Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Good Son

I don’t just want to be with you. I want to live with you. In the kingdom under the hill, we could have been together forever. I didn’t want that. I wanted you — all of you. But that was before I understood what that meant.

• • • •

Maggie was an American tourist when I first saw her, hiking across the Irish hills with a group of other college students. It was raining. Maggie had no umbrella, and when the drizzle turned to a downpour, the water plastered her hair to her cheeks in black curls. The other students ran back to the bus, but Maggie lingered, her camera dangling at her hip, and when everyone else had gone, she pulled a pennywhistle out of her pocket and played it for ten minutes before she turned and trudged back up to the road.

I made a door, so that I could slip out of the hill and follow her. My elder brother caught my hand and said, “Don’t do it, Gaidian. Bring her here, if you must have her.” When I didn’t answer, he shook his head. “You get nothing but grief when you follow a mortal.”

“I just want to see where she goes,” I said, and went out into the rain.

I caught up with her in Dublin. I put on a young face, and clothes to match the ones I saw around me. My first thought was to tell her I was an Irish student the same age as she was, but when I realized she would return to Chicago in less than two weeks, I decided to be an American student, instead — heading back myself at the same time, though to a different city.

There were fiddlers at the pub and Maggie danced with me, her black curls wild in the humid air. “Where did you say you were from, again?” she asked after last call as I walked her to the bus stop.

I named a city I’d heard one of the other students say earlier that evening: “Minneapolis.”

“That’s not so far! Maybe I’ll see you again,” she said, and gave me a long kiss. “Let me give you my address.”

• • • •

Had possession been all I desired, I could have lured you under the hill. But I wanted your mortal love; I wanted you to choose me. Of course, it never occurred to me to tell you the truth. You’d have thought I was crazy. So I needed a mortal name. I needed numbers, references, addresses. I needed papers.

I never thought, when I started out on this, about all the other lives I would be embracing.

• • • •

Making myself a door to Minneapolis was easy enough. I’d gone on outings to the mortal world before, so I knew how to change gold into money, and how to find someone to make forged papers. I wanted a common name, so I flipped through a phone book and chose Johnson. I’d told Maggie my nickname was Finch — I wasn’t going to give a mortal I’d just met my true name. I had the man make me a driver’s license, even though I didn’t intend to drive anything, and one of those number cards. Making up an identity I could use for more than a few days was a great deal of work. I finally settled into an apartment near the university, and got in touch with Maggie.

Less than a day after I sent her my address, she showed up at my door.

It turned out she went to school in Chicago, but she was from Minneapolis. And when I didn’t give her an address in exchange for hers, she’d figured I wasn’t really all that interested in her. We spent a very pleasant evening, and morning, and afternoon, and evening. And then she got up, made us both pancakes, and said, “You must have just moved in, huh?”

“Why do you say that?” I asked, already a little nervous that my lies would be uncovered.

Maggie laughed. “Your kitchen is so well stocked I’m guessing your mother did it for you. But nothing was open. Not the flour, not the eggs, not even the milk. The milk and eggs are fresh, though, I checked before I made the pancakes, so it’s not that you never cook. Do you cook?”

“Of course I cook.” I took the plate of pancakes she offered me and sat down at the kitchen table. “I’ll make you dinner.”

Maggie sat down across from me with her own pancakes. I was afraid she might start asking me questions I hadn’t thought of answers to, so I asked her to tell me more about herself, and then listened to her talk. She was a good storyteller. It was even better than hearing her play the pennywhistle.

But she did, eventually, ask me for my own stories. “Tell me about your family,” she said, when she’d finished telling me about her four sisters (she was the youngest) and twenty-seven cousins.

“I’m an only child,” I said.

“Where did you grow up?”

I always paid attention to stories, wherever I went. Since coming to Minneapolis, I’d paid careful attention to the stories I heard about my new home, and I drew on those stories now, to give myself a history. “Brainerd,” I said.

“Really? I used to vacation up there. It’s beautiful. I guess you hear that a lot.”

“Yeah. Well, I don’t mind.” I cleared my throat. “My parents — well, you’ve heard that old joke about the Scandinavian man who loved his wife so much he almost told her? That was written about my father.”

“Oh yeah, I think I’ve met him. Or one of his thirty-six identical twin brothers.” She shook her hair out of her face. “My family’s Irish. They’re, like, the complete polar opposites.”

