AFTER THE STORY ENDS

We’re happy to welcome M. E. Garber to the pages of Galaxy’s Edge. Her work has previously appeared in Abyss & Apex, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Daily Science Fiction.

You can never go home.

I never considered the phrase before, but here beside my husband in the dim nursery, the truth of it slams into me, and my jaw clenches so tight my teeth ache. My fingers curl into fists despite my command they—that I—remain calm.

After all, I have returned home from Fairy; my daughter and I are safe. That story is done. I have seen to it.

I hope my husband doesn’t notice my distress. James has put up with so much already. Surely I can handle this. This lack.

“Melanie, calm down.”

James lifts my right hand. Nestled within his large palms, my smaller hand is cool, although I’m not chilled. He holds me with a gentleness that once would have taken my breath away, but now feels remote. His gaze lingers on mine.

I squeeze my eyes shut. I cannot bear that, like everything around me, the pain in his eyes is dull. Not the sharply beautiful thing it would have been in Fairy.

And I hate him for it.

He misunderstands my slight wince.

“Aurora is safe, asleep in her crib. Look. Use the witchstone again, if it helps.” He nods to the naturally-drilled rock, that breaker of Fae enchantments, always beside the crib.

I turn away, placing my free hand over my face, unwilling to let him see my revulsion. This is my struggle, not his.

A memory of a breathtaking Fairysong rises in my mind: a dozen Fae voices harmonizing beneath two haunting descants, in a glorious tribute to a noble life wrest from adversity. My guts twist, wrenching against the hard, diamond-bright pain inside me. More memories rise up, intense and vivid. Colors. Smells. Scents.

I shiver. Fairy was more dangerous than I could have dreamed. And so much more exhilarating than this bland mortal realm.

My excursion to retrieve our daughter left these…scars…in me. But I’m not an addict! Time will change how I feel, so I must be patient.

James’s grips tightens, and distress wrinkles pinch his eyes, while worry knits his brow into knots.

“Do you want me to call the priest? He can excise your memories, cast out their traces–”

Panicky, I withdraw from his sticky, overheated grasp. My hand cools instantly. Those memories are the only things keeping me going.

“No. James, please. Don’t…”

But I can’t finish. I don’t know how, don’t know what he shouldn’t do. Not love me? No, never that. I need him. And his patience. I wrap my arms around myself in a cold, hard hug.

I am strong enough to do this. Like I was strong enough to bring Aurora back. I tighten my jaw.

James’s sigh fills the room, and Aurora hrms and turns in her sleep, echoing her father.

At her sigh, a sudden terror grips me. I choke on an indrawn gasp while, trembling, I lean over the crib and gaze on my child.

Safe. Here. My breathing calms.

Aurora’s unscarred by the trauma, not a mark on her warm brown skin. She hasn’t had so much as one bad dream since the priest’s blessing broke the Fae touch upon our return.

But she’s oddly drab, not radiant like the Fae children, who’d sparkled in sunlight and glowed even in shadows. Why have I never noticed this before?

I frown, and James is instantly alert.

“What’s wrong?” His voice is breathy and quick. Nervous.

“Nothing. Just—nothing.”

I close my eyes and lay a finger on my daughter’s cheek, stroking her as I try to recall the anguished love the very sight of her used to bring. The memory of that emotion lingers, hazy but warm.

With practice, I can force it real again.

I turn to James, press my eyes closed and my jaw tight, and lean against him, feeling his warmth. His arms encircle me, pulling me into an embrace. The weight of his chin nestles onto the top of my head, enclosing me utterly.

I try not to struggle. You used to love this. You used to love him. But I fidget, prickly with overheating.

He exhales and draws away, his hands leaving my arms with a gentle pat. As cool air washes over me, I exhale, and my body unclenches.

“I just need time,” I tell him, and force myself to believe it.

He nods, and says nothing more.

* * *

Another week scuds by, my senses swaddled in dingy gray gauze.

Our neighbors and friends—all the people of our small town—are so happy for us. They stop us on the street, smiling, filled with some sense of a shared victory against the thieving Fae. They want to be part of our joy, our happily-ever-after.

I cannot look at them. They are misguided fools, they are bleating sheep, all alike and dull dull dull.

James makes apologies for me each time I walk away. I hear the words—trauma, shock, a passing phase—and see the worried glances thrown my way.

But they’re beginning to leave me alone. I prefer the solitude; it’s clean, if boring.

