Scars under Her Feet

By Angelo Serrano
Fiction

Sara woke up to someone gently shaking her. “Ma?” she groaned. A finger gently pressed against her lips followed by a shh sound. “Come on,” Mama whispered, and Sara was still too sleepy to protest. She wrapped a brown jacket around Sara and then very quietly led her out of the house. She carried a backpack with their clothes and led Sara into a car waiting outside. The sky was still dark, and it was drizzling. The clock on the car radio said 12:32 AM in red light, and Sara couldn’t see who was driving.

They drove away without Sara being able to kiss Papa goodbye. She was hypnotized asleep by the passing streetlamps, and then she woke up to the voices of Mama and the driver after a few hours. She didn’t understand what it was about, but she knew it was important. She knew in the way that children instinctively knew things. Mama and the driver shushed themselves when they noticed she was awake.

She stretched on the back seat, yawned, wiped her eye boogers away, and then squinted at the sunlight. She looked outside, and she wasn’t familiar with what she saw. There were no big buildings or traffic lights or other cars on the road. No crowds of people on the sidewalk, nor a sidewalk.

There were rice paddies on both sides of the road, with water that perfectly reflected the sky and plants above it. She had ever only seen them on TV or in pictures. There were farmers bent over with straw hats and worn-out clothes. They all stared at the car when it drove past. Sara realized that the woman driving the car was her aunt. The one that she only met every Christmas.

“Where are we going?” Sara asked.

Her aunt and Mama exchanged looks. “We’re staying with your Tita Mitchel for a while,” Mama explained.

“But I have school tomorrow.”

“Yes, but . . . don’t you want to spend time with me?” Tita Mitchel teased.

Sara made an audible hmm, and then she realized this meant she didn’t need to attend classes and bring back homework. “I do,” she gladly declared. They drove past a carriage being pulled by a carabao. “Isn’t Papa coming with us?”

“No, sweetie,” Mama said. “We can’t be with him for a while.”

Sara became a bit sad. She liked having Papa around. He always brought home double Dutch ice cream when she asked and often bought her the toys she wanted. Sometimes, he’d let her eat one too many cookies, and all she had to do was to make sure not to tell Mama about Papa’s visitors. Oh well, she thought to herself, even though deep down, she knew something was wrong.

They reached Tita Mitchel’s house, and it was surrounded by plenty of healthy trees. There were browned leaves all over, and the white paint of the house was beginning to chip away, revealing the aged wood underneath. An orange-and-white cat watched them from the very top of the house. Sara waved at it when they got out of the car, but it just looked away and yawned. When they reached the terrace, an old man greeted them. He carried a bolo, had completely white hair, and wore dusty work clothes.

“This is Totoy, he’s the grounds man,” Tita Mitchel explained. Totoy smiled at them, shook Mama’s hand, and patted Sara’s head. “He’s mute,” Tita whispered. Sara had never met a mute before.

They walked into the house. Mama and Tita Mitchel disappeared into one of the rooms and then carried bedsheets and pillows from room to room. Sara thought the house smelled old, but observed everything with deep curiosity. There were years-old photos on the walls, paintings of farm fields, and cross-stitched mountains. She regarded the decorations the same way she had regarded the exhibits when they visited a museum once. She knew they had history, but she just wasn’t aware of what that history was.

One frame had an old picture of a young woman holding hands with a boy who was about the same age as she was. Sara recognized the girl to be a much younger Tita Mitchel, before her hair became slightly gray and her face began to wrinkle.

“Mama.”

“Yes, sweetie?” Mama stood next to Sara and smiled fondly at the old photos.

“This is Tita Mitch, right?”

“Yes, it is.”

Sara felt clever, and then pointed at the boy. “Who is this?”

“Oh . . .” Mama pressed her lips together. “That’s Miguel. Your cousin.”

“He is? I’ve never met him before.”

“He’s . . . not with us anymore.” Mama bent down and spoke softly. “Let’s . . . make it a rule to not talk about him here, okay? Tita Mitchel isn’t comfortable talking about him.” She poked Sara’s small nose.

Sara nodded slowly. Part of her knew that Mama meant Miguel was dead, but she also didn’t really know what that meant yet. Still, it was rule, so she decided to never mind it.

It was a simple home, not too crowded nor too spacious. The floors were wooden and shiny, so the footsteps could be heard all over the house. Mama brought Sara to her room, and she thought that it wasn’t anything too grand nor too ugly. It was, for the most part, neat. There was only a bed and a nightstand and a closet, but neat. She almost took a step into the room, but felt something watching her. She turned to the room’s window and, in the way that people did, knew there was someone there. She also knew that if she told Mama or Tita, they’d only tell her that it was just her imagination.

So instead, she walked back to the living room and sat in the couch to watch cartoons on the TV, because what else would she do in the afternoon? When it turned on, Eat Bulaga blasted through the house. It was a bit grainy, and a single line of distortion moved from the bottom to the top repeatedly. She turned the volume down before flipping through the channels, of which there were only four.

“Don’t you have Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon?” she complained.

Tita pouted and seemed to be thinking to herself for a moment. Sara could tell that she was the kind of adult that only really watched the evening news on TV, and Sara wasn’t really expecting a helpful answer from her anymore. “Only on Saturday mornings,” Tita said. Sara slouched in the couch.

“Sorry, we don’t have cable TV here.”

“So what do you do for fun?”

“Well, there are always tons of books around the house,” Tita suggested. She took one from under the coffee table, blew away the dust, and then handed it to Sara. “Try this one.”

The cover showed a boy in an orange shirt, standing in the wavy sea, staring at a city while lightning struck from the gloomy clouds. Sara sighed disappointedly, and Tita Mitchel smiled as an apology. Sara couldn’t imagine how anyone could live without the colorful entertainment brought by Spongebob Squarepants, but she also realized she didn’t have a choice. She opened the book, and began reading.

Her eyes glided through the pages easily enough while her mind painted the teacher turning into a fanged and flying demon in her head and as the characters were attacked by a minotaur. She kept rereading the dialogue, trying out different voices for the characters. She was proud of the wise and hoarse voice she chose for the bearded centaur.

She kept at the book, and the sun slowly set outside. Sara didn’t notice the sun flood the house with yellow light nor the sun bleach the sky from orange to red. She didn’t notice the house lights turn on and the outside become dark. She only snapped out of the book when Mama called her for dinner. Only then did she hear the crickets outside. She stood from the couch she’d been on for the past few hours, and she realized that her butt and back were sore from sitting. Sara was already at the part of the book where the heroes traveled to meet Medusa, and for a moment, she was convinced she was with them.

She walked to the table, and the alluring smell of roasted pork caught her immediate attention. It was just the right brownness with only a few burned spots, and it looked perfectly juicy as well. There was a small bowl that had smelly vinegar, onion bits, and red and green pepper slices in it. The rice was still steaming warm, and there was a bottle of coke. Sara sat next to Mama, where a plate already had a cup of rice and sliced up pieces of pork. Across them sat Tita Mitchel and Totoy, who were scooping up the rice and taking large slices of meat for themselves.

