• Melanie McCree

That Thing With Jeff and the Taffy

Updated: Nov 5, 2021

There was a closeout sale, so she had enough birthday money to rent a fairy. Not one of the really nice ones made of glass or born inside a geode or bound in carved myrtlewood. It was just one of the cheap, plastic pinky-ring ones. But it was still a fairy.


Cam leaned on the fairy shop's glass counter, studying a velvet tray with rows of rings. There was a promising one tinted a dark aquamarine, and a pale tan one with white spots that looked like an agate - that one looked pretty good. She picked up a jade green, watching it glow in the ray of sunlight through the shop window, then set it down and examined the black one with flecks of gold, and the one next to it, pure white with a sheen of rainbow like the surface of a bubble. The white one was pretty. But so was the rose-pink one in the upper right corner.


She put white and pink side-by-side on top of the counter, chewing her lip. The white was lovely, ethereal, like rose petals and wedding dresses. But it felt like it should belong to someone blond and sleek and exquisite, like a ballet dancer, someone who might almost be a fairy herself.


Cam chose the pink.


The owner shoved her thick salt-and-pepper braid over one shoulder and took Cam's money with a professional smile that barely covered a core of cynicism. She asked if Cam wanted a bag.


Nope. Cam was going to wear it home. When she slid the ring on, it felt sort of buzzy and prickly for a second, then hugged her finger gently. Huh. Maybe she'd lucked out; maybe it was really strong for a pinky fairy.


The woman handed her a square card. "Return the ring before eleven a.m. tomorrow, or you will be charged an additional rental fee. If you return it early, you are eligible for a partial refund. Scan the QR code on the card for invocation instructions. Remember to read all safety warnings before proceeding. There's a contact number on the card you can call if something goes wrong. Thank you for your business." She smiled in a professional, cynical way, then beckoned to the next customer in line.


Cam headed outside, pulling the door open and making the little bell at the top jingle. The ring was even prettier now that she could see it in the sunlight; there were iridescent green and blue shimmers that spread and vanished when she tipped her hand. She'd be careful, no matter what fairy gift she got. About everything. There was a hard-and-fast rule about calling fairies: do it when you're alone. The one who put the ring on had to be the one who called the fairy. That was vital, because if a fairy had a choice, it would latch on to somebody other than its ring bearer. And then bad things would happen.


Cam jogged back to the beach house, taking deep, happy gulps of the salted-seaweed air and sneaking glances at the ring every few steps, watching the sheen of green and blue magic spread and fade over its surface. She'd make sure her parents knew she had the ring as soon as she got home. And she'd call the fairy out of the ring only when she was in her room with the door shut.


It was going to be wonderful.


She was almost home when she saw him, sweating at the top of her driveway: Jeff Plower, soccer enthusiast, tall, buff and stupid. She'd forgotten that her dad had invited Jeff over to help move the pile of bark mulch in the driveway to the bare spots under the fir trees in the back yard. But here Jeff was, bending over to scoop up a pile of mulch, his jeans slipping down to reveal the top of his boxer shorts. He was wearing a bandana around his head, but he hadn't bothered with a shirt. His shoes looked like chew toys.


Cam watched him shovel bark mulch into a wheelbarrow, his arm and chest muscles flexing dramatically, and was sure as sure could be, as sure as the breath in her lungs and the sky overhead, that he was deliberately flexing before he lifted the shovel.


"Jeff."


He dumped the latest scoop of mulch into the wheelbarrow and straightened to face her, shifting to a one-handed grip on the shovel, dropping its metal tip on the driveway with a metallic chink. "Oh. 'Sup."


"Don't you have practice? Isn't there a game coming up?"


"Coach had a family emergency, so practice was canceled. Your dad wanted some help, so..." He shrugged. "It's extra money. And it's as good as the gym. My arms and butt are gonna be so sore tomorrow."


Cam's father came around the corner, pushing a second, empty wheelbarrow, and brought it to a juddering stop next to the pile of mulch. "You got time to stand around, you got time to work," he informed her. "There's an extra set of gloves in the garage with your name on it."


"Can't," she said, lifting the hand with the fairy ring long enough to give him a glimpse, then covering the ring with her other hand. She wasn't sure how awake fairies were when you bought them, or how much of the outside world they could see.


Her dad frowned. "That was today?"


"Mom and I talked about it already."


"Be careful. Your mother and I agreed you could rent a fairy with the understanding that you would take the responsibility seriously."


"Dad."


"Cameron."


"Mom already said everything you're going to say. I'll be careful, I promise. You guys need to trust me more."


He huffed. "I'm rooting for a mulch-hauling fairy."


She grinned at him. "Something wrong with the one next to you?"


"Can I use your bathroom?" Jeff asked.


