“Stop the car!”
I slam on the brakes, jerking against the seat belt so hard the fabric cuts into the skin of my collarbone. My best friend, Rhiannon, ignores the sharp punch I land on her shoulder. She leans forward, absently fending me off with one hand. If I didn’t know for a fact she only had Cheetos and herbal tea at the party, I’d suspect her of being drunk.
“What the hell, Rhia? You—”
“Tess, look,” she says, grabbing my arm.
I peer through the windshield at a small, furry creature squatting in the beam of my headlights. “Who cares! It’s a—it’s…Huh. What is it?”
Rhiannon squints, her nose almost touching the glass. “Dunno. Too fat to be a squirrel, too cute to be a possum.”
“Definitely not a possum,” I say with a shudder. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, uglier than an opossum.
“Ah,” Rhia says in tones of great satisfaction. “I know what it is.”
“Oh?” I say irritably. “Care to share?”
“It’s a chinchilla.”
“A chinchilla?” I look at the thing again, but all I can see is a sort of fuzzy blob.
“A chinchilla,” Rhiannon confirms. “But where did it come from? D’you think it’s someone’s pet?”
“Well it’s not from the local chinchilla herd,” I say.
The blob turns and now I can see its beady little eyes. It is, indeed, a chinchilla.
“Look, it’s got blood on its paws,” Rhiannon cries. “I’m gonna go get it.”
But she’s already slipped out the passenger side door, creeping toward the chinchilla on tip-toe like a crazed cartoon villain. She pounces, missing the chubby little rodent by inches. The chinchilla skitters off the road and out of the headlights’ glow.
No, I think. Please don’t.
But she does. I watch, open mouthed, as Rhiannon dives into the darkness after the chinchilla and disappears into the woods with her hands out and her butt in the air.
My forehead hits the steering wheel with an audible thunk. Of course she wants to run off at—I check my phone—ten after two in the morning to chase a freaking chinchilla through the woods. Woods, I might add, that are filled with things that can legitimately kill and eat her. There are bears, there are coyotes, and let us not forget the opossums. Alright, an opossum probably can’t kill her. But if one were to come across her dead or wounded body at the bottom of a cliff?
I take a deep breath, resist the urge to Google “What do opossums eat,” and hit my mom’s speed dial. The phone buzzes in my hand and flashes its low-battery warning. I wince.
Come on, pick up. Pick up—or not. Definitely not. What am I thinking? I don’t actually want to explain this. But it’s ten minutes—no, fifteen, now—after our curfew, and my parents will be calling any minute anyway. It’ll go better for me if I call them first, as a gesture of…I don’t know, responsibility or something.
“Hi, Tessie.” Damn it, she picked up. “Are you almost home? It’s quarter after two.”
“Yeah, I know, I…” Crap. I should have thought this through. What do I say? Do I lie? Do I call Rhiannon’s mom instead and beg her to forgive me for losing her daughter to the depravities of whatever woodland creature happens upon Rhiannon’s corpse? “I have a, um, situation.”
“Are you alright? Where are you? What—”
“I’m fine,” I say quickly. “It’s just—well, there was a chinchilla—”
“A chinchilla? Theresa Marie—”
The last thing I hear before the phone dies is my father’s muffled voice rumbling through the receiver: “What the hell is a chinchilla?”
I throw the now useless phone down on the seat beside me and drum my fingers against the steering wheel. I could wait for the cops to find me—my mom dialed 911 as soon as the call dropped, I’m sure—or I could go home and call them myself. There’s still no sign of Rhiannon. Which brings me to my third and least palatable option.
With a groan, I park the car on the side of the road and get out. I hesitate on the edge of the pavement. This is stupid—I should wait. Blundering around in the dark until I break my own leg won’t help anyone. This is a job for the police, or search and rescue, or…I don’t know. Someone else. Someone with a flashlight, at least. Yes, I should wait.
But a sharp yell from the woods propels me forward. The wood isn’t pitch black, as I first thought. A full moon has emerged from the clouds, blanketing the forest in eerie blue-white light and creating jagged shadows among the trees.
