It starts with the phone call every mother dreads, the call that splinters the Mother into shards. The call that steals the Mother’s heart from her body and abandons it in a gutter littered with sticks, sprinkler run-off, and errant Penny Saver pages disintegrating into filthy mush.
With that dreadful phone call, the Mother’s reality tips sideways until it topples into an unfamiliar, bizarre plane–where only a thin, invisible Barrier separates one world from another.
“Something’s happened,” the Neighbor says. “I can’t find Xavier.”
What does this mean, can’t find him? He’s not so small he can be lost in sofa cushions, like car keys. He’s tall for his age. Surely, she must mean some other kid, one who doesn’t have bright yellow curls like solar prominences, like coronal loops. Some other kid, less easy to spot. One who doesn’t have his mother’s mouth and his father’s nose, who never loses his hoodies, has terrible handwriting, never gets his spelling words right, and never mumbles “under the hamster” or “can’t find the air” in his sleep. That would make much more sense.
“Are you sure you mean Xavier?” the Mother asks. Maybe it’s all some elaborate joke. Perhaps the Neighbor’s on some new reality TV show or helping out with a Candid Camera remake.
The Mother checks the calendar on her iPhone to make sure it isn’t April Fool’s Day. The calendar says August 15, Friday of the week between camp ending and school starting. She had given X permission to swim at Jamie’s house so she could cloister herself in her home office and take conference calls in peace. She’d called him back for a hug as he trudged off in his baggy swimsuit with the hibiscus blossom motif, press-on tattoos lining his arm, towel slung over his shoulder, looking like a thirty-year-old eight-year-old.
“Yes,” the Neighbor says in a breathy squeak. “He was playing in the pool with Jamie and now he’s gone.”
X is a terrific swimmer. He’s one hundred percent water safe. He’s been able to swim all four strokes used in Olympic competition for a year now. So what does gone mean? Gone is good, the Mother thinks. Gone isn’t drowned. She could have said drowned.
“He’s not in the pool?” the Mother asks, to be sure.
“No,” the Neighbor says. “Hold on. Jamie is telling me something.”
The Mother slips on some sandals and leaves through the front door, the iPhone still to her ear. She strides up the hill, past the neat lawns and rock gardens, the parked Volvos and Priuses.
She is halfway to the Neighbor’s house when she notices her feet are more numb than the rest of her body. What idiot cuts sandals so that the left foot has to go in the left sandal? Those jokester shoe companies! Don’t they know people are in a hurry? She stops in the middle of the street and puts the sandals on the correct feet, just as the Neighbor comes back on the phone.
“Jamie is saying Xavier went through the Barrier,” the Neighbor says.
The Mother doesn’t reply because she’s already at the Neighbor’s door. The knocker–big, iron, in an upside-down stirrup shape–makes a deep, sharp sound like a hammer striking an anvil.
The Mother has been to the Neighbor’s house several times before, but she doesn’t remember this knocker. How well does anyone really know their neighbors these days, in neighborhoods like this? These people could have guns lying around. Bongs and coke spoons. Vibrators with seventeen different attachments. They’re parents: they should know better than to have a Barrier where a child of impressionable years can get to it. (What in the name of all that is holy does the Neighbor mean, “went through the Barrier?”)
The Neighbor’s son, Jamie, stands in the hallway behind his mother, dripping a puddle on the maple hardwood. A Sponge Bob beach towel is draped around his shoulders. He’s all knobby knees and twiggy legs.
“I’m dialing 911,” the Neighbor says, shaking in the ninety-degree heat. “Come in.”
The Neighbor leads the Mother into the back yard. The pool is rectangular with a round, detached hot tub at one end–an exclamation mark. Swim! Relax! Go through the Barrier! Everything is an imperative with these pools.
The Neighbor makes sounds into the phone, hangs up, and says, “They’re coming. But since it’s Friday and they’re on furlough–budget cuts, I guess–they’re sending the Sheriff and the Fire Department.” She shrugs. “California. What can you do?”
The Mother, inanely, feels better about the situation knowing the authorities are coming. Criminals usually don’t call the cops. Although a Friday when the police are on furlough would be a great time to stage a kidnapping in this neighborhood. They might as well have hung signs: “Rob and pillage here. No worries. It’s Friday.”