On this overcast afternoon, James is talking with the octogenarian sisters, Eliza Deering and Jasmine Beech. I see them coo over Aurora, so tiny in James’s arms. Soon their bobbing heads and furtive glances tell me I’m their topic.

I look beyond them, at the drab trees, pretending I don’t notice.

A dry, unfamiliar voice beside my elbow makes me jump.

“Next year at this time, that pair will have forgotten all about this. If they’re still alive.”

I look down to find Lenora Hutchins, a petite, sturdy woman of sixty, appraising me. One of her iron-gray eyebrows is raised while the other slouches down, unimpressed.

She’s known to me only by reputation. A recluse, Lenora lives outside town in a tiny cottage surrounded by rattling bottle trees and witch balls, and is famous—or infamous—for being the last person to venture into Fairy, return and remain here, some forty years ago. My return sparked tales of her trip, and comparisons have been drawn between us. They are not complimentary; not to either of us. Our town doesn’t like “eccentrics.”

A peculiar light shines in Lenora’s eyes. Challenging.

I return a cool stare, not backing down.

My arms prickle with gooseflesh as I notice her arms. Her skin randomly sparkles, as if she’s coated with a fine dust that catches and reflects in the weak sun. As if some of Fairy still adheres to her, after all these years.

My gaze clings to those shimmers, the evanescent beauty of that other world. Without thinking, I reach out and run my hand over her arm, from elbow to wrist. Where the glinting shines, she’s lovely—smooth and youthful. And when they wink out, she’s old, with wrinkled, sagging skin blotched with age spots. Mortal.

Imperfect.

I yank away, but my eyes rove, seeking that Fairy light as it glitters and disappears, feeding on it like an addict getting a fix. My need disgusts me, but I can’t look away, can’t stop myself.

Her deep, humorless laugh snaps me out of it.

“You’ve been there, all right. The question is, will you stay, or return?” Her head tilts to one side as she considers.

I muster all my dignity, cloaking myself in it to straighten my spine as I say, “I’m not going back. I brought my daughter home. That’s the only reason I went.”

“Sure,” she agrees. But her tone says she doesn’t believe me. That I’m little more than one of the fools who plays with fire, not believing she can get burned. “But when you decide to go back, come see me first.”

Before I can protest, she walks away, the effervescing glimmers dying out as if they’d never existed.

James calls to me, and I turn, telling him to wait. When I look back, Lenora is gone. Winked out of existence, as if the border had opened up and swallowed her.

I stifle my disappointment and follow my husband to our house.

* * *

At dinner, I stare at my plate, unable to eat.

Memories of Fae food flood me, and my mouth waters. Just the scent of that food was more rich and filling than anything I’ve eaten since my return.

But I will not starve myself. Under James’s watchful stare, I swallow a single bite, and wash it down with water as tasteless as the food.

James lifts fork to mouth, then chokes and coughs, spluttering all over his plate. He grabs his water and downs the entire glass, then mine. His face twists as he struggles to clear his mouth. Red-rimmed, watery eyes turn my way as he croaks, “Gah! All that salt and Tabasco—you trying to kill me?”

I snag a morsel from his plate, eager to taste something, anything! I bite, and chew.

But no. There is no flavor, no bite of hot or salty. Just chewing.

I force myself to swallow. Disappointment drags at me like a wet, heavy towel, and I shake my head: no, no.

James’s incomprehension turns to disbelief, then shock, and finally a glimmer of fear, all etched like ludicrous caricatures on his face.

“You—you really can’t taste that?”

I am too sad to speak. I shake my head and move my lips in a silent “No.”

We stare at one another for what feels like weeks. Finally, I bow my head, cradling it in my hands, elbows splayed across the tabletop. I cannot stop the slow tears that fall, each piercing me like a knife.

“I think you should call Father McKenzie,” I whisper.

I feel more than see James’s nod, hear the crack of relief—hope?—in his reply. “I think so too.”

* * *

“Mrs. Smead. Melanie,” Father McKenzie rises to greet me. His smile splits a round face barely older than my own, but his eyes have caged a dark worry. He leads me to a chair beside the fireplace.

His office is dim, with heavy curtains drawn over tall windows blocking the blustery light of the day outside. Despite the fire crackling in the hearth, it’s comfortably cool within.

I sit. The dimness of the room disguises its drab lack of vivacity. Without that reminder biting me in the eyeballs, I relax, and feel just how cold my hands have become. Where they rest on my thighs, their cold penetrates my jeans to numb my flesh.

