle alone in her bed, slowly dying, and climbed outside through the basement window. The shed was locked tonight, but this would merely put her still forming idea to the test. Maggie took the door handle in her right hand, which still remained the only part of her body not quivering, the only part of her that seemed real. Whether or not there was a spell on the shed was left to be seen, but if her hunch was right then it wouldn’t matter.
With no effort at all, Maggie yanked the handle and practically took the door off its hinges. The lock broke with an audible clunk, and she was able to slip inside. Now it was time for the second test.
Hanging on one wall was the wood-chopping ax. Normally, it was heavy and not something that she could manipulate with just one arm. This time when she reached out to take the ax with her right hand, it was lighter than air. The sharp tool was simply an extension of her own arm. It sat in her palm comfortably like it belonged there.
Doubts began to creep into her mind as she stalked back to the basement window, but all she had to do to silence them was remember all the times she had been helpless without any way to defend herself.
She carried the ax back into the house. The first place she went was Kane’s bedroom. The little ones would be the easiest. Maggie padded into the room on silent, bare feet. She hardly felt the weight of the ax as she let it fall across his pillow. Maggie tasted faery blood, bittersweet, and she watched the red spattered feathers fly. It seemed like it only lasted a minute, but when she lowered the ax, Kane was unrecognizable. She never gave him the chance to make a peep. Multiple, deep cuts to the throat had severed his vocal cords before his body could heal them.
She had only a faint awareness of walking to Tessa and Charise’s room. Not until after she had repeated her previous actions did she remember Lela. The House Pet was sound asleep on the floor atop a pile of pillows and blankets; she hadn’t stirred throughout Maggie’s dark undertaking. Without taking her eyes off Lela, Maggie backed out of the room.
Next was Master Fairchild. Thankfully, he and his wife slept in separate beds. He struggled more than the children and would have woken his wife if she’d felt his thrashing. Maggie lost count of how many times she had to strike him before he laid still, his muffled screams nothing more than faint gurgles. By the time she came to Madam Fairchild’s bed, the ax still felt no heavier than a soup spoon. When she left the matriarch’s chambers, Maggie’s fair skin was more red than white. Blood matted her hair and dripped from her chin, staining the carpet.
The familiar door of Tilda’s bedroom momentarily forced her back to reality. Just for a split second, Maggie was nine years old again, and this room in front of her was her safe place to hide. And then the veil fell over her once more, turning the walls of the farmhouse dark red—or maybe that was faery blood running into her eyes.
She couldn’t stop at Tilda. She couldn’t leave any of them alive, or they would be a threat. A threat that had become far too dangerous for her to tolerate any longer. It was her life or theirs, and lo and behold, all she needed to be able to fight back was a situation that was dire enough. The proof was in her perfect, unnaturally strong right hand.
Tilda was, sadly, a light sleeper. Maggie would have preferred this one to be clean and quick. She awoke almost as soon as the old door creaked open. “What?” she murmured, her voice hoarse from sleep. She obviously was having difficulty making sense of the practically naked, blood-soaked changelings approaching her bed. “Maggie?” Her voice cracked in disbelief.
“I’m sorry,” Maggie whispered. Tilda was the only one who was able to scream as the ax fell. It was more of a pitiful shout than a scream, but it jolted something in the changeling. Technically, it didn’t matter how much noise she made now since there was no one to hear her except Lela who was notorious for sleeping heavily. Even so, a spike of panic rocked her body, and she hacked at her former friend relentlessly, more aggressively than she did with the others.
Stop screaming! Stop crying! She pleaded silently. Maggie didn’t calm down again until Tilda’s voice faded entirely. When she was finished, she felt ill, but there was nothing left in her stomach to expel. Maggie staggered down the stairs all the way to the basement. Every nerve in her body felt sensitive and exposed. She was lightheaded, her vision going in and out of focus.
Annabelle was in her bed where Maggie left her. Her rigid limbs were spasming. Maggie frowned. She was hoping that Anna would be dead by the time she returned. Faery dust was not a reliable drug on which to overdose. Unless you were skilled at using magic, which Annabelle was not, then you couldn’t be sure what it was going to do. That being the case, Annabelle might not die. She could go through the rest of her long life being a twitching, drooling mess. Anna didn’t want that, Maggie reasoned. She wanted to die; she had tried to kill herself, after all. Maggie needed her to die.