She kneels next to the pool. There’s a standard-issue drain in the bottom and a few dead oak leaves clustered against the side. “What’s the Barrier? Where is it?”
The Neighbor fidgets. “This is embarrassing, but there’s a corner of the pool we haven’t been able to go into for a while. We’ve been meaning to get it checked. It’s that corner, there.” She points to an area next to a redwood gazebo. “I’m so sorry. We never thought it was dangerous. You know, since we couldn’t get into it and all. Or I would never have let them swim in there.” The Neighbor, still fidgeting, pulls at the crumbling letters on her T-shirt. Little plastic flakes fall to the cool-crete like synthetic dandruff.
Let this be a lesson as to why you should never defer maintenance on your house, the Mother thinks. Someone could get hurt, and then what? Insurance companies, lawyers, there’ll be no end to it, until, maybe, bankruptcy. She sees no child in the area with the invisible Barrier, no X trapped inside, bumping up against the transparent wall like a fish against the curve of a fishbowl. She isn’t sure whether to be relieved or more terrified.
“Jamie,” the Mother says. “Tell me what happened.”
Jamie jumps into the pool and swims to the corner. “We were right here,” Jamie says. “And we were trying to scare each other with stories. You know, how the Barrier might go to another world or dishenmun or something.”
“Dimension,” the Mother says. “Another dimension.”
“Yeah,” Jamie says. “Dishenmun. X said he saw something swimming in the water. Something shiny. I saw it, too. It swam right through the Barrier. X said, ‘Hey, look!’ and he dove down after it and stuck his arm through. I tried to stick my arm through but I couldn’t.”
The Mother nods with a Zen calm, as though Jamie is describing something that makes perfect sense to her. It is all she can do to keep from tearing her fingernails out and screaming.
“He put his head through. And his whole body. He just disappeared. I tried to follow him but–”
“You couldn’t get through.” The Mother lies down at the side of the pool and hangs her head over the corner. She reaches out expecting to touch water. Her fingers graze the surface, but when she raises them, they’re dry. She pushes on the Barrier. It has give to it, like a balloon or a membrane. She pushes harder. Her fingertip slips into something that, blessedly, does not feel gelatinous. All she feels is pressure, as though the air on the other side has a different barometric reading.
The Mother phones the Father, her ex-husband, at work. “It’s an emergency,” she says. “I know you were supposed to pick X up at six, but you better come now.”
She hasn’t forgiven the Father for forgetting to pick up X last visitation weekend and for being late the two times before that. She especially hasn’t forgiven him for standing X up for the Giant’s game. The kid had looked forward to that for weeks. He’d fallen asleep on the sofa waiting for the Father, his baseball glove still on his hand.
Still, even after two years, the Mother’s more broken up than she cares to admit about the affair and the now live-in girlfriend who looks a lot like the Mother did in her twenties. Hearing the Father say he’s on his way is a comfort, like getting a negative result on a Pap smear–one less thing to worry about.
She slides into the pool in her shorts and T-shirt. When she opens her eyes, she sees nothing but water. Jamie is under water, too, beside her. He points to the corner and pushes, but when he tries to swim through, he bounces backward. When the Mother tries, her arm goes straight through.
They both come up for air, just as the Sheriff’s deputy arrives. He only has silver at the temples but looks as if he’s past retirement age.
“I’m going through,” the Mother says. “My son’s in there.”
“I can’t let you do that, Ma’am,” the Deputy says. “I’ll have to go first myself. Make sure it’s safe.”
The Mother utters all the protests she can muster as the Deputy strips to his undershirt and boxers. Jamie’s almond-shaped eyes expand to dinner plates and he giggles. The Deputy wades in. Two Firefighters arrive as the Deputy swims to where the Mother and Jamie are treading water. The Mother, finally, begins to cry.
“Don’t worry, Ma’am,” the Deputy says, a gentle, paternal quality hitching a ride on his gravelly voice. “If he’s in there, we’ll get him back.”
The Deputy shoves his entire length against the Barrier, but none of him passes through. One of the Firefighters is in the water beside them now, in a slicker and boots, an ax that looks ancient enough to be an antique slung over his shoulder. He’s young, no more than thirty. “Hey, Matt,” the Firefighter says to the Deputy. “Been a while. How’s the wife and kids?”
