Fantasy fiction, The Invisible Moth, writing

First Short Story Day: Just Pretend

First published in January 2016.  All of this work (apart from the Taylor Swift lyrics, of course) is copyright The Invisible Moth.

 

“Say you’ll remember me – standing in a nice dress – staring at the sunset…

Red lips and rosy cheeks… Say you’ll see me again, even if it’s just in your wildest dreams…”

Taylor Swift, “Wildest Dreams”

 

I

Opening soon! the advert proclaimed. A new salon on the corner of South Pickerney and Broad Lane. Ladies’ haircuts and color, manicures, makeovers for special occasions. Full coffee and tea service. Small dogs welcome!

Mum watched me expectantly. Her eyes twinkled, and she waited, the corners of her lips turned up.

Careful not to show any emotion, I raised my eyes from the folded newspaper and met her gaze. “Cool?”

“Yes! Of course! Aren’t you proud of your Aunty Rosie? Going into business for herself at our age. Good on her!”

When Mum plopped those classifieds in front of my morning coffee mug, I’d figured it had to do with Aunt Rosemary’s salon. I knew all about it – for the past few months, Mum’s emails and calls had consistently filled me in on the details. Rosemary had bought a shop, renovated it in record time, and was now about to open a beauty salon. Which was odd, since she was an interior decorator. Well, that was why she had hired Aunt Sylvia, a licensed cosmetician, to be the manager.

“The grand opening’s the day after tomorrow,” Mum went on, refilling my mug without being asked. “But she’s having a little soiree tomorrow night, catered and everything. Do you have something nice to wear?”

Refraining from rolling my eyes, I said, “I can go shopping.” I tried to discreetly retrieve the creamer from the other side of the table; she noticed, but didn’t say anything. “How nice are we talking?”

“Like Aunty Helen’s anniversary party.” Mum paused. “Not like Betsy’s hen night.”

Stirring my coffee, I focused on the swirls of cream blending into the dark liquid. “All right, then.”

It was better if Mum and I didn’t spend too much time together. Better for our long-term relationship, for my standing with the rest of her family.

Her back to me now, Mum began washing dishes. “Oh, and you might want to see if Desmond could make it.”

Closing my eyes, I inhaled deeply and gripped the mug. “That’s not a good idea.”

“Why not?” She raised her voice to be heard over the splashing of water and clinking of plates. “He’s a lovely boy.”

Desmond was a nice guy – which was why I didn’t want to let him down, again. “I’m leaving town next week. There’s no future.”

“That’s because you haven’t tried.”

I counted to three in my head before I replied, “He lives here, I live in the States. It would be too hard. He knows that.”

Turning her gray-haired head towards me, Mum showed her disapproval in the little pouts at the edges of her mouth, in the slightly further crinkling of her crow’s feet. “All my sisters have grandchildren.”

“Mum, I’m 27,” I reminded her, exercising great patience. “Nowhere near the sell-by date.”

She softened a bit, switching on the faucet. “Still, your cousins are all going to be there with their partners – I thought it’d be easier for you to have someone, too.”

“It doesn’t bother me…”

“You say that now. You may change your mind when Uncle Jim’s had a vodka tonic or two and loudly wonders why you’re so pretty and still single.”

Four, five, six. “Desmond has to know it’s one night only.”

“Do make that clear.” Swish, clank, splash, dink into the drainer next to the sink.

“I’ll phone him later. I have to finish my research.”

“Just be sure to do it soon, before he makes other plans.”

“Yes, Mum, soon.” Taking my coffee, I hightailed it to the shower.

The good thing about having divorced parents in separate countries: I have dual nationality, and can live closer to whoever is giving me less grief.

 

II

I came to England this summer to conduct research for my latest book. It’s on the history of English fairytales, and after I’d spent several weeks reading about locations and legendary figures that felt more real to me when I visited the sites as a child, I decided to just go back to those parks and museums.

We lived in the Midlands from the time I was six until I turned ten. Then that year Mum and Dad split up, and Dad went back to his hometown of Elmira, New York. We’d lived there when I was little, but I didn’t remember much of it.

Mum kind of went off the rails, though, once she and Dad were separated. She didn’t want to homeschool me anymore; she took a job up north; and I spent a lot more time in the States, with Dad and his new girlfriend, later wife, Kelly.

Kelly was awesome. I had a learning disorder, and going to school was very scary for me; Kelly continued my homeschooling, and helped me get into correspondence courses to obtain an Associates degree in Creative Writing. She also kept me active, and social, with lessons in ice skating, gymnastics, and dance, which was my favorite.