“So how’s the house, Sara?” Tita asked.

She fed herself a mouthful before answering. The meat was so tender and savory that she thought that it was better than most of the restaurants back in the city.

“Mmm . . . fine,” she answered, only meaning the living and dining room.

“Are you okay with not having cartoons for a while?” Mama asked.

“Yes. Tita gave me an interesting book.”

Tita and Mama smiled at each other. “Wow,” Mama said, in the way that mothers enthusiastically spoke to their kids. “That’s good to hear.”

After dinner, Sara went back to her book, but was soon interrupted by Mama telling her to take a warm bath. She changed into her pajamas, and then Mama carried her into bed and tucked her in. Her bedroom had only an empty cabinet and a nightstand beside the bed and was on the second floor of the house.

“Can’t I keep reading?” Sara asked.

“Tomorrow. Okay, sweetie?” Mama kissed her forehead and said good night before she turned off the lights, and then she closed Sara’s door.

Sara closed her eyes, still picturing the events of the book in her mind. She soon fell asleep, thanks to the cool evening breeze from her window. After a few hours, she woke up to the sound of giggling. She groggily opened her eyes, only to find three insects above her.

She was about to swat them when she realized that they weren’t insects. She cupped her hands over her mouth and gasped. They looked like they were pieces of silk formed into small girls, with slightly too big heads and petals that bloomed to seem like dresses. Their skin was the soft green of seedlings, and they floated effortlessly on the breeze, occasionally flapping their wings to readjust themselves. One of them had a curly, red dress and wings. Another was blue and flowing. And the last was white and smooth. Their eyes were like little black droplets of ink, and only then did Sara realize that they were staring right at her, no longer giggling.

“She’s awake,” worried the red one. “She’s awake,” repeated the blue one. “Can she see us?” asked the white one. “Can she hear us?” asked the red one. “I think she can,” answered the blue one. Their voices were small and almost squeaky.

“I can,” Sara answered. She watched them intimately with wide eyes.

The three fairies gasped. “We’re in trouble,” said White, “She’s going to kill us,” Red agreed. “We have to put her to sleep,” Blue declared. The fairies started flying in circles, chanting something in a language that Sara didn’t speak nor know about but could understand. She knew they were casting a spell to make her fall asleep, and she knew she wouldn’t remember them afterward.

“Wait!” Sara interrupted, raising her hands at them.

The fairies stopped chanting and just floated above her, their heads tilted to the side. “Yes?” they asked in unison.

Sara thought of something to say. “Er . . . why would you be in trouble if I woke up?”

“Because we were told to only check on you,” White said. “But not to disturb you,” Red added. “Only to check, and not to disturb,” confirmed Blue.

“But why? Who told you to do that?”

Red and Blue and White exchanged looks, as if they all had something in their mouths.

“Well? Won’t you tell me?” Sara pushed.

The fairies flailed in the air, as if holding in their breath for too long. Finally, White became the first to open her mouth. “Salaya,” she said. “She ordered us to do so,” added Red. “But only to check, and not to disturb,” repeated Blue, who had become too bothered. They exchanged looks, as if they blamed one another for speaking.

Sara thought to herself for a while. What kind of young girl would not take this chance of adventure with fairies? She certainly wants excitement. She would want to be a hero on a grand adventure, just like in the fairy tales and books. “Take me to her,” she announced.

Red and Blue and White smiled at each other and then turned to Sara and nodded happily. “Come on,” they said in unison. They flew out of her window, and Sara watched them go. The moonlight was enough for her to see properly outside. The moon itself seemed much larger than usual, and the sky was littered with stars. She never saw a night sky like this before, and no one from the light-polluted city ever could. She got out of bed and slowly opened her bedroom door. The house was quiet and almost completely dark. At the very first step she took out of her room the floor board creaked.

She stood perfectly still, waiting for anyone to come out and check on her. She was glad that no one did. The next step that she took didn’t reach the floor. Instead, she saw the fairies flying in circles around her feet, and she began to float. She didn’t understand, but she had to keep herself from shouting from the fear of suddenly falling down. Slowly, she took hesitant steps on thin air, giggling to herself as quietly as she could. Soon, she found herself floating down from her bedroom window and onto the dirt below. She was still in pajamas and was walking barefoot, but she didn’t care. Now wasn’t the time to care.

Sara followed the fairies through the tall trees. The treetops blocked out most of the moonlight, but the little beams that made it through helped her enough to keep track of where the fairies went. She almost tripped on tree roots, and the soles of her feet got scratches from sharp rocks a number of times already, but she pushed through as much as she could.

Music from a flute resonated through the trees. But it wasn’t like the ones they were taught to play in elementary school, nor the ones they played on TV. This one had a much more natural sound. Sara stood still for a moment to listen as clearly as she could. The music was peaceful and calming and alluring. It was beautiful in all the ways that the sound of rivers and rustling leaves were beautiful. Sara had lost sight of the fairies, but she could follow the music on her own. As she slowly did, she began to notice more and more peculiar plants. There were violet blooms that almost seemed to glow in the dark, vines around the trees that Sara could have sworn were moving, and plenty of plants with flowers that looked like pitchers.

She reached a clearing. Soft and glistening grass grew all over the ground, and there was a large dark stone in the middle. Balancing on top of the stone was a tall woman. She was turned away from where Sara stood. Her wavy hair reached all the way down to her ankles and was perfectly shiny. She was wearing a simple white dress and a flower crown made of mirabilis blooms. The three fairies swayed to the music around her.

Sara’s jaw dropped and was wide-eyed. She took careful steps forward, and she could feel the soft grass soothing her feet. It didn’t take long for all the pain from her cuts to fade away. When she checked her soles, there were only small scars. She smiled, fascinated in the way children would be whenever a magician pulled a dove from thin air, except this was leagues different. There was no secret to be unveiled, no tricks. It was truthful and real magic. She took another step forward and found that the tall woman was now facing her. She was still playing her flute and had smooth chocolate-colored skin. Sara thought that the wooden flute was taller than she was, and she was correct. The tall woman’s fingers danced on the holes of the flute with her eyes closed. The moonlight shined perfectly on her, as if the moon itself wanted listen to her play.

Then, when the music stopped, the woman slowly opened her eyes. They were large and seemed to have the entire night sky in them. She was beautiful. The flute had now never existed, and she stepped down from the stone to approach Sara, smiling sweetly.

“Hello,” she said. “I’m Salaya. Glad to see you could join us.”

Sara was at a loss for words.

“Don’t worry,” Salaya reassured her with a smile. “I won’t eat you. Though I am surprised you’re here so soon.” She looked slyly at the fairies. Red hid behind Blue, and they both hid behind White. White only wanted to hide behind something as well, but couldn’t.

“No, please,” Sara said. “It’s not their fault. I wanted to see you.”

Salaya looked back at Sara, and the fairies sighed in relief. “Oh? And why is that?”