“Rhia!” I trip over a fallen branch and get a face-full of dead leaves. I spit them out. “Rhiannon!”
The voice is faint, but it’s definitely coming from somewhere to my left. I scramble to my feet and run toward it, dodging branches and shadows alike. Leaves whip my face and hands, and a twig stabs me in the eye, but I don’t fall again. I’m almost there—
“Tess, stop!” A hand seizes my arm and yanks me backward. I stumble and fall onto my back with a thump. Rhiannon stands over me, clutching something to her chest. “You almost fell—look.”
Not two feet from where I’m lying, the ground falls away to a sheer cliff. I open and close my mouth several times before I find my voice again.
“I was trying to find you,” I finally reply, trying to ignore the trembling in my guts. “You were yelling.”
“I was not.” Rhiannon frowns. “You were the one yelling.”
“No, you called me.”
“I definitely did not,” Rhiannon says. “I was behind you. I saw you running.”
We stare at each other with wide eyes as we process the implications of this bit of spookiness. One: there is someone else in the woods with us. Two: I’m hearing things that aren’t there. I’m not sure which is scarier.
“Ow!” Rhiannon drops her furry bundle and holds her finger up, squinting at it. “Murphy bit me!”
“The chinchilla,” Rhiannon says. “His name is Murphy.”
“Of course it is.” I sigh. “Let’s just get back to the car before we get ax-murdered.”
“Could have rabies for all we know,” I say sharply. “I’m serious Rhia, we need to get out of here.”
“We can’t,” Rhiannon says. “He’s probably been living in a cage all his life—he won’t survive out here. You go back if you want. I’ll be right behind you.”
I groan, pressing my palms against my temples. “Fine. Five minutes, then we leave.”
“Five minutes,” Rhiannon promises.
As I follow Rhiannon with my hand tucked firmly into her belt, I mutter, “Mom’s going to kill us both anyway.”
Rhiannon pats my hand. “That’s the spirit.”
Some minutes later—definitely more than five—we still have not found the chinchilla. The shock is, shall we say, underwhelming.
“Alright, let’s go,” I say. “Murphy will have to take his chances.”
“Fine,” Rhiannon sighs. “Poor little squeaker. I hope he’s okay.”
“Just remember that possums need to eat, too,” I say, dragging her back toward the car. “The circle of life and all that.”
“Tess, I’m pretty sure chinchilla meat isn’t part of the opossum’s natural diet,” Rhiannon says with a snort.
“Well, there you go,” I say. “He’ll be fine.”
Rhiannon rolls her eyes but follows me as I stomp back to the car…which isn’t there. In its place is a raft, and where the road used to be there now flows a river, still and clear as a mirror reflecting the moon and stars above. I glance at the sky; the clouds are gone, as if they’d never existed.
“Rhia, are you seeing this?” I ask, eying the flower-strewn raft.
“I’m not sure,” she replies. “Define this.”
“I’d rather not.”
After hearing things in the woods, I don’t want any more evidence that I’m losing my mind.
“Just tell me what you see,” I say.
“A river and a raft that definitely were not here before and can’t be here now because there aren’t any rivers around for at least ten miles?” Rhiannon says.
Ah, sweet relief. “Okay, just checking.”
Nonplussed, we stare at the garland-strewn raft for a long minute before a shiver of movement among the garlands’ petals draws my attention.
“What the—” I grab Rhiannon’s arm and point. “Look!”
Rhiannon leaps onto the raft, dragging me along behind her. She scoops Murphy up, apparently unmoved by paltry concerns like fleas and communicable diseases, and this time he sits quietly in her arms like the docile pet I’m increasingly sure he’s not. I give him a dark look and turn, intending to step off the raft and pretend I never saw it—the raft or the rodent.
“Son of a sobbing sloth.”
The raft has floated to the middle of the river without so much as a bobble and appears to be carrying us to the far bank of its own volition.
“There’s something very weird going on here,” Rhiannon remarks.
“Really? Really? Something weird? YOU DON’T SAY.”
