By M. Elizabeth Ticknor
Originally published in Upon a Thrice Time, by Air and Nothingness Press.
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I study Silas Ellsworth’s house from the driver’s seat of my cherry-red Subaru Impreza. One hand rests on my pregnant belly; the other clenches the steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip. What should be an eggshell-blue Victorian house with maroon trim looks more like a sea of ivy. Greenery covers every wall, tower, and turret–even drapes over the windows. The front porch has caved in; leafy debris blocks the door. Only patches of black-tiled roof remain visible, like a shark’s fin cresting green waves.
My stomach twists into knots. When Silas claimed our love had broken Queen Mab’s curse, I believed him–I never would have left otherwise. Maybe he just didn’t want me to feel bad about going. My father had lymphoma. That wasn’t exactly something I could ignore–Papa needed me every day for six months. It’s an eight hour drive each way, but I would have made it at least once if I’d known the house was being overtaken by fairies.
I grab my cell and dial Silas’s number for the second time in thirty minutes. Straight to voicemail. A rush of air hisses through my teeth. “Silas! It’s Helena. We need to talk.” We haven’t spoken in two weeks. I’m sure he’ll recognize my lack of tact is a manifestation of concern.
I give him five minutes to call back. Then I crack my knuckles and get out of the car.
Silas’s yard is overgrown with knee-high grass, butterfly weed, purple coneflower, and bee balm. The rosemary bush in the backyard is so overgrown it obscures the rear entrance. Thankfully, I know where to look. The cream-colored door is still immaculate behind the curtains of ivy. I pluck my house key off the chain I wear around my neck and slide it into the lock.
Ivy twines around my wrist. A green pixie, no bigger than a butterfly, hovers in front of my face. “Ah-ah-ah, Miss Baird. Mister Ellsworth isn’t in any condition to receive visitors.”
“That’s why I’m here.” I bat the pixie away with my free hand, hard enough that she careens into the door and smacks against the pavement. I squash her with my foot for good measure. The ivy falls away from my wrist. I unlock the door and walk through.
The air inside the house is hot, musty, and thick with pollen. My tennis shoes slide across the kitchen tiles–formerly grey and white marbled vinyl, now genuine marble. I flick the light switch, but sunlight filtered through ivy remains my only source of illumination. The white-painted kitchen is cast in an emerald glow. The microwave’s screen is dark. The refrigerator is empty, pristine, and room temperature.
Upstairs, something shifts; the whole house shivers and groans. That has to be Silas. He’s six and a half feet tall, broad-shouldered and barrel-chested. I always felt tiny next to him. I’m heavier now, but baby weight doesn’t count.
I dash through a living room carpeted with grass instead of nylon, scattering pixies with every step. I bound up the creaking staircase in twos and threes, but the baby somersaults in protest as I reach the landing and I slow to a more reasonable speed. I don’t dare touch the bannister–it’s sprouting limbs like a sapling.
The floorboards in the upstairs hall are held together with vines like a shaky rope bridge. They creak and shiver under my weight; there’s no way they could hold Silas. How long has he been trapped up here?
The bedroom door sticks when I try the handle. After three tries, I muscle it open. The bedroom swallows light like a black hole. Humid air assails my nostrils, laden with a sickly-sweet smell–not death, but the anticipation thereof.
“Silas? Are you alright?” I’m sure the answer is no but the question still escapes my lips, a social artifact that feels grossly inadequate under the circumstances. I suck in a deep breath and pray Silas is lucid enough to answer.
“I’m alive.” He doesn’t say ‘for now’. He doesn’t need to.
“Can I come in?”
“Only if you want to.” The last time he spoke those words, I took them as an invitation of freedom and left him behind. If the hopelessness in his tone is any indication, he expects me to do the same today. I breathe deep, clench my fists, and step into the darkness.
I’ve traveled this room enough to know the path to Silas’s bed by feel: ten steps forward, three steps left. Silk sheets and leaves brush against my thigh. I can’t tell if the bed has sprouted branches like the bannister or if the ivy has pushed through the windows, but the leaves are thick and tangled.
I fumble for Silas’s hand until I find the rough, bark-like pattern of his fingers. He doesn’t react–not even a twitch. The coolness of his skin makes me shiver. “We need to get you out of here. This house isn’t safe anymore.”
Silas lets out a wet chuckle. “I couldn’t leave if I wanted to.” The rheumatic, tremorous quality in his voice makes my jaw tighten.
“You said the curse was broken.” It was supposed to have shattered the day we consummated our relationship–the day our child was conceived.
“I thought it was. How’s your father?”
“The cancer’s in remission. No guarantees it’ll stay that way, but the doctors are hopeful.” I intertwine my fingers with Silas’s. “How long have you been lying in bed? When did you eat last?”
“It’s hard to keep track.”
“We should get you food. I have protein bars in the car.”
“I’m not sure I have a stomach anymore, Hel. I’ve put down roots.”
“What are you talking about?” I pull out my cell phone and turn on the flashlight function. Silas’s skin isn’t just bark-like–it’s bark, thick and ragged like an oak tree. No wonder he didn’t respond to my touch. He might not even have felt it. His hair spreads out on his pillow, not dreadlocks but roots. Ivy twines around branch-like limbs, binding his arms and legs to the bed.
“How bad is it?” Judging by the gravity in Silas’s tone, he already knows. Even so, I can’t bear to describe it to him.
“I’ve seen worse,” I lie. “Come on, let’s get you out of here. I can cut you loose, drive you to the hospital–”
“How often does cutting a plant off at the roots extend its lifespan, Hel?”
