MAGGIE feels strange.
There is no tightness in the pit of her stomach, like when she hasn’t eaten in hours. And there are no aches and pains in her wrist and fingers, like when the pain-relieving spell is wearing off. The strange feeling comes from the alienating stares of her classmates.
She stops by her locker and feels their eyes burning into her back. Two pairs of eyes are familiar to her. Annabelle, with her deep blue irises and her strawberry blonde hair, stands with a group of her friends down the hallway. Every now and then, her gaze slides inconspicuously to Maggie, but she quickly averts her eyes before anyone else notices.
Lela’s locker is closer to Maggie’s than Annabelle’s. Lela is pretty and energetic, which means that she was doomed from the start to be surrounded by other pretty and energetic teenagers. She too sneaks glances at Maggie, but like Annabelle, she is always careful not to stare for too long.
Lela and Annabelle never join in when other students surreptitiously jeer at Maggie behind the backs of teachers and other faculty, calling her names like Gimp and Captain Hook. The two girls don’t stick up for her either, but she’s come to expect that of them. When she first met Anna and Lela, Maggie thought life at school would be different; it was a bitter realization when she discovered that wouldn’t be the case. Lela has power at school that Maggie will never have. Can’t she try to make Maggie’s life a little easier? Not even when Maggie looks out for her when they’re at home?
Ignoring the weight of heavy gazes, Maggie slams her locker shut and walks toward the parking lot.
Maggie has spent so many years traversing these hallways that she could navigate through the school even in complete darkness. Everywhere she looks, there are memories. She glances to the left and passes a narrow hallway by the cafeteria. That passage is where she was given her first black eye. Maggie looks to the right. She was once shoved into that janitorial closet where a girl forced her to eat compost from the science lab.
Annabelle and Lela don’t know about those things, or the plethora of other occurrences. They only know about the things that they see, and they don’t see much.
The parking lot is just on the other side of the front doors; she can see it through the glass from here. It’s hard not to make a run for it. But if she runs, then that means she’s afraid of these people. And she refuses to be afraid of these idiotic, walking hormones. Not when she’s endured so much worse at home.
“Hey!” says a voice from behind her. Maggie pretends she doesn’t hear, hoping that whoever it is will give up. “Hey, Gimp!” says the same voice, this time much closer. No such luck.
Maggie stops, knowing that she can’t outrun him. Bobby Fowler smirks at her when he catches up. There’s a mean glint in his gray eyes, but it’s nothing compared to what Maggie has seen in the eyes of Leon Fairchild.
That malicious gleam is soon followed by his pasty arm shooting out and smacking the books from Maggie’s arms. “I think you dropped something,” he sneers. Maggie sighs. She sees where this is going, but what other choice does she have? She can’t simply leave her books scattered in the hallway.
She bends over and starts using her left hand to gather her things. Tucking the books into the crook of her right arm, Maggie prepares herself for what’s coming next. As soon as she almost has all her books together again, Bobby leans in. Despite her resolution not to be afraid, she feels her heart speed up.
Suddenly, Bobby’s foot swings and connects with Maggie’s twisted right hand. The pain-reducing spell that normally keeps her mangled wrist and fingers numb can only do so much for her. Getting viciously kicked by Bobby Fowler is apparently one of its breaking points. Hot pain shoots up her arm, and Maggie drops her books again, clutching her hand to her chest. She hears Bobby walk away laughing.
It takes Maggie a minute to compose herself. When she does, she’s able to go out to the parking lot without any more trouble. Normally, she is the only one the Fairchilds trust to drive the little silver car. She’s been around long enough to know that there is no place for she and the others to escape. Annabelle and Lela are still comparatively new and might get ideas if they gained access to the car.
Her wrist is still throbbing so she slides into the passenger seat. It won’t do any harm if Annabelle drives for one day. It isn’t long before the other girls join her. Annabelle’s brow furrows when she notices that Maggie isn’t sitting in the driver’s seat.
