NO one wants to sleep in the farmhouse that night. The four Pit Fighters decide to go back to their bunks in the barracks. Lela and Maggie go to their own beds down in the basement. Maggie covers Annabelle’s bed with a blue tarp from the shed. It doesn’t mask the smell of blood, though.
In the morning, the sun rises and Maggie is almost able to convince herself that this is an ordinary day as she watches yellow light trickle in through the egress window. Then she hears the sound of Lela vomiting in the bathroom. Once the toilet flushes, the other changeling hurries up the stairs. Maggie sighs and heaves her body out of bed, pointedly ignoring the third bed with the blue tarp.
When she enters the kitchen, Maggie finds everyone is already there. Lela is huddled by the sink, her arms wrapped tightly around herself, looking surprised and petrified. Luke, Max, Chelle, and Fitz are all standing around the kitchen island speaking quietly to each other. Like Lela, Maggie is somewhat surprised to see the Pit Fighters in the farmhouse. She was half expecting to see the Fairchilds making breakfast.
They stop whispering immediately when they notice Maggie in the open doorway. “We have a problem,” says Max, crossing his arms.
“Another one?” Maggie snaps, mirroring his stance. Max isn’t impressed.
“Rations,” he says. “We need to take stock of what we have.”
“No matter how much food the Fairchilds have stored away, we’ll eventually run out if we can’t find some way to make use of the garden,” replies Luke in a rehearsed manner. They have clearly already had this argument.
“Anyone know how to make a magic garden grow?” asks Chelle sarcastically.
Fitz shoots her a cheesy grin. “With magic beans?”
“Shut up, Fitz,” Max growls.
Their bickering is causing Maggie’s head to throb. The air settles into an uneasy silence. The Pit Fighters all shift restlessly on their feet, and Lela rocks back and forth, whimpering softly. Maggie rubs her gnarled wrist. A pulsing ache radiates from the joint, spreading out to her fingertips where it ends in sharp jolts of pain. While the others are all thinking about food, she is wishing that there was someone to cast a numbing spell on her old injury.
Pushing the pain to the back of her mind, Maggie grits her teeth and says, “I stayed up late last night, and I think I have a plan.”
When she doesn’t continue, Max raises his eyebrows in expectation. “And? Are you going to tell us what it is?”
Maggie bites her lip pensively. Then, instead of answering Max, she turns to Luke. “The weapons you use in fights, are they down at the yard?” she asks him.
“No,” Luke says, shaking his head. “They’re locked up in the Pit where the actual matches take place.”
“Can you gain access to them?”
“It will be difficult,” he replies, but he doesn’t say no.
“You and Fitz get started on that. When you get them, bring all the weapons back to the house.”
“You still haven’t told us your plan,” Max points out with a stony expression.
Maggie glares at him. “This is my plan: Luke and Fitz are going to turn this place into a fortress. I’m going to talk to you about distributing food. And Chelle is going to teach Lela how to fight.”
“What?” Lela squeaks. Her eyes dart nervously to the scarred changeling on the other side of the kitchen. Chelle casts Lela a sidelong glance.
“And what would be the point of that?” she sneers.
“The point,” Maggie snaps, “is this. Eventually, Leon and Rush are going to return with the Pit Fighters they took to the exhibition—Fighters who are more skilled than all of us.” That piece of news sobers the group considerably. She continues, “When that reckoning comes, no one here wants to be dead weight.”
“Will I be teaching you to fight too, then?” Chelle asks, tipping her head to look at Maggie through her good eye.
“Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself.” Chelle snorts, rolls her eyes, and mutters doubtful under her breath. Choosing to ignore her for the time being, Maggie asks if there are questions. No one says anything, and so she sends them on their way.
Max stays behind watching her with suspicion. Reluctantly, he follows when she leaves the kitchen for the walk-in pantry. It’s situated in a narrow hallway just outside the kitchen, opposite the freezer where he helped her store the bodies. There is a magical chill in the pantry, keeping the food perfectly cool and hydrated.
