When the Moon is Waning
The young woman sat in her chair, peering from under a thatch of untrimmed bleached blonde bangs. An invisible cloud of cheap jasmine-scented perfume surrounded her. She seemed to be hiding from either me or the whole world behind a mask of heavy makeup in screaming-bright colors. I was willing to bet that if the foundation, blush, mascara, and eye pencil were washed off, her delicate beauty wouldn't need makeup to enhance it.
Her medical chart indicated her name was Lizeth Garcia, age eighteen. She was gravida one, para zero, which meant she was pregnant for the first time. A doctor's note stated Lizeth Garcia was referred to me for a nutrition consultation.
"Good morning, Lizeth. My name is Cynthia Nolan. I'm a dietitian. Your obstetrician is concerned that you are in your third trimester but you are losing weight, and it might affect your baby. I'd like to find out if there is something we can do to help you."
Lizeth nodded, bangs swaying. Her wide-open brown eyes, heavily outlined with a blue pencil and entirely too much sparkly mascara, made her look like she was in front of a large audience, struggling with a bad case of stage fright. She seemed on the verge of bolting for the door.
Nervousness is normal for teenage mothers, but I had a hunch Lizeth was afraid of something different than becoming a mother for the first time. "How's your appetite?"
She licked her lips, smearing the Pepto-Bismol-colored lipstick at the corners of her mouth. Her hands clutched the seat of the chair as if she was in danger of flying off. "Umm, I've got nausea and food grosses me out."
"Do you have vomiting?"
"Yeah. Like three times a day."
I looked at her nutrition and health questionnaire, a form that I have patients fill out while they wait for me to call them into my office. Among the misspelled words, she had dotted her j's and i's with little hearts. The questionnaire showed Lizeth subsisted mostly on potato chips and soda.
"You must really be feeling lousy," I said. "It doesn't look like you're eating much."
Lizeth just shrugged and tugged her short pink skirt toward her knees. Her eyes roamed along the walls of my office and settled on the large framed poster of orange dahlias in a crystal vase.
I waited, giving her a chance to gather her thoughts and her courage to open up to me.
Without meeting my eyes she said, "I just don't feel like eating. I'm like always tired, so I sleep a lot."
Her nutrition and health questionnaire asked if the patient craved any substances that weren't food. Lizeth hadn't marked any of the usually craved substances: ice, laundry starch, cigarette butts, carpet fibers, dirt, clay, and paint chips. Instead she had circled "other," but she hadn't elaborated what this Other was.
"You marked that you crave Other, but you didn't say what it was. Can you tell me what you crave?"
She lowered her head. From under the bangs a tear fell on her skirt, leaving a dark pink stain near the hem. Her shoulders rose defensively. "You're gonna think I'm nuts."
"I see many pregnant women every day, and when they are anemic or missing some sort of a nutrient in their diet, they can crave all sorts of things that aren't food. There's nothing funny about it. It's a nutritional deficiency like any other. There are things we can do to help you."
She covered her face with her delicate hands and muttered something which sounded like, "I don't think anyone could help me," but I wasn't sure.
She was silent for almost a full minute. Then in a small, frightened voice she whispered, "I crave dragonfly wings."
It was my turn to be silent. I fingered the circular amulet that hung from a silver chain around my neck, tracing the androgynous face hidden among ivy leaves. I had worn it for the last twenty years for protection. Touching it soothed me in times of stress.
Lizeth said, "You ever talked to a pregnant woman that craved dragonfly wings?"
I crossed and uncrossed my legs under the desk. This could be just a weird craving she had. On the other hand, it could be something a whole lot worse. If it was the latter, it would explain why Lizeth acted so terrified.
I drew a deep breath. "Yes, I knew somebody who craved dragonfly wings when she was pregnant."
Lizeth lifted her head and brushed aside her bangs, meeting my eyes for the first time. "Who?"
I didn't have to tell her the truth. I could just walk away. After all, what did I know about this girl? I'd never met her before. My intuition told me that her craving was not just a pregnancy-related pica, albeit it was unusual. She was in deep trouble, this girl, and if I involved myself, I'd be in trouble, too. But it was unlikely that she would find anyone else to help her before it was too late.