Cam sighed and scooted around the flat-topped pile of mulch into the garage, waving at him to follow. "It's this way. Make sure you open the window first. The bathroom's right next to my room."


She led him through the garage into the house and up the stairs, yelling "Mom, I got the ring," over her shoulder.


"Remember what we talked about," her mom yelled back.


"Could you please tell Dad we talked about it? He was lecturing me in the driveway."


"I'll tell him after I see you acting responsibly."


"Fiii-ine," Cam called, rolling her eyes, then led Jeff down the hall and pointed through an open doorway at the upstairs toilet. "There it is. Don't forget the window." She left him to it, entering her own room and shutting the door, then walking over - kicking yesterday's clothes out of the way - to sit on her unmade bed.


Her phone was on the nightstand, plugged in; she checked the charge, unplugged it and used it to scan the QR code on the card. The instruction page came up immediately, asking her to choose a language; she tapped "English" and then read through everything on the page twice, one line at a time to be sure she didn't miss anything.


Do not attempt incantation until you are alone inside a fully enclosed space; open windows or doors will create gaps in the incantation's perimeter barrier. More powerful fairies may take up to five minutes to manifest; should fairy not appear after five minutes, repeat incantation and wait another five minutes. Do not issue a request until after fairy declares its area of influence and power level. Use clear, precise language; broad or vaguely worded requests may have unintended side effects. Do not utilize fairy in any way other than its intended purpose. Do not exceed twelve hour usage limit; overuse is hazardous and may lead to bodily injury. The renter accepts full responsibility for any accidents, damage to property, loss of finances or other misfortune up to and including death, intentional or otherwise.


Cam wiggled backwards on the mattress until she could cross her legs, then took a deep breath, held up the hand with the ring on it and spoke the incantation.


The ring turned the color of grape juice, then brightened. Nothing else happened. Cam waited the full five minutes, then spoke the incantation again. She was going to be ticked if the shop owner had charged her for a dud. She had the QR card and receipt; if the fairy didn't show up after another five minutes, she would go right back to that store and -


Someone knocked twice on her door, then pushed it open. "You're out of toilet paper," Jeff announced, just as Cam shouted, "No! Don't!"


With a loud buzz-snap, something shot out of the ring on Cam's pinky, zipped across the room and landed on Jeff's neck, biting down hard.


Jeff yelped, cussed, and slapped at the spot, his hand coming away bloody, but the fairy was already well out of swatting range, hovering near the ceiling and cackling to itself. It was about twice the size of Cam's pointer finger and only partially solid; she could make out the shapes of the objects behind it through its rosy body. Its eyes filled the entire upper half of its face, and it had no nose, just a slit of a mouth with tiny needle-teeth. It was mostly human-shaped, although the hands and feet were too long and it was missing the normal number of fingers and toes. It was a creepy little thing, in all honesty. But it had glorious wings the width of a salad plate, tinted a gauzy baby pink and edged in fuchsia and dark purple.


It grinned at her, licking Jeff's blood off its face with a long butterfly-tongue.


Jeff followed her gaze. He opened his mouth, but Cam slapped her hand over it before any further damage could be done. "Shut up," she hissed, face close to his. "Shut up. Do not speak. Say absolutely nothing. I have to figure out how to fix this."


"Can't," the fairy said. It had a high, shrill little voice that made you want to grind your teeth. "Can't fix it. Too late. Too late."


She glared at it. "Area of influence and power level. You have to tell me. Those are the rules."


"The bargain is not with you."


"Doesn't matter. Say what you're supposed to say. Now. Or else." Cam grabbed one of her pillows by the corner and held it up.


It drifted a little higher, eyeing the pillow speculatively. Cam did a practice swing.


The fairy dodged, knocked against the ceiling and bounced sideways, then came to a stop near the wall, muttering to itself in a language like sparks. "Strength," it said, floating just out of reach. "Speed. Jump high, run fast, lift heavy things." It gave her a nasty grin with a lot of needle in it. "No limit but time and muscle and bone. Land too hard, lift too much, run too fast, and snap! Bleeding and cracking and splitting." It made up a little song on the spot, just the words "bleeding and cracking and splitting" over and over, to a tune with no clear rhythm or melody.


"That's enough, you little psycho." Cam glared at it. And then glared at Jeff, because. "Jeff. You understand that you're an idiot, right?"


He frowned, but nodded.


"Okay. Then I'm going to figure out what you should say, and when I lift my hand, you're going to say exactly those words and nothing else. Got it?"


He nodded again.


"Smart people shouldn't keep stupid pets," the fairy sing-songed.


Cam ignored it, mentally shaping her request and checking it over for loopholes. When she was sure she had it right, she poked Jeff's forehead. "This is what you are going to say: 'Without any attempt to harm her, give Cam magic strength, speed and senses-"


"Can't do eyes," the fairy interrupted. "Can't do ears, can't do nose, can't do tongue."