“Well . . .” Sara thought of a good answer, and decided to simply be honest. “I wanted to go on an adventure.”

Salaya smiled a wide smile. “Oh! How you remind me of when I was young!” She picked up Sara, swung her around, and then placed her on a cushioned chair that, to Sara’s surprise, had always been there.

Sara felt proud of what Salaya told her. She didn’t understand when the chair got there, or when the table arrived, but she didn’t complain either. Salaya sat opposite her. A covered platter was on the table.

“What would you like to eat?” Salaya asked. Her hand was already on the cover’s handle, ready to lift it up.

Sara wondered what she should have. She already had dinner, so of course dessert is the next best thing. “Double Dutch ice cream.”

Salaya lifted the cover, revealing two ornate glass bowls of double Dutch, each with a cherry on top that Sara didn’t care for. Sara smiled in the way that only incredibly happy children could smile, and took one bowl for herself. Salaya took the other.

When Sara was about to eat her first spoonful, she heard the fairies yelp behind her. She turned to look at them, “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Uh . . .” Red looked past Sara, at Salaya, who looked at them irritably in a way that said come on, say something. “We were . . . just worried,” interrupted Blue. “That maybe your teeth might go rotten,” continued White. “From too much sweet stuff,” explained Red.

“Nonsense,” Salaya declared. “Your teeth will remain the little pearly whites that they are, I swear it.” Sara, who was completely convinced by Salaya’s words, enjoyed her first spoon, and quickly moved on to the second. The fairies exchanged worried looks.

Salaya enjoyed the treat herself. It was her first time having ice cream. Her first time eating in a few years. Not that she needed to. The ice cream was perfectly sweet, with just enough chocolate and just enough nuts and marshmallows. It wasn’t too stiff nor too soft.

“So,” Sara said, with some ice cream still around her lips, “why did you want to see me?”

“We’ll discuss that later. For now, I simply want you to enjoy this evening.”

The fairies gave a sigh of relief.

Sara wondered but didn’t complain. She simply enjoyed her treat, and she began talking about the many places she’d visited and movies she’d seen, boys that Sara thought were cute in her class, and girls that pulled on her hair and called her names.

“You should show those girls that they can’t treat you like that.”

“I already told Papa about them, and he said he talked to the teacher, but nothing happened.”

“What’s this girl’s name? Her full name.”

“Patricia Chuy.”

Salaya looked up at the sky. She squinted, tilted her head, looked around, and then looked back at Sara disappointedly, who had no idea what she was doing. “I’m sorry, I can’t find her. All the lights of the city block away the stars.”

“It’s fine,” Sara said. She ate another spoon of ice cream. “Mama said I shouldn’t mind people like her.”

“Taking the moral high ground, I like it,” Salaya admitted.

Sara didn’t know what that meant, but felt proud of herself. “Now would you tell me why I’m here?”

“Not yet. You’re here for an important reason, and I hope you’d simply believe me when I say so, all right?” Salaya smiled in a way that Sara knew wasn’t genuine. “You wouldn’t want to be a bad guest to me, would you?”

Sara shook her head in the way that worried kids did whenever they thought they were about to get into trouble.

Next, it was Salaya’s turn to tell stories. She told Sara how the universe came to be, and who named the animals and the plants and who placed the moon in the sky, and who the Sun was. She told Sara why there were plenty of gods and goddesses of the same things, why different people spoke different tongues, and why they believed in different things. Sara, of course, didn’t understand plenty of these. Sometimes, she would suggest the version she vaguely remembered from TV, from a book, or the version her Mama told her, but Salaya corrected her and she just followed along. She did, however, feel wiser than she did if she had not heard these stories.

Sara tried and failed to stifle a yawn. Salaya smiled, took the bowl from her, and picked her up. She carried Sara out of the clearing and into the woods. Sara, despite only having met this woman now, felt safe. Maybe it was the ice cream. Now Sara was almost half asleep, lulled by the sound of Salaya’s feet walking on the forest floor.

She felt Salaya turn to the fairies. “I still need to punish one of you, but that can wait.” They failed to contain another yelp when they heard her, and Salaya brought her finger to her lips. “Shush, she’s sleeping.”

The following morning, sunlight from her bedroom window shined on Sara’s face. She stretched on her bed, and she couldn’t remember how she got there, but she could remember the night before. She remembered the ice cream. She remembered the beautiful music, the red and blue and white fairies, and the tall Salaya with eyes like the night sky. For the briefest moment, she doubted it all. Maybe it was all a dream. She checked her feet, glad to know that her little scars were still there. Mama knocked on her door. “Breakfast.”

Sara sat at the table, excited to tell everyone what happened. She could smell the warm coffee, which she knew she wasn’t allowed to have; she instead had a mug of warm milk waiting for her. The plate in front of her had warm rice and a fried egg with a still runny center.

“And she had this really long flute that played really great music, and—” Sara stopped herself. “Mama, are you listening?”

“Of course, I am,” Mama answered after taking a sip of coffee. “You were telling us about your dream.”

“It wasn’t a dream,” Sara insisted.

“Sara, finish your breakfast. Your food is getting cold.”

Tita Mitchel had finished eating and was already in her office dress. She kissed Sara’s forehead and hugged Mama before leaving for work. “Tell me more about your dream later, all right, Sara?” Mama also finished, and brought her plate to the sink.

Sara continued eating without an appetite. “It wasn’t a dream,” she mumbled to herself. Her food really did grow cold. She felt lonely for a moment, and then she noticed that Totoy was looking at her, expectant. His hand motioned for her to continue her story. She became excited, and she moved on to the double Dutch ice cream.

Sara spent most of her day continuing her book. Occasionally, while in the middle of a sentence, she’d daydream about going back to meet Salaya. She wondered how she’d reach the clearing again. Maybe the fairies would pick her up again? Or maybe she’d need to find it herself. But she didn’t remember the way.

She’d definitely bring her slippers, next time.

That evening, she only ate a small part of her dinner, saying she wasn’t hungry. After she had brushed her teeth and gotten into pajamas and was tucked into bed, she only pretended to sleep. She believed that the fairies would visit her again, and she wanted to jump right out of bed the moment they did. Her slippers were already set under the window. Now she just waited, occasionally peeking. Of course, having closed eyes, pretending to sleep or otherwise, would eventually bring anyone to sleep.

The next time she opened her eyes, it was because of two flowers tickling her face. One was red, the other was blue. She sat up, and the fairies only floated in front of her.

“You’re back!” She jumped right out of bed and wore her slippers. “I knew I wasn’t dreaming.”

She noticed a small figure on her nightstand. It was a white mouse, standing on its hind legs, examining her and the fairies. Sara tilted her head at it, and it did the same. She thought it was cute.

“Let’s go,” Red said. “Yes, yes,” confirmed Blue. They floated in silence for a moment, and Sara wondered. “Where’s the white fairy?”