“No need to get upset. So we’re stuck on a river,” she says, and grins that grin that usually precedes something supremely un-funny. “Just…go with the flow.”
“I hate you.”
With a soft bump, the raft nudges against the far shore. I disembark cautiously, half afraid that the ground is going to turn into chocolate pudding, or something equally ridiculous, under my feet. My eyes bore into Rhiannon’s back as she skips past me with Murphy perched jauntily on her shoulder. He looks back and—my hand to God—sticks his tongue out at me. The smug little—
“Listen,” Rhiannon says. “Hear that?”
“Music,” I say. The knot in my stomach loosens for the first time since we stopped the car.
I’ve never heard such music in my life. It’s more than beautiful, it’s miraculous. A sharp but delicious ache grows in my chest, pulling me toward the wild rush of sound. Almost without realizing what I’m doing, I brush past Rhiannon and move like a sleepwalker through the woods.
Tears spring to my eyes as I take in the dazzling scene before me. Otherworldly beings—they’re so lovely, they can’t possibly be human—whirl around a circle of bonfires, dipping and leaping gracefully around the flames, their shining hair streaming like banners behind them. A high, sweet melody twines through my body, beckoning me to join the dance.
“Fairies,” Rhiannon breathes. Her eyes sparkle; her face seems to glow with an inner light. She turns to me with a brilliant smile. “Fairies, Tess!”
“Is this real?” I whisper, my heart contracting.
“Honestly?” Rhiannon shakes her head wonderingly. “I don’t care.”
I snatch at her sleeve as she moves forward into the firelight. I don’t know what I’m so afraid of. Not that there isn’t anything to worry about, of course; fairies are notoriously tricky, even cruel. They could hold us in thrall for a hundred years, or they could make us dance until our hearts burst, or they could keep us forever…But that’s not what’s scaring me.
“Tess, for once in your life, stop worrying.”
Rhiannon shakes me off and takes the hand of an unreasonably attractive young man, who sweeps her away into the crowd. I creep forward and sidle along the edges of the clearing. She’s twirling around one of the bonfires, her head thrown back in abandon. Murphy is nowhere to be seen. I keep my gaze fixed on Rhiannon, watching for any sign of distress or impending doom. I don’t see the body stretched across the path until I trip over it.
“Oof!” I break my fall with my hands and wince as pain shoots through my wrists. “What the—”
“Oof, yourself,” a grumpy voice says. “I know I’m invisible, but really. Watch where you’re going.”
“You seem pretty visible to me,” I say, looking him over.
A young man, maybe a few years older than me, sits with his back against a tree trunk and his arms folded across his chest. Scruffy, wild hair as black as a raven’s wing falls into his eyes. In the firelight, I can’t tell if said eyes are gray or blue or green, but they’re surrounded by the sort of thick, sooty lashes I’d kill for and which always seemed to be wasted on men. He wears grubby, tattered rags that could have started life as anything from a tux to a tutu.
“You can see me?” His eyebrows shoot up in surprise, then draw together. “Then what’s your excuse?”
“For stomping on me,” he says.
“I did not stomp on you.” I roll my eyes. “I tripped.”
“Are you mortal?” he asks, looking at me closely. “I suppose you must be. No fairy is that oafish.”
I glare at him and snort. “I’d expect a fairy to have more charm, or at least tact.”
“I’m no fairy.” He scowls at me from behind his curtain of hair. “And I’d like to see how charming you are after ten years as the Fairy Queen’s pet.”
“With you as my example I’m sure I would simply blossom,” I snap, and turn away.
“Wait!” Strong, warm fingers close around my wrist. “Wait. I’m sorry. Will you talk with me a while? It’s been a long time since I spoke with another mortal.”
My first instinct is to snatch my hand away and storm off, but something in his eyes stops me. He looks so sad. And alone, and hungry, as if starved for human contact.
“Alright,” I say cautiously, but as I sit beside him I realize I don’t have anything else to say.