"What about touch?"


It cackled again. "Touch can hurt when you're strong, missy."


"Answer the question."


"No-no-no touch."


"Okay, forget the senses part, Jeff. Say this: 'Without any attempt to harm her, give Cam the gift of speed and strength for twelve hours." She took in his expression and repeated the line three more times, slowly.


At last, he grunted that he had it down, and she pulled her hand away from his mouth inch by inch, certain he was about to blurt out something irrevocable. He surprised her by repeating her request word-for-word.


The fairy swooped down to hover in front of Jeff's nose, its movements so fluid its body seemed to continually melt and solidify. "I see you," it cooed. "You want to run faster. You want to jump higher. Soccer boy. Muscle boy." It grinned and fluttered its wings in a beguiling way, then dragged the bandanna off his head and dropped it on her bedroom floor.


"Hey!" Jeff leaned over a little, like he meant to bend down and pick up the bandana, but the fairy got in his face again, sliding one hand over his cheek, and he froze, drops of nervous sweat beading at his hairline and on his upper lip.


The fairy twisted to look at Cam. "You gave me words," it said, "but he gave me blood. I claimed him before you claimed me. Too late, missy. He is mine." It darted up to settle cross-legged on Jeff's head.


Jeff went robot-stiff, his brown eyes turning pink as a rabbit's. Without a word, he turned and headed down the hall, moving in an eerie, slippery way, like his arms and legs had extra joints. Horrified, Cam scooped up her phone and the card with the QR code and hurried after him.


He slip-shuffled downstairs, left the house by the front door and wandered off down the street. Her father, who was just wheeling his barrow around for another load of mulch, blinked and put his hands on his hips. "You all right, Jeff?"


"His stomach's bugging him!" Cam yelled, rushing down the driveway in Jeff's wake. "Sorry, Dad! He says he'll take some Pepto and come back later to finish!" She didn't give her father a chance to ask questions; with luck, by the time she talked to him again, she'd have an explanation prepared, one that didn't include any details about the situation.


She caught up to Jeff halfway down the street, grabbing his arm and leaning back, digging her heels in. He dragged her up the sidewalk without apparent effort.


The fairy cackled like a bug zapper.


Cam checked the number on the card and awkwardly dialed it one-handed. After three rings a woman answered; Cam made an attempt to explain the situation, which was actually kind of embarrassing, now that she thought about it.


The woman cut her off five sentences later. "Current location?"


"Um..." Cam checked the nearest street sign. "Fifth and Ocean Way. But Jeff - the guy with the fairy - he's still walking. I think he's trying to get to the beach-"


"We'll send someone right out," the woman said. She had an odd accent that slid up to words and tiptoed over consonants; an elf's accent. So this was an elf-run agency. That made sense; you probably needed an elf to solve a fairy problem.


"Thank you for choosing Coastal Magic Solutions, have a nice day," the woman added, and hung up.


Not the greatest customer service in the world. Well, at least they were sending somebody. Most likely another elf. Hopefully a guy; all elf guys were hot. A hot elf guy wouldn't completely salvage her birthday, but he would definitely improve it.


Ten minutes later, she was holding on to the back waistband of Jeff's jeans, struggling to keep up with his cheetah legs as he race-walked across a parking lot toward an open stretch of sand and the Pacific Ocean. A brown electric car pulled into the lot and slid noiselessly up to her; the passenger-side window rolled down, and somebody asked for her name in a voice like the dust of boredom.


She gave it in a half-yell as Jeff powered on, feet hitting the sand with no loss of momentum. She was starting to worry that the fairy was going to drive Jeff right into the ocean.


The driver shut off the car and climbed out, then shouted something in a musical jumble that made the fairy hiss. Jeff came to an abrupt halt halfway to the water's edge.


Cam hit his back and bounced off, barely keeping her balance, and the fairy flung itself on its back, drumming its heels on Jeff's scalp and hooting. "Smart people don't run into stupid people," it said, and collapsed under a second explosion of laughter.


The elf trotted up to them, his feet leaving long, shallow divots in the dry sand. He was disappointing. Tall, but not elegantly so; tall in a lanky way, with brown hair and brown skin and brown eyes, a sloped nose and a hipster goatee. He had high cheekbones and his hair was long enough for a ponytail, but the only truly exotic thing about him was the pointed ears: a good six inches long, and pierced in several places with gold rings.


He was wearing a button-up cotton shirt, slacks and loafers, and he was carrying a sort of mutant laptop bag. He had a ball-point-pen stuck behind one long ear. Good gravy, they'd sent her an elf geek.


He flicked a sour glance at her. "No, I do not look like Legolas. The blond ones that shoot arrows are woodland elves. I am a marsh elf. We're brown." His voice was low, and surprisingly smooth and resonant. At least he sounded magical.