Red and Blue exchanged looks. “She’s busy,” Red said. “Helping Salaya,” confirmed Blue. They waited for someone to add to their statements, and Sara stood puzzled. The fairies flew out of the window. “We must go,” said Red. “Salaya is waiting,” continued Blue.

Sara walked to the window then leapt out. The fairies swirled below her, and she floated gently onto the ground. She couldn’t help but giggle, and then she followed the fairies into the trees. The moon was just as bright as it was the previous night, and the mouse watched them from the window.

Sara lost sight of the fairies at some point, but she knew where she was now. There were violet blooms that almost seemed to glow in the dark, vines around the trees that Sara could have sworn were moving, and plenty of plants with flowers that looked like pitchers. She followed the music of Salaya’s flute and stood at the very edge of the clearing.

She took off her slippers to feel the soothing grass and walked closer to the stone where Salaya was standing. The fairies swayed to the music, and the moon came closer to listen to Salaya play. When she finished playing, she turned to Sara, and the flute never existed.

“Welcome back,” Salaya greeted. She stepped down from the stone, and brought her chest to her knees to level with Sara. She noticed that Salaya was wearing a bracelet now, made of black fibers and was decorated with small white flowers.

“Where’s the white fairy?” she asked.

Salaya looked surprised. “She’s doing important work, right now.”

“Is she all right?”

“Of course,” Salaya picked her up and sat her on a cushioned chair. There was another covered dish in front of them. “She did volunteer for it, after all.”

“Well . . . as long as she’s doing fine.” Sara tapped the table. “What will we have tonight?”

“What is it that you want?”

Sara thought for a moment. Her mind wandered to the food that she knew she wouldn’t find in Tita Mitchel’s house. “Those hotdogs with melty cheese inside them.”

Salaya looked confused, and then she lifted the cover to reveal a plate of still steaming, perfectly red hotdogs. Sara’s mouth began to water when the scent reached her nose. Along each side of the bowl was an ornate fork. The two of them took one for themselves, and when Sara took her first cheesy bite, she danced a little on her seat and couldn’t help but be cheery. Salaya inspected the hotdog, sniffing and wiggling it for a moment. She wasn’t entirely familiar with this, but still decided to give it a try.

When she took her first bite, she had to keep herself from vomiting. Her tongue could taste it all. The many pieces of cartilage and viscera and meats that had been shredded and minced and crushed together to become an oblong atrocity. She put down her fork and simply watched in confusion as Sara enjoyed herself. She’s much more resilient than I imagined, Salaya thought to herself.

“You shti’ didn’t te’ me shomefing.” Sara chewed her mouthful and then swallowed. “Why did you want to see me?”

“Ah, that.” Salaya shifted on her seat and crossed her legs and leaned in closer. “You see, there is something I must ask of you.”

“What is it?” Sara forked her second hotdog and bit into it.

“Well, it is something that only you could accomplish,” Salaya began. “You are, after all, stubbornly courageous with a good heart.”

Sara took another bite, but was listening closely to Salaya. She felt flattered, but also wondered. She chewed and swallowed and then spoke. “How do you know that I’m courageous and all that?”

Salaya smiled. “You left the safety of your home and ran through the dark forest all for adventure, correct? That takes courage.” Sara thought about it, and realized Salaya had a point. “And you refuse to step down to your bully’s level. That means you have a good heart.”

Sara finished her second hotdog and put down her fork.

“What do you need me to do?” she asked, excited. It was like receiving a quest.

“I want you to slay a monster for me.”

Sara blinked a few times and tilted her head. “A monster?”

“Yes, a monster. One with a long and slithering body, a wide mouth, and killer claws.”

Sara remembered her book. She remembered the heroes facing a monster with plenty of heads. It had vicious teeth, scaly skin, and also breathed fire.

“Does the monster breathe fire?” She wasn’t entirely sure about the answer she wanted to receive.

“No, not this one. This one carries ancient magic, the likes of which—”

“I’ll do it!” Sara declared. This is my chance, she thought. A quest! Images of heroes fighting lions and dragons and giants flickered through her head. She remembered these from the books and shows and myths, and she was excited to be a part of it all.

Salaya looked at her with wide eyes and failed to hold back her smile. The fairies were thrown aback as well. She picked Sara up from her chair and swung her around, sometimes tossing her into the air and catching her again.

“Oh! I knew I was correct in choosing you.” Salaya kissed her forehead before setting her down. “On your knees, Sara.”

Sara realized something. “Why can’t you kill the monster? Don’t you have magic as well?”

Salaya laughed, thinking that Sara was joking, as the rules should have been known by everyone. When she looked at Sara’s genuinely puzzled face again, she remembered Sara was still just a child. Her expression soured, and she sighed.

“It is a rule, Sara. I, and those like me, can’t bring any harm to the monster and those like him.”

“Mmm . . . that sounds like an unfair rule.” Sara thought that Salaya just wasn’t fond of doing work and preferred giving orders, like her homeroom teacher that always asked her to ask for chalk from the other class. That’s fine, she thought to herself. She felt proud about being chosen.

Salaya’s eyebrow twitched, and she took a deep breath. “Now, on your knees.”

Sara did as she was told. She thought she’d receive a blessing, a magical weapon and enchanted armor, and words of inspiration. She was excited in the same way she would be excited during the final seconds before she tore open her birthday gifts.

Salaya whispered to the ground beneath them in a language that Sara did not speak nor know about but could understand. The same language the fairies spoke when they tried to put her to sleep.

It was the first language, the first words exchanged by the first creatures. No one born during the last few thousand years spoke it anymore, and no one remembered it enough to speak it again. But everyone and everything understood when they heard. They knew what the words meant and heard it through ears they didn’t know they have.

The soil below Sara gave way to vines with dark leaves and an even darker stem. They crawled up her thighs, and she realized just how unnaturally cold they felt. She shuddered but resisted flinching. Be courageous, she thought to herself. Once the vines had reached her waist, they reached for her left hand. They tightened around her arm, and she gave a nervous smile to Salaya, who wasn’t whispering anymore. Instead, she looked down at Sara with her night-sky eyes.

“Sara Zambata.”

“Yes?” The vines got even tighter and began to hurt her.

“Be strong, for you are the only one who can defeat this monster.” Then, Salaya told her, in the first language, that she would receive a weapon, one that would slay any living creature, and all she had to do was get close enough to touch its skin.

At once, the vines detached themselves from the ground. Sara felt the skin of her palm tear open as the vines forced their way inside. The entire length of her arm ached and deformed as the vines wriggled inside of her. She couldn’t help but shout. Her right hand gripped her wrist, and she fell on her side to squirm on the grass. The sobbing and shrieking of a little girl became the only sound in the whole clearing.

She looked up at Salaya with tears in her eyes. She almost asked for it to stop, but couldn’t get her voice to say so. Something kept her from saying no to Salaya’s quest. The fairies turned around, unable to help her.

“Be careful,” Salaya said. “It could only be used once on the first creature you touch. Don’t waste it.” Salaya knelt down beside her and gently touched her cheek. “I’ll wait for your return, my champion, with the monster’s tongue as your token of victory.”