I watch Rhiannon bound across the clearing with yet another fae hottie. How does she do it? How does she just—let go? It takes me a moment to realize that, while I was watching Rhiannon, my strange acquaintance was watching me. When I turn to look at him, he doesn’t try to hide it. He meets my eyes, his gaze oddly direct.
“What’s your name?” he says.
When he doesn’t say anything, I prompt, “Well? What’s yours?”
“I don’t remember,” he says. He seems perfectly matter of fact about it. “You can see me.”
“We’ve already established that,” I remind him.
“No mortal has been able to see me since the Fairy Queen took my soul,” he says. “It has to mean something. You could be my true love—you could save me.”
I force myself to laugh. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”
“Don’t make jokes,” he says reproachfully. “I’ve been trapped here for over a decade.”
“Well, what do you want me to do about it?” I ask, crossing my arms.
I stare at him, my mouth hanging open, but he’s dead serious. His eyes are all squinty and glaring, glittering in the dark like—
He blinks. “What?”
“You’re Murphy,” I say accusingly. “The chinchilla.”
“Oh,” he says. “No. The fairies knew you were looking for it, so they laid a glamour on me and sent me to fetch you. The real chinchilla is probably being eaten as we speak. Possums, you know.”
“You lured us here!”
“It’s not like I wanted to,” he protests. “I was compelled. Please kiss me? I’ve been trapped here for so long—I’ll try anything.”
“How flattering.” I chew on my lip, studying his earnest, nearly desperate face. If he’s playing a cruel joke, he’s doing an excellent job of hiding it. “It won’t work. I’ve known you for all of, what, an hour? And you were a chinchilla for most of it.”
“That doesn’t matter if it’s true love,” he assures me.
“I’m not even sure I like you!”
His sudden smile flashes white, brilliant and startlingly sweet. “That doesn’t matter, either.”
I sigh, suppressing an answering smile. “Alright, fine. But no tongue.”
His kiss is soft and sweet and slow, like honey. Heat races over my body and comes to rest in my chest, where it pulses with each heartbeat. I almost want to look down to see if the glow is visible—but that would mean breaking the kiss. Instead I open my lips and let him draw me against his chest until, finally, we come up for air.
“I think it worked,” he says. I can feel his heart pounding under my hand.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” I pant. “It’s just a kiss.”
“Maybe we should try again—just to be sure?”
His head dips toward mine, but our lips never meet. An invisible force throws us apart, inflating the air between us like a balloon.
“I’m so glad you’re enjoying yourself, mortal, but that—” the Fairy Queen snaps her fingers at Murphy— “is mine. Boy, come.”
He moves toward the Fairy Queen jerkily, like a marionette. I scramble after him, tripping over a tree root that I could swear wasn’t there before. The gathered fairies howl with laughter as I faceplant into the dirt, tossing their perfect hair and pointing down at me like so many eighth grade girls. I glare back at them and spit out a mouthful of pine needles as Rhiannon rushes to my side.
“What did you do?” she hisses. “I leave you alone for five minutes—”
“Me?” I jerk my arm out of her grasp. “You—You absolute buttnugget. This is all your fault. You and that moldy little turd of a rodent.”
“My people,” The Fairy Queen says, raising her arms grandly. “A challenge has been issued.” She jabs an elegant white finger at me. “A human claims this boy as her own true love,” she continues, while I crumple momentarily under the injustice and absurdity of this statement. “And true love must prevail, of course. But I see no love here, only the base and vile lust of mortals.”
“A test,” cries a voice from the crowd, and the others take it up as a chant. “A test!”
“Mortal!” the Fairy Queen cries. “Do you accept?”
The raven-haired boy is on his knees beside the Fairy Queen, his shoulders hunched under an invisible weight. He doesn’t plead or beg. He just looks at me, his eyes so devoid of expectation—of hope—that the words fly out of my mouth before I can stop them:
My regret is immediate and complete. Sweat streams from my armpits, puddling in my shirt to create the mother of all pit-stains. What the hell am I doing? I don’t know this kid from Adam. He isn’t my true love. He isn’t my anything. I look at Rhiannon, expecting to see my own wretchedness reflected back at me, and instead find her grinning like an idiot. Of course. I can just see the wheels turning in her head, grinding common sense into pixie dust.
