Sal accepted the epidural anesthetic but it was still the worst physical pain she had ever borne in her life. She was amazed at herself when she didn’t just pass out. Friends had warned her as daintily as they could about the pain and sweat and mess of bodily fluids, all of which they said was worth the trouble. But no one had mentioned that she would see the life of the universe pass before her eyes, and feel the tug of the moon at her heart, and hear the songs of all the waters on the earth.
Afterward, sore and drained as she was, when the doctor placed her swaddled son in her arms, she looked down at his brilliant blue eyes and she grinned.
You and me, kid, she thought.
“Welcome to the world, Roland,” she said. “I’m your mom. And you’re my son.”
She didn’t remember being so happy since she herself was a child. She wanted to sleep for a week. But she also wanted to stop sleeping forever so she could just watch him.
A gaggle of loved ones brought her and her new son home in the morning. They all stayed during the day and as evening fell, one by one they left, leaving behind well wishes and reminders of when they would take their shifts with Sal and the baby.
She was leaning over his crib when her best friend walked into the room with a cup of tea. It was a blustery day and it had just begun to rain.
“I need to get it out of my system,” Sal said, watching her son sleep. He made a little noise and wiped a tiny fist over his nose before settling down. “I can’t be watching him sleep when he’s twenty. That’ll be creepy.”
Thinking of her son as a grown man made her think of his father, his biological father. He had the same deep and dazzling blue eyes that he had passed on to his son.
They had been together for a few years. They were in love, both of them. And it was the first time she had not let herself be swallowed up into someone else’s needs and wants and desires and personality. She met him after she had gotten a job where she’d learned how to let go of so many roadblocks that she had needlessly waited behind. Expectations and insecurity and the need to prove things to others. She wanted to settle down, but saw that he was not ready. Despite all the ups and downs in life, she was doing well when all was said and done. She had learned to be patient, within reason, and to be temperate, and far more understanding than she had been. She just wanted to be with him and no one else. And she hoped that he felt the same.
Then she learned that she was pregnant. She knew that Ken probably wouldn’t be ready, but she believed he would rise to the occasion. She didn’t expect wedlock. But she did expect him to be mature enough to help her through her pregnancy. Instead he seemed instantly terrified when she told him. He left her that night, kissing her lightly on the forehead and saying he needed time to think. She was upset, but she resolved to give him some time. She gave him a day, then called to reassure him, but did not reach him. The temptation to feel sorry for herself was palpable. She could taste the saltiness of the tears that wanted to come. At the same time, she could not truly believe that he would abandon her.
But he did.
After a few more days of waiting, she called again. His line had been disconnected. She went to his place and found that he had left, moved with all of his possessions, save whatever he had left behind at her place. She had told no one else of her pregnancy. It was early and she didn’t feel yet that spark of life within her. She became more worried than angry. She asked everyone he knew that she could get a hold of, but no one knew where he’d gone. As worried as she was, she had herself to take care of, and soon enough, her child.
She finally told her best friend, who threatened to track down the “deadbeat coward” and make him answer for leaving. But Sal still loved him, still could not believe the worst of him. She hoped he would return. But deep down, she knew he would not. Deep down she hoped her feelings for him would fade in time. And that she would figure out what to tell her child.
Nine months passed. She worked. She took care of herself. Her friends took care of her. Her only living parent, her father, retired and moved close to her so he could help her. He warned her that he had no intention of being as strict as he was with her. His intention was to spoil his grandchild.
All was well. She reached out to all her loved ones to recruit any who were willing to help her be there for her child. She prepared a room in her house. She read books. She asked questions. She got scared. She got excited. She felt more helpless than ever before. She felt stronger than ever.
She had the baby. She had Roland.
Sal heard the knock on the door, but she knew someone else would take care of it. She just watched Roland sleep. Her body still ached and she was in need of a good night’s sleep herself, but she was mesmerized. He had cried little since taking his first breath. She heard sluggish footsteps on the stairs and turned as one of her friends walked into the room. He said there was a man outside who had some paperwork about the baby. Sal asked if the man was from the hospital, but her half-asleep friend hadn’t thought to ask any questions before fetching Sal. The hour was not too late, so even though she found it a bit odd, Sal went down to see who it was and what he wanted while her friend watched over her son.
She didn’t recognize the smiling man who greeted her from the other side of the screen door. He was wearing a hat, which he tipped to her before putting it back on. The porch provided some protection from the downpour outside, but Sal could still feel droplets bouncing and blowing toward her as she opened the screen door.
“I thought I would wait till you were home,” the man said. “It’s good to see you, Saloma.”