Maggie sighs. The pantry isn’t as well stocked as she would have hoped. “First thing,” she begins, “we need to make sure all of the food here is enchanted.”
“How do we do that?” he asks.
“Just start sniffing produce. If there is a faint scent of rot—even if it looks okay—then we can’t eat it. After that, ration everything that’s left for six people.”
Max gives her a strange look that is hard to interpret. She can’t quite decide if his expression is merely unhappy or if there is still a hint of misgivings.
“You’re not going to help me?” Although, the way he says it is more of an accusation than a question.
“No,” Maggie calmly replies. “I’m going to start working on the garden.” She begins to leave the room, but Max stops her with another question.
“What aren’t you telling us, Maggie?” She halts, but doesn’t turn to face him. “You may have distracted the others, but it hasn’t escaped my notice that you’ve only glossed over the outline of your plan without going into details.”
“What do you want from me, Max?” She sighs and finally looks at him. Max throws his arms out, exasperated.
“I want some straight forward answers. Why did we dump the dead Pit Fighters in the woods, but we stored Annabelle in the freezer? And what are we keeping the Fairchilds for?”
Maggie crosses her arms. “There were too many Pit Fighters to bury. It would have been a waste of precious energy, especially since we have a limited food and water supply. The training yard is far enough from the house that wild animals don’t concern me—in fact, they’ll be doing us a favor if they dispose of the bodies. As for Anna, I just don’t want to drag her corpse all the way to the woods, and I’d rather not have animals wandering this close to the house looking for a meal.”
She says all of this succinctly. At the end of her explanation, Max seems somewhat surprised. Perhaps he thought she had some sort of prejudice against the Pit Fighters.
“And the Fairchilds?” he prompts her.
Maggie hesitates this time. If she doesn’t give him an answer, his imagination will only run amuck. Then he might start filling the others’ heads with fear and doubt, which certainly would not be good for group morale.
“They are my plan B,” she says after a few moments. Max frowns but waits for her to continue. “Just in case we can’t make the garden grow, and when the pantry runs dry, then the Fairchilds could buy us some extra time.”
It takes a minute for him to fully process her words, but she knows the second that he does. Maggie has never seen someone look so utterly revolted.
“You… you,” he sputters. “You’re going to feed the Fairchilds to us?!”
“Possibly,” she admits. “Only as a last resort.”
Max quickly shifts from incredulous to completely shocked. Shock then gives way to righteous anger. “Were you going to tell us before you did this, or were you just going to cross your fingers and hope no one noticed that Madam Fairchild was suddenly missing a hamstring?”
“I was going to cross my fingers and hope no one noticed.”
For a split second, Maggie worries that Max is going to wrap his hands around her throat and squeeze until her lips turn blue and her eyeballs bulge. Instead, he storms past her, wiping his shoulder in disgust when it accidentally brushes hers.
Thinking on her feet, Maggie turns and grabs his arm same as she did the other day. He stops, and she can feel his body shaking under her touch. “You can’t tell them,” she says, her eyes pleading.
“Oh really, I can’t?” Max jerks his arm out of her grasp. “Watch me.”
“No!” Maggie throws herself between him and the door. “They need hope. Don’t take it away from them by thrusting the worst case scenario in their faces.”
“You want me to lie,” he concludes and narrows his eyes at her.
“Doing the right thing isn’t always glamorous. Do you think I like making a contingency plan like this? No I don’t, but this isn’t about me keeping my hands clean. This is about survival. You and I,” she says in a low voice gesturing between the two of them, “we’re the kind of people who can make the tough decisions that no one else can.”
She falls silent and watches him cautiously. There is a sense of liminality—the feeling that they are poised on a threshold between the people they were just a minute ago and who they will be moving forward. Max is quiet and still for so long that Maggie’s palms start to sweat. Finally, he speaks.
“Only as a last resort,” he says in a half whisper. It’s then that Maggie realizes she has been holding her breath, and she lets it go.
“Yes, yes. I promise.”
“And before you put this heinous plan B into action, you at least have to warn me.”