I shudder. “Okay, okay. But if you’re not going with me, I’m staying with you.” I climb into bed beside him and drape an arm across his chest. He doesn’t seem to notice, but his presence steadies my thoughts. “I won’t let you go without a fight.”
Silas takes a shuddering breath. “Thank you.”
As day shifts into night, Silas loses the ability to speak. The only sounds that escape his lips are animalistic grunts and groans. His lucid moments grow fewer and farther between–he thrashes and writhes as if trying to tear his roots from their moorings.
I stroke his head and whisper soothing words to calm him. The one-sided conversation drifts, turns to discussions of the time I spent helping Papa–until I choke on the memory of a late menstrual cycle. Should I tell Silas about the baby? I wanted to wait until we could talk about it in person, but it seems cruel to tell him he has a child he might not live to see.
Mab climbs through the window at midnight, a glowing viridian beacon in the otherwise dark room. Her hair is made of ivy; it drifts through the air like seaweed. She affixes me with an imperious gaze. “Who are you to lay claim on someone that belongs to me?”
“Silas isn’t yours and you know it.” I glare at Mab. “What did he do, what could he possibly do, to deserve this kind of punishment?”
“I offered him the chance to become my lover. It’s not every day a queen of the fairies deigns to make such offers to a mortal. Evidently, he didn’t appreciate the rarity of his circumstance–he spurned all my advances. He has a wooden heart. I decided the rest of his body should change to match.”
My eyes narrow. “Just because he’s uninterested in you doesn’t mean he’s unfeeling. Let him go. He’s not yours–he’s mine.”
Mab throws her head back and laughs. It would be a beautiful sound if it weren’t so cruel. “You’ve no more claim to him than I do, child.”
“I’m carrying his baby.”
Mab lets out a dainty sniff. “Do you actually love him, or is it merely physical attraction?”
“Why can’t it be both?”
Mab tilts her head to the side. “Fair enough.” She studies me intently, a thumb pressed against pursed lips. “I suppose I shouldn’t begrudge him potential happiness. This was to be his last night before the change was complete. If you can keep hold of him until dawn’s first light, I’ll relinquish my claim on him.”
The unexpected offer of kindness warms my cheeks. “Thank you.”
Mab’s face splinters into a wicked smile. “Oh, don’t thank me yet.”
My brow knits. How hard can it be to hold a tree?
Silas bucks and twists in my arms, howling as his body begins to change. Fresh-grown thorns pierce my flesh, and my screams echo his. I cling tight, refusing to relinquish my grip. A throne of ivy grows up beneath Mab. She reclines, her eyes dark and predatory.
The haze of pain and terror distorts my sense of time. Every moment feels like an hour; the hours stretch out like lifetimes. Silas transforms into a wolf made of briars, a blackberry bush shaped like a bear, a lion composed of hawthorn branches. Some of the thorns tear so deep I fear they’ll push into my womb. The baby kicks and whirls inside of me like a dervish.
Mab stares with feverish intensity, reveling in my misery. “Come now, my dear girl. Is he really worth all this effort?”
I grit my teeth. “I could ask the same of you.”
“I suppose, in the end, he’s only a mortal–but I don’t part easily with my toys.”
“He was never yours!”
“But he could have been, and that lost potential is infuriating.”
“Is that really it? Or are you just jealous that he chose me over you?”
Mab falls into an icy silence. Her eyes blaze with iridescent green flame. Silas turns into a writhing serpent; his coils grind into me like thorny gears.
How am I still conscious? How am I still alive? I’ve lost so much blood. Mab must be strengthening me. She wants me to feel every moment so that I’ll give up of my own accord. But I won’t give Silas up–I won’t abandon him, not again.
After a small eternity, a ray of sunlight peeks through the ivy at the window. Mab snarls and stamps her foot. “We’re not finished, you and I. Sooner or later, you’ll let your guard down and I’ll claim my prize.” She vanishes like smoke on a stiff breeze. Her ivy throne withers into dust, and the rest of the greenery swiftly follows suit. Dawn shines through a freshly-cleared window.
Silas’s wooden chest cracks open like a milkweed pod. Bark crumbles like ash; my fingers brush against skin instead of wood. He gasps, lurches into a sitting position, and holds a hand up to the light, marveling as the sun dances on his skin.
I bite my lip and trace a finger across his chest. “You’re mine, now–if you want to be.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” He pulls me into a gentle hug and kisses me, careful of the cuts and gouges all over my body. “I’m sorry.” He brushes a finger against my cheek, delicately tracing one of the cuts.
I shake my head. “Don’t you dare apologize for something that isn’t your fault.”
The baby kicks. Silas blinks. His gaze shifts down to my stomach. “Are you…?”
A slow grin spreads across his face. He kisses me again, passionate and hungry. “I never thought I’d get the chance to be a father.”
“I’ve thought about it every day for five months. You’ll make a good one.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“It’s not the sort of thing you talk about over the phone.”
He chuckles. “I suppose not.” He slides a hand onto my belly. The baby kicks again, and his grin widens. “Boy or girl?”
“I don’t know. I wanted to find out together.”
“How are we supposed to name it, then?”
I roll my eyes and chuckle. “We can worry about names later. I want to enjoy this moment, right here and now.” I lean my head against Silas’s chest.
Silas strokes my cheek with his thumb. “You were gone so long. I missed you so much–” His voice cracks. He brushes a tear out of his eye before it can escape onto his cheek.
“Don’t worry. You won’t have to miss me anymore.” My eyelids are heavy; I let them drift closed. Silas tucks his chin atop my forehead and we curl up in bed together. I fall asleep with his heartbeat echoing in my ears.
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