“Who are you?” she asked. “Are you from the hospital?”
“Ah, you need a name. Mr. Gardner.” He offered his hand and she shook it. It was warm. “I am here to collect on our bargain.”
Sal frowned. “My friend said you were here about some paperwork. Are you from the hospital?”
“I see you have forgotten me,” the man said. “We have met before, years ago. We made a bargain. And I am here to collect on that bargain.”
Sal tipped her head to the side, trying to see the man’s face under the hat he wore, a dark gray fedora. She saw sharply handsome features, but could not recall them. “To collect what?” she asked, and she stepped back behind the screen door.
“That which you promised me.” The man stepped forward. “Your firstborn.”
Something came over her then. Some feeling struck her. Fear was knocked out of her. She let the screen door close and blocked the doorway like a wall of stone.
“You can’t have him,” she said. “He’s my son. And if this is a joke, it’s a sick one, and you’ll tell me who put you up to it, so I can deal with them.”
“I am not without mercy,” the man said, unfazed. He reached one arm behind himself and when he brought it forth, there was a baby in his arm. “I have brought something to fill the void that will be left by the absence of the child of your body.”
Sal looked at the bundle in the man’s arms. “Whose baby is that?”
The man shrugged. “It is mine, but I will give it to you in exchange for the one you have, though it was not included in our bargain.”
Sal pushed opened the screen door, making the man take a step back. She held out her arm. “It’s not yours, is it? Give me that baby.”
“Not unless you give me yours.”
Sal kept her eyes on the man as she yelled for her friend to bring her a phone. “Stay right here.”
She yelled out for her friends again.
“I am not without mercy. I will return in seven days to claim the child that you promised me. You have that long to say goodbye.”
Before her friends could slap a phone in Sal’s hand, the man melted away into the rain. Sal ran upstairs to her son.
Roland was still sleeping in his crib.
Sal called the police. She told them and her friends and family what happened. And she kept Roland in eyeshot at all times.
“And you said you’ve never seen this man before?” one of the officers asked her. She had Roland in her arms on the sofa. He was still sleeping despite all the noise everyone was making. The house was full again.
“I thought I hadn’t, but actually I have.” In the time between her encounter with “Mr. Gardner” and the arrival of the police, Sal remembered.
She remembered the day she was on her way to a job interview in the pouring rain. Her car had broken down in the middle of the street and she decided that was it for the interview. But a man walking on the sidewalk ran over. He told her to stay in the car and steer it as he pushed it into a nearby lot. She checked her watch and saw that she could make it to her interview if she called a cab. He gave her his umbrella to use and asked if she would be okay. She exaggerated her thanks by saying he’d saved her life.
“I thought it was a joke,” Sal said. “An exaggeration just like mine. He said that I could repay him with my firstborn someday. I laughed and said I didn’t plan on ever having kids so it was a deal and we shook hands goodbye.”
She remembered shaking his hand. It was warm and dry.
“I got the job,” Sal said. “It’s how I was able to afford this house. How I was able to even dream about settling down. I would have given up on the interview if he hadn’t helped. I thought he was just a kind stranger. Has he been stalking me all this time? Waiting for me to have a baby?” She shuddered and Roland shifted in his sleep.
In the days that followed, Sal was ever-vigilant, as were her loved ones, who patrolled her house and surrounding streets so watchfully that the neighbors noticed and asked and joined in. Sal was heartened by the true kindness that her friends and neighbors showed her and her son. But it also reminded her of the false kindness that a stranger showed her years ago.
Some agents from an agency she’d never heard of came by to interview her. Her suspicion was on high, but they had given names and badge numbers and had insisted that the local police department could vouch for them. They promised to watch the house on the day the man said he’d returned. They came as promised. A police squad car came. Friends came. Her dad came. Even the one blogger who had somehow found out about her plight and wanted to write about her story came. She didn’t want that kind of attention, but she welcomed him there. The more eyes on her house, the better. Sal knew that everyone else’s vigilance would not last beyond that named day. She knew that if the stranger was chased away that night, he would just come back some other night. But she still dreaded that seventh day.
She did not let her son out of her sight for a moment.
The day came and went and the man didn’t return. And he didn’t return the next day. Or the next. Each day, Sal looked down at her son and into his brilliant blue eyes and she hoped and she prepared.