“Absolutely,” she agrees, nodding emphatically.
“Fine then,” he says between clenched teeth. “This stays between us.” Maggie smiles, which only seems to deepen the scowl on Max’s face. “For now,” he adds darkly.
Max doesn’t trust her, but she seems to have pacified him for the moment. Maggie supposes that she could have volunteered to break into the armory, but Max is already wary of her. It would be tough to explain how she opened a door—a door they know is locked and probably enchanted as well—without a key. Though there is one problem she might be able to solve without drawing any negative attention to herself: the garden.
The only times she ever tended to the garden was to weed and prune. She doesn’t have the magic to enchant the food that they all need, but perhaps there is a way to utilize whatever magic the Fairchilds left behind. A grin slowly curls the corners of her lips. She loves a good experiment.
She walks to the edge of the lawn around the tree line and starts gathering sticks. Once this is done, she takes them back to the garden. She uses the sticks to separate the garden into quadrants. The southern corner is the control; she will water and weed the control section but nothing more. The eastern corner she designates for faery dust. For this section, she’ll have to raid the medicine cabinets. The plastic pills will need to be broken, the magic dust inside collected, and the solid pills will have to be crushed. The endeavor will most likely require two hands.
Maggie curses under her breath. Her deformed hand throbs, echoing her frustration. She can’t recruit Max without subjecting herself to further interrogation. Chelle doesn’t seem all that willing to help her either. Maggie huffs. Well, she can come back to that later. She props her good hand on her hip. What other magic at the farmhouse might enchant the garden?
Suddenly, an idea pops into her head. Her heart starts to race. Of course, the solution is so simple! But considering the conversation she just had with Max, she’ll have to be careful.
She sneaks back inside the house. Entering through the mudroom, Maggie tiptoes down the hallway and peers into the pantry. The door is open just a crack, and she sees Max by a bin of grape tomatoes bringing each one to his nose trying to smell magic on them. She creeps into the kitchen and steals a carving knife from the woodblock. In the hallway, she checks on Max one last time before easing the freezer door open, making as little noise as possible. The door closes behind her with a whoosh of cold air.
The corpses lying on the shelves stare at her unblinking—or in some cases, stare at her through empty sockets. Maggie shivers, making a mental note to take some of the bloodied bed sheets from upstairs to cover the bodies. She tears her own eyes away from those blind gazes and finds the remains of Tessa, Charise, and Kane. Their small bodies are in more mangled pieces than those of Tilda and Master and Madam Fairchild. Who’s going to notice if they’re missing a few fingers and toes?
Maggie pulls the collar of her shirt over her mouth and nose and then leans in closer. She can use her right arm to try and hold the corpse’s arms and legs steady while she uses her good hand to sever extremities; the endeavor will be strenuous regardless of how she goes about this.
Taking a deep breath, she lays her right arm across Tessa’s shoulder. The body is cold and stiff, causing a chill to run down Maggie’s spine and make her skin crawl. She starts using the carving knife to hack and saw at one of Tessa’s fingers when suddenly she hears a loud crack. Tessa’s entire hand falls clinging to her wrist by only a few tendons and a bit of skin. The hand must have already been partially severed on one side.
Maggie gags and quickly presses her hand to her mouth over her shirt collar. Once the nausea passes, she uses the knife to completely sever the hand. Might as well, she figures. As soon as her work is finished, she slips the hand into a pocket of her dress and hides the carving knife in the other pocket. She then turns to observe the corpses. The missing hand doesn’t look too out of place, but she will definitely need to employ the use of those bedsheets sometime in the near future.
She hurries outside again, slipping past the pantry, and goes around to the back porch. There she crouches down by the crawlspace and proceeds to cut off all of the fingers from the severed hand. She sets aside three of the fingers. The two leftovers she starts attempting to strip of muscle and skin. Even though she has the full use of her left hand, it’s slow work with only the thumb and little finger of her right hand being physically capable of cooperating.