“Fine, Declan,” the Deputy says, hurling himself against the Barrier a fourth time. “Doing really well. Sorry about your loss.”
The Firefighter submerges, breaks the surface and says, “Thanks. We’re trying again. Meg, our youngest, really wants a little sister.”
The Deputy gets out of the pool. His boxers, white background dotted with maroon fleur-de-lis, have gone transparent. A dark, hairy shadow shows at the crotch.
Jamie spits out a mouthful of pool, squeals, “I see his wiener,” and points at the Deputy’s undershorts.
Unfazed, the Deputy takes a pool net that’s propped against the gazebo and jabs the Barrier with the pole end.
The treading Firefighter is panting, his waterlogged boots and the ax dragging him down. His cheeks turn rosy on a field of pallor under orange hair the texture of golf course grass. His exploring hand reaches the Barrier and keeps going. “Whoa,” he says. “Hey Matt, I’m in.”
“I can’t wait anymore,” the Mother says, shoving her tears into some mental compartment she didn’t know she had. “I’m going through.”
As she slides through the Barrier, dimly aware the Deputy is shouting at the Firefighter to go with her, she says in case X can hear, “I’m coming, baby. Wherever you’ve gone, I’ll follow. I can’t stay here alone, nothing but pebbles and sand inside. Wait for me. I’m coming, too.”
Whatever the Mother was expecting, what she finds wasn’t it. If she expected oblivion, she found a place; if she expected water full of hostile Sea-Monkey creatures with three-pointed crown-like growths on their heads, brandishing , she found land. She sees no Yellow Brick Roads, no rabbits with pocket watches, no Turkish-delight-toting Snow Queens.
What she does see is forested hills shrouded in moonlit mist.
It could be worse, she thinks. She’s always been partial to forests; to their silence broken only by small animals skittering, falling twigs cracking, insects buzzing. The loamy scent of decaying leaves and bark, the green smell of sap and moss, has always struck some primal, timeless chord with her.
She fills her lungs with the forest air. X is here somewhere. She can feel it.
In the distance, tiny yellow points flicker, as though some unseen garden party host has strung all the trees with fairy lights, like the white birches wrapped with lights year-round along University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto.
The Firefighter sidles up to the Mother, puffing. He’s still got the ax with him. He puts it down, pulls off a boot, dumps a gush of water out and stumps his foot back into the boot. “What now?” he says.
That’s when she sees them, moving among the trees.
Holy fuck, the Mother thinks. As far as she can remember, she only dropped acid once, years ago. Certainly there must be a statute of limitations on flashbacks? She closes her eyes and shakes her head but when she opens them, she’s still here, and they’re still there.
The fairies walk, or fly, about their business. They’re about the same size as the Mother, and they aren’t all beautiful Tinker Bell-types either. One of them looks frighteningly like Danny DeVito; he mashes a stogie between his molars.
“O-M-G,” says the Firefighter. “I wish my dead Irish Nana could see this!” He’s beaming like he’s been given an unexpected present.
The Mother and the Firefighter have become a curiosity. Several fairies approach speaking a language the Mother doesn’t recognize. Usually, when she can’t identify a language it turns out to be Greek. But that’s not what this is.
A stout, black-skinned female fairy with curly, white hair, dressed in a dark-green muumuu, sizes them up and cycles through a few Indo-European tongues until she gets to English.
“Welcome, heartbroken Wingless,” she says. “We are so glad you found your way to one of our loss emotion-portals. We thank you for bringing us your suffering. Will you come share?”
Another, a tall, dark male with gaunt cheeks and violet eyes, claps his hands together and smiles. “More pain of loss! What a treat! Come, follow us and share.”
The Firefighter’s eyes are hula-hoops and his tongue is doing three-sixties around the O of his lips. The Mother can’t believe she’s the one who has it more together–she, whose son has gone missing in… oh shit, she can’t even go there. Where is the justice?
“Let’s go,” she says, and tugs the mighty first responder’s slicker. If the fairies greeted X like this, she reasons, following them is their best chance of finding him.