“Bad day?” Lela asks sympathetically from the back. Maggie sighs.
“You could say that.”
“And this means you can’t drive?” Anna replies caustically. Maggie tries to remember that driving makes her nervous since she is technically not allowed to do it. It’s not always easy to be empathetic, especially on rough days like today.
“My hand hurts,” she mumbles and rubs her wrist as if to demonstrate. The blonde’s face softens at this. Perhaps she witnessed what Bobby did. She looks away guiltily and starts the engine.
The forest flies by on either side of the car. Over the years, Maggie has explored every inch of these woods. She’s wandered them at night, in the dead of winter, in the humid heat of summer; she’s practiced walking silently through the shriveled leaves in autumn. There are dark secrets buried in between the trees, and Maggie knows every last one of them.
She uses the sideview mirror to see Lela. The younger girl’s expression is wistful like she is wishing that she could jump out of the car and lose herself in the watery light that seems to make the green trees glow. Eventually, Lela will stop daydreaming. Part of Maggie can’t wait for that day, and the other part of her never wants Lela to lose hope.
Annabelle is focused on the road, not seeing anything that doesn’t have to do with getting them all home safely. Anna is the exact opposite of Lela. If Lela is too much of a dreamer, Annabelle is the black hole that sucks dreams into a bottomless abyss. In recent years, Maggie has considered herself a pessimist. But when she met Annabelle, she had to concede defeat. Maggie now knows that she is just realistic, because Annabelle is hands down the most pessimistic person she has ever met. Leon is the only exception to Annabelle’s dark outlook. Anna is sickeningly optimistic about her relationship with Leon Fairchild to the point of delusion.
As they begin to near home, Maggie wonders if Annabelle, in all her depression and self-loathing, can feel the hidden secrets that are whispered on the breeze and through the wispy branches. After all, two of those secrets that Maggie buried in the forest belong to Anna. But even though her jaw is clenched, Maggie chalks that up to anxiety over driving the car. Denial and lying to herself are Annabelle’s specialties.
Just before they climb the hill that will put them in view of their house, Annabelle and Maggie switch places just for this stretch of road. Her wrist and fingers are still aching.
Maggie holds her breath as they crest the top of the hill. From there, she can just make out the Fairchild’s farmhouse and the small cornfield by the road. To the ordinary observer, there doesn’t appear to be anything remarkable about the place. The house is old but well cared for; nature has been allowed to overtake most of the property, though not to the point of abandonment. The place where the Pit Fighters sleep and train is hidden by the forest, as is the garden that produces all of the changelings’ food.
An ordinary person would never guess who lives in the grand, old farmhouse. No one would believe that the Fairchilds are thieves of the worst kind. Thieves that steal human children from their beds and curse them to be changelings—pets for their faery children.
She parks the car, and the three walk into the house as quietly as possible so as not to disturb Master Fairchild in his study. From there, they each go their separate ways. Lela trots upstairs to play with little Tessa and Charise Fairchild. Annabelle dashes to the kitchen for a snack before she undoubtedly goes in search of Leon. Maggie simply slips downstairs into the House Pets’ quarters.
The cool, subterranean air rushes up to greet her with a familiar hint of must. She used to hate these creaky stairs—she used to hate all of the loud noises in the basement like the furnace, the washing machine, and the dryer. But this place has been her home for many, many years. The basement now feels less like a prison and more like a sanctuary.
Once she reaches the bottom of the stairs, Maggie goes to sit by the furnace, right beneath an air vent. She learned a long time ago that from this position she can hear any conversation that takes place all over the house. She listens to people walking around as the ceiling creaks and groans above her head. Someone flushes one of the toilets, and then Maggie is surrounded by the sound of water as it rushes down the pipes.
