By Jack Bryson
Marcus was trying to outrun a bridge troll but made a critical error. He banked southwest rather than east when the pursuit began and was charging straight into the fairy woods. Marcus was considerably faster and more agile than the troll but he couldn’t take the chase into the woods because the fairies were known to kill all trespassers. He could turn and fight the troll but he was out of arrows. The troll already sported nearly all of Marcus’ arrows, which were superficially lodged in its thick hide- it had no effect on the charging bull.
It was early 6th century AD and terribly cold. Far away tropical volcanoes erupted and vomited ash into the atmosphere, causing a volcanic winter. Crops in what is now England failed and people were hungry. Marcus’ village was suffering too, the elves were starving. That being said, Marcus didn’t steal from the bridge troll to help his village or feed starving orphans; he just saw an opportunity and took it. The ground was soggy and the troll’s feet left deep impressions in the mud. Marcus’ wool cape did little in keeping off the cold. His nose and cheeks were red and he could see his breath in the afternoon air.
Just on the outskirts of the fairy woods was a large Ash tree. It was nearly 40 meters in height and easily scalable. Running out of options, Marcus scrambled up the tree as high as possible. He perched on a large branch and surveyed his surroundings. He couldn’t go higher because all the branches above him became too small to serve as a sturdy perch. He looked up and saw dark clouds gather in little spaces between the thick foliage. He looked down and was satisfied with the height he achieved but now he was stuck and had to come up with a plan.
It wasn’t long until the troll reached the bottom of the Ash tree, winded from his heavy pursuit. His mass was impressive, like a Grizzly but with tusks. As he caught his breath he hocked a nasty loogie- the size of a baseball. In contrast to his animal appearance he wore symbols of culture: a gold chain and multiple earrings, which he pilfered from victims who tried to cross his bridge. He was furious with Marcus but felt triumphant for having cornered the elf, the thief in the Ash tree. He looked up at his prey. “No where to go little Elf. Come down here.”
“I’m quite happy here, thank you.” Said Marcus. Christ, he reeks like a sulfur fart.
“No, no. Come down little elf.” The troll wrapped his huge arms around the trunk of the Ash tree and shook it. Marcus held onto the branch and bore the violent tremors as best he could, gripping it with all his strength. He hoped the troll would get tired and give up but he was afraid the monster might be strong enough to knock over the tree. The troll stopped shaking and looked up at his prey, devising the best method for dislodging it from its precarious sanctuary.
“What are you doing elf?”
Marcus was startled by the new voice. It was too high pitched to be the troll’s. He looked up and to his shock saw a naked fairy perched on the branch next to him. She had wasp like wings and wore nothing except a Water Violet in her black hair. Marcus caught a glance of the patch between her legs but his eyes didn’t linger there; he knew how dangerous fairies were. “Please don’t kill me, I’m not in your woods.”
“Whoa, whoa. Who said anything about killing? I was just curious as to what you were doing in my favorite tree.” Marcus looked down at the troll; he didn’t really have time for small talk but he didn’t want to anger the fairy by ignoring her.
“You see that troll down there?” Marcus asked.
“Yes, stinky thing isn’t he?”
“Yes. Well, he wants to kill me because I stole his gold. He’s about to knock down your favorite tree so he can snuff me out.”
“Oh, Well. I could just push you out of the tree and then, he won’t knock it down.” The fairy grinned mischievously.
“Wait! Please don’t do that. You can have half of the gold. Marcus undid the knot that affixed a canvas purse to his belt. He opened the purse up and showed the fairy his loot.
“Ooooooh, gold coins,” said the fairy.
“Yes! You can have half the gold if you don’t push me out of this tree.” The fairy thought about this for a moment.
“Ok, you got a deal.” Another violent tremor rattled through the tree and the branches Marcus and the fairy sat on. He hugged his branch tightly but the fairy wasn’t as easily jostled, quickly regaining her composure. She looked down at the troll who was grunting and shaking her Ash. With a snap of her fingers the troll burst into flames. He ran wildly from the Ash for half a yard but then collapsed. Marcus was in shock and watched with his mouth gaping. “Shall we get out of this tree?” Asked the fairy.
Marcus forced himself to look away from the smoldering troll cinder and carefully descend the tree. When he reached the bottom the fairy was already there. He brushed some twigs and leaves off him and picked some stubborn leaves that were stuck to his wool cape. After composing himself, he told the fairy to cup her hands and hold them out. He demonstrated what he meant and she mimicked him. Then, he deposited half his gold in her hands as promised.
“Thank you,” said the fairy. “My name is Puzzle. What’s yours?”
“Marcus,” Marcus said warily.
“Please to meet you Marcus.” Puzzle said, giving a slight bow. “Thank you for the gold.”
“Thank you for not pushing me out of the tree.”
“You’re quite welcome. You must be cold, let’s build a fire.” After Marcus and Puzzle built a fire they sat down and exchanged stories about themselves. The other fairies watched from the edge of the woods but remained hidden. They watched the whole incident and they approved of Puzzle incinerating the troll but they didn’t understand why she was friendly with the elf.
Marcus could sense Puzzle’s kin watching him and he felt uneasy. He could sense the tension and tactfully brought it up with Puzzle. “I noticed the other fairies watching us. I don’t think they approve.”
“Take off your broach.”
“Take off your silver broach,” Puzzle repeated, pointing to the broach that held Marcus’ wool cape together. He understood what Puzzle was getting at. If he made an offering the fairies would relax their guard. After he removed the broach, he handed it to Puzzle and she took it to the edge of the woods and left it there for her kin. Puzzle returned to the fire and they continued their conversation.
* * *
Marcus stood in the hallway on the second floor of his apartment building, carrying on a conversation/negotiation through his neighbor’s front door. He wanted his neighbor Puzzle to open the door and let him in so he could calm her down, but first he’d have to convince her he wasn’t with Homeland Security, the Illuminati or NSA.