"Go away," the fairy snarled, yanking at Jeff's shaggy dark hair. "Nasty elf. Go away. The bargain was fair and square."


"Not hardly," Cam said.


"Fair and square!" The little creature shook a fist at her. "The lummox opened the door. I didn't call the lummox. He opened the door and now he's mine. Elf, go away." He made a gesture at the elf geek that, while unfamiliar, was obviously rude.


The elf sighed and turned to Cam. "Thank you for choosing Coastal Magic Solutions, I'm Winterberry Foiseach, pronounced "far-shah," spelled F-o-i-s-e-a-c-h, not that anyone cares, and I'll be your magical technician today. You can call me Barry."


Cam stared at him.


He rolled his eyes. "If I was aiming for cool, I'd have a better job." He glowered at the fairy, who made another mysterious - and undoubtedly equally rude - gesture in return.


"What are you," Barry asked it, "a physical enhancement type?" He narrowed his eyes. "Yep. You're a little steroid, aren't you? Strong, too. Lot of dark pink in those wings."


The fairy fluttered said wings, preening malevolently. "Very strong. Very, very. Elf, go away."


"Miss, how long has the kid been glamoured?" Barry dug a silver tube about the size of a Magic Marker out of his bag. The tube had lenses at either end like a telescope; he put one end to his eye and looked through the tube at Jeff, moving it slowly up and down as he checked... whatever he was checking.


"It's only been about forty-five minutes," Cam said. "What does that tube do?"


Barry held up the tube. "This? Checks the depth of the bond. It's not too dire yet; this fairy's pretty powerful for a ring-bound, but it hasn't had time to really put down roots."


"What, like, in Jeff's skull?"


Barry stuck the tube back in his bag. "Metaphorical roots. In most cases." He pulled a pair of tweezers the size of a pencil out of his bag.


The fairy hissed again.


"Are you going to pull it off him?" Cam asked.


Barry shook his head. "The kid would go into shock." He poked at the fairy with the tweezers, inviting another rude gesture and a spate incomprehensible invective.


Cam was really glad she didn't speak fairy. "So, like..." she watched the elf poke the fairy a couple more times. "Would this have happened to me?"


"Would you get a fairy stuck to your head, you mean?" Barry said it in an even, almost absent way, but she could tell that he was laughing at her. "No. If you'd done it the way you were supposed to, the invocation would have protected you."


"This wasn't my fault!"


"Sure."


"Seriously! He just barged into my room asking for toilet paper!"


The fairy giggled and made fart noises.


"Are fairies always this annoying?" Cam demanded, fighting the urge to throw a rock at it. The fairy would almost certainly catch the rock and chuck it back at her.


"Pretty much," Barry said, seizing the fairy's foot with the tweezers. With a quick pinch, he snipped the foot off at the ankle.


The fairy screamed.


"Knock it off," Barry drawled, digging a magnifying glass out of his bag. He caught Cam's horrified expression and snorted. "That wasn't its foot, it was a tether band. I need to check the model specs. The fairy reshaped its foot when I pulled off the tether. It's messing with you."


Cam checked. Yep, the fairy was gleefully wiggling its foot at her and sniggering.


Barry held the magnifying glass close to the snippet of tether and muttered something to himself, then put the glass away and pulled his phone out of his pocket. He tapped and scrolled with his thumb for a while, then stared at the screen for a couple of seconds, grunted and put the phone away. "Interesting. Okay, everybody into the car. We're going to the taffy store."


"What?" Cam was losing confidence in the elf geek, tube and tweezers notwithstanding. "Why?"


"Rule Of Three. You'll see when we get there."


He didn't offer further explanations, and she could see that he wasn't going to, no matter how hard she pushed. So when he gestured impatiently at his car, Cam reluctantly crawled into the narrow back seat, leaving the front seat for Jeff, partly because he wouldn't fit in the back, and partly because it wasn't worth a fight with the fairy.


"Buckle up for safety." Barry slid into the driver's seat. Then he looked at Jeff and the fairy, obviously re-thinking what he'd just said. There was a moment or two of silence in which he appeared to be toying with the idea of buckling Jeff's seat belt for him.


The impulse passed. Barry buckled his own belt, pushed the start button next to the steering wheel, released the hand break and pulled out of the parking lot, the car's electric engine whining softly as it accelerated.


The car's seatbelt alert started beeping. The fairy laughed and made beeping noises along with it.


They drove to the main tourist strip, the seatbelt alert and the fairy beeping frantically the whole way; then they had to drive up and down the side streets and back and forth over the little bridge for a good fifteen more minutes of beeping before they found a place to park. A car finally pulled out of a spot near the riverbank. Barry tucked the compact into the empty space with a grunt of triumph.