When she is finally finished, she stashes the knife in the crawlspace under the house. She gathers the hand and the fingers and then takes them to the garden. On her way there, Maggie stops by the shed to locate a small shovel. Back at the garden, she goes to the northern corner and begins digging. The two stripped fingers she leaves in her pocket, but the other three fingers and the hand she buries.
Feeling sweaty but satisfied with her work, Maggie once again traverses the path back to the farmhouse. She’s going to require a pitcher of water. It’s time for another experiment.
An hour later, Maggie pours water into two cups. She leaves the pitcher on the counter with a note saying ‘Help yourselves’. She’s leery about handing a glass of water to Max so soon after their previous conversation, and the Pit is farther than she wants to walk or she would take full cups to Luke and Fitz. However, she’s fairly certain that Chelle took Lela down to the training yard, which is much closer. So that’s where she goes, carrying one cup in her left hand and the other in the crook of her elbow.
Just as she thought, she finds Chelle and Lela at the yard both looking sweaty and unhappy. Chelle is clearly frustrated with the House Pet’s timid disposition, and Lela appears absolutely terrified by the Fighter’s abrasive attitude. Maggie notes with a little smirk that neither changeling has ever looked so relieved to see her.
“Please tell me you came down here to order us to quit, because this is completely hopeless.” Chelle angrily removes her wrist guards, throwing them to the ground.
“Quitters never prosper, but I do come offering you respite.” Maggie passes the cups to Chelle and Lela.
Chelle raises an eyebrow. “I thought it was cheaters that never prosper.”
With a grin, Maggie shakes her head. “When you live with faeries, cheating is a part of the game.” Chelle rolls her eyes and brings the cup to her lips, taking a long, deep drink. Maggie studies her closely but at the same time tries not to appear too interested. Lela takes a much more reserved sip.
Both changelings swallow and make a face.
“That is very minerally,” Chelle complains.
“It tastes like copper,” says Lela softly and glances at Maggie. Maggie schools her features into a look of indifference. She notices a drop of water has escaped Chelle’s mouth and dribbles down her chin before she wipes it away.
“It’s well water,” Maggie says with a shrug. “What do you expect it to taste like?” And it most definitely is water and not blood that trickles down Chelle’s chin. Maggie allows herself a small victory smile. The water is drinkable again. That certainly bodes well for the garden.
“Please let all the food be sorted!” Fitz shouts as he and Luke enter the house late that afternoon. “Because I am starving.” Maggie looks up from a notebook where, with Max’s help, she has listed all their food supplies equally split between the six of them. She sits up straighter in her seat at the kitchen island.
“Pick a plate,” she says, pointing to the six plates on the counter. She and Max just finished dishing out a variety of fruits and vegetables for a late lunch.
Luke accepts his portion without protest, but Fitz forlornly stares at his food.
“This is just a snack, right?” he asks hopefully.
Maggie shakes her head. “Sorry, but until we know for certain that we can get food from the garden, we need to be thrifty with what we have.” Fitz doesn’t continue to argue. He just sighs and sits next to Luke at the island.
And that’s when he sees six glasses of water sitting innocently in the middle of the counter. His eyebrows shoot up into his hair, and he turns to Maggie with a look of pleasant surprise.
“We have water?”
Maggie nods, shifting her weight in the chair. “Yes. The well itself must have already been enchanted.”
Fitz leans his elbows on the table and pops a grape into his mouth. “Well, that’s convenient,” he says cheerfully.
“Yes, it is,” Luke agrees. Unlike Fitz, he shoots Maggie a look loaded with latent meaning. She knows that Luke isn’t so easily fooled, but where Max would have interrogated her, Luke just resumes eating.
Not long after Luke and Fitz arrive, they are joined for lunch by the other changelings. Max wanders inside after taking a short walk through the woods. Lela enters the house next, and quickly disappears downstairs to change out of her sweaty clothes. Chelle is the last to join them, having gone all the way down to the Fighters’ barracks to find fresh clothing.
