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Faery Unexpected

Chapter One: The Changing of the Guard

Families are great, but there are times when they stink. I mean, I love my mom and dad, but wouldn’t you think they’d at least have asked me if I wanted to spend a month on the French Riviera with them? Honestly! I could’ve made arrangements to go, even studied while sunning in the south of France. The first few weeks of high school aren’t that important. But the parents refused to listen to reason. Instead, they arranged for Gran — Mom’s decidedly weird mother who never went anywhere without her even weirder toy dragon — to stay with me while Mom and Dad defected to Europe to laze in the sun. I figured by the time I survived the first week, I’d have earned a vacation of my own.

What a rip. I’d been searching for a solution to my high school dilemma, and they’d handed me the answer and then snatched it away, all in the space of a two minute conversation. Man! My first day at Jefferson High was racing down on me and I still didn’t have a concrete plan for leaving the middle school nerd behind. I didn’t need to be the most popular girl at school, but I definitely wanted to improve my social standing.

In middle school I’d been a dork, and Danielle, the cheerleader-from-hell, teased me mercilessly about my good grades, happy family, and that stupid book report on fairies I’d done in seventh grade. Hello, I’d done my Shakespearean research, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, anyone? But that didn’t matter. She called me ‘Fairy Clairey’ for the rest of middle school. Even got her friends in on it. Made me sound like a complete idiot.

For a whole, shining minute I’d had my answer — before my parents ripped it away by uninviting me on their little European jaunt — but if I closed my eyes I could still picture the beautiful vision: me swaggering through the front doors of Jefferson High three weeks into the first term; my usually pallid skin crisp from a month of sun and sea; my unruly mop of short, curly black hair fashionably styled in the latest Paris do; my outfit straight off a tres chic fashion runway… Danielle would have a cow, and I’d be the reigning queen of the class. I might even have a chance at getting a boyfriend.

But no. Instead I got stuck with crazy Gran and her bizarre stories of dragons and centaurs and the magical adventures of her childhood. Gag!

So here I sat on the first day of September at Portland International Airport with my parents, waiting for Gran to show up. I stared out the window, watching her jet unload. I leaned my forehead against the glass and listened to my parents’ quiet conversation.

“Relax, Emily,” said Dad, a tall square man sporting thick glasses and a warm smile. “She can’t get lost. Everyone from the concourse channels past this waiting area. We won’t miss her.”

I glanced at my parents, but kept my forehead against the cool glass. Mom was dressed in creased gray wool slacks, ice blue blouse and a gray cardigan embroidered with small birds and vining leaves. She smiled and tucked a strand of dark brown hair behind her ear. “I know, but it’s hard not to worry. I just can’t get over feeling like I should’ve gone to get her. She’s so helpless without Daddy. He did everything for her when he was alive…she never even had to fill the car with gas.”

“Yes, he was old-school to the core,” Dad agreed. “But I think he underestimated your mother. Don’t make the same mistake, Em. Deirdre is tougher than you give her credit for.”

A flash of golden light out of the corner of my eye made me glance back at Gran’s jet. For a moment, I swear I saw something hovering over the plane. More than simple heat haze rising from the tarmac, something shimmered in the air above the airplane, like a window into another world. I blinked, and it disappeared. But the green-blue after image burned behind my eyelids…a castle in the sky.

Great. Just the thought of Gran’s stories and I was already getting all stressed out and weird. Give her a month and my elevator wouldn’t go all the way to the top.

I used to love having Gran visit, but that was before I grew up and realized she was a few sandwiches short of a picnic. What little kid wouldn’t love a grandmother who told them dragons were real and made them believe they could ride the wind on the back of an awesome, intelligent beast? Every kid wants to believe in magic.

I scootched lower in my seat, found a cooler bit of window for my cheek, and tried to convince myself that it wouldn’t be so bad having Gran around for a month. I’d be at school all day during the week. I’d just have to make sure I had plenty of invitations for sleep-overs on the weekends. My birthday might pose a problem, though. What if she decided to throw me a party?

Oh. My. Gawd. I could just imagine what my friends would say if Gran started telling dragon stories. I’d have to head her off. Maybe let it slip that my heart’s desire would be dinner and a movie…just us girls!

I didn’t have time to hatch a better plan because Gran came striding purposefully around the corner. My heart thumped, and I jumped to my feet. She might be weird, but she was family.

“Gran,” I shouted above the general din of other sons and daughters, grandkids and friends calling to their loved ones.

“Here, Mother,” called Mom. “We’re over here!”

“Deirdre,” boomed Dad, visibly restraining himself. I knew he itched to grab her carry-on luggage out of her hands, but couldn’t do anything until she moved past the security barrier.

And then she sailed through the gate and we hugged and tugged, a mass of flailing arms and clutching fingers, until we managed to bob out of the stream of excited humanity into our own quiet pool of reunion.

“Claire! Look at you,” cried Gran, breaking from the jubilant tangle to hold me at arm’s length. “You’re practically a grown woman.

“You’ve blossomed, my dear,” she said with a wink. “But I’m pleased to see you haven’t overblown.”

Well! Nice to know my understated cleavage pleased someone.