Sara woke up on her bed with cold sweat soaking her shirt. She quickly sat up and examined her left hand, and it felt perfectly fine. She took a deep breath, lay back down, and felt conflicted.

On one hand, she felt proud to be named a champion on a quest. On the other, she doesn’t understand why she would still want to help Salaya after what she went through last night. Maybe it was the hotdogs.

Mama opened her door and peeked inside. “Sweetie? Are you awake?” Mama found Sara pale and exhausted.

“I am.”

Mama entered the room and offered a hand to help Sara sit up. Sara almost reached for Mama’s hand with her left hand, but she remembered Salaya’s words and jerked her hand away and sat up by herself. Mama had a worried expression as she sat beside her.

“Bad dreams?” Mama asked as she embraced her. Sara nodded. Mama tried to stroke her cheek, but Sara flinched away. Mama smiled a worried smile in the way only mothers could. “Well, you’re with me now, safe and sound.”

Sara smiled back as warmly as she could. They left her room for breakfast, and Sara held on to Mama with her right hand. She felt better here, safer and warmer. But she also knew that she needed to finish her quest and help Salaya. Not only because she had said so, but because she felt that it would be the only way for her to no longer have to meet the tall woman again. A white mouse watched them leave the room while its nose twitched.

After breakfast, Sara just sprawled back onto her bed, looking at the ceiling. She didn’t feel like reading. She thought it was unfair how easily the heroes received their quest from gods or wizards and how confidently they accepted it. They received armor and swords as blessings with epic names, yet she received a nameless weapon that invaded her arm. Then Sara remembered she didn’t even know how to find the monster nor receive any words of guidance from Salaya aside from instructions. It wasn’t how she imagined being a hero would be like, and she wanted to back out.

She looked outside her window. It was sunny, and the trees swayed with the wind. She knew the monster was there. That’s where monsters always were, deep in forests where only lost people would find them, before they’d get eaten. She didn’t really think about why the monster needed slaying, because monsters always needed slaying.

The white mouse scurried to her window, looked at Sara, and looked at the trees. Then she remembered the cat from when they first got here. She thought the mouse was rather clever and stupidly brave to have survived the cat and still stuck around, scurrying around in broad daylight.

“I’m just as brave as you,” she told the mouse. “Salaya said so . . . That’s why she chose me, and blessed—” She looked at her left hand “Gave me this.”

The mouse tilted its head at her and looked outside again. Sara sighed to herself and made up her mind. Besides, little girls always pushed through in the stories she’d read. They always found a prince or became a queen after defeating an evil witch. That’s a rule that always seemed to have been followed.

That afternoon, while Mama was napping, Sara snuck out of the house, stole one of Totoy’s leather work gloves to wear on her left hand, and ran into the trees. She wandered aimlessly for an hour, stepping on crumbled leaves without realizing she’d mostly been going in circles. She listened to the chirping birds and swatted away bugs. She looked for clues on how to find the monster, maybe footprints or claw marks on the trees. Nothing.

She sat under a tree, sweating and dirty. Her chin rested on her right palm, and she pouted. She wasn’t any closer to finding the monster, but she has already been away for what felt like hours. She was glad the sun was still pretty high in the sky.

“I’ll start heading home when the sky turns orange,” she told herself. She didn’t have anyone to guide her back home if it became dark.

She found a beetle crawling beside her. It had a shiny black shell with tiny bits of fur. Two horns were set vertically on its head, the bottom one much longer than the top. She became excited because she only ever saw these on TV or in books about insects.

Her gloved left hand picked it up, and she inspected it with curious eyes. “A rhinoceros beetle,” she declared confidently. It flailed between her fingers before she set it down again on a dried leaf. It lifted up its shell, and its wings buzzed away.

It was Sara’s first time in a place with so many trees. She wasn’t even allowed to wander on her own back in the city. Once her mind wandered away from finding the monster, she began to appreciate her time here. She looked up at the leaves so far up above her, and down at the creepy-crawlies under the layers of rotten leaves and dead wood. Some bugs were pretty and colorful; others were brown and grey and dull but still fascinating. She watched a caterpillar munch away at a leaf, and wondered what it would be like as a butterfly.

She made sure to always keep an eye out for birds that weren’t just the regular brown sparrows she saw everywhere. A lizard with a green head and brown body made her shiver. She couldn’t climb the trees because she didn’t know how, but she made sure to appreciate the shrubs of flowers.

Then, as she kept walking, it took her a few minutes to find out that the trees seemed completely different from before. They were impossibly tall and had woody vines growing on them. They were wide and twisted with roots that flared out as far as the leaves did. She was surrounded by these trees, and she couldn’t find where they stopped growing or which path she took to get here. It was quiet, with no chirping or buzzing. Just silent trees that whispered to one another when they rustled.

Sara kept walking until she found a tree incredibly larger than those around it. She suspected that it was multiple trees that grew into each other. Small bright red lizards scurried along its trunk and branches, and Sara was wary about getting closer.

After wandering around the tree, she found an opening into the tree that sloped downward. It was just her size. Sara soon understood that if there ever was a monster, it would be down there. She hesitantly peeked inside. As far as she could see, it was completely dark.

Sara took deep breaths, and she began walking down the tunnel with her hand trailing along the damp walls. It felt mossy and wooden, until it began feeling like cold stone. The drip-drop of water echoed irregularly from somewhere in the cave. As she walked deeper down, Sara could feel the walls slowly becoming warmer.

Her eyes caught a small lizard crawling above her. It glowed red and radiated a peculiar warmth. It had oil-drop eyes that looked right at Sara before disregarding her again and scurrying up the tunnel. She eyed it with the same fascination she had with the fairies. She knew she was getting close.

The farther down she went, the more glowing lizards she found, until they illuminated and warmed the whole tunnel. It was the perfectly comfortable warmth she could have slept in.

At the very bottom of the steps was a wide cave with passageways leading toward every direction. Some could fit through; others were far too small or unnervingly large. Glowing lizards crawled throughout the whole cave, entering and leaving the tunnels.

“It’ll take forever to go through each one,” Sara complained. She wondered about just going back up. But a voice bellowed from somewhere deeper in the cave. It was ancient and deep and powerful and spoke a language that Sara did not speak but could understand.

My arms morphed

into wings. Gray

feathers ruffled through

Sara jerked herself through one of the passages, in the direction she believed the voice was coming from. Her footsteps echoed throughout the whole cave, receiving the glowing lizard’s very brief attention.

the breeze of polluted air,

as I dreamed

She soon found that the tunnel branched into two directions.

of a new day. Caged

She turned left after the voice. And in the way that poems did, the rhythm slowly embedded itself into her mind so that she could roughly begin to think about the next few lines.

in a mortal coil, I longed to be

where the sun resides—

The voice stopped, and so did Sara. The tunnel split itself into three paths. She waited for the voice to continue.

a place of warmth, eternal

She ran into the right tunnel.

mornings and no nights.