Before they follow, the Mother turns to the Barrier’s soft, membranous mass, which hangs between two alders, and pokes it just enough so that most of her finger stays in Fairyland. “Remember where this is,” she whispers, because that’s the sort of thing they say in adventure movies. “We have to get back here once we find X.”
The Firefighter nods and scuffs an X in the dirt with his boot heel, as though that will help.
They weave through the trees on narrow paths, always toward the lights, which are now the size of small Coleman lanterns.
Other fairies join them, chattering in their guttural language and clutching their fairy breasts in melodramatic sorrow whenever they catch the Mother or the Firefighter’s eye. A pouting teenage fairy extends her translucent hand as if to pet the Firefighter, but when he stumbles on a root and his ax shifts toward her, she recoils and takes to the air.
“My Nana used to tell me stories from the old country,” the Firefighter says in a low voice as they follow the fairies past ancient barrows. “She said the fey folk are drawn to strong human emotions. They envy us–they can only feel as deeply as humans do through us.”
Far in the distance, a shadowy outline hovers, suggestive of a castle.
“They brought X, and us, here so they could experience our psychic pain?”
“That’s my guess.”
“But X isn’t heartbroken,” the Mother says. “I’m not either. I mean, I won’t be if I find him safe. Are you sure?” Is the Firefighter right? Is her son consumed with loss? What sort of mother is she, if he is and she doesn’t know?
Soft light glints on the toe of the Firefighter’s boots each time he takes a step. Fairies dance next to them and flit above them. He lowers his voice further.
“Why could I get through, but Matt–you know, the Deputy–couldn’t?” he says. “Here’s what I think. My wife, Maura, and I, we have two great kids, and were expecting another, a baby girl, a year ago last June. We were going to call her Alice. That May, we found out Alice’s heartbeat had stopped.” He sighs, his breath catching and escaping in little gusts. “Maura had to carry Alice, dead in the womb, for three whole days after we found out, until they could induce labor. I couldn’t even get out of bed, let alone go to work for two weeks after. Even now, it’s hard. Matt, he’s never lost anyone. Not even his parents. They’re both ninety-five and living in Scottsdale.”
The Mother doesn’t know whether Jamie’s family has lost loved ones, but she knows no divorce stigmata perforate her Neighbor’s Toll House-cookie-batter-scented palms. The Firefighter could be right, she allows. Perhaps X feels the Father’s absence more deeply than he’s let on. Perhaps, she realizes with a knot in her gut, she does, too.
The lights that were flickers, then Coleman lanterns, are now golden sconces with elegant twining vine motifs situated on oaks that circle a wide clearing. They give off a remarkable amount of brightness for sources made of some delicate, frosted substance not of the Mother’s world.
In the clearing, fairies, divided into what appear to be teams, face off on the cropped turf with curved wooden implements that look to the Mother like club-footed hockey sticks. “It’s a hurling match,” the Firefighter says.
The fairies laugh and toss their sticks high in the air. The sticks vanish in purple flashes, and baseball bats pop out of the ether into the fairies’ hands. “No, wait,” the Firefighter says, but the Mother, who has no idea what hurling is, has seen the bats and caught up.
X is at the sidelines with the Father, cheering, as several fairies fly about the field outlining a baseball diamond on the turf with sparkling dust that solidifies into common white chalk. X looks happier than he’s been in months.
“Thank God,” the Mother says.
But how did the Father get here so quickly? If he came through the Barrier, he must be heartbroken, too? Perhaps he still loves them deep down, and he’s re-thinking the live-in girlfriend. Perhaps the girlfriend’s just a band-aid that can no longer cover the scar left when the family split asunder. Hope rises in the Mother.
The Mother breaks from behind the fairies guiding them and tries to run to X and the Father. The stout fairy and the tall one bar her path.
“But that’s my husband,” she misspeaks. “That’s my son.”
The tall fairy shakes his head. “Ah, poor Wingless. That is not your ex-husband.” He emphasizes the ex in a way that makes the Mother’s heart sink. “That is Gorsonip, one of our number, wearing the glamour of your ex-husband.”
The stately female smiles and adds, “Fear not. Your son is safe. Our kind adores little boys with golden curls.”
“But,” begins the Mother, not at all comforted by the golden curl remark. She shared the Father’s bed for fifteen years. You’d think she’d know him in a crowd. She squints at Gorsonip, wondering how she could be wrong. “But if Xavier is happy, how did he get here?”