Even when Mum and I didn’t see much of each other, she was happy that Kelly could give me what Mum couldn’t – or wouldn’t – in those years.

Kelly died a few months before I made this trip. She had a congenital illness, and knew she’d never be an old woman; but she never let it stop her. She laughed, she loved, she lived.

I missed her.

Dad missed her, but carried on. That’s just how he is.

Before I left on my fairytale-finding mission, I met Dad for coffee and tea at this nice little diner where Kelly used to take me.

I told him my intentions. He listened until I finished the initial explanation, then nodded, and said, “Are you going to visit your mother?”

For a while, Mum had been back in Oxford, out of the legal secretary and historical preservation jobs she took in York, grooming dogs with a friend of Aunt Sylvia’s.

I’m a cat person at heart.

Sipping my tea, I answered Dad honestly. “A little. Not for the whole time.”

“Good,” he just said, “good.”

“Will you be okay without me?”

“Siobhan, honey, you live across town, and we only see each other once a week, anyway. I’m certainly not dependent on you.”

This was true.

“Will you be all right to look after Callie, then? I hate to put her in a kennel.”

Callie is my baby – a black-and-white mixed-breed shorthair kitty, named after the Greek muse Calliope.

“Sure. Just bring her over when you need to leave.”

So I packed my bags and dug out my British passport and made all the hotel reservations. I pulled out Callie’s travel box a few days ahead of time, so that she could get used to the idea.

When the morning came to take her to Dad’s, I gave her a big cuddle and instructed her to behave. She purred and blinked lazily at me.

She’d be fine.

 

III

Thanks to the age of the internet and social media and self-publishing, I’d been able to make a decent living the last few years as a novelist with a small but loyal following. I was residing, mortgage-free, in my paternal grandparents’ house (thank you, Kelly, for suggesting it to Dad).

Most of the time, I didn’t mind being alone. Relationships were hard. Trusting other people was hard.

Callie was simple, genuine.

So were books.

I did have a few close friends. And I had tried dating.

For example, Desmond.

Getting out of the shower, I collected my notes, my journals, and my phone. Shooing Mum’s cocker spaniel off the bed in the guest room, I went through the contents of my suitcases. Jeans, shorts, t-shirts, Converse. Yup, need to go shopping for Aunt Rosemary’s special pre-opening thing.

Mum had to go to work, so I was able to peruse the shops in peace. Stopping for the lunch special in a traditional pub – personal preference – I took a deep breath and called Desmond.

“Siobhan.” He was happy to hear from me. “What a pleasant surprise.” Happy, but wary.

I didn’t blame him. “Yes, hi there. Er, I’m in Oxford for a bit, and my aunt – well, Rosie – is having this party, sort of… Well, she’s opening a new business…”

“The beauty salon.”

“Ye-es…”

“Betsy told me about it.”

Of course she did. My cousin Betsy, Aunt Helen’s daughter. Betsy, who introduced me to Desmond in the first place. “Ahhh, all right, then, is there any chance…”

“Quite the shindig it’s supposed to be, eh? And I bet your mum’s itching to see you show up with some handsome bloke.”

The waitress arrived with my wine, and I gratefully sipped it. “You don’t owe me anything, Desmond. You don’t have to do anything Mum wants you to. I can’t promise you a single…”

“What time does it start?”

Wincing, I stared at the phone for a second, then slowly returned it to my ear. “Really?”

“Why not? It’ll be fun. And it’s just one night. You don’t need to promise me – well, anything.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah. I like you, Siobhan, you know that. And I know how you feel about relationships. So, as long as we understand what to expect from each other, there’s no harm in going to your aunt’s party and stopping your relatives gossiping for a night.”

More wine.

“Siobhan? What do you think?”

“Er, yeah, all right…if you’re really sure.”

“Yes, I am. Is this a black-tie, stag-night, or silver-wedding-anniversary sort of event?”

More wine. “The last.”

“Pressed trousers and open jacket it is, then. What color is your dress?”

“Pardon?”

“Should we go all out and match our clothes?”

The wine glass was frozen halfway to my mouth. “Ahh…red with a little dark blue.”

“Great. You look brilliant in red. Text me the address, all right?”

“Er, yeah, will do.”

The waitress returned with my lunch. I asked her to please box it up; something had come up and I had to get back to work. She obliged smilingly.

Time to run back to the shop and exchange the plain black blouse and khakis I’d bought.

 

IV

Writing a non-boring history book is tough. (There are good reasons people would rather watch the movie.) Especially when your topic is something as complex and possibly intangible as folklore that has grown and changed so much over the past several centuries that now its origins may be forever lost.