“So is that why you went to Ireland?”

“No, actually, I went because the program let me satisfy one of the requirements I needed to graduate, and it wasn’t too expensive.” She laughed. “I never thought I’d go to Ireland — I mean, come on, the Irish-American who wants to go get in touch with her roots, that’s so not me. Except then I had my picture taken next to the statue of my famous ancestor, just like every other American dork. It’s so embarrassing.”

“Ha. Which one’s your ancestor?”

“The Crank on the Bank. Patrick Kavanagh.”

“Oh yeah, I should have guessed that.” Her name was Margaret Cavanaugh.

• • • •

Maggie, you were everything I’d dreamed a mortal woman would be. If we are stone, unchanging, you are fire. All mortals are, but you, especially. I knew I’d done right to follow you.

But to keep you, I would need to back up my story.

When you went back to your college in Chicago, I went to find a family.

• • • •

“Hello, Mother,” I said. The white-haired woman stood wide-eyed and still for a moment, twisting a heavy gold ring she wore on her right hand. Before she could slam the door in my face, I gave her a kiss on the cheek, sealing the enchantment. Memory is a malleable thing — half the enchantments of my kind are as much suggestion as anything else. “It’s nice to see you.”

She had blue eyes. Her white hair was tightly curled. She made an old mother for a man my age, but she and her husband fit my requirements — childless, without a lot of people in their lives who would need their memories altered as well.

“I don’t have — ” She met my eyes, and I saw a look of deep longing pass through them like a shadow. She blinked. “That is, I wasn’t expecting you.”

“I know. I was in the area and thought I’d stop by. I don’t get up here often enough anymore. How are you and Dad?”

“Bob?” She retreated from the door. “Robert’s here.”

Robert? Well, fine. I could be Robert. “Hi Dad,” I said, and shook his hand. Men his age didn’t kiss their sons, but I felt my magic settling as soon as our hands touched. “How’s the business?”

“Eh. As bad as always. You want a beer?” I nodded. “Doreen, since you’re up . . .”

We all sat down together in the living room. It was a musty old-person living room, full of knickknacks. Doreen apparently did needlepoint. A reproduction of Van Gogh’s Starry Night hung over the fireplace, and they had a framed map of Norway on the wall. I sat down in a chair near the fireplace and sneezed from the dust. They didn’t get many visitors. Perfect. Well, unless Maggie met them and ran screaming in the other direction.

But they were very nice. Bob was the perfect laconic rural Minnesotan and Doreen was sweet and fairly quiet. She twisted the ring on her right hand when she was nervous. Towards the end of the evening I mentioned that since they’d lost all my old childhood photos the time the shed flooded, I thought I’d give them a start on a new collection, and handed over a picture I’d had taken the day before, framed and ready for hanging. Doreen took it and thanked me. Her hands gripped it tightly. Bob gently took it from her, took down a needlepoint and put up the picture in its place.

“By the way,” I said, as I was getting ready to leave, “I have a new girlfriend, Maggie. She’s really great. I was thinking I might bring her up to meet you the next time she’s home on vacation — she goes to school in Chicago.”

“That would be lovely, dear,” Doreen said. “I hope you can make it up here again soon. We miss you.” She stood on her tiptoes to kiss my cheek and ruffle my hair. “Drive carefully.”

• • • •

I fretted for days the first time you met them, but it was fine. My parents remembered me, they were pleased to meet you, and you were charmed by them. I worried before our first Thanksgiving, and even more before our first Christmas, but it all went fine. The spell kept its hold. The picture of me always hung on the wall; my mother even dusted it.

You finished your studies and got a job in Minneapolis. We found an apartment and moved in together. It was perfect. Just what I’d dreamed of when I followed you.

Of course, there were limits. I couldn’t marry you. Because there would be all these other relatives — too many at once. I shuddered at the thought of enspelling them all. Even if we’d eloped, I couldn’t take wedding vows as Robert. Or even as Finch. I couldn’t do that to you, to swear an oath to you without using my real name. And there was too much to explain. I still believed you’d think I was crazy, but even if you didn’t — well, I had lied to you. I really did love you, and it really was me who loved you, but there were so many things I had lied about. It was too late.

And then my mother got sick.