“Your husband says your memories of Fairy are…disturbing you. That the…addiction is settling in.”

I nod, miserably acknowledging the truth of his words. “Addicted to Fairy,” just like any two-bit lowlife, looking for fun and finding—.

I suck in my breath. Finding the glory of the Immortal world, which sucks the life out of this mortal one.

My breath comes out in a long, stuttering sigh.

“Yes, I…think so.”

“And why didn’t you do this,” he waves a hand indicating himself and the procedure we’re discussing, “right away, when I blessed and cleansed your daughter?” The words are gentle, but his question rings with an undertone of keen perception.

I feel myself flush warm as I struggle to speak appropriate words with a mouth gone dry. “I, I didn’t want to lose my memories. If they came for Aurora again, I had to be able to bring her out.” It was the truth.

Partially the truth. Who wants to forget the most glorious thing you’ve ever seen?

I’d thought I could handle it. That my daughter and husband would be enough to hold me.

I was wrong. So, so wrong. Ah, hindsight.

I grimace and turn away. In the hearth, the fire popped and hissed, but still gave no heat.

“And now?” Father McKenzie prompts, rubbing his hands over their opposite forearms.

I tuck a strand of hair behind my ear, chew on my lower lip, try to stop my hands from trembling. “I, I think I need help. Staying here. Forgetting there.” I glance at the priest, hoping he can’t see that I only want relief, not forgetting.

He smiles, a grim expression, and holds out his hands.

“May I see your hand?”

I place my palm in his. The heat of his skin nearly scalds me! I flinch, but he holds on firmly.

Slowly, the heat evens out between us, while his expression darkens. “You’ve waited a long while. This may be…difficult.” His eyebrows fly upward and his next words are short and decisive. “We must do this soon. Tomorrow night at moonset.”

I snatch my hand away, trying to calm my panicked gasps. “Not the dark of the moon?”

That would be five days. Five more days to force the memories into the cells of my body, so I couldn’t forget…only—

“No. That would be too late.”

He was right. Just listen to yourself, Melanie. Do you want this, or not?

I nod, my hands clutching into claws at my sides.

Father McKenzie rises to his feet. I stand and follow him out, my heart thumping loudly in my ears, shaking in my chest like a frightened mortal thing.

* * *

I go home, tell James the news. He looks…relieved, but his eyes are too round, the whites too obvious.

I pretend not to notice, and he pretends to accept everything as normal. I pretend not to have a racing pulse, not to see flashing lights at the corners of my eyes, not to have a galloping darkness inside me trying to swallow me up whole.

When James sleeps, I rise and slip from the house, more silent than any human should be. Instinctively, I follow the magnet of my Fae-attuned soul and run.

My bare feet race across the fields and lanes. I leap fences and small, clear brooks as moonlight streams above the horizon, shining clear and cold, and nearly as brilliant as the light of Fairy.

When my senses return, I stand, revitalized, at a gate to Fairy, the one at the bottom of Miller’s cow pasture. I shake my head, wondering why this one. It’s further than the one at Sugar Creek, where I’d gone in after Aurora. But it’s also more isolated. Subconsciously, I must want to do this alone.

Leaning against the fence line, I stare at the softly glimmering woods. Their shimmering will intensify as the moon rises, and die away as it sinks below the horizon, closing the gateway. I’m nearly ten kilometers from James, sleeping soundly in his home.

Our home.

No. His home. I don’t belong to this world, don’t want to be a part of it anymore. I am crossing over, going where I belong. For good.

I cling to a fence post, the roughly weathered wood gnarled yet sturdy. It supports me as I pant, as I hold tight to my wild panic, stuffing it down, down.

“I knew you’d be here.”

I spin and find Lenora, in a sleeveless knee-length shift, at my elbow. She leans casually on the fence, as if she’s been there all along. The muted glow of cottage lights behind her outlines her form, and the soft chiming of glass against glass echoes like a lullaby. Her bottle trees.

“How—?” I open and shut my mouth several times, before I press my lips tight.

“Father McKenzie told me, of course.” She isn’t looking at me, but at the woods, at the gateway between the worlds slowly opening as the moonlight brushes it silver. I shiver as a wave of perfection washes out from Fairy, caressing as it radiates past.

As the woods open, Lenora’s skin begins its coruscating dance. Her flesh spangles softly as moonlight limns her, correcting her frumpy appearance to Fae beauty.