"Four blocks away from the taffy store. I hate this town," he muttered. Then he said something else in one of the elven languages. It sounded lovely, like a warm breeze brushing a grassy field. She was betting it was something rude.


"Elf, kiss your mother with that mouth!" the fairy said.


"That's not how it goes," Cam told it, irritated. "Where did you even learn that?"


"Former ring bearer, most likely," Barry said. "Let's get this overwith."


They peeled themselves out of the compact, Barry locking it with a little chirp. That's when the second disaster struck.


"Oh, no, it's my mother," Cam yelped, crouching next to the car, keeping her head below window-level. "She and the neighbor are on a walk. Why are they on a walk? Why did they have to walk right now?"


Barry raised a brow.


"We have to hide Jeff! My parents don't know about this."


Barry sighed. "Don't involve me. I don't care."


"Look, there's a store right over there. We can just hang out in there for a minute and look at..." she squinted, trying to make out the display in the window. "At funny t-shirts. Please! If my mother finds out about this, she will literally kill me."


"Hey! Mother!" the fairy yelled, standing as tall as it could on Jeff's head and waving its arms and wings.


Cam covered her face and moaned.


"Whatever," Barry said, taking pity on her. He turned to the fairy. "That's enough, you."


"Elf, go away!"


"Let's go look at funny t-shirts."


Cam kept Jeff and Barry between herself and her mother as they crossed the street and slipped through the door into the shop. It was typical beach town merchandise: seashell jewelry, signs with random slogans, a barrel full of polished agates, fifty cents a scoop. There were several racks of t-shirts and sweatshirts, and more t-shirts tacked to the walls so shoppers could see the graphics.


"Boobies!" The fairy shouted, crawling up the side of Jeff's head, then standing on top of it to point at one of the t-shirts. The shirt had cartoon print on the front of a buxom woman holding a giant mug of beer.


"Seriously?" Cam said.


"Boobies! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!"


"You are such a disgusting little creepnugget." She reached out to flick one of its wings.


Its big eyes glowed ruby as it ducked, snapping its needle teeth at her. "Pow-er-ful creepnugget," it cooed, and, grabbing a hank of Jeff's hair in each three-fingered hand, stood up and set its knees, leaning back like a water skier. Jeff took off, rushing out the door of the shop and running full steam down the street, the fairy whooping as it steered him by the hair to the end of the block and around the corner.


"Spectacular," Barry said.


"Sorry," Cam said miserably.


"We can track it. You just better hope it doesn't run your boyfriend out in front of a car."


"Jeff is not my boyfriend. And I am totally okay with Jeff getting hit by a car."


"Harsh."


"I'm telling you, this whole thing is his fault! It's always Jeff's fault! Because he's Jeff!"


"Well, once we catch him, we can straighten everything out."


She was going to have to be content with that. "At least I can have the front seat, this time," she said, peeking through the window of the t-shirt shop. She didn't see her mother. Small favors.


"We're not driving. I'm not giving my parking spot up for something like this."


Cam frowned. "Did you see how fast Jeff was running? The fairy's made him a mutant." That needed clarification. "More of a mutant."


Barry gave her a half-smile with something wild in it, something fierce like howling at the moon. And totally unexpected, considering it was Barry. "Not a problem," he said. "Go wait by the car. I'll be back in a few."


Then he leapt into motion, like a deer, swift and light and graceful; in seconds he was out of sight. It was poetry. Cam was startled to realize that if she were to meet Barry under different circumstances (beardless, and dressed in something better than the outfit he was currently wearing) he would look like a real elf.


There was a lesson in there somewhere.


Cam plopped her butt against the side of the car and watched the river glitter in the sun. It had steep banks on either side and no shoreline, so the bright green tips of the long grass on the bank hung into the water, the current dragging them sideways. A few ducks floated here and there, serene and halfway tame. It was close to noon and the temperature had gone from warm to unpleasant, so the river was something of a lure - provided you didn't let yourself think about how dirty it probably was.


She was watching the ducks when she heard the fairy in the distance, yowling insults. When she looked up, Jeff was running flat-out down the street on the opposite side of the bridge, red-faced and trailing splashes of sweat, the fairy on his head waving one furious fist in the air, its eyes bright red, its wings fluttering wildly. Barry was right behind them, darting right or left whenever the fairy tried to steer Jeff off-course.


She expected to see Jeff run across the bridge, but the fairy, its face full of spite and poison, drove him off the road and down the bank, right into the river. The water was chest-deep, so there was a huge splash and Jeff lost his balance, toppling face-first into the alarmed group of ducks.


The fairy lifted into the air in time to avoid a dunking, hovered until Jeff clambered to his feet, then landed on top of his head again, fanning its wings to stay upright. It threw back its head and did its weird bug-zapper laugh, then stomped twice. Jeff sloshed forward, his big arms churning up waves, his wet hair flattened over his forehead and half-covering his eyes.