• • • •

“Doreen is in the hospital,” Bob said. The phone had rung as Maggie was getting out of the shower, and now she was watching my face, her hair clinging damp to her own. “We’re in St. Paul. I thought I should call you.”

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“She’s been having dizzy spells. I nagged her to go to the doctor and yesterday she finally went. They did some scans, and then sent us here for more tests.”

“What do they think it is?”

A pause. “They saw something on the CT scan,” Bob said slowly. “They don’t seem to want to call it anything yet. I figure it must be bad if they don’t want to tell us what it is. Can you come over?”

“Yes,” I said. “Of course.”

I hung up the phone, then called my boss — I was working then at a bookstore. “My mom’s just gone to the hospital,” I said. “She’s here in the cities. I’m going to go see her.”

“Do you want me to come?” Maggie asked.

I hesitated. Seeing Maggie with my parents always made me tense. “I’ll call you once I know what’s going on,” I said. “This might be nothing. Okay?”

“Okay.” She gave me a kiss. “Send her my love. I have some yarn I bought for her last week — I’ll send it with you.”

I peeked in at the bag of yarn as I rode the city bus to downtown St. Paul. It was a deep red-brown and soft like a tangle of silk. Doreen had taken up knitting in the last year, but she mostly seemed to use cheap acrylic yarn, fearing to “waste” the nicer yarns Maggie tried to talk her into buying. I stroked it for a moment, thinking of Maggie, and bracing myself for the hospital.

There are mortals who think they hate hospitals because they fear their own mortality. I am not mortal, so I can say with certainty that I hate hospitals because they are horrible places. Whenever Maggie was ill, I tried to ensure she got restful sleep and wholesome, tempting food. Hospitals offer disrupted sleep, and vile food. Why anyone expects to get better in a hospital is something I still find a mystery.

Doreen looked wasted and shrunken in her hospital bed. Her hands were bare without her rings, which they’d made her take off for the MRI. “I want to go home,” she said when I came in. “Are they going to let me go home soon?”

“I think they wanted to run more tests,” I said, leaning over to give her a kiss.

“They’ve run all the tests they have. When are they going to let me go home?”

“Why don’t I go get you something decent to eat?” I said.

Bob shook his head. “The doctor was going to come by in a few minutes,” he said. “Wait till then.”

Of course, he didn’t come for over an hour, and then stood outside our door talking to a nurse for another ten minutes before he actually came in to talk to us. “Doreen,” he said, looking at my mother’s chart. “I have some bad news about your dizzy spells. You have a brain tumor. Now, it might be benign . . .” He talked on, about different kinds of brain tumors, treatment options, prognoses. I don’t think any of us heard much beyond “brain tumor.”

“Can I go home?” Doreen asked when he was done. “Do I have to stay in the hospital?”

“You’ll have surgery here, and we’ll do a biopsy. You can get the rest of your treatment in Brainerd, if you want, and you can probably be home most of the time.”

Doreen burst into tears. “It’s time to plant my bulbs,” she said.

• • • •

I called Maggie at work from a phone in the waiting room. “Oh, Finch,” she whispered when she heard. “I’m so sorry. I can come over . . .”

“She’s napping,” I said. “You can come over later. And you know — it might not be that bad. The doctor said the benign ones aren’t nearly as scary as you might think.”

Maggie laughed, a little shakily. “I don’t buy the idea of a non-scary brain tumor.”

“Yeah, me either.”

We chatted a little more and then hung up. A woman was waiting to use the phone, so I moved to another chair. “Jenny?” I heard her say after she dialed, and then her voice faded. She’d covered her face with her free hand, and her shoulders were shaking. She was crying too hard to speak.

I closed my eyes, trying to think about my own problems instead of eavesdropping on other people’s. It occurred to me that I could find out if Doreen were already doomed. The Banshee would know. No, I decided. Best to be as ignorant as the mortals, lest they suspect something was strange.

The woman on the phone was still crying too hard to speak. I wanted to touch her hand, to offer her some sort of comfort, but instead I went to the elevator and headed downstairs.

As I went outside into the rain, I thought I heard my brother’s voice, laughing at me. “You’re right,” I said to him, half already in my dream. “I don’t want to know. I’d rather believe she’s going to make it.”

• • • •

It was the bad kind of brain tumor.

