A flash in my peripheral vision caught my attention, and made me take a look over my shoulder, convinced that something had just entered the blind spot in my rear-view mirrors. Nothing there, but I was so sure that I’d seen something. A half-heard chuckle made me curse. Everywhere I went, they found me. And I was getting tired of the constant companionship.
It all started when I was about ten. That’s when I started seeing things that I was certain no one else was seeing. Beautiful things, some of them. Tall, willowy, graceful men and women who smiled and watched over me and the other children. Butterflies and moths with bodies and faces of tiny men and women, fluttering over flowers and swirling around the swing sets and streetlamps. Others that were utterly beautiful, and utterly indescribable.
Other things—and these were the things that made me certain that no one else saw—were terrifying. If others had been able to see what I saw, they would not be playing dodge ball so calmly with those creatures so nearby. Monsters that made me glad for the ones who watched over me and my friends. Some of them looked at us with such hatred that it made me afraid…
Yeah, they kept me company in my geekly youth, but some of them got me into a lot of trouble. And it seemed as if I couldn’t escape them.
I pulled into my driveway, still cursing. Over the last ten years, I’d had eight different apartments in eight different cities in eight different states. Twice, I was able to transfer within the company I was working for. The rest of the times I’d moved, I’d had to find a new job. I was getting bloody tired of the routine of breaking my routine six years ago. I never was able to make friends, and I was damned lonely.
I slammed the door on my ancient, battered, rust colored Honda. I’ve never been sure if the rust color was the original paint, or just rust. One of the nasty tempered creatures with four legs and a delight in getting me in trouble was dancing before my front door. I stepped up onto the porch and kicked it out of my way. Due to my frustrations, I kicked it hard enough that it landed in the street, more than ten feet away. I felt guilty for half a breath—until I remembered all of the times that a similar creature had pinched girls’ rears, and I’d gotten slapped for it. I snorted, “Serves you right, you little bastard,” as I unlocked my door.
It climbed to its feet with a shriek of rage, and I gave it the finger as I stepped inside and closed the door. I’d learned through long experience (and reading in the occult section of every bookstore and library I’d ever been in) that nothing could cross the threshold of a home uninvited, not without expending a lot more power than those guys had…or else, be completely and totally normal human.
I kicked my shoes off and shrugged out of my jacket, hanging it on Grandpa’s coat tree just behind the door, eyeing my work polo with distaste.
This shade of green was so not my color.
I sighed, leaning against my front door, rubbing the bridge of my nose. It was almost time to move again. Those things were causing me major problems at work, and making it damned hard to get anything done outside my house.
I padded down the hall between the bedroom (door on the left) and the bathroom (door on the right) to the living room…and stopped short.
One of the Beautiful Ones sat on my ratty blue and white sofa, legs stretched out along the seat, and my TV remote in its hand, arm stretched out changing the channel. It looked up at me in its stunning, almost androgynous beauty, and lowered its hand to its lap, displaying that it was actually female. She smiled, a predatory expression I’d never seen on one of their faces before.
I reached into my pocket, feeling for the fast-food chain paper packet of table salt I kept there for emergencies…only to find that it wasn’t there. I took a deep breath, and turned my eyes away, then turned and headed for the kitchen. “May I offer you something to drink?” I asked. I was proud that my voice trembled only a very little.
“Yes, please, mortal.” The voice was a warm, husky alto that a phone-sex operator would give their left tit for, and it didn’t fit her at all. “I would greatly appreciate one of the green cans of soda without caffeine that you have in your appliance, there.”
“The Sprite, or the ginger ale?”
“The latter, if you please. Gather something for yourself. We have much to discuss.”
Well, shit. I opened the fridge and got a ginger ale for my uninvited guest (who I hoped like hell left most of her power outside my door), and headed into the kitchen to put a cup of coffee into the microwave for myself.
And while I was in the narrow galley kitchen with its single sink, I grabbed a handful of salt packets and jammed them in both pockets.
I puttered around until the microwave went off, then carried my coffee cup and the unopened can of soda back out to the couch. I handed the soda over to the Beautiful One, then dragged the wheeled chair out from in front of my computer.
Forgive me, but I did not want to share seating with her.