Oh well. She would just have to do this herself.
Maggie dropped the ax. It clattered on the concrete floor. Annabelle’s body jerked, and her bloodshot eyes zeroed in on Maggie. A strangled sound escaped her lips.
“You know,” Maggie said conversationally. She felt much calmer facing the House Pet than she had felt upstairs. “You’ve done me a big favor, Anna.” Annabelle’s gaze followed Maggie as she paced closer. “Right when I discovered that I was in real trouble, you gave me an excuse to dispose of my jailers and someone to blame for it.”
Maggie knelt by the other girl’s bed and wormed her right hand under the mattress. She knew this was where Annabelle stowed the gun, it was just a matter of locating it. Her skin came into contact with cold metal and she smiled.
“I suppose I should say thank you… but, of course, you never did.” She lifted the gun so Annabelle could see it. The girl’s eyes widened, and she made what might have been a noise of objection. “Don’t fret, sweetie,” said Maggie. “I’m not going to take your suicide away from you. I’m just going to give it a little flair.”
She squeezed the hinges of Annabelle’s jaw and forced the barrel of the gun into her mouth. Without any hesitation, her bad hand still steady and strong, she used it to pull the trigger. The recoil was relatively small, but it still knocked her off her toes, sending her flat onto her rear. She grunted at the impact.
For the rest of the night, Maggie worked like a machine. She took advantage of the fact that her right hand had yet to twist back into its usual deformed shape. Everything she picked up acted as an extension of her arm, not too light or too weighty. It almost made it easy to drag the Fairchilds out of their beds and into the dining room where she sat them at the table. Some of them lost pieces along the way, but she put them back together as best she could. This was what Annabelle would do if she had just violently eliminated the faeries. She would pretend that she hadn’t lost control, pretend nothing was out of the ordinary and that nothing had changed. Maggie even cooked and served them a modest breakfast in the name of normalcy. She thought that was a nice touch.
Lastly, she hopped into the shower upstairs, stepping under the spray still in her undergarments. She scrubbed her skin madly until there were no traces of blood. Her bra and underwear were beyond saving, but there was no good place she could think of to discreetly get rid of them. So she decided to hide them in plain sight. Maggie threw her underwear into the dryer along with the latest load of laundry from the washing machine. She would find a more suitable place to hide them later, or maybe she would bury them.
Once dry, Maggie dressed in pajamas, crawled into her bed, and closed her eyes. She barely felt it as her hand contorted back to its misshapen form. Only then did her muscles start to relax. She sunk into the mattress, exhausted. It was all she could do not to fall asleep as morning light brightened the basement. She had to react now. When she opened her eyes, she had to see all of this for the first time. She repeated this to herself before sitting up in bed. There was no thought in her mind of deceit. When her eyes landed on Annabelle, the gun in her hand and her brains splattered on the wall, Maggie gagged and scrambled up the stairs calling for the Fairchilds as if she truly had no clue what was waiting for her.
Darrius is speechless. Maggie watches passively as the elf struggles to stand from his stool at the kitchen island. He shakes his head, puzzled, and sleepily blinks.
“There are two reasons I told you that,” she says. Darrius is fading fast, so she will have to speak quickly if she wants the others to be in the clear. “From what you told me, it seems like the Board of Brothers is going to find out what I did anyway, and I would rather they didn’t make the other changelings guilty by association. It isn’t their fault that they got caught up in my schemes, so leave them alone.”
“I feel funny,” Darrius slurs and rubs his eyes with the heel of his palm.
“Oh yeah, and that was the second reason.” Maggie jumps forward as the elf slumps and eases him to the floor. “I needed to stall long enough for the sedative to kick in.” She sees surprise, betrayal, and strangely guilt flit across his face.
“You drugged me?”
“It wasn’t personal,” she assures him, “but you were going to treat me like I’m still human, and no one else is going to do that. The Fairchilds didn’t treat me like I was human. The Board of Brothers doesn’t really think I’m human. I don’t even believe I’m human anymore.”
At this, Darrius looks up at her saddened. “Sorry,” he murmurs barely coherent. “Should have done more…” His guilty confession does something to Maggie’s chest, constricts her lungs. She shoves it to back of her mind, though.