They weren’t sure how bad until after the surgery. Doreen was still unconscious, her head swathed in bandages; the doctor told us that he’d cut out as much of the tumor as he could. He talked about radiation and chemotherapy. He gave percentages, rattling numbers off so quickly none of us understood any of them. He forced a smile, said something that tried to be encouraging but wasn’t, then left.

Bob turned to me and said, “She’s dying, isn’t she?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

When Doreen woke up, for a few minutes she didn’t know either of us. I wasn’t surprised she didn’t recognize me; traumas could shake the grip of any spell like this. But Bob was horrified. Doreen’s lapse scared him more than any prognosis from the doctor. Something slid into place after a bit and Doreen was herself again. But as I left that day, Bob turned to me and said, “That’s what it’s going to be like, isn’t it. She’s going to forget me. And you. Both of us.”

“I don’t know,” I said again.

“One of our friends got Alzheimer’s. Didn’t know any of us after a while. I thought I’d rather die, than live like that.”

“Mom was only confused for a minute,” I said.

Bob shook his head and didn’t answer.

• • • •

Doreen was discharged a few days later, and Maggie drove all of us up to Brainerd. We’d expected to be able to head up in the morning, but the doctor didn’t come to discharge her until afternoon, and we didn’t get on the road until after three. Doreen sat up front with Maggie; I sat in the back seat next to Bob. It was a quiet trip. Doreen dozed most of the way. Bob stared out the window. As we grew near Brainerd, Doreen stirred, and Bob looked at her from his seat behind Maggie. I saw naked terror in his eyes, as if he’d glimpsed her death out there rather than grain elevators and cornfields.

“She’ll be okay, Dad,” I whispered. “Everything’s going to be okay.”

Bob gave me a long, bleak look, and went back to staring out the window.

Their house was dark when we pulled up. Bob unlocked it and turned the lights on, and Maggie gently roused Doreen. Maggie had to work tomorrow, and we’d decided she would drive back tonight. I’d take the bus home from Brainerd in a day or two. Maggie settled Doreen into her chair, then heated up some soup for dinner while I found sheets for the guest bed. We ate dinner in front of the TV, and then Maggie kissed Doreen and headed back to Minneapolis.

When I came back into the living room, Doreen stared at me. “Who are you?”

“I’m Robert, your son,” I said, and tapped my picture on the wall, trying to nudge the spell.

She stared at me, her face a complete blank. “We never had children,” she said.

“Doreen,” Bob said, and sat down next to her.

Doreen burst into tears, burying her face against his neck. “Bob, why not? Why not?”

Bob stroked her hair; it was damp with sweat. “What did the doctor say about fevers?” he asked me, his voice shaky.

“He said any fever was an emergency. If she runs a fever we’re supposed to take her to the ER.” I came over and touched her forehead. “Do you have a thermometer?” I asked, though her head was scorching hot.

“I don’t know. Doreen’s always the one who looks after that sort of thing.”

Doreen looked up at me. “Oh, Robert,” she said. “Thank goodness. I thought you’d gone. Back to Minneapolis, I mean.”

“I’ll see if I can find one,” I said, and went into the bathroom. I found a digital thermometer in the medicine cabinet, its instructions still folded around it. Doreen’s temperature was 102.

“I’ll get the car,” Bob said.

St. Joseph’s medical center was only about a mile from their house; it didn’t take long to get there. I helped Doreen into the ER while Bob parked the car. She was admitted almost immediately; they suspected infection. This hospital room was eerily like her last, right down to the color of the privacy curtain. Bob slumped in the chair next to her bed. I fidgeted with the thermometer, which I’d put into my pocket on our way out the door.

“Are we still in St. Paul?” Doreen asked.

Bob raised his head and gave Doreen a look of bleak horror. “Don’t you remember coming home?”

“We’re in Brainerd,” I said. “We brought you home this afternoon, but then you started running a fever.”

Doreen looked at me helplessly. “I don’t remember coming home.”

“You slept most of the way.”

Her hands plucked at the thin hospital blanket. “Can’t I just take some aspirin for the fever and go home?”

“They think you have an infection.”

“But I don’t want to stay here.”

“I don’t think they’ll keep you here long,” I said. “Why don’t you try to get some sleep?”

Doreen nodded. “Take your father home. He looks like he’s having a rougher day than I am.”