The Pit Fighters dominate the conversation for the most part. Occasionally, they ask Maggie a question and she answers, but Lela never says a word. She has not seen the energetic girl look so despondent since the first week she was brought to live at the farmhouse. Fitz spends most of the time cracking jokes, coaxing a raucous laugh from Chelle. Luke smiles appreciatively, but a sour expression has Max’s mouth turned downward. When they’ve finished eating, the Fighters disappear into the living room, leaving their dirty dishes on the kitchen island. Except for Luke, who at least puts his plate into the sink.
Lela stays to help Maggie clean up. She dries while Maggie washes. Maggie diligently scrubs the plates and silverware and pretends she doesn’t see Lela attempting to catch her eye. Finally, the soft spoken changeling says what’s on her mind.
“We missed school today.”
“So?” Maggie replies, rinses a soapy plate, and then passes it to Lela.
“Our friends and teachers probably noticed that we weren’t there.”
“No, they didn’t.”
Lela furrows her brow in confusion. Maggie sighs. She has to remind herself that the other changeling hasn’t been here nearly as long and doesn’t know as much about the Fairchild clan.
“Why do you think no one ever realized you look exactly like that girl who went missing five years ago?” she asks. Lela’s face goes slack, as if that hadn’t occurred to her until this moment.
“Magic,” she breathes reverently.
“Magic,” Maggie confirms. “If we stop going to school, all our records become blank, and everyone who knew us forgets us. It happens every time we graduate too.”
Lela’s eyes bug out. “Every time? How many times have you graduated from high school?”
She chuckles humorlessly. “Too many times.” At first, Lela laughs with her, but then her smile droops.
“So all of our friends,” she murmurs, “they don’t remember us.”
Maggie snorts. “Speak for yourself. I didn’t have any friends at that school.”
She waits to start digging until the sun sets. It’s time to bury Annabelle, but she doesn’t want anyone to volunteer to help. Then they might get curious as to why she doesn’t want to bury the Fairchilds yet.
Maggie encounters her first problem in the freezer. Max placed Anna’s body in the only available space left: on the top shelf. She takes the stepstool from the kitchen and drags it into the freezer to make up for the difference in height. This would work nicely if only she had the full use of both her hands. There is no way Maggie is going to be able to remove Annabelle’s body without creating a mess. So she decides to dig the grave first and then figure out how to move the body.
Now she is struggling with a shovel instead of struggling with a corpse.
The hole is barely a foot deep and one foot wide. Maggie slumps against the shovel exhausted and tries not to cry. It’s been a long two days.
“Would you like a spoonful of sugar with that?”
She jumps and makes a futile attempt to hide the shovel and the hole. Her tired eyes find Luke standing over her.
“What?” she blurts, ineffectively trying to think of an explanation for what she is doing.
Luke shrugs. “Fitz says that whenever one of us has to do something unsavory.”
“Oh.” She relaxes slightly under Luke’s gaze, which remains un-accusing. “Like the song from Mary Poppins.”
An awkward silence follows. Maggie looks anywhere but at the Pit Fighter. Finally, Luke says, “Do you want some help?”
“With what?” she asks cautiously.
This is the first time Maggie has ever seen Luke roll his eyes. “You’re ditching the changelings’ bodies because they’re not useful to us. But the Fairchilds’ bodies could be. They have magic in their bones, right? So theoretically, we could throw them on the grill...”
Maggie’s eyes widen. “Shhh!” she motions for Luke to lower his voice. “I told Max we’ll only do that as a last resort.” She frowns and goes back to her clumsy digging. “How did you find out about that anyway? Did Max rat me out?”
“No,” Luke chuckles and shakes his head. “You’re just more transparent than you think you are. Don’t worry. I’m sure the others haven’t connected all the dots—well, except for Max. Is that how you enchanted the water? Used their body parts to...”
Maggie nods. “I just used the bones. The decaying tissue would make the water taste bad.” Luke nods along with her, as if all of this is perfectly reasonable.
“Do you want me to finish burying Annabelle? I assume that’s what you’re doing.”