The female fairy beats her wings and hovers above the path, bringing her eye-to-eye with the Mother. “When the young Wingless arrived, he was most distraught,” she says. “He brought so much sorrow with him that we transformed all but two of our thousands of loss emotion-portals to your world into fear emotion-portals. He’s happy now because we are granting his greatest wish as payment for the service he did us, bringing us so much terrific sadness.”
Fairies dressed in black and orange jerseys take the field, their pointed ears sticking up along the sides of their billed caps. A sweet aroma, a cross between popcorn and cherry syrup, permeates the air. The Mother can hear X clapping and shouting, “Let’s go Giants, let’s go!” His little shining face smiles up at Gorsonip, the stand-in Father.
That’s the one thing the Mother can’t give him or herself: the Father’s love. The Mother’s face crumples as her heart falls through her feet.
Fairies of all colors, sizes, and ethnicities, even her two escorts and the Danny DeVito one, rush to her, surround her, and place their weightless hands on her whispering, “Share, share.” Her own devastation is mirrored in their faces as they take in her emotional wreckage. Her ears fill with their heart-rending sobs.
Why would any sentient being want to feel what she’s feeling now? Being human at times like these is a steaming pile of pure suck. The Mother would do anything not to have to bear this pain, this pain the fairies are lining up to feel. Fairies–they’re nutcases! Who knew?
One by one, the fairies turn a shimmery blue and lift their hands from the Mother saying, “Shared, ahhhhh, shared, ahhhhh.” It sounds like a New Age Kumbaya-fest in a doctor’s office full of tongue-depressed patients. But either sharing doesn’t take away sorrow or the Mother has an infinite supply. She’s pulled herself together, but she still feels like crap. She longs to run to X, but he’s having such a good time. She’ll wait until the game is over. Until his wish is done.
The fairies turn out to be talented baseball players, though this is hardly surprising given their magical abilities. “Who’re the Giants playing?” she asks the Firefighter.
“Looks like the Yankees,” he says, assessing the striped uniforms.
Bat cracks against ball and the crowd roars. The Giants’s center fielder snags what could have been an inside-the-park homer. “Do the Giants even play the Yankees in our world?” the Mother says. “I didn’t think they did.”
“Well, now there’s interleague play, and of course, the World Series,” the Firefighter says. “But I’d say it’s uncommon.”
In the bottom of the fifth, the Giants leading by four, the Firefighter grabs the Mother’s arm and waves his ax at the two escorts who part just enough to let him drag the Mother toward Gorsonip and X. “We have to get to your son, right now,” he says. “We can’t let him eat that.”
Gorsonip is handing X a gargantuan, rainbow-hued lollipop that spins like a pinwheel and gives off sparks, now gold, now silver.
That’s odd, the Mother thinks. If X’s dearest wish was a Giants game with his dad, why couldn’t it have been a hot dog? Sparkle and pinwheel if you must, but don’t mess with the National Pastime, even in Fairyland. Roll over, Bowie Kuhn.
“My Nana said never to eat fairy food.” The Firefighter plows forward, trailing the Mother after him. “Or you become a slave and can never leave Fairyland.”
They push through the crowd until they stand in front of Gorsonip and X. The Mother, who has longed for nothing but holding her son for what seems like an eternity, now cannot wrest her eyes from Gorsonip’s face. It’s just like looking into the Father’s eyes after the affair started. He’s the image of the Father, without the man she knew underneath. She shivers.
“Mommy?” X asks, puzzled.
The Mother turns her back on Gorsonip and his disturbing resemblance to her ex-husband. “Sweetie,” she says, holding her hand out to X. “You know you’re not supposed to take candy from strangers.”
“He’s not a stranger, he’s Daddy,” X says. But there’s doubt under those words.
She shakes her head and smiles sadly. “No, Xavier, he’s not.”
The joy drains from X’s face, like a deflating balloon, and takes the Mother’s heart right with it. The fairies rustle behind her, jockeying for position so they can reach X, and her, when they to sorrow.
“Hey, buddy.” The Firefighter comes to the rescue with a cheerful, authoritative dad-voice. “Listen to your mom, now. Give us the sucker.”