I soared high

The path split into five more parts.

above the clouds, glided

Sara ran through the middle path and found the end of the tunnel, which was completely dark. She looked behind her, and she realized that the glowing lizards were watching her, but they didn’t follow her into the cave. She heard the voice again. It came from something beside her.

with the wind, and went toward—

 “The blazing sun, abandoning”

By the time Sara realized she spoke out loud, the voice beside her already stopped. She grew nervous. It knew she was here. All she could have thought to do was continue what she began.

“a vessel below the ground.”

The voice spoke a single forgotten word, and the entire cave became illuminated by what looked like a supercluster of twinkling stars above, shining white but radiating reds and blues and purples and greens. The ceiling went on forever in darkness, with clouds stained in colors that the surrounding stars glowed. Sara marveled at the night sky that existed inside a cave. She smiled a confused but awestruck smile, the kind that made people seem like crying and laughing at the same time. Then she found a figure stuck along the cave walls.

It had opal scales that shined various colors under the starlight. Its neck and body was long and slithery and much larger than any other adult’s Sara had ever seen. It had two pairs of limbs along its body, with sharp claws that matched.

The figure was like an obsidian statue along the walls, except it was breathing and moving very slowly. It was longer than any bus Sara had ever seen and was wide enough to have swallowed a goat whole. Without moving its mouth, it spoke. “Tell me your name, little one.”

Sara took a step back, afraid and curious at the same time. She looked at its round ebony head, with snake eyes that stared back at her. Its forked tongue flicked for a second and was gone the next. This must be it, Sara thought to herself. She was convinced this was the monster that Salaya wanted her to slay. And it really was one; it was massive and reptilian and could kill her in an instant. Yet it fascinated her the same way that old pictures did, mixed with the sensation of being so close to a massive beast.

“You tell me who you are first.” Sara took off her glove and cautiously stepped forward.

“It does not matter, my name. It’s not something someone so young must worry about.” The monster’s upper half crawled down from the walls and slithered closer to Sara.

Sara thought of a name to give the monster. “Annabeth,” she said. A character from her book.

“Do not lie, little one.”

Sara grew pale. “That’s unfair.” Sara did her best to convince her legs not to run away. “I wouldn’t know what to call you if you didn’t tell me.”

“You have a point.” Sara felt its warm breath that smelled like the first rain. “Then you are free to refer to me as ‘the monster,’ for that is the name you’d be most comfortable with.”

Sara looked at the monster curiously and took another cautious step forward.

“Now tell me, little one. What is yours?”

She held back her tongue for a second. “Sara,” she admitted.

Something in her left hand twitched. She knew she had to, but couldn’t get herself to do so. I can’t be afraid, she thought to herself. I’m so close already. She also had never truly wrapped her head around the “slaying” aspect of her quest. She understood that she had to fight, but she couldn’t fully consider ending a life. She wouldn’t even have a duel with the monster. It would just be her touching his scales, and it would be over. So quickly and unromantically, without mercy.

“A lovely name, that one.” The monster’s head moved to her side and then behind her, his body following suit. “Aren’t you afraid of me?”

“No, I’m not.”

“There isn’t any need to hide it. Everyone becomes afraid of me once they enter my cave. Most run away. A select few stay long enough for us to have a chat.”

Sara was already shaking, but she stood her ground. She didn’t want to disappoint Salaya, who had called her courageous.

“Why did you come here, Sara?”

“I . . .” She scrambled for some sort of reason. “I was lost and j-just found your tree, and then I—”

“No one finds this place without reason, Sara.” The monster’s head was in front of her again as its neck and body surrounded her, not in the way snakes constricted their prey, but it felt like it. Cold sweat dripped from Sara’s brow, and she pushed her arms closer to herself. Something in her left hand twitched again. “Do not even think about lying to me once more. Why are you here?”

“I’m here to slay you, monster.” She looked at him in his massive eyes. She had to do it. She didn’t know why she was so convinced, but she had to. “Salaya sent me.”

The monster’s tongue flicked again. His eyes showed that he was disappointed, but not surprised. He turned away from her and slithered back onto the walls. As his body went past Sara, she noticed that he had a few scales that had fallen off, and some were no longer shiny. One limb was simply being dragged along.

“I am old, Sara. I have been old for the past twelve centuries. I would say that I am too old to bother with fighting you, and the rules disallow such an act, as well. If it is truly what you want, then so be it.”

Sara remembered Salaya’s words. That they are bound by rules not to harm each other.

“Why does she want you gone?”

“Because I refuse to let her change.” His head turned to her, and he flicked his tongue. “She and I, we’re both creatures of the first light. She wants to become an ancient of happy wishes and blossoming flowers and pleasant music.”

“Isn’t she already?” Sara was confused, and not only because she couldn’t truly understand what the monster said about what they both were. “She already is all that. She gave me ice cream, and she’s beautiful, and she plays beautiful music, and—”

“All a façade.” Sara grew silent. She didn’t, or simply refused to, understand the monster. “All so that she could lure children, like you, closer to her, so that they may eat from her table.”

Sara remembered the fairies yelping on her first night with Salaya, when she was just about to eat her first spoon of double Dutch. “What happens when I eat from her table?”

“As her guest, she must offer you food. As your host, you must fulfill a boon. Those are the rules.”

“Another rule,” Sara muttered to herself. Now she understood why it was so difficult for her to say no to Salaya. “Why couldn’t you just let her change? It sounds like she just wants to be better.”

“If you refuse, then she is granted the chance to harm you in any way she pleases.” The cave fell silent for a moment. Sara remembered the weapon entering her, and she wondered what else Salaya could have done to her. “The last child she sent to me—”

“Last child?”

“Yes. You aren’t the first she gave this quest to, and you wouldn’t be the last unless you succeed. They usually run away in fear, but sometimes, they learn the truth first before turning on her.”

Sara felt a pang in her heart. She thought she was the only one that Salaya had chosen. Hearing that she was just one among many victims, she began to despise Salaya. She suffered to receive the weapon, thinking it was just for her. She wondered if she wasn’t really courageous and kindhearted and was simply tricked into thinking so.

“What did she do to the last one?”

“She turned him into a mouse. Others, she turned into flowers or insects or birds. The ones she was particularly fond of became her floral fairies. And if you return to her without my tongue, she’ll turn you into something else as well.”

Sara’s eyed widened. She felt her heart pounding in her chest.

“What should I do then?” She grew frustrated. “All these stupid rules. I don’t even know about any of them, but I have to follow them?” Her breathing became rushed and irregular. She only wanted adventure. She only wanted to experience a thrill like those in storybooks and fantasy novels. She was supposed to find a castle with a prince or fight an evil witch. This was all so complicated and difficult, and she was caught right in the middle of it all.

“To break the rules, you must understand them.”

Sara looked at the monster expectantly. After the monster whispered something into the ground, a little plant began to grow on the dirt below them. It was a low plant with round leaves. Then, as it continued to grow, small red strawberries grew wonderfully ripe and plump.