A wave of relief washes over Maggie, and she gratefully surrenders the shovel. “Yes, please. Her body is on the top shelf of the walk-in freezer.” He takes her place in the shallow grave and begins to dig with a steady rhythm she could never hope to match. Before she goes back inside the house, another thought crosses her mind.
“Could you do two other things for me?” Luke pauses his digging and gives her his attention. She continues, “I need help crushing some faery dust pills from the medicine cabinet, if you wouldn’t mind? Also I only enchanted the two water pitchers earlier, and I need a few more parts stripped to the bone so I can toss them down the well.”
“I can do those things,” Luke says and inclines his head. “Should I leave the meatier bits, just in case?”
“Yes, thank you,” Maggie says with a smile. “And perhaps, for the time being, we should not tell the others about this.”
“Tell them about what?” Luke replies with an innocent expression.
The next day begins with a red sunrise, and in the ensuing hours, the precarious situation in the Fairchild home starts to unravel. Maggie sits at the kitchen island, her face obscured by a book about the history of the Natural and Supernatural Interspecies Board of Brothers, when she first hears the sounds of discord.
During a reevaluation of their supplies, Max discovers that Annabelle’s body is missing as well as several pieces of the Fairchilds. He corners her and forces Maggie to lay aside her book. “I thought you were going to keep me in the loop!” he exclaims. She opens her mouth, but Max doesn’t stop shouting long enough for her to explain.
Then Luke and Fitz return from another failed attempt to access the weapons stored in the Pit, and Lela and Chelle come in from the training yard voicing their grievances as well. Lela sniffles, nursing three bruises on her arms and possibly sporting more injuries that Maggie can’t see. All the while Chelle gives Maggie her second tongue lashing of the morning.
“I quit! This charade of training is completely pointless! It’s an absolute waste of my time!”
And that’s how everyone in the kitchen comes to be shouting. Changelings are yelling, arguing, shoving, and commiserating. Just as things are getting out of control, Max raises his hands and restores order. However, Maggie soon realizes that this order comes in the form of a vote.
“Nominations for new leadership are Me, Luke, and Chelle,” Max announces. “Sorry, Lela,” he adds as a side note.
“How is this even going to work?” Chelle asks and puts her hands on her hips. “We’re all going to vote for ourselves.”
“Lela can be the tiebreaker,” Max suggests.
“Me?” she squeaks. “I don’t want to be the tiebreaker!”
In the midst of the bedlam, Maggie chuckles. “Wow,” she drawls and thumbs through the pages of her book, “you’re really going to make their job easy.”
The bickering quickly dies down. Max scowls and focuses his intimidating gaze on each and every changeling in the room. “No one respond to her. Remember, Maggie is out of the running.”
“Whose job are we making easy?” inquires Luke, blatantly disregarding the other boy’s command to ignore her. All eyes are trained on Maggie, just like they were that first evening when she unofficially took charge. Now, after only two days, they are ready for new management. She closes her book and looks at each of them for several seconds, keeping their attention.
“Leon and Rush’s job, of course,” she answers casually. “If you’ll recall, they will sooner or later return here with a small army. Now we can quarrel and fight with each other until the cows come home, but if we do that then Leon and Rush are going to step on every single one of us like we’re no bigger than ants.” Maggie pauses to let that image sink in.
“The only chance we have,” she goes on, “is working together. And that means we can’t constantly be at each other’s throats. We’re going to have to trust each other.”
Max crosses his arms, caught somewhere between annoyance and guilt. Lela looks as if she would rather be anywhere else, while Chelle still appears to be not quite convinced of Maggie’s leadership capability. Luke is the one who speaks up for her.
“Maggie has been here the longest. She knew all the Fairchilds better than we did, even Leon and Rush,” he says, tacking that last bit on when Chelle looks like she’s about to object. “Maggie knows how to keep this house running smoothly.”
Luke spares her a brief, meaningful glance.
“Pit Fighters aren’t exactly team players,” says Luke. The three other Fighters express various gestures of admittance. “So,” he concludes, “maybe a House Pet is precisely what we need.”