She changed her life, her work, so she could watch over her son and yet not smother him. Always that man was on her mind. A year went by. Then another. And another. Her son had milestones. Crawling. Teething. Walking. There were pictures and videos. Birthdays, holidays, everyday days. His black hair grew not straight like Sal’s but shaggy, earning him the nickname “black sheep” from his own mother. He developed a taste for crayons, literally. He developed other favorites. Like the color green. And the fruit pineapple. And mashed potatoes. And some cartoon with a dopey-voiced alligator and a theme song that Sal found insufferable.
It was always on the back of Sal’s mind that the rainy day stranger, or even some other dangerous stranger, might carry off her child at any moment. The stranger became a part of her general fears. And her life and her son’s life went on.
The first time Sal noticed that something was amiss was when she was at the pediatrician’s office with Roland. He had been suffering a low-grade fever, a mild rash on his leg, and a poor appetite for a few days. He was starting to recover and she’d brought him in for a check-up.
They were alone in the waiting room. Roland was playing with some blocks, and Sal reminded herself to wash his hands before they went into the examination room. The nurse at the front desk had a daughter only a year older than Roland. Sal struck up a conversation with her until the office phone rang. With the nurse occupied by work, Sal turned around and had her breath knocked out of her.
Wooden blocks were floating before her son, who had both hands turned out toward the blocks. He promptly dropped his hands and the blocks all fell down too.
They were called in a moment later, and Sal had no time to think about what she had seen, but she did not mention it to the doctor.
Nothing unusual happened for the rest of that day. Sal was almost able to convince herself that she had imagined it. But she saw it again. Just as he had learned to walk, to run, to make marks on paper, he also seemed to be struggling to learn skills that other toddlers never learn. She caught him levitating a few inches above the ground once. He continued levitating other objects. He seemed to have some telepathic connection with their new dog, who only seemed to understand Roland’s commands.
For weeks it continued and she told no one. For a new fear was forming in her mind and heart. A fear she did not want to face. She looked into Roland’s eyes and saw her son. She loved the child she had. But she feared that the rainy day stranger had managed to make that switch that he promised to make. She feared that he had taken her normal human child, the child of her body, and replaced him with an enchanted baby boy.
She grew more and more anxious. She had never followed up with the police about that baby she had seen in the stranger’s arm that night. She had only cared about having Roland safe with her. She started thinking of the two boys as brothers, both her sons. She didn’t know how, but she knew she had to find the other boy. She decided that she was going to hunt down that stranger, rescue the son of her body, and raise both boys while the man who threatened them and abducted her child rotted in jail. But she knew she was dealing with something more than a man. And she could think of only one place to seek help.
Sal called those agents that had come to see her a few years ago, after the stranger came to take Roland. Sal had done some searching and discovered that the agents were involved in investigating unusual phenomenon and cases. The name of the agency wasn’t known publically. But the specific divisions and what most of them investigated were well-known. The agents who had questioned Sal were from a division called DarkAmber, which investigated and handled paranormal and supernatural occurrences. They had suspected something that long ago and had therefore left their cards. But Sal had never followed up with them either till now.
When the agents arrived, Sal told them everything she knew, every suspicion she had. Though she knew what they investigated, she was still surprised when they believed her and when they had a theory about what happened.
According to the agents, the man that Sal called the rainy day stranger was a fairy, most likely one of high rank. The agents admitted to knowing only the basics about fairies and their culture. But they shared what they did know. Fairies needed humans, at least every once in a while, in order to sustain their race. Human beings have some intrinsic magic from their spirits that fairies lack. The man surely tricked Sal into giving away her child. The agents proposed a DNA test, which Sal agreed to though she knew what the results would be. They had an advanced field kit with them. Within the hour, they were able to determine in duplicate results that Roland really was Sal’s son.
Sal felt a shocked and cautious relief. She looked at Roland, who was coloring at the coffee table.
“But how is he able to do what he can do? I’m only human and as far I know, we don’t have any psychic abilities or supernatural stuff on my side of the family.”
“What about his father?” the older agent asked. He reminded Sal of Santa Claus, if Santa Claus were svelte and kept his beard and hair trimmed, and wore dark tailored suits. Maybe it was also because his name of Nick.
Sal had never forgotten Ken, of course. But it had never occurred to her that he had any connection to anything that had happened.
“I have a scenario,” Agent Nick said. His scenario explained how the children could have been switched without anyone knowing. If the fairy was one who had the power of illusion, of glamour. In the scenario, the rainy day stranger who had helped her returned later in a different form to court her. He likely pretended to be scared about the pregnancy and then fled. He later returned as his true form to claim the child.
The other agent, a young man whose hair reminded Sal of Roland’s looked unconvinced. “That doesn’t make sense. If he wanted the child, he could have just stayed, switched out their real son with a doppelganger, and left without raising any suspicions. If there’s a connection between those two men, I don’t think it’s that they’re the same person.”