The country of England, shaped by the intermingling of Anglo, Celtic, Saxon, and Norman cultures, has a multi-layered mythology combining traditions from all of these ancient peoples. After reading articles detailing how and what they borrowed from one another until my eyes crossed, I realized that information didn’t answer the question I was focused on.

Why did tall tales and superstitions and legends dating back nearly a thousand years still have a hold on us? Why were they still important? Why, in this age of science and technology, was it so vital to maintain a flicker of hope that otherworldly creatures were real?

And to believe that we may have a chance of interacting with them?

As I toured ancient stone circles, restored castles, and more than one smaltzy gift shop, sat in pubs and cafes re-reading my notes, and watched Doctor Who reruns in hotel rooms, part of the answer started to come to me.

If we believe faeries are real, it brings a sense of magic to our very boring, difficult, everyday lives. It gives us a glimpse into a world of adventure, heroism, true love, and happy endings.

It inspires us to pull a little magic out of ourselves, and bestow it on others.

 

 

V

Thank heavens, I found a knee-length red sundress decorated with dark blue flowers around the hem, and strappy red sandals. Aunt Sylvia’s daughter, Jill, lent me gold-and-garnet earrings and a pendant, and insisted on doing my hair and makeup.

“You need to look your best for your date,” she said.

“It’s not a date,” I told her.

“Then you need to look your best for our mums. So they think he is your date.”

Agreed.

Jill and her husband, Allen, left their girls, Tess and Lydia, with the sitter, and drove us to the restaurant. Uncle Jim and Uncle Geoffrey had booked the banquet room for wine and tapas.

Desmond was waiting on the sidewalk, in navy blue slacks and a red button-down shirt.

Before we got out of the car, Jill looked at me and said, “Keep him.”

I found my palms perspiring.

It was only Desmond.

“Hello,” I said, trying to smile.

“Evening.” He drew me close and kissed my cheek, making my heart jump. “You look smashing.”

“Thank you. So do you.” Why couldn’t I catch my breath?

We joined my relatives, chatting and sipping wine and grabbing hors d’oeurves off trays carried around the room. Mum greeted Desmond a little too enthusiastically, but then, blessedly, she left us alone.

Eventually, we snagged a corner table, and a whole plate of delicious shrimp-avocado-pancetta thingies. Desmond put his hand on my knee, and I let him, because he was my fake date, after all.

“So,” he said, “what are you working on now?”

Desmond is a commercial real estate agent, so he finds my self-employment as a novelist fascinating.

My tongue loosened by the white wine, I said, “A real departure. It started out as a comparative piece between how fairytales were back before the Reformation, and what versions they’re in now… And it’s morphing into a collection of travel notes and musings on why certain stories survive the rest of our changing culture.”

“Wow,” Desmond said, and he meant it. “How did that happen?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted.

“I really liked your last book,” he said, leaning closer. I also leaned in. “The one with the relocated orphans after the nuclear war. They were rescued by aliens.”

“Yes, the Gaeans,” I clarified.

“That’s it! Like the Earth goddess in mythology.”

“You read the author’s notes,” I approved.

“It was really good, Siobhan. How they had to fit in with the aliens but they didn’t want to lose their human identity.”

“Thank you.” Blushing, I dipped my head and actually fluttered my lashes at him. Wow. Usually I couldn’t flirt my way out of a paper bag.

“It’s good to see you, Siobhan.” Lowering his voice, he said near my ear, “Your mum is watching us, by the way.”

“Is she?” I was awash in the smells of his aftershave and the red wine on his breath.

He nodded briskly, grinning. Squeezing my eyes shut, I pressed towards him.

His lips were gentle, almost empathetic, on mine. It was easy to let him kiss me, for almost too long just to make a good show.

Someone began tapping a spoon against their glass, and others caught on. We all looked over to see Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Jim wanting our attention from the middle of the room.

With everyone now watching her, Aunt Sylvia began, “Thank you, all, for being here, and for your support in this wonderful endeavor. We’re so excited to be opening our new business to the public tomorrow.”

We all applauded, and a few of us cheered. Aunt Sylvia went on, “Not very long ago, our dear Rosemary and I decided to take a chance on this venture, and it’s paid off. So, here’s to new beginnings, and old friends, and sisters – and you, Rosie.”

Everyone raised their glasses, and Aunt Rosemary blushed and blinked back tears.