“Puzzle the NSA hasn’t tapped your phone.”
“How would you know unless you work for them?” she replied frantically.
“Why would they even know about us?”
“You could be compromised Marcus. Go Away.”
“Jesus Puzzle. How long have we known each other? Would I ever work for the pigs?”
“You could be chipped. They could’ve put a chip in your molar while you were at the dentist.”
“Could never happen.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Do you want to check my teeth?” Puzzle wanted to see her friend but she couldn’t risk it. He could easily have been chipped or worse, brainwashed into infiltrating her home and kidnapping her. She paused for a moment with that last thought; the brainwashing thing sounded a little far-fetched even to her. But still, Marcus could easily have a microchip in his molar and not even know it.
“I can’t risk it Marcus.”
“Puzzle, all you have to do is check my teeth. If it looks like I have a chip then, you can send me on my way.”
“They could track you to my place.”
“But you could help me. I don’t want a chip in my molar. If you find a evidence of dental tampering then I could remove the chip.”
“But they’ll know I’m here.”
Marcus thought about this for a moment. He quickly came up with a counter argument. “Wait, I have an idea. Do you have a magnet?”
“What do you want a magnet for?”
“If I run a magnet over my mouth it’ll short out the chip and then, you can look for it.” Marcus hadn’t faintest idea if a magnet would ruin a microchip but he heard somewhere hard drives and magnets didn’t get along. He hoped Puzzle was as tech ignorant as him.
Of course! Puzzle thought. A magnet would disrupt the chip in his molar. She smiled to herself; she was one up on them. They hadn’t counted on that obvious design flaw. She scanned her living room and kitchen for a magnet. There were several magnets on her refrigerator but she wasn’t sure they were powerful enough to disrupt a chip. But that was ok; Marcus could run the magnets over his cheek several times. There was a small sock monkey with magnets in his hands and feet, and it was affixed to the fridge door. She went to the kitchen, grabbed the sock monkey and returned to her front door.
“Marcus, I got a magnet here. I’m going to open the door and I want you to run the sock monkey over you cheek, ok?”
Marcus groaned inside. He knew the fridge magnet she had and how ridiculous it looked. “Ok, give me the monkey.” Puzzle cracked open her front door and handed Marcus the monkey. She closed the door and watched him through the peephole. Marcus looked to his left and right to make sure no one was watching him. He quickly brushed the monkey over his cheek.
“No you got to do it slowly. Make sure his paws go over your molar and go back and forth several times.” Marcus did as he was instructed, rubbing the monkey back and forth over his cheek, making sure the magnets in its paws and feet went over his molar. After a few minutes Puzzle was satisfied.
“Ok, hand me back the monkey and I’ll check your teeth.” She opened the door and Marcus handed her the refrigerator magnet. She closed the door and returned the sock monkey magnet back to its rightful place on the fridge door. Then, she went to her bedroom closet and rummaged through boxes and dirty laundry, looking for her Maglite.
Marcus had spent most of the morning trying to talk Puzzle down from her manic phase with little success. He was concerned she might do something foolhardy again, like the time she took the electrical outlet covers off her walls and probed for listening devices, nearly zapping herself.
“Slip your driver’s license under the door.” Puzzle said after she returned with her Maglite. Marcus sighed and took out his wallet. It was how their ritual usually began to unwind. After Marcus got Puzzle to compromise in some way, she’d ask for his ID and he’d slide it under the door. She had to be sure, in case it wasn’t Marcus on the other side of the door but a pod person or spy impersonating her elven friend.
Marcus took a glance at his driver’s license photo and grimaced. He’d been meaning to shed the extra 60 pounds he packed on four years ago; it was unbecoming of an elf to be so fat. He bent down and slid the license under Puzzle’s door and waited.
Then, he watched as the doorknob slowly began to turn, and Puzzle opened the door just enough to peer at Marcus through the crack between frame and door. Marcus looked at her concerned. His friend’s eyes were bloodshot she was visibly distressed. He spoke softly to her.
“Do you want to check my teeth now?” Puzzle held up a flashlight. “No, no. If you’re going to check my teeth you have to let me in.” Puzzle hesitated, seeming to consider the effectiveness of the magnets. After a moment, she closed the door, undid the chain and let Marcus in.
Puzzle’s apartment was a mess. Small landmines of dirty laundry littered her black stained carpet here and there. There was a stench of burnt sage and cigarettes that was infused forever in the walls and furniture. And the cat’s litter box was overdue for a change. Puzzle was not getting her deposit back.
Marcus looked around and found an empty seat at the kitchen table. He sat down and watched Puzzle as she stood by the door, armed only with her flashlight. “Well? Do want to check my teeth?”
The fairy took a step towards Marcus and lifted up her flashlight. He opened his mouth wide as she peered in, looking for signs of recent dental work or suspicious alterations. He waited patiently until the examination was complete.
“There’s no way to be sure,” Puzzle said contemplatively. Marcus sighed and rolled his eyes. “Let me get the pliers.”
“No, no, no. Wait, what are you concerned about?”
“Your right molar. It’s darker than it was last time.”
“I’ve just been drinking more coffee lately and I haven’t been brushing my teeth.”
“That’s disgusting Marcus. You should always brush your teeth.”
“Well, your place smells like cat shit.”
“Do you brush your teeth before going on dates?”
“Yes, I brush my teeth before going on dates.”
“You know when men don’t brush their teeth it’s a real turn off.” Marcus sighed. Puzzle’s distrust and paranoia subsided a little and if getting a lecture from her was the price, it was worth it.
“I’ll make sure I brush my teeth every night. Why don’t you sit down and I’ll make you some tea?” Marcus slowly got up and guided Puzzle to his seat. She absently allowed it as she held the black Maglite to her chest and she looked into space.
“Do you think my place is bugged?” She asked.
