Luke Dillon awoke to the sound of tapping on his passenger side window. He almost didn’t want to open his eyes. He could pretend to be asleep.
The tapping sound continued.
Or he could continue ignoring whoever it was.
The tapping became more urgent, growing louder in its perseverance.
Luke exhaled a breath through his mouth before he opened his eyes.
He wasn’t surprised by the sight of the faerie. She peered at him through the window. Due to her height, she had to bend down to look at him. She had long limbs and fingers that were more branches than fingers. Her hair was—in actuality—a collection of green and blue leaves that were the size of her long face.
Luke leaned over and rolled down the passenger window a crack. “What do you want?” He was aware that he could have chosen a more polite way of asking the question, but he wasn’t in a formal mood—hadn’t been for a while.
The faerie stared at him. “There is a human boy disrupting the forest.”
Luke sat back in his seat. He rubbed at his jaw, feeling exhaustion wash over him. Of course one of Them would ask something from him. Why couldn’t it ever be a simple “good morning” or a “have a nice day”?
“He’s being careless,” the faerie said.
Luke knew he could get the task done quick and easy, but along with this informal mood of his, there was also tiredness and reluctance. Besides, the thing about human boys was that they would always get bored of their play and return back to where they came from. In that sense, they were a lot like faeries.
The faerie spoke again. “He’s dying.”
The hesitation in Luke faded. He let out a curse. Trust one of Them to leave out the most important detail for last.
“Where is he?” He demanded of the faerie.
She stood up. Now all he saw of her was her legs. “Listen for the voices of the forest.”
Luke had been prepared for a vague answer, but it still frustrated him. He got out of the car and ran into the forest. Immediately, the early heat of summer drenched him without mercy. There was a breeze in the air, but it was faint and with that, the forest was so, so still. He almost wondered if he had been lured into a trap. The stillness felt dangerous.
There was no time to mourn over his lack of iron. He continued running, keeping his eyes alert for any sign of a boy.
“Turn left. He’s further up that way,” a voice whispered from the forest floor.
Luke listened to the directions, not bothering to look down for the speaker. He turned abruptly to his left and continued onwards. He jumped over a fallen tree and the moment his feet met the ground, an echo of whispers exploded in his ears.
“Watch where you step.”
Luke shook his head, trying to rid himself of the voices. He wasn’t sure if the voices were talking about him or the boy or, perhaps, both of them.
Luke stopped running.
He stared at the sight in front of him, stunned. A thick, black mass of hornets swarmed around something. Something he couldn’t see, but something he didn’t need to see. Without a doubt, Luke knew that the boy was underneath all that terrible chaos. He felt sick at how certain he was.
For an awful moment, he recalled the memory of his father and his brothers charging into battle. They were heroes in ways that he would never be, had refused to be. War would never be his strength.
Swallowing down the bitter pain of remembering, he charged into the mass of hornets.
In a matter of seconds, Luke could feel the insects beginning to sting at his skin. Their stings were constant, sharp and unpleasant, but he kept his mouth pressed tight against the pain and dug for the boy. The state of the boy made him wince and he held back the urge to close his eyes.
Luke was suddenly afraid that the boy was fragile—that he would handle him too roughly and the boy would break and go limp in his hands. He was more afraid that the boy was dead—that all this was to save someone who didn’t need saving anymore.
Luke shook his head in attempt to shake off the hornets that crawled and punctured his face, but the action was worthless. The hornets stubbornly stayed.
Carefully, he scooped the boy into his arms and stood up. He turned the boy’s face into the hollow of his neck, trying to shield him off from the hornets as much as possible. As quickly as he could, Luke walked away from the hornets. A number of hornets—more than he would’ve liked—followed, persistently landing on him and the boy. It felt like a nightmare.
“Do you want me to get rid of them for you?” The voice came from the branches of the trees above. The voice was too sweet, the wrong kind of niceness.
Luke closed his eyes against the bubbling irritation inside of him. He used his manners this time. “Yes, please.”
The voice whispered inaudible words.
Luke felt relief as the hornets left his skin. The relief was followed by the sounds of the hornets flying away.
He opened his eyes and looked above him. “Thank you.”
There was no reply and he couldn’t see anything in the branches of the trees, but he wasn’t fooled.
“Do you know the direction in which the boy came from?” Luke asked. “I’d like to take him back to his home.”
“It’s not his home,” the voice spoke. It didn’t sound like the one from before. This voice sounded raspier and grouchier.