“Be tested, then,” the Fairy Queen says. “Win your love’s freedom…or lose your own.”
That smacks the grin right off Rhiannon’s face. I enjoy a single moment of petty satisfaction before a wave of nauseating pain knocks me flat and has its way with me. Every bone in my body breaks before slamming back together again. Finally, the agony stops and I rest, my breath whistling through nostrils that seem somehow too far away.
The boy towers above me, horror and anguish written all over his face. Oh, God, what am I? I look down, but I can’t see my feet. Something whips my side—something bald and pale and pink. My tail. Oh, for the love of—
“Muster up a kiss of true love and she’s yours,” the Fairy Queen says. “What say you, boy? Do you love her?”
Rhiannon’s knees hit the ground alongside the boy’s. He turns to her, hands clenched at his sides.
“I thought—but the spell didn’t break. I don’t know—”
Well, I know—that I’m totally, royally, epically screwed. I’m an opossum. Even if somehow he loved me before, no one can kiss something so unspeakably gross and feel anything but disgust. I’ll be stuck like this forever, doomed to subsist on bugs and garbage— and possibly chinchillas— until I meet my end under the tires of a soccer mom’s minivan.
“Oh, please.” Rhiannon looks up and rolls her eyes. “True love’s kiss? You’re not as smart as you think you are, witch. There’s more than one kind of true love.”
She grabs me by the scruff of my neck and raises me up, planting a kiss right on my disgusting, hairy, jagged-toothed snout. Immediately, the bone-crunching transformation begins again, in reverse. When it’s over, I lie draped across Rhiannon’s lap, panting and shaking. I was wrong: there is one person who can kiss an opossum and not hurl. I should have known.
I groan and try to get up, but I succeed only in rolling onto the ground. The boy crouches beside me, his hand on my shoulder.
“Are you alright?” he asks.
“Ung.” I flap a hand weakly.
“You can thank me later,” Rhiannon says, patting my back with a bit more force than is comfortable.
I catch a glimpse of the Fairy Queen’s flashing eyes and close my own in preparation for a blow that never comes. When I open them again, the Fairy Queen and her court are gone— vanished, as if they’d never been—but the boy is still there, holding my hand.
He smiles, tears wetting his stupidly long lashes. “I’m free. You are my true love.”
“Ugh.” I pull my hand out of his and shove him backward. “I am not.”
“I think technically you’re my true love,” Rhiannon says.
“Even worse,” I mutter.
“You sacrificed yourself for me,” the boy insists. “You may not realize it yet, but you’re mine… and I’m yours.”
“You’ve been with the fairies for a long time, so I understand why you might mistake a little human decency for true love,” I say.
“But don’t hold your breath.”
“Give it time,” he says comfortably. “You’ll see.”
He and Rhiannon help me to my feet and we make our way back to the car. This time it’s right where we left it. The hood is still warm, as if I’d turned off the engine only a moment ago. And there, crouched on the driver’s seat, is a chinchilla.
“Murphy!” Rhiannon sends me flying as she lunges for the chinchilla, whose squeal of fright ends with a tiny wheeze as Rhiannon’s hands close around his middle. “You’re alive!”
“Fairies,” the boy remarks as he pulls me upright, “have a strange sense of humor.”
“It doesn’t seem right that you come out of this with a true love and I get a chinchilla,” Rhiannon says, frowning at him as he begins rummaging in the glove compartment. Murphy hangs limp in her hands, resigned to his fate.
“Hah,” I say sourly. “Don’t pretend you wouldn’t rather have the chinchilla.”
“What are all these buttons for?” the boy wonders while waving a Powerbar out the window. “Is this food?”
I look at Rhiannon helplessly. “What the hell are we going to do about him?”
“Dunno,” she says. “He’s your true love, not mine. Best of luck with it, though.”
“Thanks.” With a sigh, I open the rear door and shove her inside. “You’re a real friend.”