Barry stopped at the water's edge and crossed his arms, but he was grinning. He had some kind of elf trick he was dying to show off, she could tell, because he kept on standing there and grinning the whole time Jeff was huffing and splashing like a crazed buffalo to get to the other side of the river.


By the time he stumbled out and started up the bank, Cam was wondering whether Barry expected her to intercept Jeff. She was about to explain why that was a ludicrous idea when Barry stepped onto the water. His foot landed on the surface, right near the patch of cattails, and didn't sink in. He put his other foot down and then, eyes full of mischief, he strolled across the surface of the river like he was wandering down a sidewalk. A breeze tugged some strands from his ponytail, and she could see now that his hair wasn't just plain brown, but brown mixed with bronze and caramel and a green so dark it was almost black. The sunlight dappling the river glinted on his hands and face and long, pointed ears like he was coated in gold dust.


He stepped onto the opposite bank, his shoes perfectly dry, and grabbed Jeff's sloppy arm, hauling him up the hill to the car like a wiener dog on a short leash. Then, smiling at Cam with all the wild otherness of endless marsh and open sky, Barry said, "caught him."


In actuality, no matter what they were wearing, marsh elves were straight-up awesome.


Barry informed her firmly that they would walk to the taffy store in order to spare the car's upholstery. What with Jeff looking like he'd washed ashore (which he kind of had) and the fairy on Jeff's head shouting creative and very personal insults at passers-by, they got a lot of weird looks on the way. The fairy was clearly having a marvelous time, so when it went abruptly silent at the entrance to the store, it was a bit of a shock.


The taffy store was on the same street as the shop that sold fairies, and it was just as weird in its own way. The walls were dingy off-white, without even a picture to break up the blandness, and the carpet was a forgettable shade of neutral. But there were rows and rows of clear plastic feeder tubes full of taffy, each tube emptying into its own trough. The place had about a hundred different flavors, including weird ones like rum and jalapeno and candy corn. And it played the "The Candyman" on the overhead speakers on a continuous loop. Over and over, just that one song. The Candyman can, cause he mixes it with love and makes the world taste good.


It could be argued that the taffy store would render anyone speechless. Still, the fairy's sudden silence was unnerving. "What's wrong with it?" Cam asked.


"Nothing. It's doing what it was programmed to do." Barry held his hand out to the fairy, who stepped onto his palm without a word of protest, its eyes fixed on the open door of the shop. "When we tether these little guys, we add a condition that will trigger a factory reset. Fairies like things that come in threes: three wishes, three doors, three guesses, stuff like that. The condition has to be compatible with the fairy's instincts and desires, which is why the store that sells them is so close to this place. Fairies love sugar. The only thing they like better than sugar is games. The condition for ring fairies is a taffy guessing game."


Cam followed Barry into the shop, a sinking feeling in her stomach. "So it's a Rumplestiltskin kind of thing?"


His smile was a bit on the savage side. She was pretty sure that meant elves liked games, too. "Exactly. You have to figure out which flavor the little steroid likes best. You get to ask three yes-or-no questions, and then you make your guess."


"Are you kidding me?"


"No."


"Why do I have to do it?"


"You leased the ring."


"You already know the answer, though, don't you?"


"Nope. These guys all have their own individual likes and dislikes, and those can change."


She hesitated. "I thought fairies were just fancy spells, or something."


He snorted. "Be much easier on us if they were. No, they're living creatures. They volunteer to be tethered and spell-bound."


That sounded sketchy. She gave him the side-eye.

His lips twitched. "Elves can't lie, you know."


"I always thought that was bogus."


"Hard to tell, isn't it? Am I lying about it?"


Yes, elves definitely liked games as much as fairies. "I highly doubt fairies want to be our slaves."


"They don't see it that way. It isn't about servitude. It's about human stupidity. More often then not, you guys don't read through the incantation instructions and safety warnings, and you end up like your friend over there. Fairy-touched."


"Not my friend."


"Point being, fairies volunteer to be tethered because they know humans will be humans. And when humans do stupid things, it's playtime for fairies. That's a fairy's base nature. They're pretty, but they're malicious." He shook his head. "You guys never learn. It's amazing, all the ways you lie to yourselves. My job exists because humans only stop being stupid when the pain is more potent than the gratification."


"That's a horrible thing to say."


"Elves can't lie. My job is full time for a reason." He lifted his hand so she could see the fairy up close. It was watching her, its wings closed and hanging below its knees, its eyes rosy with excitement.


"What happens if I fail?" Cam asked. She couldn't hold the fairy's gaze; all of a sudden, she felt very sixteen and alone.


Barry's eyebrow went up. "Interesting that you only thought to ask that question now."


There was no good answer to that, so Cam ignored it. "What happens?"