She smiled as if she could hear my reservations, and studied the top of the can briefly before taking the pull tab between a tapered index finger and long, slender thumb and popped it open. She took a sip, and closed her eyes, sighing. “It’s almost worth dealing with mortals for this,” she murmured.
I said nothing, wrapping my hands around my favorite mug with the D20 on the side, sitting on zero with critical fail printed in bolded all caps beneath it.
I suddenly wished I’d picked a different mug as she turned vivid purple cat-slanted eyes on me. “So. Human. You have been able to see things you shouldn’t have for long years. To quote one of your…sages, ‘how’s that working for you’?”
I’d just taken a sip of my coffee when she quoted Dr. Phil, and choked. I barely managed to avoid spraying coffee all over her—which likely would have been not a critical, but a fatal fail, given the way she had been eyeing me the entire time I’d been home. “It’s not,” I replied, still strangled on a little bit of very hot, very bitter, very bad coffee that had gone down the wrong pipe.
“What would you give to have your life return to normal?” she asked, swinging her legs around to sit up straight and lean toward me.
“That depends,” I said slowly.
“What you’re asking.”
She smiled, a very cold, very nasty, very hate-filled baring of teeth, rather than anything remotely friendly. The hair on the back of my neck not only stood on end, but started trying to do the tango. “It’s very simple. All we ask is…nothing.”
“Nothing,” I said doubtfully. “I don’t think I understand.”
She smirked. “I know. Mortals never do, until the moment is upon them. Just remember: when that moment comes, you do nothing. And we leave you in peace for the rest of your life.”
I closed my eyes, fighting back the feelings of frustration and depression. I felt like I was totally out of my depth, here. There was a chance, somewhere, of being able to have them leave me alone…if I could understand what was being asked of me. And if I could live with what was being asked of me. “And if I choose to do…something? When whatever time comes?” I asked carefully.
“Then you shall find that your life becomes even more unbearable than it has been to this point,” she whispered, her breath hot against my ear and neck.
I lunged out of my chair, diving away from where she had to have been standing, drenching myself and the brown carpet in still-too-hot coffee. I lost my balance entirely and landed on my right hip and left elbow, staring back toward where I’d been sitting.
Only to find that I was now completely alone in my apartment.
I’d have thought I’d dozed off and had a very strange bad dream, but for the half-empty can of cold ginger ale left sitting on my coffee table.
I scrambled to my feet and backed away from the couch and coffee table, reaching into my pocket and snatching out a couple of salt packets, ripping them open, and tossing the grains around me wildly.
Nothing changed. She wasn’t hiding under magic. She was just gone.
I staggered into the kitchen, still clutching my now-empty coffee cup by the handle, and shakily poured another cup. I stuck it in the microwave I’d had since my quickly-aborted attempt at college (don’t ask—it involved jello-shots, the beings I had only recently admitted were the fey ones from the crunchy granola new-age hippie pagan movement, and a sorority swimming pool), and quickly punched in a minute and a half to heat another cup of coffee.
Then I reached out and hit the stop button as the air pressure in my apartment changed. I peeked out of my kitchen, and nearly cursed out loud.
The fucking sliding door was standing open, with a tall, slender, androgynously-pretty male standing just inside my door.
“Excuse me,” he called out. “Is the master of the house at home?”
I sighed, scrubbing a hand through my hair. Then I stepped out of my kitchen. “I am. And how did you come in?”
The man smiled, a gentle, kind expression that stood in stark contrast to the woman’s. “I came through your door. How else?”
“Not what I meant,” I sighed. “Everything I’ve seen and read says you can’t pass a threshold uninvited.”
He shrugged one shoulder. “We can, but usually choose not to. It’s a matter of courtesy, you understand.”
“Now that you’re here, is there anything I can get for you?”
“No thank you, young one. I came to ask your aid on behalf of my family and abused children overlooked by your government,” he said, stepping around the puddle of coffee on the floor and seating himself in the office chair.
“Excuse me?” I said. “I don’t think I understand.”
“You can see us. We noticed that you saw us, and the others when you were still but a child.” He paused, reached up, and fiddled with an earlobe nervously. “You may be the only mortal on this land mass who can. There were once thousands, but the ability has faded as mortal numbers grew.”
I waited. And then realized.
“I see why you’ve come to me,” I said slowly. “What I don’t understand is what you want from me.”