“I’ll check it after some tea. By the way, when was the last time you slept?” Puzzle didn’t answer. She looked concerned and deep in thought. Marcus put the kettle on and got some herbal tea from the cabinet above the stove. He looked around for some clean mugs and couldn’t find clean anything. He remembered seeing some fine bone china on the top shelf in one of the kitchen cabinets and searched for it. He found two expensive teacups and saucers and set them on the kitchen counter next to the stove. They were reserved for special occasions but they were the only clean dishes in the place. He carefully watched the kettle as the water heated and steam began to stream out of the spout and then, picked up the kettle deftly before it could whistle so as not to disturb Puzzle.
As Puzzle sat with her back turned to the stove, staring off into space, Marcus poured the tea and whispered something in Gaelic. He cast a calming spell over Puzzle’s tea, which would take the edge off until she naturally evened out. The spell was one of a handful that Puzzle had taught Marcus long ago. Back in the day when Marcus was fighting Saxons, he used the calming spell on his wounded comrades. It helped alleviate their pain and fear, especially when death was inevitable.
He turned from the stove and set Puzzle’s tea in front of her and then, took a seat across from her. He blew on his tea and took a sip. After a few moments he suggested Puzzle take a sip of her tea. She looked down absently at the cup in front of her and lifted up the cup. Then, she took a sip.
“You know they chip children now on their first visit to the dentist?”
“Is that fact?”
“Oh yes. It’s sick.” Puzzle nodded quickly. “It’s an identification number but it also contains medical data.”
“Some of your friends collect children’s teeth don’t they?”
“Yes, but I haven’t talked to them in ages. Marcus, don’t go to the dentist if you can help it. Or find a dentist you can trust.”
“That’s good advice.”
Puzzle looked down at the floor and looked as if she were preoccupied with a mystery that kept escaping her. After awhile she struggled to keep her eyes open. The spell wasn’t meant to put her to sleep but it gave her body an opening to take five. She started to fall over and she put her hand on the kitchen table to steady herself.
“Ok, I think it’s time for a nap.” Marcus said. He got up from the table and swooped Puzzle up into his arms. It was easy to do, as Puzzle was petite and slender. She was out cold before Marcus brought her to the bedroom and gently laid her on the bed. He looked around for a blanket and silently snatched up a scrunched up sheet at the foot of the bed. In one quick movement he straightened the sheet and had it land gently over her body from shoulders to toes.
Marcus looked down at Puzzle as she peacefully dozed. He hoped her psychiatrist would up her Geodon dosage. Life hadn’t been the same for his friend since a disgruntled fairy cursed her. It wasn’t Puzzle’s fault of course. She just read the Tarot cards at a party and revealed something embarrassing about the high priestess. The curse was powerful and only Puzzle’s aggressor could lift it but she and Marcus would have to find that fairy first. In the meantime, all they could do is take life one day at a time as the cliché goes.
* * *
Marcus turned his attention to the filthy apartment and set about bringing it up to a health code or two. He began by picking up the laundry off the living room floor and consolidating it into one pile. There was a brown wicker basket in Puzzle’s bedroom closet, which he retrieved and turned on its side while he used his free hand to scoop the laundry into it. He deiced she could wash her own clothes; he just wanted to remove the small landmines of laundry from the living room floor.
Next he tackled the sink full of dirty dishes. The dishwasher was empty, so he began filling it while scrubbing any crusty stuff off plates and bowls. He began to loathe the sight of dried Mac n’ Cheese since it looked nasty and required a lot more effort to scrub off. In some instances he substituted the soft green and yellow sponge for a metal sponge in the cabinet underneath the kitchen sink.
Once the dishwasher was full, he popped in a soap packet and started the load and then he looked to his left at the open bathroom door, dreading the litter box. He put the back of his hand to his nose as he tentatively approached the bathroom door and opened it. There was a pale blue litter box with a crack down the side, which sat on top of some newspapers and there were cat turds inside and outside the box. Marcus retreated from the bathroom to look for a garbage bag. He returned and dumped the aging litter box with newspaper and cat turds inside the garbage bag. He decided he’d buy Puzzle a new litter box.
Puzzle had a calico cat named Patches. She often referred to her cat as her familiar but Patches wasn’t really a familiar, just a pet. Marcus spotted her curled up on the living room couch oblivious to Puzzle’s episode, offering no comfort at all and having no shame in free loading. Patches would be shocked to find there was no litter box when she came back. He took the garbage into the hall and up the stairs to the garbage chute on his floor. He went to his apartment, got a Swiffer mop and came back down to Puzzle’s abode. He moped her bathroom floors and let it dry for a moment before setting down some fresh newspaper. Patches would have to make do with the newspaper till he got back from the pet store with a new litter box and litter.
Marcus left Puzzle’s apartment once again but without realizing it, he left the door open. He took a bus to the pet store and got a new litter box and litter. While he was out Puzzle woke up from her nap. She was calmer and she didn’t have a panic feeling like the shadowy government organizations were out to get her. She was in a daze though and terribly thirsty. She had no idea that Marcus had come to her place and couldn’t remember how she ended up in bed. Slowly she got up and probed the carpet for her sandals, using her feet.
After she put on her sandals Puzzle walked out of the bedroom. She wore a blue dress and an orange sweater to cover her bare shoulders. She stood at five foot one, had striking grey eyes and long black hair that reached down the center of her back. She also had high cheekbones and a thin nose. Sometimes sharp features make people look older, but they did little in making Puzzle look older than 17. She had an aura, as all fairies do, of youthfulness.
Vaguely aware the apartment had just been cleaned and oblivious to the running dishwasher, Puzzle walked into the kitchen and looked in her fridge for a soda or a bottle of water. Her fridge was nearly empty except for a salad from McDonald’s, some lunchmeat and half a can of Fancy Feast for Patches but nothing else. She closed the fridge door and wandered out of the kitchen. Then, she absently grabbed her purse off a counter next to her hall closet and walked out her open front door.