“Don’t upset yourself too much. You helped me discover something.” She smooths down a lock of his hair affectionately while he tries so hard to stay awake. “Without the Board of Brothers hindering all of your good intentions, I might have waited for you or someone else to save me. That would be easy and neat. Except that’s not how survival works, is it? Surviving is messy and monstrous. It’s not like I wanted to use the Fairchilds’ bones to make our water drinkable, but I did it because it had to be done. I also didn’t want to use them for our food, but we couldn’t afford to waste anything. You see, now I’ve learned that when blind luck doesn’t intervene, and no knight in shining armor comes to your rescue, then you have to become a special kind of monster to save yourself.”
Darrius’ head lolls to the side as he loses his grip on consciousness. Maggie carefully places his head on the tiled floor and stands.
She has to walk from one end of the farmhouse to the other in order to get everything she needs. The faded wallpaper and the hanging landscape paintings have a ring of familiarity that make Maggie’s heart hurt and her stomach ache. For so many years, this was her home. Now it is an empty shell. Regret is not something Maggie is a stranger to, not even now. She didn’t consider what would happen to the other changelings if she did what she did. She wishes she had been able to do things better, harm less people. But when Madam Fairchild forced her hand, what else was she supposed to do?
Arriving at Master Fairchild’s study, Maggie makes a beeline for the safe. She swears that she is not going to steal any of the contents therein, which is a complete falsehood but the safe doesn’t know that. She takes a gun, ammo, the fool’s gold, and the faery bones that she stored there. Finally, she takes the tire iron that she stole from the bag Rush gave Chelle and Max. She stashes it all in one of Master Fairchild’s nice traveling backpacks. She rushes down to the basement and stuffs random articles of clothing into the backpack. Then Maggie goes back to the kitchen and fills as many water bottles as she can with the enchanted well water. She arranges the bottles in the backpack as well as Tupperware and plastic bags full of what’s left of their food. Just for good measure, she tosses the vial of Rush’s sleeping tincture into the pack.
The final thing she does is an afterthought. They used most of the faery dust for the booby-traps and Molotov cocktails, but there must be a little bit left. Who knows if she will have need of it in the future? Better safe than sorry.
She is so distracted as she enters the upstairs bathroom and hastily searches through the medicine cabinet, that the enchanted mirror startles her.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Maggie jumps. She whirls, heart racing. Her reflection stares back at her, unmoving then says, You can do the wrong thing for all the right reasons, but it’s still the wrong thing. Isn’t that what you said?
Maggie glares at her mirrored self. She knows what it means, but inanimate objects don’t get to judge her. “This was different. I didn’t have a choice.” Her reflection grins.
Oh, you had a choice. You could have taken your chances and run away without hurting anyone. You could have done what you did and sacrificed your humanity in the process. Or you could have died. Unpalatable choices but choices nonetheless, and you made the wrong one.
Maggie huffs in annoyance. She looks away from the mirror and stuffs the last bottle of faery dust pills into her backpack.
There will be consequences.
“Tell me something I don’t know.” Maggie smiles humorlessly thinking about the slumbering elf in the kitchen. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees her reflection scornfully shake its head.
You think you realize the full implications of your actions, but I promise you that you don’t. You cannot even begin to imagine.
Her reflection says no more. Its cold green gaze is disturbingly placid; those chilling orbs stay locked on her as she leaves the room.
You cannot even imagine. Maggie speeds up, taking the stairs two at a time. Maybe the farther she gets from that mirror, the less those words will echo inside her skull.
The road to hell… She trips on the last step and stumbles into the foyer. Without paying any mind to whose jacket she grabs, Maggie takes one from the coat closet sparing only a second. Then she is out the front door. There is no glance backward, no nostalgia or melancholy. Only those words spoken in her own voice. They chase her down the porch steps.
…the wrong choice.
She has lived with the Fairchild clan since she was nine years old, and over the course of eighty-eight years, the thought of escape became sweeter than sugar. Now in reality, it leaves a bitter aftertaste in her mouth. But sweet is for the innocent, she reminds herself. Monsters take what they can get. So she swallows her bitter freedom without a spoonful of sugar.
And Maggie runs.
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