• • • •

When I got up in the morning, Bob was gone.

I found his note on the kitchen table. It was very short — just that he was sorry. The car was gone, but he’d taken no money. With the note, he left his wedding ring and the two rings Doreen usually wore — her wedding ring, and the heavy ring she normally wore on her right hand. I slipped them into my pocket.

I’d hoped to avoid telling Doreen, at least right away, but when I came in, she looked past me and said, “Where’s Bob?”

“He couldn’t come in today,” I said.

Doreen scoffed at that. “The man’s retired. What, he had some sort of pressing engagement?” She looked closely at my face. “What happened, Robert? Is it the house? Did the house burn down?”

“Oh, no!” I said with false heartiness, wondering why I couldn’t lie about this when I lied about myself so well. “The house is fine, don’t worry.”

“He left me, didn’t he?”

I curled my hand around the rings in my pocket. “Yes,” I said, finally. “He left your rings.”

Doreen didn’t cry. She just nodded once, and said, “I’d like them back. Even if he ran out on me. I’ve worn a wedding ring for thirty-six years. It doesn’t feel right not having it on my hand.” She slipped the rings back on. “Now, this one,” she said, pointing at the one she wore on her right hand. “This one was my great-grandmother’s. My mother told me the ring was looted from Gaul by the Vikings and that’s how it came into the family. But a jeweler told me once there was no way it could really be that old. I was supposed to hand it on to my daughter, but I never had a daughter. I don’t get along well with my nieces. I guess it will go to you, and you can give it to Maggie when you get married.”

“I’m in no hurry,” I assured her.

“Psht. If you two would hurry up and get married, I could give her the ring now. I’m not going to live forever, you know.”

• • • •

The staff at the hospital were sympathetic when they found out about Bob, but not as surprised as I’d expected. They responded to the news with an efficient command of regulations: Doreen needed new paperwork. She’d drawn up papers years ago giving Bob the power to make health care decisions for her. That all needed to be changed, and the nurses thought I should be designated. “Of course,” the doctor said. “You’re her son. The next of kin.”

But I’m a fraud. How was I supposed to make decisions for her? I barely knew her. I was only beginning to realize how little I knew about these people. I can’t do this.

“Don’t be silly, Robert,” my mother said. “I don’t have anybody else.”

“But I don’t know what you’d want.”

“Use your common sense. If you wouldn’t want it for yourself, you can assume I wouldn’t want it, either.”

“I’d want it all, Mom. I’d want every minute of life I could possibly have. If they could keep my body breathing, my blood pumping, I’d want it.”

“No you wouldn’t,” she said. “Only if there were some hope of recovery.”

“There’s always hope. Where there’s life, there’s hope. I bet I could find you a dozen stories of people who were supposed to be brain dead who went on to walk out of the hospital.”

“If I’m not in there anymore, Robert, let me go.”

“How am I even supposed to know that?”

“You’ll know.”

There was always the Banshee. I signed the paper. Better me than a stranger.

• • • •

The infection kept Doreen in the hospital for weeks. Even after she seemed to have recovered they wouldn’t discharge her — her blood count was too low, they said. She wasn’t tolerating chemo well. Worse, the treatments didn’t seem to be working. The tumor wasn’t responding to the chemo and radiation the way it was supposed to.

Maggie and I fell into a routine. I worked Wednesday through Saturday. Saturday nights, we drove together to Brainerd. Maggie stayed with me on Sunday, then drove back down Sunday night, since she had to work on Monday. I stayed until Tuesday evening, then took the bus back to Minneapolis.

I had a lot of time to think on the bus, which wasn’t good. What I thought about most was my elder brother telling me I would regret following Maggie. I don’t regret following Maggie. I’ll never regret following Maggie. I just wish I’d chosen a healthier mother. Or told Maggie I was an orphan.

One night the bus was late, and I thought about making a door to Minneapolis. What am I doing riding around on a bus like a mortal? I am Fey. I don’t need to do this.

And then a darker echo of the thought. I am Fey. I don’t need to do any of this.

I could go home. It was what we were supposed to do, after all. Woo the mortal maid, then leave her. Or lure her back to our own banquet hall. I would miss her, but I would get over her. Or so my brother would assure me. Time moved differently there. I’d settle back down at the feast, and before I knew it, it would be too late anyway. She would have moved on with her life, married a dentist, had three children . . .