“No!” X shouts. “It’s mine!” He opens his mouth wide.
The Mother lunges for the lollipop and knocks it from X’s hand. It falls to the ground, sputters like a guttering sparkler, and disappears.
Everything goes still and silent–a silence pregnant with tension, like the eye of a hurricane. The fairies surrounding them no longer wear friendly faces. “Uh oh,” the Firefighter says. “We must have insulted them.”
Gorsonip conjures an identical lollipop. He advances, saying in a voice not at all like the Father’s, with a face not at all like the Father’s, “I claim the boy for the Winged, to raise him as my own, that he may never again know sorrow.”
The Mother snatches X up, all seventy pounds of him, like he’s a six-pound newborn. He buries his face in her shoulder and quivers against her chest the way he did as a toddler, at the doctor’s office before his vaccinations–his let’s get out of here quiver.
“Over my dead body,” she says. “He’s mine, and he’ll heal with me, the human way, like the rest of us heartbroken Wingless.”
The Firefighter steps between the Mother and Gorsonip and thrusts the antique ax toward the fairy. “Stay back,” he says. “Stay back from the cold iron.”
The fairies–hundreds, maybe even thousands, surrounding them now–laugh a tinkling melody, a sound like a Swiss song from a music box. Gorsonip’s upper lip, the Mother thinks, was rather handsome until it curled into a sneer.
“That is steel, idiot Wingless,” he says. “It has no power against us.”
The Firefighter swallows and tosses the useless ax into the fairies’ midst. “Call me idiot again,” he says. “And I’ll deploy the Jesus artillery. Now, take this!” He peels off his slicker, turns it inside out, and puts it back on. He calls to the Mother, “Turn his clothes inside out.”
Fairy fingers jab at the Mother and X, pinching their cheeks, thighs, and wingless backs. The Danny DeVito fairy tweaks a good hunk of the Mother’s butt so hard her eyes water. That’ll leave a mark, the Mother thinks, swatting the fairies with one hand, the other hand helping X replace his swim trunks with the pseudo-jockstrap-netting side out.
Gorsonip shelters his eyes with the back of his hand as though a bright light has assaulted his pupils. He backs away, the giant lollipop fading to nothingness.
The Mother strips to her bra, an unfortunate pre-divorce Victoria’s Secret model, the elastic now nearly shot. She reverses her shirt.
The remaining fairies scatter like fallen leaves in the wind.
Bruises and welts blossoming on their arms, the Mother and X follow the Firefighter’s oversized boot prints in the damp soil to the Barrier. “X marks the spot,” the Firefighter says, pointing to his goofy heel mark. He tousles X’s hair.
The Mother takes X’s hand and together they pass through.
A crowd has gathered at the Neighbor’s pool: other neighbors, more firefighters, a couple of teachers, the principal of X’s school, a guy from a local news station and his friend with a TV camera. The Firefighter’s wife and kids rush to him and burst into happy tears, a mass of arms competing for a place to hug. His wife whispers something the Mother cannot hear, but she knows the news from the way they kiss, the Firefighter lifting his wife off the ground.
The Father is sitting in the redwood gazebo, Brooks Brothers-suited and dry, checking email on his iPhone when the Mother walks up with X.
“Great, you’re back,” he says, as though they’ve just been to Costco in their inside-out clothing and fairy-pinched skins. “Ready, Xavier?” He puts a towel across the boy’s shoulders.
X rushes to the Mother and wraps his wet arms around her. The towel falls to the ground.
How long she had harbored the secret hope that underneath the unflappable distance, the Father might be as heartbroken as she and X. How ridiculous, how misspent that hope seems now. True, she’d been the one to file for divorce, but not before the Father had left them in all the ways that mattered. Could the Father have made it through the Barrier?
Of course not, she realizes. To make it, he’d have had to want to try.
“Change of plans,” the Mother says, reading no more depth of feeling in the Father’s face than she’d seen in Gorsonip’s. If the Father had given a lollipop, or even a hotdog, to X, she’d have felt compelled to whack it from her son’s grasp. “X needs to be with me right now. Sorry for the inconvenience. I’ll–I’ll email you.”
She takes X’s hand. They walk down the hill, past the rock gardens and Priuses, to the place they call home, there to begin the very human process of letting go.