“Did he talk you out of leaving? Into excising your memories?” I blush at my mistake. Father McKenzie would’ve been a babe like Aurora forty years ago. “Or the priest before him?”

Lenora’s smile could curdle milk. “Pastor Miller tried, but didn’t get through. I was too tough, too sure.”

Shock rockets through me, then triumph. And a greedy need to know.

“So you went back? And, and came out a second time?” I gape, unable to grasp how anyone could force themselves out a second time.

She turns from the woods to stare at me. I stare back, our eyes holding, until Lenore opens her soul to me.

Beyond her contempt, beneath her reserve, is a cap of steel—no, of iron, its thick, rusting bands proof against all things Fae. And beneath that—.

I gasp.

Beneath that lies such longing, such intense, seering pain that I flinch, a hand lifting instinctively to my mouth to stop an outcry.

Behind that locked door, Lenora is a seething mass of need and rancid desire, and that same diamond-clear pain that’s been growing within me. And she’s been tortured this way for forty years.

I look away, ashamed at my weakness.

“How do you stand it?” My whispered words plume in the apparently-cold night air.

The doorway to her soul snaps shut, locking tight as she shifts her weight. When she meets my gaze again, her expression is etched with empathy.

“If you go back, it won’t be like the first time. You won’t be a challenge, a novelty—an underdog crusader against the Immortal—but just another tiring, irksome mortal playing at being ‘one of them.'”

Lenora’s lips curl as her eyes glaze, watching memories replay. “You’ll never possess their grace or beauty. You’ll be forever an outsider, a despicable traitor to your own kind.”

Lenora keeps speaking, but I no longer hear. My lips mouth “No, no, no.” But I can’t deny the truth she speaks. It’s implacable, hard—like the beautiful diamond of hurt within me.

Within us both.

I’ve raised my hands to my ears, and I’m standing with my shoulders hitched high and my back hunched protectively. But Lenora is no longer talking, just looking out at the woods, her skin scintillating constellations like a clear night’s sky.

I drop my hands and straighten, slowly.

“You think I should let Father McKenzie remove the memories.” It’s not a question.

“I didn’t say that,” Lenora says, still not looking at me. “And I didn’t say you shouldn’t go. But if you go, you won’t find any ‘beautiful sympathy.'”

I think of the octogenarian sisters, the rest of the villagers, even of James—all of them overflowing with sympathy, pathetic and useless as it is.

I nod sharply. “I can live with that.”

“Can you?” She turns toward me. Her expression implores me to think, to feel.

Although I want to disdain her, when she glows with that lambent Fae glitter, I just can’t.

I sigh and grip the fence post, watching the opening to Fairy. “Why not?”

“Because you’re human, not Fae. Because humans crave connection, and without it, we wither. We become lesser, not more.” Lenore touches my arm, drawing my gaze to hers once more. “We don’t become Immortal by losing the stuff of our humanity, Melanie. We only become…inhumane.”

And it hits me, as if she’s clanged a bell against the side of my head. My inner ears ring with the insight.

I stare. Lenora’s eyes swell with compassion and pride and—everything human. In that silence, I see my own soul laid bare. It’s nearly an empty husk. Inhumane—that’s what I’m becoming.

I cling to that fence post, holding tight to the one pure emotion left me: love.

I love Aurora. It’s why I went after her. And, and I love James. It’s why I fought our way back, to be with him. And if I wish to love myself, to love the best me I can become—then I have to stay. I have to dig in and do the hard thing, not run for the easy.

I feel Lenora beside me, feel her human craving for connection and understanding mirroring my own. I turn swiftly, and before I can stop myself, bend to hug her tightly.

She stiffens, then relaxes into the contact.

Lenora’s lips brush my hair. “It’s what the Fae would respect, after all. Only the difficult, beautiful voyage is set to song.” Her words are muffled, but the vibration helps them penetrate all the better.

We pull apart, and watch together as the moon arcs overhead, then down, and the woods slowly fade to black. The gateway is closed.

“We should go,” Lenora says.

I nod and follow as we make our slow, human way back to James, to our human lives.

Ahead of me, Lenore’s skin shimmers faintly. And I understand that it’s not the remnants of Fairy clinging to her that glitter, but the beauty of her own mortal soul, forged by a challenging life into a grace only those likewise blessed can see.

One day, perhaps my skin will shine similarly. But for now, I have work to do. Perhaps my “great story” is over, as far as the villagers are concerned. But now the forging of my song begins.

Copyright © 2018 by M. E. Garber  

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