"Nothing much. Your friend stays like he is for a year and a day. Then you get another chance to guess."


"A year?"


"And a day. He's a teenager, he's got plenty of life left. One year won't make a difference."


"That's not funny."


"Depends on your perspective."


"Three questions now!" The fairy sailed over to swat her on the nose.


"Ow!" It hadn't hurt, exactly, but the tip of her nose was numb and all she could smell was baby powder. She scrubbed her face with the back of her hand.


"Human child." It returned to Barry, hovering until the elf held out his hand with an amused snort. It landed on his palm again, shaking its wings and settling them. "Three questions. Yes-or-no. One guess, yes-or-no. Three and one. No more."


"I get it! Stay away from my nose."


"Guess, human child. Creepnugget's favorite taffy. Guess, guess!"


The fairy was calling itself Creepnugget. If only she was in the right frame of mind to savor that fully. Cam scanned the rows and rows of tubes, each one full of a different flavor of taffy. There were a million kinds; this was impossible.


She looked at Jeff. He was just outside the entrance to the shop; he couldn't come in without a shirt on, so they had to leave him standing on the sidewalk, swaying gently like a character in a paused video game, slump-shouldered and pink eyed. His mouth was slack; hopefully he wouldn't start drooling. It was bad enough that he was soaking wet and the bit of underwear poking up above his jeans had turned almost see-through. People kept crossing to the other side of the street to avoid him.


She had to fix this.


At a loss, she wandered around the store, reading the labels on the tubes, looking at the colors, a little overwhelmed by the rush of odors: peanut butter, licorice, watermelon, root beer, wintergreen, orange cream, buttered popcorn, chocolate-mint. It went on and on unto eternity. The whole time, Barry followed a step behind, the fairy standing on his palm like it was driving a chariot, both of them watching her with the same predatory eagerness.


Finally she turned on Barry, exasperated. "You're acting like a stalker. How old are you, anyway? Three hundred or something? Three-hundred-year-old men shouldn't follow teenage girls around in candy stores."


The fairy thought that was hilarious. It threw itself down on Barry's palm, kicking its feet in the air and laughing in that overloaded-circuit way it had, like it was shorting out and about to catch fire.


If only.


With a serene smile, Barry turned his hand over. The fairy landed on the floor with a splat. It shook itself and hissed at him, then launched into the air and hovered around his head like an angry mosquito.


"I'm twenty-two, and I have a computer science degree," Barry informed her, swatting at it. "Elves aren't born old. And I only stalk people online."


"Elf, go follow a girl in a store!"


Cam fisted her hands, relaxed them, and bounced on the balls of her feet. Waiting wouldn't help. She'd just have to give it her best shot. "Hey. Creepnugget."


The fairy zipped over to hover in front of her face, lacing and unlacing its six fingers, grinning pointily. It was quivering with spiteful excitement.


If she only got three questions, she would have to take a big risk right off the bat. There were just too many options; she had to narrow them down. She took a deep breath. "First question: is your favorite taffy any color other than a shade of pink?"


Barry chuckled under his breath. "Well done," he murmured.


Cam tried very hard not to blush and almost succeeded. If only he hadn't told her that he was twenty-two. It added to the stress.


"No!" Creepnugget said, scowling.


Cam exhaled, a little weak in the knees. She'd been betting the fairy would like something the color of its own wings. "Second question: is it only one shade of pink? No swirls or stripes?"


The fairy stuck out its tongue and crossed its eyes. "One pink. Yes, yes."


So far, so good. "Okay. Third question: is it sour?"


Creepnugget did a little midair twirl, pink wings fluttering like vindictive rose petals. "No! Not sour! The human girl is wrong!"


"And that makes three," Barry said, looking all intense and marshy.


Cam put her shoulders back. "Right. Okay. Could you guys wait outside?"


Barry looked disappointed, but made his way out of the shop to stand next to Jeff, who was sweating profusely, his nose and shoulders turning pink. And yes, there was a drool trail down one side of his chin.


"Barry? Jeff's getting sunburned. It would be better if he was in the shade," she called, swatting at the fairy, who was flying circles around her head. "You, too, you little tweak. Outside. Make Jeff stand in the shade. Otherwise he'll get sick and won't work anymore."


"Human girl will guess?"


"Only if you're outside."


"Creepnugget is going outside!" it declared, darting out of the shop.


Cam found a roll of plastic bags near one of the taffy tubes and tore off one of the bags. Then, humming absently along with the music, she hunted up and down the aisles, taking one piece from every bin with solid pink taffy, only skipping the sours.


Who can take the sunrise, sprinkle it with dew...


A lot of the taffy flavors had stripes or cores of pink, but only five were just pink, with no other color mixed in: strawberry, pomegranate, cran-raspberry, double cinnamon and bubble gum. She took the bag with five pieces of taffy to the counter, pretended she didn't see the irritated look the guy on the register gave her, paid and walked outside, bag swinging from her hand.