“It may be a bit late for me to offer food to my guest, but please, take one.”

Sara remembered the rules, and thought that the monster had some sort of clever plan so that she wouldn’t have to use the weapon on him anymore. So she plucked a strawberry and chomped it down. It was very juicy, but it was rather tart. It wasn’t better than the ones at the grocery store. For a moment, she remembered Salaya’s food to be better, but then again, they were supposed to be perfectly delicious.

“Now hold out your right hand with the palm facing upward.”

Sara refused, afraid that the monster would hurt her like Salaya.

“I am not the woman, Sara. I won’t hurt you.”

She reluctantly followed, and then the monster whispered something to the night sky. A star flew down and buzzed onto Sara’s open palm. It glowed brightly and radiated a purple hue but was no larger than a cookie. She felt very tiny feet tickle her palm, and she was surprised at how light it felt, as it was barely even there.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Simply meet with Salaya once again. This time, with this littler one. And give her one of those little orange lizards as well. Be careful, they’re very hot.”

“Why? What are they?”

“Elementals, Sara. You’ll understand out soon enough.”

“Okay, but . . . What about . . .” Sara waved her left hand at the monster. The star took off again and simply buzzed around them.

The monster considered his words for a moment, but then chose to be blunt. “She will know if I have died or not. You will still have to slay me.”

Her heart sank down to her stomach. She thought she wouldn’t need to anymore. She looked at her left hand and then at the monster, expecting him to take it back. “No,” she told him. “I won’t use this on you.”

It wasn’t right. The monster didn’t struggle or fight back like the Hydra or the Jabberwock. He didn’t curse children or destroy castles. He just waited in the cave, reciting poems under the stars. She wouldn’t have felt like a hero for defeating the monster. She’d just be like Patricia Chuy, who once shouted at and killed a spider just because it was on her table.

“Sara, I am no longer supposed to be in this world. My prime was a millennia ago. I am simply waiting for my time, and I need not wait longer if you would simply give me this chance.”

“If you wanted to die already, why didn’t you just let all the other children do it?”

“They would have taken my tongue to her.”

“How do you know I won’t?”

“For I know that you are kind.”

Sara remembered Salaya the same thing. She thought that the monster was just using her again. “How do you know?! We’ve only met each other now!”

“Because even as you learned that Salaya has tricked you into doing something wrong, you had not wondered about using her own weapon against her.”

Sara stood silent for a moment. “You don’t have to die here.” She hid her left hand behind her. “I’ll bring the star and the lizard to Salaya, and then we could leave this cave and find you a better one.”

“That sounds splendid.” Its tongue flicked. “But I simply don’t belong anymore, Sara.” The monster’s head approached Sara, and she could feel his warm breath again.

Sara shook her head, and tears began streaming down her cheek. She was quiet but persistent in the way only children could get when things didn’t go their way. Despite that, the vines in her left hand twitched to touch the monster.

“Do not think of it as slaying me, little one. Think of it as mercy.”

Sara looked at the monster as she sobbed. “I’m ready when you are,” he told her. Slowly and hesitantly, her left hand reached to touch the monster’s snout. She felt the skin of her palm burst open as the dark and cold vines sprouted out and surrounded the monster. She could feel them leaving her arm, and her right hand gripped her wrist. She did her best not to make a peep. It wasn’t nearly as painful as when it had entered her, but it did still hurt.

The monster simply allowed the vines to engulf him, leaving only its head. He pressed his snout farther into Sara’s palm. “Thank you, Sara Zambata. You have fulfilled your first quest. Now fulfill your next.” Sara jerked her head up and down.

“I will,” she declared. She had accepted her next quest.

The blazing sun, abandoning

a vessel below the ground.

The monster’s eyes closed. The vines suddenly tightened, and she could no longer feel his warm breath. She felt sad in a way that she hadn’t felt before. It was a silent sadness that was heavy and unpleasant on the chest. She wiped away her tears and simply stood there. She didn’t know why, but it felt right to stand in silence just for a while.

The star flew and buzzed around Sara as she walked toward the tunnel. She reached for one of the glowing lizards with her right hand, but quickly jerked away. It was like touching still-hot charcoal. With her gloved hand, she picked up the lizard, and it curled peacefully on her palm. Her hand could still feel the warmth through the glove. Sara looked back at the creature in the cave, took a deep breath, and then headed out.

It was already nighttime when she had left the tunnels and got out of the tree. “Mama would be worried sick by now,” she muttered to herself. She just kept walking in the direction she believed to be her way back home. She couldn’t tell when, but all the large and twisted and silent trees just disappeared behind her, and she was surrounded by the same trees that she was familiar with. The star buzzed above her, and the lizard slept on her palm.

After a few minutes of walking, she heard small and almost squeaky voices.

“Sara,” shouted Red. “Sara,” repeated Blue. She turned to them, and they floated right up to her. When the star buzzed past them, Sara caught a glimpse of two girls, both about her age. They wore dresses that matched their colors and floated in the air.

“Is Salaya looking for me?”

“She is,” confirmed Red. “She really wants to see you,” added Blue. The star buzzed past again, and Sara noticed that they had patches of skin all over that had become cracked and woody, like tree bark. Their eyes were still bright and cheerful, but they were too shiny and seemed too unnatural.

Sara took a step back, and she remembered that she had not taken the monster’s tongue, but she was quickly able to think of something.

“Take me to her then.”

The fairies gave an enthusiastic nod, and they floated away. Sara ran after them. Once they disappeared and Sara could hear the music from Salaya’s flute, she stood completely still. Her heart was pounding, and her hands were trembling, which the glowing lizard didn’t like. She looked at it for a moment, and it looked back at her.

“You should probably stay here for now.” She took off the glove while turning it inside out so that the lizard was inside, and she placed it into her pocket. “And you need to turn off for a while.”

The star gave an unhappy buzz.

“She might suspect something if she finds out I brought anything else but the tongue.”

It gave a low buzz and landed on Sara’s palm. She felt the star’s tiny legs dance frantically before the light died down. A small purple beetle rested on her palm. Her mind went through a moment of brief confusion, and then immediate acceptance that stars are just glowing bugs. She wondered where to keep it for a moment.

Sara brought her hand to her shoulder. “Hide in my hair,” she told the beetle, and it simply crawled into her messy mop. She felt it crawl around for a few seconds before it settled. After a deep breath, Sara followed the music, which had seemed much louder than the previous nights. Listening to it now, after what she’d learned, she felt like a mouse being lured by the Pied Piper.

“When I call for you, do what you’re supposed to do, okay?”

There was a short buzz of agreement.

There were violet blooms that almost seemed to glow in the dark, vines around the trees that Sara could have sworn were moving, and plenty of plants with flowers that looked like pitchers. Once she reached the clearing, she paused for a few moments before approaching Salaya, who was playing cheerfully on her dark stone. The fairies floated beside her.

The moon was still listening to her play, but it was now only half.