Sal hoped not. It made her sick to think that the stranger who had tricked her and tried to abduct her son was the same person she had fallen in love with and wanted to settle down with.
“So, why didn’t he take Roland?” she asked, despite knowing the agents did not have an answer. “Is he still coming for him? Or did he give up?”
“It’s not likely that he gave up, ma’am,” Agent Nick said.
His partner stood up and began to pace. “Fairies aren’t like humans. They can’t just abduct children, or anyone actually, without permission.”
“He had my permission,” Sal said. “He tricked me.”
Agent Nick smiled at her. “Maybe that doesn’t fly anymore.”
“Maybe you had some other protection.” Nick’s partner pointed to a picture on the wall. “The boy’s father?”
Sal nodded. It was a picture of Ken and herself at a picnic.
“Did the man who came to your door have blue eyes?”
“I don’t remember. It was raining.”
“Rain, both times.”
The agent paced toward her. “Does your son like the water?”
“He loves it. Half my friends warned me about bed time and bath time. But I haven’t had any problems with either. He’d probably throw a tantrum if I didn’t give him a bath.”
The agents glanced at each other. “Undine?”
Sal blinked. “What’s ‘undine’?”
“They are water elementals, older than fairies but still related, I believe.”
“We have to track down Roland’s father,” the younger agent said. “Your son may be part-undine, which means it came from his dad. And that means there is a connection between the father and this stranger.”
Agent Nick nodded as he rose from the couch. “In the meantime, we’ll put you in touch with some people who may be able to help your son learn how to use and control his emerging abilities.”
The agents found him. She had doubted, but they found him. He came to her door alone and of his own accord when they told him her story.
Sal thought she would feel a flood of emotion. She had feared it as soon as they said they would track him down. But she felt calm when she saw Ken. And she was glad to see him again, someone she once loved and always would in some way. But she also felt a justified sense of a debt owed.
She welcomed him inside and watched him as he saw Roland for the first time. He seemed to tense up as if he wanted to fly from the boy and fly to the boy at the same time. Sal just watched. She fetched Ken a bottle of water. She kept her eyes on her son, who sat on the carpet playing with a disparate assortment of toys that belonged to him and to his companion, the neighbor’s daughter, who Sal was watching while her parents were at work.
Ken took a swig of water and started talking.
“The man who helped you that day and who came back for your child was my father. He’s a lord among the water-folk.” He looked at Sal, but Sal just sat down and listened.
“He did indeed trick you, as was the ancient custom, into making a deal. When he realized that you had meant it when you said you wanted no children, he sent me to court you and assure that you did indeed have a child, an even more valuable child than the pure human one he’d meant to collect. A child that was half-human and half-undine. Your agents were right when they told you that we need the diversity among our people. The undine need the spark of life and energy that comes from human spirits. We don’t have any souls or spirits of our own. We can live without them, but we wouldn’t be the same. We would turn wild and feral. We’d probably die out eventually.
“I never believed in my father’s old-fashioned and barbaric ways, but I went along with the plan, because I thought I could help. I convinced him to leave a changeling in your child’s place, so that all parties would be satisfied. The baby he brought to you that night is all right. He was an undine. My father returned him to his mother after you refused him that first night. He only gave you the seven days because you had named the baby already. People used to wait to do that. The name gives him some protection, even from the contract my father made with you.”
Sal leaned back in her chair as Ken continued.
“I’d lived in human society for many years, but I never had any close ties to any humans, until you. I did fall in love with you, unwillingly at first. Staying with you, being with you and with you friends, and your family, I realized that I had some of my father’s prejudice about humans. I realized that if you ever had any children, you would never be able to let go of them and just exchange them for any prize. It had never occurred to me before.
“So I did my best to make sure that you didn’t get pregnant. I reported to my father that you could not have children. But I worried what would happen if you left me and settled down with someone else, a human man, and if you had children. My father would know. The contract would tell him. So I tried to plan what to do. And while I planned, you became pregnant.
“I’m nowhere near as powerful as my father. I would never be able to protect you and our child. I tried to make another deal with him. I hoped I could find another woman, one I could tell the truth to from the beginning. I know it sounds horrible, but I was desperate to keep him away from you. I had an idea, but I didn’t know if I could do it all, much less do it in nine months. I had to leave. I planned to come back right after the baby was born. But he came a little early, didn’t he?”
Sal nodded. “By a week.”