Barry, Jeff and Creepnugget were sitting patiently on the curb in the shadow of a nearby building. Well, Jeff was sitting patiently. Barry and Creepnugget were playing some kind of passive-aggressive game, in which Creepnugget tried to bite Jeff, and Barry tried to skewer Creepnugget with the tweezers. Based on their expressions, it was big fun.


"Creepnugget," Cam drawled, sauntering up to them, channeling Barry at his marshiest.


"Human girl will guess!" the fairy caroled, spinning and shaking its hips in a little air dance.


It took real effort to hold in the snickers. Cam bit her lip, lowering her chin to hide her expression, and sat on the curb next to them. She reached into the bag for the five pieces of taffy, then spread the bag out on the sidewalk and put the taffy on top of it, lining each one up with big gaps in between. Taking her time, she unwrapped the first piece. Then the second. Then the third. Untwist one side of the wrapper, then the other side. Pinch the edge in the middle and unroll slowly, digging with your fingernail anywhere the wrapper is stuck beneath a bit of taffy.


The whole time, she kept an eye on Creepnugget.


She picked up the first unwrapped piece. Took a long, deep sniff. Held it up and turned it this way and that. Opened her mouth, glancing at the fairy.


No reaction. So its favorite flavor wasn't cran-raspberry. Not a surprise.


She put the piece down on the bag. Picked up the second and went through the same routine. She got a reaction, that time - Creepnugget edged closer, staring greedily at the bit of candy.


So it might or might not be strawberry. She set that piece off to one side.


She went through the same process with the other three pieces. It wasn't pomegranate. It wasn't bubble gum. That surprised her; she'd have bet on bubble gum. This was assuming, of course, that the fairy wasn't just messing with her again. It wasn't hard to guess her strategy; she was relying mostly on luck and the fairy's greed. She was so nervous her hands were shaking, and there was a strong possibility that she would hurl on Barry's shiny Oxfords.


She glanced at Jeff, staring dully at the car parked against the opposite curb. He looked dead. He was counting on her and he didn't even know it.


Barry gave her a "what now?" look. She couldn't identify the emotion that went with it. Amusement? Eagerness? Triumph? Contempt? She let her gaze drop to the last two pieces of taffy.


It was down to strawberry or double cinnamon. She held one piece in each hand, studying the fairy, waiting for some sort of clue. She waved one piece toward it, then the other, but it reacted to both with the same level of eagerness. She took a bite of one, then a bite of the other; it hissed at her both times.


Nothing for it. Odds were fifty-fifty; she was going to have to trust her gut. She leaned in, peering into the fairy's eyes, watching the colors there swirl like oil on water. She smelled baby powder. She considered its delicate wings, pale pink, but edged in fuchsia and dark purple.


"Double cinnamon," she said.


The fairy's eyes went blank; it turned even more translucent, like stained glass, then dissolved into mist and burned away in the bright midday sun.


The ring on her finger buzzed, turned a dark purple, and lightened to pink.


Cam whooped, drumming her heels on the pavement and shaking her fists in the air.


"Not bad," Barry said, and she knew it meant, "admirable."


Jeff sneezed. He rubbed his eyes, which were brown again, but bloodshot. He looked down at his wet jeans. He looked at her, his lips loose, his brows lowered.


"You're out of toilet paper," he said. Tilting his head, he hummed along with the distant strains of The Candyman until he placed the tune. "Are we by the taffy store? Wait!" His face went pale. "The fairy! What happened?"


"So many things," Cam said. "Don't worry about it."


"I am worried about it. Why are my pants all wet?"


Barry shoved a clipboard at her. "Sign by the highlighted X," he said. "I'm waiving the service charge."


Cam's eyes went wide. "You were going to charge me?"


"Of course I was going to charge you."


"But-"


"Could somebody tell me why my pants are wet?" Jeff said.


"I am not, however, charging you," Barry continued, "because, now that I have heard this human male speak, I believe you were not at fault."


"Thank you!"


"At fault for what?" Jeff asked. "Dude. My boxers are wet, too."


Barry handed her a pen, pointing at the highlighted X. "I am labeling this the result of a natural disaster. Obviously, it isn't a lie."


Cam signed next to the X.


"You know, your fairy is back to factory settings," he told her, pointing at the ring. "If you invoke it correctly, it will consider you its master for the remaining nine hours on the lease."


Cam shook her head. "I think I'll just take it back now and get the partial refund."


Barry's lips quirked. He had gold and bronze in his eyes, too; when he smiled in a nice way, you could see them. He retrieved the clipboard, stuck the pen under the clip and put both in his bag.


"Will wonders never cease," he said.

















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