Music came on, the sort of smooth jazz Rosie and Geoff had played for Helen and Richard’s anniversary do. Betsy and Jill pulled their husbands out to dance, emboldening their brothers’ wives to follow suit.

“Come on.” Desmond tugged on my hand. Steeling my nerves, I tottered along after him.

“You two are so cute!” Betsy said to me as we passed her and Neal.

My face felt hot.

Desmond took my hand in his and curved his other arm around my waist.

Could he see how flushed I was under the dim lights, under the makeup Jill had applied?

Why did I care so much?

 

 

VI

“Well, that was cool. Thanks for inviting me.”

“You should tell Mum that,” I replied. “It was at her insistence.”

Desmond chuckled. “Just because she’s your mum doesn’t mean she’s wrong.”

This time I was not prepared for him to kiss me.

Or for how nice it would be.

How really nice.

“I don’t owe you anything,” he murmured, “and you don’t owe me, either. But I like you, and you like me – yes, you do.”

He gently pressed his forehead to my cheek, and I couldn’t breathe very well.

“So call me. Please. Good night, Siobhan.”

Jill and Allen paid the sitter and carried Tess and Lydia – who had fallen asleep on the sofa – to their room.

I called a cab. I wanted some space from anyone who knew me. I needed to think.

“Allen’s happy to take you to your mum’s,” Jill said, as I’d expected her to.

“Really, it’s fine. You guys have done loads for me already.”

“It paid off, eh?” Jill grinned.

It did. Whether I liked that or not…

My eye fell on a book lying on their coffee table. It was a leather-bound, antique style storybook, a gold embossed title on the cover calling it The Lilac Fairy and Other Tales.

Lilac? I’d covered the Green, Blue, and Yellow Fairy traditions, but Lilac was new.

I flipped through the pages. Parchment, not paper. There was no copyright or date of publication. Beautiful watercolor illustrations, late 19th or early 20th century.

“Where did the girls get this?”

Jill turned from her front window, where she watched for the taxi. “Gorgeous, isn’t it? Aunt Rosie gave it to them. It came from an old family friend.”

“Do you mind if I borrow it?”

“Go ahead. Will it help you with your writing?”

“We’ll see.” Fingering the pendant at my neck, I suddenly remembered it wasn’t mine. I took it off, and the earrings, giving them to Jill at the door. “Thanks again.”

“No worries, Siobhan.”

 

VII

Most of the tales in The Lilac Fairy I’d come across elsewhere. But one stood out, a story of two young girls, sisters, who inadvertently crossed the border into the fey realm when they chased a neighbor’s dog into the woods. They were intercepted by a pair of elves, male and female, apparently spouses, beautiful but slightly mysterious creatures. The elves took the sisters to the Seelie Court, where they joined a feast, and basically partied all night.

At dawn, the elves – who were revealed to be the Seelie King and Queen – brought the girls back to the mortal world, but made them promise not to tell anyone about their night with the faeries. As insurance, the King and Queen cast a spell – if the sisters kept their secret for 30 years, then the magic of the elves would make their dreams come true.

Aunt Rosie gave the book to Tess and Lydia. It came from an old family friend.

“Here’s to old friends,” Aunt Sylvia had said in her toast, “and sisters.”

Particularly Rosemary.

This was impossible.

It had to be impossible.

Right?

The salon was full of customers and staff; I walked by and saw through the windows. All the ladies looked happy.

Rosemary had sold her interior decorating business. When I arrived, she was packing up her office.

“Siobhan. What a surprise.”

“Can we chat?”

“Cup of tea?”

“Sure.”

Rosie set down a box of family photographs and went to the staff kitchen. I followed her.

No one else was around. “What happened to your assistant?” I asked.

“She’s on holiday in Barcelona. I gave her three months’ severance. She was with me a long time.”

Rosie stirred cream and sugar into the tea, and passed me a cup. “Please, sit down. What can I do for you, dear?”

Taking a chair, I dug into my bag and pulled out The Lilac Fairy. She stiffened when I set it on the small table between us. “You can tell me about that night in the fey realm. My guess is it’s been more than 30 years.”

“Yes,” she nearly whispered.

“Was it Sylvia’s dream to have her own salon?”

Rosie nodded, staring into her tea.

“What was yours?”

Half smiling, she looked up. “To be independently wealthy. To retire early, be able to travel. That my children and grandchildren would want for nothing. And it happened.”

“How?” I sipped my tea, glancing at the book.

“When the date came…and went…and we’d kept our word…” Putting her cup down, Rosie cleared her throat. “There was a letter from the bank. A mistake regarding my account. The account for this place. Interest that hadn’t been added to my balance. For the past decade. They owed me 170,000 pounds.”