Puzzle ended up getting lost. She was trying to find a convenience or grocery store but ended up at a homeless shelter in downtown. She did end up getting a soda, but she also ended up having an arts and crafts time with the homeless people at the shelter. She taught them how to make tinfoil hats and taught them about electromagnetic waves and the NSA’s mind control program. Many of the residents listened to her with fascination.
Sometime after Puzzle ended up at the homeless shelter, Marcus got back to the apartment to find he left Puzzle’s door open. Patches was pacing back and forth just outside the door, meowing. Damn it, I left the door open. Marcus thought. He looked down at the cat and said, “Hey cat, you’re not going to tell on me are you?”
“Meow?” Patches responded, which loosely translated into “Food?”
Marcus picked up the cat with one hand as he held plastic bag with the new litter box in the other. He put Patches down inside the apartment and shut the door behind him. “Let’s get you some food, ok?” Marcus said. He looked around, saw some cans of Fancy Feast and selected a tuna flavor. After he fed the cat, he took the new litter box from the plastic shopping bag, placed it on the newspaper in the bathroom and filled it half way with grey kitty litter. Mission accomplished.
Before leaving, Marcus decided to check in on Puzzle. He walked quietly, so as not to make a sound and wake her, through the living room to her bedroom and then, he peeked inside. However, Puzzle wasn’t in bed. “Ah hell,” Marcus exclaimed. Puzzle must have gotten up and wandered off. This worried him for two reasons. The first was that the curse on Puzzle not only inflicted her with bi-polar but also a case of agoraphobia. Puzzle wasn’t afraid of wide-open spaces so much as leaving her apartment. In order for Puzzle to make her psychiatry appointments, Marcus had to coax her, sometimes with her therapist on speakerphone and he’d accompany her to the appointments and back.
Marcus figured she was still delirious from lack of sleep and relaxed from the calming spell so she wandered off while her fear of the outside was temporarily suspended. Once the spell wore off, Puzzle would realize she left her apartment and undoubtedly panic.
The second reason Marcus was worried was that she might have an episode and someone would call the EMTs or cops. This could result in Puzzle using magic to defend herself and that would draw unwanted attention to their kind. There was the time Puzzle had a meltdown in her psychiatrist’s office. Her psychiatrist called the EMTs and all hell broke loose.
Puzzle had to check the shrink’s office to make sure it wasn’t bugged but her psychiatrist was being unreasonable. A shouting match ensued and Puzzle accused her therapist of “being in on it with the NSA.” When the EMTs arrived and tried to take Puzzle to a psych ward, she waved her hand and caused them to see rattlesnakes where their stethoscopes were. They pissed themselves and Puzzle made her escape. Since then, she’s had to keep a low profile and switch therapists.
“Fuck,” Marcus said. He took out his cellphone and called Puzzle. Puzzle’s phone was on “vibrate”, but she heard its angry buzzing from her purse. Half a dozen vagrants were gathered in the dinning area of the Poverello Center in San Jose, drinking cheap coffee and sporting new tinfoil hats. They were on board with Puzzle’s plan to protect themselves from electromagnetic waves and the NSA’s mind control program. Mention of the government’s shadowy programs generated a lot of discussion as well as personal accounts of being spied on and civil liberties violated. Puzzle sat in the homeless shelter, demonstrating to her new friend Dusty how to make a proper tinfoil hat when she heard her cellphone ring. “Would you excuse me a minute Dusty?” The older gentlemen with missing teeth and a long white beard nodded while he looked over the early stages of his new hat.
“Hello?” Puzzle said.
“Puzzle, where are you?” Marcus said.
“Marcus, how are you?”
“Ok, but where are you?”
“I don’t know. I’m just hanging out with some new friends. What’s wrong? You sound worried.”
“Puzzle, I came over to your apartment and you were freaking out about the government. I gave you some tea but cast a calming spell over it. It should be wearing off soon.”
“You spiked my drink you little shit? Just you wait, I’m going to spike your beer with laxatives.” Puzzle said playfully. Just then, Puzzle wasn’t feeling so well. Up until now, she had been in a daze but something was missing. She felt naked in a way.
“Look forward to it. Could I come and get you now?”
“Oh, I’m fine. You don’t need to come and get me.” Just then, the calming spell wore off and Puzzle became acutely aware she wasn’t in her apartment. How could she have been so careless? Satellites could monitor her every movement. Her heart started beating faster and she became sweaty. Her hands started to shake.
“Puzzle?” Marcus said. No answer. Puzzle’s eyes darted around the room; she didn’t recognize any of the people at the dinning room table and she became very afraid. “Puzzle? Do you hear me?”
“Marcus? What’s going on?”
“Puzzle, how are you feeling?”
“I’m scared Marcus. I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know where I am.”
“Is anyone with you?” There were six vagrants all sitting down at a table with her and they were wearing tin foil hats.
“There’s a bunch of homeless people with me.”
“Can you ask them where you are?” Puzzle turned to Dusty and asked him where they were.
“I’m at a place called the Poverello Center. Marcus, I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Try to stay calm, I’m going to come and get you. I’m going to keep talking to you on the phone and I want you to just focus on my voice, ok?”
“Ok,” Puzzle said meekly. Marcus grabbed a bottle of Puzzle’s medication and stuffed it in his pocket. He talked with Puzzle as he made his way out of her apartment and shut the door behind him.
Marcus left the apartment building and made his way to the bus stop. All the while he stayed on the phone with Puzzle. He tried to tell Puzzle a funny story as he examined the bus routes posted at the stop, however, he didn’t know where the Poverello Center was so the bus routes didn’t do him any good.
“Puzzle, I got to hang up on you to look up the address of the Poverello Center.”
“No Marcus, please don’t.”