It began to rain.

I didn’t want to leave Maggie. I didn’t want to leave Doreen, either. I don’t have anyone else, she had said.

She’s not your mother, the dark echo whispered.

Maybe not, but I’m her son.

The bus arrived, finally, and I climbed on, feeling my exhaustion like a weight on my shoulders. Maybe next weekend I would go back with Maggie and get some extra rest.

I didn’t, though. The next Saturday, when we arrived at the hospital, Doreen gave us her smile of gratitude and desperation, and I knew I’d stay until Tuesday, just like always.

Doreen remained stubbornly optimistic for weeks. She endured the sickness and covered her bald head with soft cotton hats that Maggie crocheted for her. Her favorite was canary yellow with rainbow threads stitched through. She wore it so often, Maggie bought more of the yarn and made her two others.

One evening, I went out to get sandwiches for us, and came back to hear my mother telling Maggie a funny story about my childhood. I’d colored with my crayons in a book, apparently, and then claimed the dog did it. “I remember blaming my sister for something like that when I was a child, but the poor boy had no brothers or sisters, so he tried to blame the dog. I’ve never met a dog who could hold a crayon, but apparently he thought it would be worth a try . . .”

I could see it all, as she described it: the defaced book open in the middle of the kitchen; the spilled crayons; the guilt-stricken child. My mother glanced up when she heard me in the doorway, and gave me a fond smile.

“What was the book he colored in?” Maggie asked.

“You know, I can’t remember.”

“For Whom the Bell Tolls,” I said, settling into the other visitor’s chair and handing Maggie a sandwich. “I think I thought it needed some illustrations.”

“I took away your crayons for weeks after that,” my mother said, a bit nostalgically. “But you were a good boy, most of the time. Nearly always.” She glanced at Maggie.

“You taught him well,” Maggie said, saluting her with a sandwich.

• • • •

The night after the doctor suggested we call hospice, I sat with Doreen until long past midnight. When I thought she was asleep, I gathered up my coat as quietly as I could and started to leave.

“I always knew,” she said, as I put my hand on the door.

I turned back. In the darkness of the hospital room, a mortal wouldn’t have been able to see her face, but I met her eyes squarely, and she met mine. “Knew what?” I asked.

“I knew. When you knocked on my door that day and greeted me as mother, you were a stranger. Your magic, or whatever it was, it worked on Bob. But I knew.” Her eyes glittered with tears. “We wanted a child. Years, we tried. Once I even got pregnant but I lost the baby a few weeks later . . . These days you read in the paper about drugs, fancy procedures, but back then we had nothing. My mother told me to relax, take a vacation . . . nothing worked. It almost killed me.” She let out a harsh sigh. “I would have adopted, but Bob wouldn’t hear of it. And to tell you the truth, I was afraid of adopting. I was afraid I wouldn’t love the baby as my own, and if I couldn’t be sure, maybe better not to. I know Bob wanted a child, but he didn’t feel the loss like I did. Or if he did, he didn’t let on.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out.

“Then you came. And took us as your parents. Oh, Robert.” Tears trickled down her cheek. “I’m sorry. If I’d known what this would lead to, if I’d known the burden I’d become, I’d have closed the door.”

I sat back down, my coat in my lap. “You know I could leave, Mom,” I said. “And I choose to stay. With you.” I squeezed her hand.

“You’re a good son,” she whispered.

A few minutes later, I thought she’d fallen asleep, but she stirred and spoke again. “I have something I want to give you. I can’t change the will — anyone could challenge it if I changed it now. But I can give you this before the cancer steals what’s left.” She tugged loose the heavy ring from her right hand. “This is for you, my only son. Give it to your Maggie when you’re ready to get married.”

“I can’t — ”

“You can.” She closed my hand over it, and I felt the power in it burn against my palm. The ring stolen by Vikings. Ah. It came from Ireland, surely. “I always knew,” she said again. “This is for you.

• • • •

That was probably the last of the good days.

I called Hospice; Doreen wanted to die at home, so we moved her home. I worried it would only depress her with Bob gone, but even without Bob she took comfort from her house. Hospice nurses came for long spells during the day. I tried to stay with her the rest of the time. Sometimes Maggie gave me breaks.