He held up one hand, palm in the air. “We want you to be our…ambassador, if you will. We want you to take money we give you, and create something that can help children suffering abuse. There are so very many, and so few are being helped by those whose livelihood it is, while those in good homes are removed for no good reason.” He flung both hands into the air, and blew a frustrated breath out through his nose. “It’s infuriating. We have the money to help the helpless, but no longer the ability. Too many can no longer see us.
“At least, not without someone there who can see us.” His bright green eyes snapped from the floor up to meet mine. “With you there as an intermediary, we can use your ability to help others see us. To interact with the world again. To help the children again, as we used to do.”
I made my way around the end of the coffee table, and sank down onto the end of the couch.
That was one hell of a request. I’d had several classmates that I’d suspected were abused. I’d never seen anyone with the ability to do something about it lift a finger to help. Not once.
I took a deep breath. Let it out. Leaned back and dropped my head back onto the back of the couch. “There’s more than one faction of you people, isn’t there,” I said quietly.
A moment of silence had me glancing over at my guest. His attention was focused on the half-empty can of ginger ale in front of me. He sighed. “Yes. There is.”
“The other side doesn’t like mortals.”
“No. They don’t. We’ve always done our best to stand in the way of them harming anyone.”
I turned my eyes back up to the stained sheetrock ceiling with the crumbling popcorn texturing and random spots of glitter. “And how will they react if I choose to help you?”
“Badly,” he admitted. “But we won’t let them harm you.”
“How do you define harm?” I asked quietly. “Actual injury, or day-in, day-out harassment that permits me no rest?”
The reluctance in his voice weighed heavy on my conscience. “I’m afraid injury is the only thing we can protect against.”
I sighed and closed my eyes. “I was afraid of that. My life has been a living hell since I left home. The other side hasn’t left me alone for long. I cannot stay in one place for long without the harassment starting again. I can’t keep a job, friends, a home—can you protect me from that?”
The silence was longer, this time. “No,” he said quietly. “But we can fund your basic needs. You’ll never want for money, or for a home.”
“And what good is that money if I can’t use it to buy what I need?” I asked. I couldn’t look at him as I built my case for doing…nothing. “Every time I leave my house, I’m followed. I can’t provide for my basic needs because…something always happens. A fire alarm goes off just after I’ve loaded my cart. The money I just got cashing my check is counterfeit. The registers go down.”
“They got to you first,” he said flatly. “What did they promise you, and what did they ask?”
I drew in a deep breath through my nose, and let it out slowly through my mouth. “They asked me to do nothing. And in exchange, they’d leave me alone for the rest of my life. Or, they’d make it even more of a living hell than it already is.”
“So you’ll sit back and refuse to aid those who need it most,” he said flatly. I could hear the outrage in his tone.
“So you’ll sit back and refuse to prevent my life from becoming worse,” I said, sitting up and looking into the blue, blue eyes of the tall, slender man in my rickety, wheeled desk chair.
He ran frustrated hands through long, blond hair. “There is nothing I can do to prevent it,” he hissed. “Our courts are equal in power.”
I shrugged. “And through doing nothing, you are forcing me to make the choice to do nothing.”
“And the children?” he hissed.
I looked away. This was far harder than I thought it would be.
Then I thought about a life that I’d finished unpacking from the last move. People I’d started to meet at the little geeky book and game shop I’d just found on one of the little one-way streets in this oddly-laid-out little town. A job that was paying my bills, and was beginning to feel the effects of my harassment, a job that I might be able to keep, if I just did…nothing.
“How long will it be,” I asked quietly, “before the harassment that I face in taking care of my necessities extends to my brakes? If you do nothing to protect me, then there’s nothing I can do to help you. Not for long. They said they’d make the rest of my life a living hell if I did…something. She never said how long the rest of my life would be.”
He stood, looking down at me so sadly that I could feel it on my skin. “And how long will the rest of your life be if they leave you alone?” he asked.
I looked up, startled, but he was already gone, in the same way she had left.
Here’s hoping for a long, boring life, all spent in one place.
But now, I wasn’t counting on it.
And now, I wished that I’d chosen the other option.
I was going to have to look into an electric shaver, I decided as I pushed myself to my feet and went to look in my fridge for something to eat. I damn sure didn’t think I could stand to look in the mirror long enough to shave with my normal disposables.