“I don’t want to but I have find your location.”
“Marcus, don’t hang up on me,” Puzzle started to cry.
“Ok.” Marcus sat down at the bus stop with the phone against his ear.
“Marcus are you still there?”
“Yeah. I’m still here.”
“Please don’t hang up.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” Marcus reassured her. As Puzzle sniffed and wiped a tear from her eye, Dusty tapped her on the shoulder. He saw that she was crying and asked what was wrong.
“My friend doesn’t know the address of this place.”
“It’s on the corner of Finch and Hope. 227 Finch St.” Dusty supplied.
“Oh my god, thank you.” Puzzle said. “Marcus did you hear that?”
“I heard it Puzzle. 227 Finch St. That’s actually in walking distance from here. I’ll be there in ten to fifteen minutes. Ok?”
“I’ll be waiting for you.” Marcus stood up and left the bus shelter. He walked quickly while holding the phone. He tried jogging a couple times but panted heavily and had a difficult time holding the phone. He cursed himself for being so out of shape. Puzzle asked if he was running and he said yes. She told him not to run and give himself a heart attack.
About fifteen minutes later Marcus stood outside the Poverello Center. It had a two-story facade with a deep porch and a paved walkway leading up to the front steps. Red and white Impatiens decorated either side of the walkway. The building was brown with a triangular roof. There were four windows, two on the second story and two on the first and they had green shutters
There was a conspicuous wheelchair ramp with blue railing, which branched off the paved walkway, snaked around and ended with a landing that met the front porch. On the front lawn was a convenient wooden sign supported by a single metal post, which informed Marcus this was the Poverello Center.
“Puzzle I’m standing outside.”
“Ok, I’ll be right out.” Without hanging up, Puzzle stood up from the dining room table. She said goodbye to Dusty and all the other homeless people. Then, she made her way out of the shelter and spotted Marcus on the sidewalk. They hung up their cellphones and Puzzle walked down the front steps and met her friend. She hugged him tightly and he put his arm around her as they walked home together.
When they got back to Puzzle’s apartment, Marcus took out a bottle of blue and white pills.
“No, I don’t want those,” Puzzle said.
“You got to take them,” Marcus said.
“They make me drowsy and sick to my stomach.”
“Yeah, part of that is you don’t eat anything. You can’t take these on an empty stomach.” As Marcus undid the cap and dropped a couple pills in his hand, Puzzle tried pushing it away. Irritated, Marcus blocked Puzzle’s hand with his elbow, got two pills in his palm and screwed the cap back on the bottle.
“Now take these, and eat some crackers while I order a pizza.”
“No, you can’t make me. And I’ll cast a spell on you so when you wake up tomorrow you’ll have a pair of tits.”
“Well at least I’ll get to second base with someone. Now take your pills!” Puzzle laughed and tried to shove his hand away again but Marcus gave her an austere look. It was the kind of look that said, “You’re letting me down” and he only reserved it for serious situations. Puzzle knew that look and she reluctantly held out her hand and Marcus dropped the pills in her palm. He got her a glass of water and she swallowed the pills.
Marcus couldn’t count all the times Puzzle bailed him out of trouble over the centuries. When he stole from a bridge troll, she set him on fire. When Marcus got wounded in battle and needed sanctuary Puzzle cared for him. So when Puzzle went crazy and refused to take her meds, Marcus was going to watch over her, be as stubborn as her, make sure she didn’t harm herself and wait patiently till he could figure out a way to break the curse.
After Marcus ordered a pizza, he joined Puzzle on the couch and they watched some TV. There was a Godzilla marathon on and it kept Puzzle entertained long enough for Marcus to excuse himself. He went to her bathroom and texted Puzzle’s therapist. “Another episode. Under control now.” Her therapist texted back: “Call 911.” Marcus responded, “No need now, things under control. Can set up appointment?” The therapist replied: “I want to see her tomorrow.” Marcus signed off and put away his cellphone. He left the bathroom and rejoined Puzzle for the marathon. A half hour later, the pizza showed up and they ate pepperoni slices as Godzilla wrestled Mechagodzilla. Patches joined them on the couch and Puzzle fed her pieces of pepperoni.
* * *
Puzzle was cursed two years ago at the annual Fairy Masquerade, which is held during Samhain on October 31st –November 1st. The hostess of that year’s Masquerade was an anthropology professor named Anne Martin. Mrs. Martin’s family had ties to the fairies for the last two centuries, because many of the women in her family were witches who celebrated every Samhain with them. Mrs. Martin didn’t practice witchcraft herself but she kept in touch with the same fairies with whom her ancestors associated. She also wrote a couple ethnographies about the fairies or Aos Si (pronounced “ace shee”) but she never published them, doubting very much her colleagues would take her seriously.
Mrs. Martin and her husband Abe Martin owned a ranch in Gilroy. Abe Martin was oblivious to the fact that the women attending their Halloween party were fairies. As far as he knew they were just his wife’s colleagues from the university. Some of them belonged to her book club, didn’t they? He knew they got pretty wild but he wasn’t one to judge just as long his wife kept away from the male strippers. In the beginning of October Mrs. Martin sent out invitations to all the fairies living in the Bay Area, California. The invitation told them to wear party dresses and fancy masks. Puzzle always wore a black panther mask with sequences and whiskers.
Male fairies never attended the masquerades because they had their own rituals, which involved hunting and wenches. Truth be told, they just went to Vegas, got drunk, gambled and frequented brothels. No elves were invited since the two species usually don’t mix. Historically, elves, trolls, sorcerers, ogres, and giants kept a safe distance from fairies because fairy magic was the most powerful in existence and there was no record of anyone going toe-to-toe with a fairy and surviving. Puzzle and Marcus’ friendship was not unheard of but rare.