That sounded like magic.

Or good luck.

Pure coincidence.

“And the salon came up for sale, and the agent took my first offer. And I sold my business for twice my asking price. For no reason.”

“That could just be outstandingly good fortune. Or destiny, or something like that.”

“No.” Pursing her lips, Rosie shook her head. “No, it was the King and Queen.”

“Why don’t you tell me about that night, Aunt Rosie?”

Exhaling slowly, she clasped her hands together. “I hoped you’d figure it out. When your mum told us what you were working on…”

“It’s why you gave Tess and Lydia that book when you knew I’d be in town.”

“It was time to share. Our dreams reaching fruition was a signal. They felt it was finished. We upheld our end of the bargain, and they rewarded us.”

I finished my tea, and wished for a bit of brandy.

“We were just girls, and it was a hot summer day,” Rosie said, almost wistfully. “We were bored. Your mum and Helen – they worked at the farm down the road, so they weren’t around.”

I remembered Mum telling me that – she and her sisters grew up in the Cotswolds, near several small farms that raised chickens and ponies and sold vegetables and herbs. She and Helen spent a summer being mother’s helpers at one of them, doing chores and running errands for a wife with a new baby and older kids.

“When that sheepdog ran by…we didn’t think, we just ran after it. The dog was barking, chasing a rabbit. Into the woods.”

Rosie’s gaze fell on The Lilac Fairy, and her eyes lit up.

“We were lost before too long. The dog vanished. We were alone. Except for – except for the King and Queen.”

This couldn’t be real. But it was happening. My aunt believed every word of it.

“It was so beautiful – the Court. The faeries… We danced with them, and ate the most delicious fruit and pastries… The music was just – captivating…”

Of course it was; the whole point was to enchant them into wanting to be there, and not wanting to think they were being kept against their will. All the folklore maintained that humans who stumbled into the fey realm were actually prisoners, either temporarily or long-term. There were varying theories as to why this was so; many scholars thought it was to protect the true location of the entrances to this other world. Faeries didn’t trust humans, basically.

“Why the book? Why put your experiences in the text? And then give it to you?”

“To remind us of our promise.” Rosie’s tone and expression indicated this was very clear. “To remind us to keep quiet.”

“Remind you of what was at stake.”

“Absolutely. It was well worth it.” Rosie leaned back in her chair, finally seeming to relax. “Betsy and Charlie won’t have any debts to settle when Geoff and I are gone. Sylvia has her salon. It all worked out for the best.”

She was completely honest, genuine. She really thought she and her sister once spent a night at a big faery party with an elven King and Queen. And that said King and Queen had provided her with financial stability.

There was no changing her mind.

“Aunt Rosie…what do you want me to do with this information?”

She smiled and leaned towards me, as if now she was sharing the secret.

“You wanted to know why we still believe in the old stories, Siobhan, why we still need them.”

Had I told her that?

“We need them because they need us. They’re as old as time, and they need us. It’s flattering, it’s mindboggling, it’s – magical. We don’t understand it, but we don’t have to. Believing something and understanding it can be two different pieces of the same puzzle. And that’s fine.”

I saw the look on her face – serenity, utter peace.

“Remember that when you’re writing your book, Siobhan.”

I glanced down at The Lilac Fairy. “Can I bring that back to Jill?”

 

VIII

I opened up windows and aired my house out. I sorted through the two weeks’ worth of mail and newspapers. Leaving my luggage for later, I called Dad and told him to bring Calliope over anytime.

I took my notes on the history of English fairytales and put it all in the shredder.

The books I’d checked out for research went back to the library.

Dad brought Callie home. I gave her a tin of gourmet cat food, and ordered Chinese takeout for myself and Dad.

The next day, I called Desmond.

“Siobhan. How’s the writing going?”

“Actually, that project was a bust. I’m starting something new.”

Callie jumped up onto my bed and began walking over the dirty clothes I’d taken out of my suitcase. I scratched her behind the ears, and she purred.

“Well, I’m sorry about that. You put a lot of work into that.”

“Yeah, well, I learned a thing or two. It was worth the trip.”

Desmond chuckled. “Glad to hear it. So, what’s next for you?”

“I’m thinking of a romance.”

“A romance? Really?”

“Yeah.” I zipped up the empty suitcase. “It’s time for a change.”


If you’ve enjoyed these stories, please consider ordering the collection, available in a printed booklet. A donation request is made of $10 (to help cover printing and shipping fees). Drop me a line at daley.downing@gmail.com for more information! 

 

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