L.N. Hunter shares an untidy home with two cats and a soulmate, and besides a comic fantasy novel, 'The Feather and the Lamp,' has been published in 'Best of British Science Fiction 2022' and ... [+]

Image of Short Circuit - Short Circuit #05

I saw them once, when I was little. Maybe age four or five.
The tree on the other side of the fence had branches stretching over our garden. It was too tall for me to reach the succulent, juicy plums that arrived every summer, but sometimes ripe ones would drop onto our lawn. I would gorge myself on them until I was sick. Mum would scold, telling me they were dirty and covered in germs. But I'd still eat them.

One day, I'd gobbled so many that I had to lie down, kneading my sticky fingers into my stomach to relieve the pain. Eventually the cramping subsided, and as sweat trickled across my cheeks and mingled with plum juice, I gazed up at the flickering patterns of the branches in the breeze. That's when I saw them.
Tiny bodies with gossamer wings darted in and out of the branches, their sparrow-like twittering barely audible over the rustling of the leaves. At first, I thought they were insects, but their movements didn't look right. They hovered by the juiciest of the plums, not landing, and stretched out arms—arms—to pull chunks off the fruit and shove them into their mouths.
I pushed myself up on my elbows to get a closer look.
They must have heard me because they froze in place, nothing moving, apart from their flashing wings. Then, as one, they turned and darted over the fence.
I groaned as my stomach reminded me of the two dozen plums I'd consumed. Closing my eyes, I slumped back onto the ground.
A faint buzzing woke me; they were back. Some dug small holes in the skin of the plums to get to the sweet flesh inside, while others watched me, the fat lump in the long grass, with plum juice smeared across my cheeks.
One of them flew right up to my face. Slim green body with no hair at all; two legs and two arms, ending in delicate hands like those of the marmosets I'd seen in the zoo; a pair of constantly flickering dragonfly wings; a pointy head with slitted cat eyes. It examined me, then chirruped, showing a mouth full of sharp teeth, before flying back to the tree.
They all turned to me and chittered. It felt like they were laughing, mocking my clumsy body.
Just then, a car backfired in the distance, and they disappeared into the foliage.

Later, John, my brother, laughed when I told him I'd seen fairies in the garden. He said I must have eaten fermented plums, too greedy and too stupid to know when to stop stuffing my face.

I lay under next door's plum tree the following day, waiting to catch another glimpse of them. And the day after that, and the one after, but they didn't return.

Soon there were no more plums on Mrs. Goodall's tree. But when the first fruit started to ripen in early June the next year, I was out there, lying in the shade of the tree until Mum shouted for me to come in for dinner. I waited every day until the final plum of the season fell, but saw nothing.

The next year, I watched from my bedroom window. Sometimes, I thought I saw them, but it turned out to be only a bird or a butterfly. I didn't bother to look the year after.

Time passed, and friends and school took over, with sports in the evenings. Then came university and Chris. Dear, sweet Chris.
The accident happened in my second year. I can't remember who was driving, or if we'd been drinking. I was unconscious for four weeks, which gave my broken legs and smashed jaw some time to mend. I missed Chris's funeral.
The nurses said that if I hadn't been so fat—well-padded was the euphemism they used—my injuries would have been much worse. Even so, they had to fit my legs with pins because plaster casts alone wouldn't keep the bones in the right position.

When I came home, Mum and John moved my bed to the front room downstairs, since I couldn't manage the stairs. I spent my days shuffling from bed to sofa and back. Friends came all the way from university, but I got Mum to send them away. I didn't want anyone to look at me, and I didn't want to see anyone. It gave me a headache if I read too much, and the television was painful on my eyes, so I just pointed my gaze out the window, staring at nothing, thinking about nothing.

When I finally noticed it, all that was in front of me was Mrs. Goodall's tree, bare at first, then leafy, and then it was full of fruit. Sometimes I'd see a flash of bright green among the branches, a sunbeam reflecting off a plum juice-smeared leaf.
Fairies don't exist.
Chris doesn't exist.
I wished I didn't exist.
Weeks passed, and by the time the last fruit had fallen, the plum-colored bruises had faded from my face. The plaster casts came off and physiotherapy started.
I was in no fit state to return to university that year. Watching the plum tree start to lose its leaves, I wondered if I would return at all. What was the point?

Although the winter cold made my bones ache, I learned how to use my legs again. I started off with a stick, but by spring, I needed it only for long walks, though I would never lose the limp.
Mum looked tired all the time, and John angry. I think I annoyed them simply by being there, being useless. They gradually stopped asking me if I was going back to university.

Mrs. Goodall's plums began to drop from the tree, lying on our lawn until they rotted. A feeling of disgust grew in me at the sight of them, and I went out with a basket and gardening gloves to clear up the mess.
Chirping erupted above me, and I wrenched around so quickly that my knee twinged, lancing agony up my spine to burst in my head. I blacked out.
When I came to, I was lying under the tree, staring up at the branches, watching insects flit from fruit to fruit. No, perhaps not insects. I blinked, but there was nothing among the leaves.
I remained on my back under the tree for the rest of the afternoon. The following day, and the ones after that, I brought a blanket and lay beneath the thick branches, gazing at the patterns of light through breeze-ruffled leaves.
Occasionally, a plum would land on the blanket beside me, and I'd pop it in my mouth. I even caught myself smiling as juice trickled across my cheek to tickle my ear.
But I saw nothing above apart from leaves.

I never did return to university. Instead, I got a job at the local car dealership and rental place, working at reception and carrying out office duties, and that was enough. At the end of the day, after dinner, I'd sit on a deck chair under the plum tree, drinking a beer or glass of wine.
It was important to keep a look out for the fairies in the tree. Nothing would matter until I saw them again. Sometimes I dreamed that they would bring Chris back with them. Perhaps they could do that.

Mum died—a sudden heart attack. I didn't miss this funeral. It was a small affair, just a few of her friends, and John and me, all that remained of our family. Mrs. Goodall was there, too; I guess she must have been in her nineties then. That was the first time I saw John since he'd left home. Mum had bequeathed the house to both of us equally, but John said I could live in it until one of us actually needed the money.
So far, we haven't.

It's quiet in the house now, but that's fine with me. I know the fairies can't bring Mum back, because I saw her depart, but I still wonder about Chris.
Mrs. Goodall moved into an old folks' home, and her house had a For Sale sign outside it for years. Eventually, someone bought it, but I've yet to meet them. I wonder if they'll cut down the plum tree.
I hope not.
I still sit in the garden on summer evenings, waiting and watching. But the fairies haven't come back.

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