"My mom," I told her.
She wrapped her slender arms around her midriff and chewed on her bottom lip. "Then you're . . . You're like my baby . . ."
"A half-breed. That's what they call us."
Lizeth covered her mouth with a pale fist and blinked back tears furiously. Dirty rivulets of mascara rolled down her blush-reddened cheeks. "He said . . . He said he was gonna come back and take my baby away from me, if the baby is pretty enough. I can't let him have my baby. I don't have any family. I don't wanna be alone anymore. But he will . . . Because he is . . ."
"I know who, or rather, what he is." Clenching my teeth to keep them from chattering, I rose to my unsteady feet. I picked up my chair and set it next to hers. I took her hands in mine. Her fingers were ice cold and trembling. Mine weren't much warmer. "Just don't say the name of the father of your baby or what he is. Words like that can attract their attention. And we both know who they are."
She nodded and squeezed my hands hard. "He was so beautiful. You know how they say at the high school health classes, just say no to sex? Well, I couldn't say no to him."
"For us it's pretty much impossible to say no to anything they want from us."
"Did they take you?" She sniffed back tears, and I handed her a box of tissues.
"Yes. I spent twenty years in their accursed kingdom as their slave. That's what they do to half-breeds like me and your baby, if they think we are pretty enough to be their playthings. I escaped. I was lucky. Also I stole this from them." I pointed at my amulet. "It makes me look and feel human."
"What do you look like without the amulet?"
I locked the door. "This is a bit unprofessional." I unzipped the back of my dress, unclasped my bra and took the amulet off my neck. Tendrils of pale blue fog formed around my feet, growing upward until they surrounded me. All I could see was glowing blue fog, which smelled like hyacinths. Then the fog thinned and vanished.
Lizeth gasped. "Oh my God. You've got wings. Like a dragonfly."
I looked over my shoulder. It had been years since I'd seen myself in my true form. The wings in their brilliant neon blues and faceted like stained glass were beautiful, spanning about six feet from tip to tip.
Lizeth reached out and gently touched the edge of my left wing. "They're real."
"Real but useless. It's like having an appendix, an organ without any apparent function."
"You can't fly?"
"Not even levitate." I put the amulet back on and again the hyacinth-smelling fog formed around me and then dissipated. "I shouldn't be too long without the amulet, because they might sense it." I fastened the bra and zipped my dress back up.
"My baby's father had wings kind of like yours, but he could fly."
"That's because he is full-blooded." I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples. I had to decide what to do about Lizeth. If I chose not to involve myself then her baby would be taken away from her. He or she would become a slave for centuries because in their kingdom, in that beautiful Hell where even flowers never died, mortals could live forever, so long as we didn't go back to the mortal world. I'd been such a slave, used in any way it pleased my captors. If I didn't help Lizeth, who would?
I opened my eyes. "You said you were an orphan. Where do you live?"
"In a small apartment with two roommates."
"When you have your baby, I'll have you move into a motel for a few days. It'll make it more difficult for them to find you. Not impossible, because very few things are impossible to them. I'll also give you my amulet for the baby to wear. It'll hide her or him from them."
Lizeth blinked. "What're you gonna do? Won't they find you without the amulet?"
"Yes, but . . ." I pointed at the wrinkles in the corners of my eyes. "They only take attractive humans that are young."
"But won't they come after you for stealing the amulet and running away?"
"Because they stop aging after turning twenty-five, and because we don't age if we live in their kingdom, they have trouble recognizing us after we've aged a decade or two. But just in case they track me by the feel of my magic, I know how to protect myself." I sounded more sure than I actually felt. After all, the father of Lizeth's baby was an immortal. You couldn't kill an immortal; you could only hope to transform him into something else. Back when I'd lived in their kingdom I witnessed an execution ordered by their Queen. Afterward, I heard that if the executed person received enough water and sunlight, he would be reborn. That was unless the Queen chose to destroy whatever it was the body of the executed person had turned into.
"What about your wings? Anybody who sees them would know that you aren't human."