“Well, I’d like to take him back to where he came from,” Luke said.
“Leave him be. His people will come find him anyways.”
Desperation suffocated him. With a start, Luke realized the boy’s lack of pulse. He felt his chest tighten. Why can’t I ever be the hero? Not that it came as a surprise to him. He couldn’t even save himself, so why did he expect himself to be able to save others?
“You’re walking the wrong way.” It was the too-sweet voice again. “Turn the other way and keep walking.”
Luke sighed. “Thank you again.” He turned and began to walk, but then he stopped. Slowly, he asked, “He’s not dead, is he?”
“He’s neither,” the raspy voice answered.
Neither dead nor alive… It was better than death. Luke felt for a pulse, a heartbeat, a breath—any sign of life from the boy, but either there was nothing or a near-nothing too faint for detection.
He hoped it was the latter.
He wondered how long it would be before the ugly reminders of the hornets would fade from the boy’s exterior. He knew that it would take only a few hours for his own stings to disappear, but that was due to his occupation—an occupation that the boy luckily lacked.
“Richard! We give up!”
“Come out from hiding!”
Luke caught sight of a pair of kids. One was a girl and the other was a boy. Both were dressed formally in a dress and a tuxedo—respectively—and both had their hands cupped around their mouths as they shouted.
So the boy’s name was Richard.
Luke took another path to avoid being spotted by the girl and boy. He was definitely close. In the distance, he could see the edge of the forest and beyond that, a host of socializing people and a huge house. The fanciness of everything shined with wealth.
In the cover of the shadows, Luke gently laid Richard down, propping him upright against a tree. He hated to acknowledge it, but the boy looked broken beyond repair.
Luke hurried behind a tree a safe distance away.
A woman in a red dress and stilettos ran up to the boy. Horror widened her eyes and made her mouth fall open. In a shrill voice, she yelled, “Someone call for an ambulance!”
Everything happened next in a fast-forwarded snapshots of sequential moments: the crowd gathering around the woman and Richard, a man and woman—no doubt his parents—hugging the boy, a girl—perhaps his sister—bursting into tears, the ushering away of the alarmed children, the waiting for the ambulance, the arrival of the ambulance, and the silent aftermath of a ruined party.
Luke left then. Already, the soreness from the hornets’ stings was subsiding, but not the ache he felt in his chest, familiar and unexplainable.
He made his way through the forest. None of Them bothered him. He was glad for that. The uninterrupted stroll was a bittersweet ending to all that had happened.
He should have known it was all too good to stay true.
Eleanor was sitting on the hood of his Audi. She was already looking at him by the time he noticed her. The smile on her face was everything a smile wasn’t, despite its fairness. Luke had grown numb to her beauty a long, long time ago. The beautiful faeries were usually the most wicked; armed with a tempting face to mask Their cruelty, so that They could trick and deceive and hurt—which Eleanor was more than capable of.
“What are you trying to prove, Luke,” Eleanor asked, “by going to the rescue of that boy?”
Luke tightened his jaw. He did not answer her.
“There are greater forces out there that will save his life,” Eleanor continued. She waved one of her elegant hands in the general direction of the forest. “You needn’t intervene.”
Luke started for the driver’s side of the car, even though he would have to cross in front of Eleanor in the process. More than ever, he wished he had iron on him.
Eleanor did not reach out for him, but she did lean forward. The smile on her face widened, prettily. “Those pitiful hornet stings don’t prove anything. It’s like you never learn, dear. You’re so foolish. Do you choose to be naïve?”
Her question stopped him as he was about to open the door.
“Do I have to remind you?” She asked.
Luke yanked the door open. “No, you don’t.” He got into the car and slammed the door closed. Finding his keys, he started the car. If getting rid of Eleanor was as simple as running her over, he would have done it, but life didn’t work that way. And when he looked up, Eleanor was gone.
Meetings with Eleanor always left him in a foul mood. And he didn’t need her to remind him. He knew. He would always know.
Luke thought of Richard. He wondered if Richard was still alive. It did help a bit, knowing that he had helped the boy—even if it was only a foolish and vain attempt at heroism.
He reminded himself of what he hadn’t needed Eleanor to remind him of: I’m not a savior.
Quietly, he whispered to himself, “I need saving.”
It was a tragic thing—admitting that to himself, but then again, his whole life was a tragedy. He was always being reminded.
With the admission echoing in the hollowness of his being, Luke pressed down on the gas pedal and started off to anywhere.