She hears Tessa and Charise arguing over how to dress Lela and how to do her hair. Maggie shudders, remembering the days when Tilda was their age. Tilda Fairchild had been just as eager as her younger sisters to use Maggie as a human doll. On the main floor of the house, she hears Master Fairchild speaking to someone through the magic mirror in his office. It’s likely a business call. And lastly, she hears Madam Fairchild and Tilda speaking in hushed tones. Maggie has to concentrate in order to block out the other conversations before she can finally make sense of what mother and daughter are saying to each other.
What she hears makes the blood in her veins turn cold and stagnant.
She rests her head against the furnace in shock. When she manages to gather her strength, it only feels like she has been sitting there for ten minutes at the most. However, the light outside the basement windows has faded into evening. She glances at the clock sitting by her bed and realizes that she’s actually been slumped against the furnace for two hours.
Maggie walks up the stairs in a daze.
She can’t believe what she heard. She won’t believe it. Faeries can be cruel, she has always known this. But those words ring in her ears... that is a cruelty she never thought Tilda was capable of. She finds her one-time friend in the family’s library.
Tilda is a fair-skinned faery with too-blue eyes. Her flaxen hair is so pale it’s almost white, just like her mother’s. She sits studying a book of magic and does not acknowledge the changeling girl watching her across the room. Maggie used to be able to ignore the physical similarities between Madam Fairchild and Tilda, but now even Tilda treats Maggie like the House Pet that she is.
Just looking at her snowy hair and translucent flesh reminds Maggie of a distant life when she lived among other humans, when the pale Madam Fairchild was a mysterious figure that lured her away and stole her from her home.
The rustling of paper fills the air. Tilda gently runs her finger along the edge of a page and turns it. Without looking up, she says in her melodic voice, “There’s no need to stand all the way over there.” She uses her dainty hand to pat the armrest of her chair.
Maggie’s body seems to move without her consent; her feet glide across the carpet of their own volition. She perches on the padded armrest. Tilda’s cold fingers slide into Maggie’s hair and delicately scratch her scalp. A gesture that was once meant to provide comfort is now done with little conscious thought. Tilda doesn’t even stop reading.
“Tilda?” Maggie’s voice is hoarse, and she is forced to clear her throat.
“Hm?” The young faery murmurs in response. She continues to pet Maggie’s head.
“Are we still friends?”
“Of course we are,” she answers absently. The fireplace crackles softly, masking the sound of Maggie’s uneven breathing.
“Are we?” she repeats quietly. “We haven’t spent any time together in years.”
“That’s because we’re both grown now. In fact, you’re rather old for a human. You don’t want to play those silly little games we used to play.”
“You’re right, I don’t. But we could do other things.”
Suddenly, Tilda laughs and slams the book shut. Maggie feels those cold fingers go still in her hair, and then they disappear. When her laughter ceases, there is no sound except from the fire in the hearth. Tilda sighs and gracefully rises from the chair. She takes her book to the shelf nearby, searching for its place among the other books.
“What do you want me to say, Maggie?” Her tone holds a hint of derision. “You and I are inherently different. When we were younger, we could pretend otherwise, but now it’s time for me to grow up.” She slides her book in between two others. Tilda checks the shelf for dust, and then wipes her hand on her dress. “If you’re wanting for company, I’m sure Tessa and Charise would welcome another playmate.”
She smiles tightly at Maggie, and for the first time that night, their eyes meet. Maggie forces herself to smile in return, but it feels more like a grimace. “Yes,” she says, though her throat is constricted. “I’ll do that.”
Tilda’s shoulders relax, as if a weight has just been lifted from them. “Good,” she says, genuinely pleased. “That’s just what I was hoping to hear.”
As soon as Tilda is gone, Maggie slides from the armrest and into the chair. She curls in on herself, hugging her knees to her chest. Her breaths become ragged and short. Tilda, her only friend and ally since the very genesis of this nightmare, has forsaken her.
For the first time in many years, Maggie allows hot, stinging tears to stain her cheeks.