I took out a pair of scissors from my desk drawer and handed them to Lizeth. "You have to help me." I unzipped my dress and unfastened my bra again, then I took the amulet off. My wings materialized in a blue, hyacinth-smelling cloud. "Clip them as close to my back as you can."
"Wouldn't it hurt?" Lizeth threaded her fingers into the scissors' holes and clicked the blades experimentally.
"No. It's like clipping a chicken's feathers to keep it from flying away. If I had any feeling in my wings, I probably would've been able to fly, like they do. They're mostly just an inconvenience, although thanks to the amulet even I can't see or feel them. Go ahead and clip them."
Lizeth rose and steadied herself with one hand on the chair's arm. She touched my back at the base of the left wing, fingers cold and jittery.
I took a deep breath and let the air out slowly. Though the wings were useless, they were still a part of me.
The scissors opened with a soft snick of blade against blade. When they cut into the wing, it sounded like cutting into a thin sheet of soft plastic.
Almost four months later, Lizeth gave birth to a baby girl. She had a dark brown birthmark that looked like a line in the middle of her upper back. It surprised the doctors and nurses who hadn't seen anything like it before. I knew what the birthmark was: in about a year it would become a pair of flightless dragonfly wings.
As soon as Lizeth and her baby were transferred into a hospital room I put the amulet around the baby's neck. It made the birthmark on her back vanish. We had to keep her in a shirt to avoid calling attention to the disappeared birthmark.
Once they were discharged from the hospital I moved Lizeth and her baby into a motel on the other side of town. And then I watched the moon because I knew the baby's father would come for her when the moon was in its waning phase. It was almost full, so I had a few days to prepare.
I figured the baby's father, if he came after me at all, wouldn't seek me any public place. He would probably come to my home. So when I was at home I made sure I wasn't ever far from my loaded 9mm Glock. Of course bullets alone would never kill one of them. I needed to fortify the bullets with something lethal.
Some plants are deadly to them. St. John's Wort was one. I went to a local herb and vitamin shop and purchased a bottle of St. John's Wort extract.
I lined up the bullets on a clean towel, picked one up, dipped a Q-tip into the bottle of St. John's Wort and started spreading the liquid all over the bullet. I yelped when I accidentally touched my finger with the saturated Q-tip. It made my skin burn. I dropped the Q-tip and stuck my reddened finger under cool running water. It was as if my skin had come in contact with sulfuric acid.
After the pain finally subsided I dried my finger and put a Band-Aid on it. It hadn't occurred to me that St. John's Wort would be dangerous to even a half-breed. I put on a pair of thick rubber gloves and finished treating the rest of the bullets. When they dried, I loaded them into the Glock.
I also practiced my magic skills. Of course my magical abilities were pale things compared to the stuff they could do, but I could create a few convincing illusions that might serve as a distraction, or so I hoped.
Three days passed. I slept little and my dreams were disturbing when I did sleep. I dreamt of dragonfly wings, thousands of them. They looked like stained glass windows in vivid blues, greens, reds, blacks and yellows. Then suddenly the wings cracked along the facets and my ears became filled with the horrendous noise of breaking glass.
On the fourth day, I was taking a shower when I heard the bathroom door squeak. Through the fogged up shower door and the clouds of steam I watched a tall man come into the bathroom. His golden hair with metallic silver highlights was tied back in a ponytail. His perfect angular features hadn't changed since last I'd seen him almost twenty years ago. He was my father, and the two decades that had put crow's feet at the corners of my eyes and extra padding around my waist hadn't touched him. He looked young enough to be my son.
After he stepped through the doorway he spread out his tightly folded dragonfly wings and barely cleared the walls. The wings were bright blue and faceted. They threw blue shadows on the burgundy walls of the bathroom.
He didn't seem to know who I was. I opened the shower door and yanked a towel off the rack. Apparently he found my aged body less than flattering, judging by how his lips twisted with distaste. I quickly wrapped the towel around myself in a makeshift short dress. I tried not to look at the gun that lay on the bathroom counter next to the sink.
"You are a half-breed." My father's deep violet eyes were full of disdain but not recognition. Although this was probably for the best, for some reason I felt a little stab of disappointment.