I wore the ring on a leather cord under my shirt. I couldn’t think about marrying anybody right now; it was too hard to think about anything but Doreen’s next dose of morphine, the next visit from the hospice nurse, Maggie’s next trip to Brainerd.

One night about two weeks after the night in the hospital, Maggie and I sat in the living room of my mother’s house. Maggie sat by the reading light, knitting a two-headed stuffed bunny with a red fringe around its wrists and ankles, and a little heart on its chest. We could hear the tick of the mantel clock. I had thought Doreen was sleeping, but from her bedroom, I heard her moan. I stood up and looked in on her. She seemed to be sleeping again, so I went back to the living room and sat down.

In one of those strange tricks of light and shadow, for a moment Maggie looked old. Then she shifted in her seat, and was twenty-three again. She twisted her knitting around to look at it, flicked back over the pattern, and picked out a few stitches. She glanced up at me, gave me a sweet, tired smile, then started knitting again.

She would be old, someday, like my mother. I would never be old. But Maggie would.

• • • •

There is no time in the faerie hill. Mortals think they’ve spent a night there, and go home a hundred years later, but to us, it’s like a party that never ends. No cares and no pain. Nothing that matters.

I wanted you. All of you. I wanted to share your mortality.

The night Doreen died was when I knew what that meant.

• • • •

I was sitting with Doreen when she died. She had been truly failing for several days: not speaking, not opening her eyes. Her breath had slowed and become more shallow, and for a full twelve hours I didn’t leave her, thinking that every breath would be her last. She didn’t want to be alone when she died. Maggie brought me sandwiches and coffee, and I sat by her bed.

The room was very quiet when she was gone.

Mortals tell stories about Death coming with a scythe to take their soul; they tell stories about angels escorting them home, and tunnels of light. When Doreen died, I saw nothing but her cluttered bedroom, and heard nothing but the silence after her breathing stopped.

I stood up and stretched. It was four in the morning. I stepped out of her bedroom. Maggie was sleeping in a chair in the living room, curled up, her knitting in her lap. I put my hand out to wake her, then thought the better of it. I wanted to take a walk.

I thought about Doreen, walking along in the cold wind near the river, and felt a dark emptiness, and a faint guilty relief that the bedside vigil was over. And a less guilty relief that her pain had ended.

Nothing but grief, my brother had said when he warned me to turn away from Maggie.

Maggie was young. We had years yet — probably. But someday she’d be old, and I wouldn’t. She would be sick, and I wouldn’t. I would have to go through this again — the hospital, the uncertainty, the suffering, the loss. I would have to go through it with Maggie.

I pulled out Doreen’s ring and looked at its yellow gleam under the streetlight. If I marry Maggie, if I really do it, I have to stay. I can’t promise her my loyalty and then run away like Bob. If I’m going to do that, better to leave now.

I thought about Maggie’s death. Would it be cancer for her, too? Or the dark theft of her mind from dementia? Or something quick, like a heart attack, with neither lingering pain nor time for goodbyes? Maybe it would be a car accident at twenty-five. Whatever it was, I’d have to be there for it. I’d have to sit with her, moisten her lips with a swab when she couldn’t swallow, hold her hand. Bury her body. Say goodbye.

It was the price I would pay for loving a mortal.

I unknotted the leather cord and slipped the ring into my pocket. Then I turned back towards my mother’s house.

• • • •

I take you, Margaret. As Gaidion, my true name, I take you; I vow to you with the vow I cannot break.

With this ring, I pledge myself.

If you will have me, I will live with you for the whole of your mortal life. I will love you. I will stay with you. And someday, I will bury you. Because I love you. And I will pay the price without regret.

Naomi Kritzer

Naomi KritzerIn addition to Lightspeed Magazine, Naomi Kritzer’s short stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and various Year’s Best anthologies. Her five published novels (Fires of the Faithful, Turning the Storm, Freedom’s Gate, Freedom’s Apprentice, and Freedom’s Sisters) are available from Bantam. She has also written an urban fantasy novel about a Minneapolis woman who unexpectedly inherits the Ark of the Covenant; a children’s science fictional shipwreck novel; a children’s portal fantasy; and a near-future SF novel set on a seastead. She has two e-book short story collections out: Gift of the Winter King and Other Stories, and Comrade Grandmother and Other Stories.

Naomi lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband and two daughters.