Fairies have celebrated Samhain (pronounced “sah-win”) for as long as humans. Centuries ago, ancient Celts brought their cattle down from pastures and selected which ones to be slaughtered for winter. Then, they celebrated Samhain by lighting bonfires, playing divination games, eating nuts and apples and leaving food and drink out for fairies.
The focus for fairies was a little different during this time. Samhain was a liminal time when the boundaries between this world and the Otherworld were blurred and a fairy could cross over from the Otherworld. They’re always lured by the bonfires or hear the dancing and music from human celebrations. The Fairies on our side waited at open portals- fairy mounds and caves in Ireland, and welcomed a new fairy into the human world. Only a few druids have ever witnessed a fairy enter our world. At any rate, some of the fairies at Mrs. Martin’s party Skype with their counterparts in Ireland, waiting for news of any crossings. Aside from welcoming newcomers to the world, the Aos Si also lit bonfires, drank, danced, went guising and played divination games.
An hour into the Masquerade Mrs. Martin and several fairies were gathered around a dining room table, watching Puzzle give a Tarot reading for one of her cousins Tanya- a bubbly, money obsessed fairy. All there agreed it was a real treat, watching Puzzle do a reading, because she was very adept. One of the fairies at the dining room table was a priestess named Mesmerin. Mesmerin was having an affair with Mr. Martin. Just an hour before the reading Mr. Martin (Abe to his friends) shagged Mesmerin in one of the bathrooms of his large ranch home. Although Puzzle was reading tarot cards for her cousin, the meaning applied to Mesmerin and everyone at the table except for Tanya and Puzzle figured that our right away.
Tanya fidgeted in her seat impatiently as Puzzle did a simple Triadic Spread and drew 3 cards from the Major Arcana: The Lovers, The Devil and The Moon. She went into a lengthy lecture about the meaning of each card, their astrological sign, and house and planet association. “The Lovers are about the choices we make in our relationships. It’s not necessarily about romance but I sense it is in this case. I sense two lovers who are not concerned about the future and their relationship is brief. The Devil is about deceit and misrepresentation while The Moon is about illusion and the influences that can cause someone to stray from their path. Be careful cousin, passions are strong, violent even. Two lovers are caught and deception surrounds them.”
“What the hell Puzzle? I asked about my hedge fund.” Her cousin said. “You’re really off your game tonight.” Puzzle shrugged and picked up her cards. She reshuffled the deck as the fairies close to Mesmerin smirked and looked away. They knew right away the meaning of Puzzle’s reading. Mesmerin was deeply embarrassed and outraged at Puzzle. If Mrs. Martin knew the meaning of Puzzle’s reading, she didn’t let on.
Late in the evening Mr. Martin lit two bonfires on his three-acre property. Earlier that week he got a permit from the Fire department and permission from his neighbors of course. As Mr. Martin lit the bonfires, his wife was upstairs in the bedroom, abandoning the party completely. She was on the phone with her lawyer, asking how to proceed with filing for divorce. The fairies drank, danced, and walked between the two bonfires, cleansing themselves of bad luck and protecting themselves from misfortune in the New Year.
After Puzzle got up from the dining room table, she made her way to the buffet table. Mesmerin watched her carefully behind a white mask adorned with owl feathers, waiting for a moment to catch her alone. Mesmerin was impulsive, selfish and flighty like any fairy but she could also be vindictive and spiteful. She was embarrassed that Puzzle’s reading revealed her affair with Mr. Martin. There was possible damage to her relationship with Mrs. Martin so she blamed Puzzle.
As Puzzle’s stood at the buffet table with her back to the festivities, Mesmerin approached her. There were some fairies dancing in the living room, some were grinding against a male stripper. There were fairies outside walking between the bonfires. Everyone one was engaged in some activity, so they didn’t witness Mesmerin walk up behind Puzzle and put a hand on her back, plucking a few loose strands of Puzzle’s hair.
“That was a wonderful reading,” Mesmerin smiled.
“What do you mean? It wasn’t accurate at all,” Puzzle replied, confused.
“Yes but we all know your fortunes apply to someone, even if it’s not about your cousin.”
“Don’t doubt yourself. You have a real gift.” Mesmerin hid the strands of Puzzle’s hair behind her back and excused herself. Puzzle was a little suspicious of the exchange. She didn’t trust Mesmerin and wondered if she was being condescending. However, she shrugged it off and helped herself to shrimp and tartar sauce.
Mesmerin made her way to the bathroom in which Mr. Martin shagged her earlier in the evening. On the way there she stopped by a hall closet where she had dropped off her coat and clutch upon arriving at the party. She reached into her clutch and retrieved a hexing candle and book of matches and then, made her way to the bathroom. The hexing candle was a small black candle with an upside down pentagram engraved on it. Mesmerin made her own hexing candles from beeswax. They helped her focus her energies when casting a spell.
She entered the bathroom and locked the door behind her. There were two switches on the wall next to the sink, one was for the light and the other was for fan. The fan would do little in sucking smoke out of the bathroom but that was ok, because there wasn’t a smoke alarm in the bathroom or outside in the immediate vicinity.
Mesmerin set the hexing candle on the edge of the sink and the strands of Puzzle’s hair behind it. She took a match, stuck it and lit the candle. As she burnt Puzzle’s hair in the flame of the candle she recited her curse, “You will always jump at every sound, and be suspicious of every shadow. You’ll be exhausted and always afraid.” Mesmerin blew out the candle; her curse was complete. It smelt like burnt hair in the bathroom but there was nothing Mesmerin could do about that. She picked up her candle, left the bathroom and returned to the party, stopping by the hall closet to return the candle.
Puzzle read fortunes at the back of a New Age bookstore. For the last couple weeks, she’d been having conversations with a conspiracy theorist that frequented the bookstore. Puzzle was fascinated with his stories of UFO encounters, the Illuminati and the NSA surveillance programs- she didn’t buy into them but they were entertaining. The last thing Puzzle thought about when the curse took effect was the stories the conspiracy theorist told her. Her brain seized upon the threatening elements in the stories and played them over and over again.