He sniffed the air in my direction. "Your magic smells like mine. I must have been your father, which means you were not attractive enough to be taken to Faerie." He frowned, and it didn't detract from his heartbreakingly handsome looks.
I inhaled deeply. The scent of spruce needles drifted toward me from my father. This was the scent of his magic and also of mine. Every fairy's and half-breed's magic smelled like something from nature: spring grass, a flower, autumn leaves, loamy soil, and so forth.
I continued not looking at the gun. I couldn't have done anything, anyway, because my father was between me and it.
"I have visited several half-breeds that smell of my magic. But I have not been able to find the one I am looking for. It is a newborn infant, but she is invisible to me." He looked me up and down. "What happened to your wings, half-breed?"
"I had them cut off."
His perfectly black eyebrows arched over his violet eyes. "I know your voice." He stared at me, head tilted slightly to the right. "You do not look like my half-breed daughter Cynthia, but that could be because your human blood ages you so quickly. But you must be Cynthia, the one that stole the amulet from us and escaped."
I said nothing. Gooseflesh sprang along my arms. My father was still between the gun and me, blocking my only hope for survival.
"But you're not wearing the amulet now, which means you must have given it to the newborn. You will tell me where the newborn is, and then I will take you both back to Faerie. Of course you're too old to be used as a slave. Instead you will be punished for the theft and for leaving Faerie without permission."
I shivered. "Can't you leave the baby alone? Her mother is an orphan and has no relatives. You wouldn't deprive her of her baby? Don't you think she suffered enough?" As soon as I said it I knew that my appeal might have as well been made to a stone. My father looked completely unmoved. To fairies, we half-breeds and humans were just vermin. We had our uses, but our feelings and needs did not matter.
My father stepped toward me. The spirals and stars embroidered in silver thread on his black velvet coat shone with the light of their own, which meant he was drawing on his magic. I had to squint to look at him. His eyes began to glow with violet light. The scent of spruce needles filled the bathroom.
I backed up until I was pressed against the shower door. There was no other way to go around this problem: I had to kill him, or he would take the baby into slavery and have me tortured to death for my crime.
I drew myself up and extended my hands toward my father. My fingertips tingled, and from them golden light seeped in tendrils. I concentrated on the light, and out of it emerged a swarm of bees. They paused and roiled, waiting for me to give them purpose. I pointed at my father, and they flew toward him, filling the bathroom with a high buzzing sound.
He didn't move, just smiled and waved one hand dismissively at the bees. They dissolved back into the golden light, and the light withdrew itself into my fingertips.
"You think you can best me in magic, half-breed? I am not some worthless human to be impressed by your pathetic illusions. Now, tell me where the newborn is and prepare for your punishment. If you defy me, your punishment will only last longer and be more severe." He took another step forward.
I groped behind me and opened the shower door. I backed into the shower stall and banged the door closed. My magic might be weak compared to my father's, but it should serve as a distraction. I drew on my magic hastily and filled the shower stall with purple fog to obscure myself from my father's view. The fog wouldn't protect me for long. I had to do something. I groped around the shower, searching for something that I could use as a weapon.
Through the purple fog came the throaty sound of my father's laughter. I heard him blow air between his lips. The fog began to thin.
I couldn't let him touch me. He could immobilize me with a simple touch.
Through the thinning fog I could see my father's form more clearly now. I continued groping around the shower stall. The soap caddy, the bottle of shampoo, the nail brush. None of that stuff would do any good. And then my hand closed around the spray bottle of the daily shower cleaner.
I gripped the spray bottle, not daring to put too much hope in its usefulness. The fog cleared, and the door banged open.
My father lifted one foot to step into the shower stall. I blasted a stream of the shower cleaner into his face. He screamed, batted the bottle out of my hand blindly, and stumbled backwards, rubbing his eyes. The bottle flew out of the shower, crashed on the blue floor tile, and rolled behind the toilet bowl.
My father continued rubbing his eyes. Even though human-made chemicals were harmful to fairies, the shower cleaner wouldn't kill him. The best I could hope for was that it would slow him down.
He cried out and groped around, probably looking for the sink to wash his eyes.