“I started building a maze, not a physical maze, but a maze of enchantments of a sort. The plan was to build it and place it around the child. The maze would be so complex that it would take all of our child’s life for my father to wind through it and reach him. I couldn’t be sure that I would be able to manage it in time. I couldn’t explain this to you. You wouldn’t have believed me. So I thought it would be better to let you believe you were abandoned, to rage against me, then forget me. And I never planned to return to bother you or our son again.
“Just as I feared, I couldn’t finish the maze. I had a little help, but not much. Not many who would be willing to go against my father. He’s not evil, just unyielding. I returned here. I found out what happened. So I changed my plan. On that seventh night, when he was supposed to return for the baby, I intercepted my father and whisked him away to the maze. Instead of putting our child in the maze, I put my father in it. He’s been in it this whole time. And I have been trying to build it around him, finish it. He wouldn’t suffer or die from a few hundred years of wandering. He would just be out of our hair. But now that he’s in it, it’s harder and harder to build around him. I think I might be near the limit of my abilities to go further.
“I don’t know how much longer it will hold him,” Ken said. “And when he comes out, he’s going to be very angry.” He took another drink of water.
Sal took a deep breath and exhaled. “I believe you. Thank you for protecting Roland all these years.” She raised her brows. “It would have been good to know, for my anxiety’s sake, but I understand now why you couldn’t be here.” She leaned forward. “Now I want to know what I can do to protect Roland from your father.”
Ken shifted his gaze down, and if he was still the same Ken that he was, that meant there was something he knew that he was reluctant to tell her.
“You may not owe me anything, but you owe him.” She tipped her head toward her son.
His forehead creased slightly and he glanced up at her. “I do owe you.”
“Is there anything a mere human can do to protect herself from your father and his kind?”
“Yes, there are tricks I can teach you. They will take time.” He glanced over at Roland and his eyes widened.
Sal followed his gaze and saw that Roland was levitating a stuffed chick into his giggling friend’s hands.
“Someone will have to teach him not to do that in public once he gets older,” Ken said, but he was smiling.
“I’ve been put in touch with people who can help with that.”
Ken’s smile faded somewhat. “That’s good.”
Sal gulped and wondered if she was making a mistake as she asked. “Do you want to be a part of his life?”
Ken looked at her, training his brilliant blue eyes on her. “I would.”
“Are you capable of sticking around and not flitting here and there?”
He frowned. “Is that a fairy joke?”
“Does it look like I’m joking? You once knew me better than that.”
“Sorry, I’m…I feel so guilty.”
Sal nodded. “Well it’s good to know you have a conscience, but nobody here is an angel. This whole time you’ve been guarding your son against a real threat. I just regret that we couldn’t have figured something out together.”
“I can keep faith, Sal. I’ll prove it to you both.”
Sal took a deep breath. “I wouldn’t concern yourself with me, if I were you.” She pointed to Roland.
“He is the center of my universe now,” she said. “Now and forevermore.”
“You really should abolish the practice of tricking women into giving up their firstborn children.”
Ken looked down. “The rules these days actually forbid it, but if you’re powerful enough, you can find ways around the rules.”
“Fair warning. I’m not much of a fighter.”
“Neither am I. I just want to live my life, with my son. That, I am willing to fight for.”
He offered his hand. “Then let’s make it so.”
Sal hesitated. The last time she shook hands with an undine, she gave away a treasure more valuable than her own life.
Ken seemed to understand. He smiled awkwardly and began to retract his hand. But then Sal grasped it. “There’s a saying we have, ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’ But I have my own saying now. All the scorned women in the world have no fury like a mother whose child is threatened.”
Ken’s face tightened. He nodded. “Once I teach you some of the tricks that your people have used to thwart our kind, I may need to protect my father from you.”
Sal released his hand. “Live and let live. That’s all I ask. My son is one of your kind. And even if he wasn’t, I couldn’t justify hating all of you because of what one of you did to me.”
Sal sighed. “I hope I can live up to them.”
Ken rose as the children burst out in a fit of giggles. “I’ll be going now. May I return tomorrow?”
Sal nodded. “I’ll tell Roland who you are. Just give us a bit of time.”
Ken smiled. “The undine realm is nice. I would like to show him someday.”
“Not before I check it out first.”
“I wouldn’t bring him without you.”
Sal walked him to the door. “You…live longer than humans?”
“Good. Don’t abandon him after I’m gone.”
“I won’t. I pro—“
“Don’t promise. Promises are made to be broken.”
“We won’t always agree on everything.”
“I know. We never did. I remember.”
“We have a lot of work to do.”
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.