Puzzle wasn’t feeling so well. She figured the shrimp was bad, so she thought about leaving the party. With every step she took as she walked away from the buffet table, she became more and more afraid. Someone there was watching her. She looked around but didn’t see anyone, however she knew someone was watching her. She went to the hall closet and grabbed her coat. For an inexplicable reason, her coat felt contaminated. Her coat had been out of her sight for the whole time she was at the party, so someone could have easily planted a listening device inside it. Wait, that doesn’t make sense, Puzzle thought. Irrational thoughts began to flood her mind. She imagined sleeper agents had infiltrated the party. NSA agents found out about her kind and she was currently under surveillance. Her thoughts didn’t make sense to her as they rushed into her mind, sometimes running so fast through her mind that they climaxed and her heart skipped a beat. She began to sweat and had to hold on to a wall to keep from falling over.
Some time close to the end of the party, fairies found Puzzle on the kitchen floor, wielding a kitchen knife as she shredded her leather jacket to pieces. She kept babbling on about a “bug” in her jacket. The fairies that found Puzzle got Mrs. Martin who called the paramedics.
* * *
Julie Herman was the psychiatrist who treated Puzzle. She was a no-nonsense Jewish woman from New York who had practiced psychiatry in the Bay Area, CA for twenty years. She had a subtle New York accent: a little nasally but her voice was pleasant enough, a phlegmatic everyday female voice. She had dark red, curly, shoulder length hair with a few strands of white here and there. It bothered her ex- husband that she was getting old, so he found himself a new, younger woman on the side. This didn’t bother Julie at all, because she took him to the cleaners in the divorce. She didn’t really need the alimony, so she gave most of it away to a homeless shelter called the Poverello Center in downtown San Jose.
Puzzle was the most interesting patient Julie ever had. On their first meeting, Puzzle demanded she sweep Julie’s office for listening devices. Julie obliged her, because she wanted to gain some insight into her new patient. The young woman who explored Julie’s office with the resolve of a bloodhound crawled under her desk, removed every book from her bookshelf, and unscrewed the light bulb in her desk lamp. Finally after examining every knickknack on Julie’s desk, she was satisfied the place wasn’t bugged. Then Puzzle had to know everything about Julie, where she was from, if she ever worked for the government, if she knew anyone who worked for the government and if she had any sympathies for the FBI, CIA, or NSA.
There was a young man with Puzzle on their first meeting. He introduced himself as Puzzle’s friend Marcus. Julie was under the impression that Marcus looked after Puzzle, because he helped her up when she was done examining under her desk, and he tried to intervene when Puzzle unscrewed the light bulb in her desk lamp. There was something odd Julie noticed about Marcus on their first visit. He had pointy ears, which he tried to hide under his shoulder length brown hair.
During their first visit, Julie learned that Puzzle had another psychiatrist who wouldn’t let Puzzle sweep her office for bugs. There was a disagreement of some sort and Puzzle left that psychiatrist. Julie never diagnosed Puzzle officially. Puzzle herself said she was bi-polar, but she gave a fantastic story about she was really cursed by a friend at a Halloween party. Marcus confirmed this story. Julie decided it wasn’t important at that stage to dispute how Puzzle became bi-polar but to recognize she was frequently manic and paranoid.
In any event, Julie treated Puzzle and saw her on a regular basis. Last night Marcus sent her a text, stating that Puzzle had another episode. It seemed Puzzle was skipping her meds here and there, so Julie decided to clear some time in her schedule for a meeting with them. Puzzle and Marcus weren’t the only people to arrive in Julie’s office that morning. Around nine am in the morning, Julie arrived at her office on Samaritan Drive in San Jose.
The lobby was empty except for Dave, the receptionist, and a middle age woman, wearing black denim jeans, a button up checkered shirt under a dark blue sweater and tan jacket. She wore thin black-framed spectacles and had shoulder length brown hair. The woman gave Julie the impression that she was educated and middle to upper class. She stood in front of a tall, potted fichu and lobby chairs as if she were waiting for a friend who was checking in or who just finished an appointment. When Julie was took another step inside the lobby, the woman approached her and introduced herself.
“Hello, are you Doctor Herman? Anne asked.
“Yes I am.”
“My name is Anne Norton. I’m a friend of Puzzle’s.”
“I gave Marcus a call late last night and he told me you were meeting Puzzle and him this morning.”
“Yes, but I can’t discuss patients with you.”
“Oh, I’m not here to discuss Puzzle’s illness or treatment, at least not her treatment here. I don’t know if she mentioned this to you but I hosted a, um, Halloween party last year. At this party, a mutual acquaintance of Puzzle’s and mine did something, which contributed to her current condition.” Julie didn’t respond. She was obligated to protect Puzzle’s privacy so she couldn’t confirm or deny anything Puzzle discussed with her. Anne understood Julie’s position, so she just continued to explain the reason for meeting Puzzle this clinic. “I came here to show support and offer Puzzle some help. I’m not offering anything as a substitute for her counseling or medication.”
Julie was curious. Anne Norton seemed like a sincere, educated woman with good intentions. Before Julie had a chance to respond, Puzzle and Marcus walked through door.
“Mrs. Martin!” Puzzle exclaimed.
“Good morning Puzzle.” It’s not Mrs. Martin anymore. Abe and I got a divorce.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. What happened?”
“He cheated on me with Mesmerin but that’s not important right now.” Julie felt some solidarity with Anne now at that moment, because she knew what it was like to be cheated on, and considering Puzzle and Anne clearly knew each other, she was more interested in how Anne might help with Puzzle’s bi-polar. “I came here to tell you that Mesmerin is in Ireland and she’s cut all ties with the fair…err…your family here in the Bay Area. We won’t be able to make her undue the damage she caused you.” Puzzle was dismayed. Mesmerin was the one who cursed her and the only one who could undo the curse. What was to be done now?