I stepped out of the shower and tried to sneak past him.
He shot out one arm and blocked me. I ducked under his arm, and he grasped me by the hair with one hand while his other hand was still rubbing his eyes. He cursed.
I twisted. Thank God my hair was wet. It was slippery enough for me to yank it out of his grasp.
I lunged myself backwards. His groping hand bumped into the wall, and he yelped. I tried to sneak around him toward the gun, but he heard me and moved toward me.
I dropped to the floor. He grabbed for me and missed. Again I tried to go around him, but he kept flailing his arms like a blind goalkeeper. I had to get past him somehow. I was damned lucky he hadn't immobilized me when he held me by the hair. The shower cleaner in his eyes had probably distracted him. I knew I wouldn't be lucky if he touched me again.
He kept his eyes shut. Tears leaked down his perfectly sculpted cheeks. He held his arms spread wide to block me.
I reached around the toilet bowl for the shower cleaner bottle.
My father was coming for me, arms wide, lips twisted, teeth bared in a snarl of rage.
I stretched my arm behind the toilet, and finally my fingers closed around the spray bottle. I grabbed it and released a stream of the shower cleaner into my father's face again.
He howled. His hands automatically flew to his eyes. I squeezed past him and lunged for the gun. My foot slipped on the floor. I braced myself with my left hand on the edge of the sink. My right hand picked up The Glock. I aimed it at my father. The gun roared in the close confines of the bathroom and bucked in my hands. I wasn't much of a marksman, so my first shot only grazed his shoulder and ricocheted off the towel rack with a metallic ping. I aimed lower and squeezed the trigger again. The air smelled of burned gunpowder and spruce needles.
My father screamed, and his hands dropped from his eyes. He clutched at his midriff where the bullet had torn a hole in his coat. Because his coat was black I couldn't see the blood, but it streamed, bright red, between his pale fingers. He doubled over, moaning.
I should've felt remorse or grief. After all, he was my father, but he had taken me to Faerie when I was a baby. He had used me and abused me as much as any of his brethren. He was but a sperm donor, not my father. Still, I'd never killed anyone before.
My father swayed and toppled on the floor. He twitched. His hands dropped away from his wound, and then he lay still. The scent of spruce needles began to fade.
I stood frozen for a while. Then I ran for the toilet, stepping over my father's flung out left arm. I opened the toilet's lid and vomited my breakfast. I wiped my mouth with a tissue and tossed it into the toilet bowl.
I knelt next to my father's body and checked his pulse. There was none. I considered what to do next. If I called the police, and they saw a man with wings, dead on my bathroom floor, this would ignite a media sensation, and I'd have to answer some uncomfortable questions. Also, someone from Faerie would come looking for my father.
A chill snaked down my arms. I dropped the bath towel on the floor and replaced it with a terrycloth robe. My teeth chattered.
My plan had been to protect Lizeth's baby and myself, using lethal force, if necessary. I hadn't planned anything beyond that. The corpse had to be removed, but I didn't think I was strong enough to load it up in the car. Lizeth would have to help me. Maybe we could take it out to the desert and bury it somewhere. I wasn't sure. The only crime I'd ever committed and concealed was stealing the amulet from Faerie.
I stared at the corpse, my hands clutching the ends of my bathrobe's belt. Suddenly the air around the body shimmered like a heat mirage. The colors began to bleed from its skin, hair and clothes, collecting on the floor and the blue bathmat in little puddles. Then the puddles evaporated in thin ribbons of colored mist. The transparent corpse collapsed in upon itself and finally vanished. Where it had lain the pale blue tile cracked, and out of the crack a tulip sprang out, its blossom the color of port wine.
I knelt before the tulip and ripped it out of the crack. I tore it to green and port wine-colored shreds. My jerky fingers gathered the shreds and fed them into the garbage disposal. I didn't want to give the man who had never been my father a chance to regenerate himself.
I waited until the next waning moon had passed. When no one from Faerie came after me, I moved Lizeth and her baby into my house. We are a family now: one human and two half-breeds, bound by the need to protect our dangerous secret and by desire not to be alone.