Once the music stopped playing, Salaya turned to her visitor with a very excited smile across her face, as if she were about to receive a supposedly surprise present but somehow found out.

“Do you have it, Sara?”

“I do.” She took out the balled-up glove from her pocket and held it tightly.

Salaya jumped from the stone. Her dress flowed gently around her, and she landed right in front of Sara gently, as if a breeze cushioned her feet. She bent down and presented her open palm to Sara.

“Well, let me have it.” She smiled such an obviously fake smile that Sara felt a bit insulted.

“Why? I thought it was my token?”

Sara could tell Salaya was simply holding back her frustration. “I need it child, more than you would think.” She moved her shaking hand closer to Sara’s. “Now be a good girl and let me have it.”

Sara took a deep breath. “I need you to grant me a wish first, as your champion.”

Her eyebrow twitched. Salaya sighed an annoyed sigh and stood properly with her hand on her hip. “What is it?”

“I want to have all three of your fairies.”

Salaya chuckled. “So he told you what I’d do if you came back empty-handed?”

“Yes.”

“And yet you still followed through.” She grinned. “You’re good at choosing sides.”

“Will I have them or not?”

“Ooh, such persistence. I like it.” Salaya turned to the two fairies. “Go with her then.” Red and Blue cautiously floated beside Sara.

“Where’s the white one?”

Salaya rolled her eyes, and then she unlatched her bracelet. She dropped it, but before it reached the ground, the white flowers bloomed into a white fairy that rushed to embrace Red and Blue, as if she’d been a bracelet for years.

“I have no use for them anymore,” Salaya remarked. She presented her open palm again, and her fingers motioned to have the tongue. “Now give it to me.”

Sara dropped the glove on her palm, and took a step back.

“Yes!” Salaya held the glove by her fingertips, and she felt something squishy and long inside. She then raised it up against the dark half of the moon. “After all this time,” she shouted at the night sky. “I have your power!” She laughed a satisfied and disturbingly witch-like laugh. “With this, I’ll finally be able to—oh, you’re still here.”

“Yes. I just . . . The fairies.”

Salaya smirked. “Just because I gave them to you doesn’t mean I’ll change them back.”

Sara frowned. “The monster was right. You really are ugly and rotten and all the bad stuff he said about you.”

“You little—”

Salaya raised her hand and was about to hit Sara, but she called out “Star!” before she was struck.

The purple beetle quickly buzzed from her hair and flew up. When it had everyone’s attention, it flashed very briefly but so brightly that it burned away the veil of magic that Salaya had so carefully woven over the whole clearing. Everything looked the way it truly was now.

When Sara could see properly again, she found that the fairies were now the ghostly children like they were earlier. The ground was completely barren, littered with what looked like rotten pieces of cloth and chunks of wood. The table and chairs that they had eaten on were now just splintery pieces of wood that were nailed together, and the covered platter was rusty and bent all over.

“You sneaky little twerp,” growled a voice.

The voice was loud and ancient and irritated. It sounded like countless other voices speaking in unison, and when it finished talking, feint groans from somewhere deep echoed.

“So you and the old goon had a plan, eh?”

Sara turned to face Salaya, but she didn’t find her. Instead, there was an old woman that stood crooked but was as tall as a house. Her skin was gray and wrinkled and scratched. Her eyes were jaundiced with deformed pupils. She was completely covered in rotting sheets of cloth in such a manner that only her face could be seen.

Sara turned away and ran away as fast as she could, the ghostly children floating behind her. A dark vine crawled out from under Salaya’s sheets of cloth and shot itself toward Sara. It caught her by the leg and dragged her back. Sara scratched at the dirt and flailed and struggled, to no avail.

“Help me!” she shouted.

The three children rushed after her, with White taking the lead. The three of them grabbed her hand and did their best to pull, which didn’t even slow her down.

“What’s next then? What did he tell you to do after? Don’t tell me that was it.” Salaya laughed a wretched laugh. “You can’t escape, Sara. I’ve never lost a child before.”

When Sara was close, limbs made of rotten and splintery wood protruded from the cloth. One of them smacked the fairies away, while the rest lifted Sara up.

Sara was brought face to face with Salaya’s excited and contorted smile. She was less than an arm’s length from the large and wrinkly face.

“Did you want to see me like this?” Salaya asked. “Do you see why I need that tongue? To truthfully beautiful as—”

Sara punched her yellow eye, and the massive woman flinched. She growled with only one eye open.

“I’ve never eaten a child before, although I’ve always been curious. But first, an appetizer.” Salaya tore the glove open with wooden limbs, and she was surprised to find a small bright red lizard plop out and scurried its way into Salaya’s sheets.

Like an adult approached by a cockroach, Salaya began to panic when the lizard reached her. The limbs dropped Sara, and they flailed uncontrollably while the old woman began coughing up smoke. The fairies cushioned her fall so that she landed on her feet, and then they ran toward the edge of the clearing. As she ran, Sara could hear Salaya shouting in countless voices, and when she turned, she found Salaya looking at her as well.

“Help me,” Salaya groaned. Small embers began to ignite all over her rotten sheets, which soon grew to slowly engulf her in a large flame and black smoke. Sara could feel the heat of the fire despite her distance, and she could smell the polluted odor.

Once all the cloth had been burnt out, Sara could only distinguish Salaya’s wooden frame in the fire. She was no longer coughing or shouting or groaning. Only the fire just kept crackling. Occasionally, a wooden slab would fall over, tiny embers flying. It was now just a massive bonfire. Sara just stood quietly for a moment. She felt like she needed to. Then she turned around and left the clearing for good.

“Please take me home,” she told the fairies.

The fairies led her back. Police sirens flashed red and blue in front of the house, and as soon as a policeman spotted her, he told everyone else and then spoke into his radio.

Mama and Tita Mitchel rushed to embrace Sara immediately. They both had been crying, and were both crying again. Sara didn’t realize how cold she felt until Mama held her as tightly as a mother ever could. “I was worried sick,” she said. “Where were you?”

Sara didn’t know what to say or where to begin. In trying to find her words, she simply began tearing up and sobbing as well. It was all over.

As she was brought into the house, the fairies stayed with the trees. Their eyes were once again like the eyes of children, and the bark on their skin began to peel off. They were themselves again, but their bodies had long since vanished. They’re simply ghosts, roaming and guiding children back to their home, as an apology for all the children they’d brought to Salaya.

Years went on, and the memories of Salaya and the monster and the fairies became simple dreams to Sara, a fantasy she would sometimes revisit when she would become too bored in class or dream about writing her own book, if only she could find the time. Mama never had to tell her what happened between them and Papa. She was able to figure it out on her own, in the way that teenagers figured these things out on their own.

She had a pet rat once, too. Maybe pet was too strong a word. It was more a visitor that she would sometimes share her food with. It had a white coat, and Sara often worried that, when it hadn’t visited in a long time, maybe a cat had gotten to it. She would always be overjoyed to see it again.

Sara hadn’t been to the woods on her own in a long time. Her left arm still ached sometimes.