“There is some hope however,” Anne continued. “I want you to come to this year’s Masquerade. You can walk between the bonfires and cleanse yourself of evil and misfortune. It won’t cure you, but it’ll help.”
“Is this Mesmerin the one who cursed you Puzzle?” Julie asked. Puzzle nodded in the affirmative.
“After she cursed me I developed bi-polar.”
“I see.” Julie still didn’t feel it was the right time to confront this belief, so she let it go. “What’s this masquerade you’re talking about and why do you want Puzzle to walk between two bonfires?” Julie asked, genuinely curious. Anne was prepared for this. She had a reasonable explanation that would satisfy any therapist and not include claims about fairies that would make her sound crazy.
“Puzzle, I and a group of women are apart of an earth religion.”
“We consider ourselves Pagan. Every year during Samhain, we have a party and at the end of the party we light two bonfires and walk between them. It’s a cleansing ritual to rid ourselves of misfortune we’ve accumulated during the year and protect us in the year to come.” Julie listened and nodded. It started to make sense to her now. It seemed Puzzle believed a friend of hers used magic or something to curse her. It wasn’t entirely unreasonable especially compared to her narrative about the NSA having her under surveillance. At any rate, She was all for holistic approaches, meditation and whatever the patient believed would help them, so long as they didn’t abandon therapy and go off their meds. “With your permission, I’d like Puzzle to participate in the cleansing ritual.”
Julie thought about this for a moment longer. She had no idea Puzzle had a religion of any kind. She never mentioned it before. Julie had other patients who prayed to God for help, so she filed this situation into that category. “I have no problem with that,” Julie said. “If Puzzle believes it’ll help her and as long as she takes her medication daily and makes her appointments then by all means.” She smiled at Anne and then, looked at Puzzle.
“I don’t know,” Puzzle said. The idea of attending the Fairy Masquerade was daunting to say the least. There would be loud music, drinking, dancing, possibly male strippers again and dozens of fairies.
“Marcus can come with you. Your sisters know your situation and want to help you,” Anne assured her. Puzzle looked up at Marcus.
“We can do this,” he said. “If you can’t make it then, we’ll turn around and go home.”
“Ok, let’s try the cleansing ritual.” Puzzle said. Marcus squeezed her shoulder.
Before Anne left the psychiatrist’s office, she thanked Julie and gave Puzzle the invitation with the date, time and directions to the Masquerade. Puzzle looked down at the ivory invitation with gold font. This year’s masquerade would be held at Ocean’s Beach in two weeks. She stuffed the invitation in her purse before following Julie into her office. Marcus took a seat in the waiting room and kept himself busy with a copy of The New Yorker.
Puzzle and Julie discussed Puzzle’s latest episode and the wisdom of skipping meds. Puzzle told Julie she had always been a little flighty and was never good with schedules and appointments. She said her whole family was like that. They were free spirits in a way and lived in the moment. Julie sympathized but said they needed to come up with a plan, so Puzzle would take her medication at the same time every day, not skip meals and make her all her appointments. At the end of her therapy session, Puzzle promised to let Marcus help her make a schedule and stick with it. As Puzzle left Julie’s office she thought about the masquerade and figured two weeks would give her enough time to mentally prepare herself for the trip far away from her apartment and sense of security. She hoped Marcus could caste a calming spell on her but knew it would be better if she were fully alert for the ritual and went through it sober.
Things went well over the next two weeks for Puzzle. She took her meds every day and saw Julie twice. Sometimes she babbled on about a new conspiracy theory but she didn’t have another episode and Marcus didn’t have to talk her down from a manic episode or slip his ID under her front door when he wanted to see her. She knew the Masquerade could set her off but made the effort not to fret about it. Marcus said he wasn’t going to push her. If she didn’t want to go, he wasn’t going to put her through some ordeal, drag her there kicking and screaming (not that he could).
Late in the morning of October 31st, 2016 Marcus stood in the hallway in front of Puzzle’s door about to knock. He wore sandals, a blue Hawaiian shirt and white khakis. In his hand he held a dubious black Zorro mask. He was nervous. To his relief, Puzzle opened the door and was dressed for the beach. She wore a black one-piece swimsuit with a red see through wrap. She also carried a large brown bag with bottled water, her purse, cellphone, and panther mask. She looked down at Marcus’ Zorro mask and smiled to herself. She chose not to comment on it, because she didn’t want to make him feel more awkward than he obviously did. To Marcus’ surprise, Puzzle said cheerfully, “Are you ready to go?”
“Absolutely,” Marcus said. He offered his arm and Puzzle took it as they made their way down the hall and to the elevator. Marcus explained that he rented a car and it would take them an hour or two to drive there. The drive was pleasant. Marcus popped in a CD of David Bowie’s greatest hits and they sung along to the late musicians tunes like Modern Love and Young Americans. When they arrived at the beach there was a strong, cool breeze coming off the ocean. The sky was a little overcast and Puzzle could sense strong energies in the air. They were powerful, moved around her and stirred her emotions. She felt strong and a sense of security she hadn’t felt in a long time.
Marcus spotted the fairies gathered on the beach. He called Puzzle’s attention to them. They weren’t wearing masks and there was no dancing or loud music. They stood together quietly and greeted Puzzle with hugs and kisses. Anne Norton with the help from some fairies brought down coolers and beach towels and set everything out for a picnic. The fairies sat down on the towels and ate subs and drank sodas. When evening came, they lit two bonfires and Puzzle walked between them. Something in her head clicked. The shadows she was always sacred of seemed less scary. The NSA, mind control and microchips seemed less important. The energies she felt when she first arrived rushed over her again and she remembered who she was with an unfamiliar but reassuring confidence.