“You look wonderful, too, Gran,” I said with a forced smile. She did. If you liked the psychedelic look of the sixties crossed with demented dandelion. Gran sported a cheese orange rain poncho, lime green rubber boots, short, wiry gray hair that sprang from her head with no discernible style or direction, and Roddy, the ever-present two-foot long toy dragon attached to her shoulder on his Velcro perch. But her eyes sparkled merrily and her smile illuminated the dreary waiting area.

My frosty welcome melted and I hugged her with genuine appreciation. After all, blood is blood. She might be a dingbat, but she was my dingbat, and I loved her.

“We’re going to have the best month of your life,” she whispered in my ear. “Just you wait and see!”

“Peter, if you’ll get my bag,” Gran said, taking charge. “Claire, bring Roddy, please, and Emily, tell me all your news!” She disentangled herself from me, dropped the toy dragon in my abruptly empty arms, grabbed Mom by the elbow and headed for baggage claim, her head close to Mom’s.

Dad and I exchanged glances, shrugged, and carried out our assigned tasks. I held the toy dragon up to my face and stared into his beady green eyes. “Okay, Roddy,” I said, only half teasing. “Here’s the deal. You stay out of my way and I won’t accidentally knock you into the trash compactor.”

Dad laughed, grabbed Gran’s rolling duffle in one hand and dropped the other on my shoulder.

“You’re going to be fine, Claire. Just fine.”

*~*~*

 “I’m going to Lexie’s,” I called to Mom as I ran past the living room. Helping Gran settle into the guest room did not fit with my plans for my final weekend before school started. “Gotta catch some rays while I can, since I’m not going to the Riviera with anyone.”

I heard Mom laugh as I pulled the front door closed behind me before dancing down the front steps. I loved this old house. Three stories tall with a wide, covered porch running the length of the front, the house stood proudly in a well-manicured lawn. Dad paid a lawn service to keep the grass cut and healthy, but Mom and I took care of the flower beds. Mom had a degree in landscape design and gloried in having blooming plants no matter what the season. A feat made possible by the mild Pacific Northwest winters.

Evidently I’d inherited her love of nature. Plants responded to my touch. Always had. I loved gardening with Mom. She often laughed about my green hands, saying my touch was much too powerful to be limited to a thumb.

I beamed at the August roses climbing the trellis and twining around the porch columns, skipped down the front walk and opened the gate in the white picket fence. No doubt about it, my home life was a happy cliché with the operative word being happy. I had no cause for complaint. Not really. The irritation of Gran’s visit was a minor blip. I loved my family. School, on the other hand…but that was about to change. I’d made up my mind: high school would be different. New building, new teachers, new Claire!

Settling my shades on my nose, I kicked into a power walk and headed for Lexie’s. For a brief moment I had considered attempting to talk Mom and Dad into letting me spend the month with the Davis family, but I’d shaken it off. Lexie already shared a bedroom with her baby sister. Besides, her twelve-year-old twin brothers were enough to drive any sane teen nuts without being crammed into a pocket-sized apartment with them for a month.

Tiny was chic for cell phones and computers, but for living quarters, I preferred room to stretch. Lexie’s family lived scrunched.

Maybe I could talk Gran into letting Lexie move in with us for the month. How cool would that be? Me and my BFF rooming together. If we ignored Gran, or pretended she was the hired help, we could imagine ourselves sophisticated adults, living on our own in the big city.

Big Vista, Washington so didn’t qualify as a big city, but a girl’s gotta dream. Besides, as long as I didn’t let it get out of hand like Gran, imagination rocked!

I slowed my power walk to a saunter and turned into Lexie’s apartment complex. The only good thing that could be said for her living accommodations was spelled P-O-O-L. Twenty minutes later we reclined on deck chairs, our well-oiled skin glistening in the afternoon sun.

“Your tan is really coming along,” I said, admiring the bronze shade of Lexie’s exposed midriff. She wore a modest two-piece in shocking orange. That color would’ve been death to my pallid complexion, but on Lexie it looked good. She’d braided her long chestnut hair and flipped the two tails up and over the back of the chair.

“You’re not doing too bad yourself,” she lied, squinting at my fish-belly white legs. “But I do think it’s cruel of your parents to leave you home. I hear the sun is magical in France. You’d probably bake to toasty brown perfection in no time over there.”

Lexie is the best kind of best friend: loyal and dishonest in an ego-stroking kind of way. We closed our eyes in companionable silence and languished in the autumn sun.

In southwest Washington, you had to soak up sunlight when you could. The winter rains would arrive all too soon. Liquid sunshine, they called it. Yeah, right. Endlessly drab and dreary was more to the point.

Just when I’d relaxed into warm, drowsy bliss, eyes closed, skin hot, a shock of ice cold water hit my chest accompanied by an explosion of preteen male giggles. I screamed and launched upright shaking off water like a dog and dancing around my lounge chair to warm my sodden limbs.

The twins chortled again and my rug-rat radar kicked in. I homed in on their position and yelled to Lexie. “I’ll get Nick. You grab Doug. Let’s put these miserable little jerks out of our misery.”

I sprinted toward Nick’s hiding place beside the diving board and he made a mad dash to the pool enclosure’s gate. The air shimmered in Nick’s path and a vaguely human form tripped him. I blinked and the shimmer disappeared, but Nick sprawled on the grass a few feet ahead. I closed the distance and pounced.

Across the pool, Lexie ran her other brother to ground, as well. We gave each other a triumphant thumbs-up and hauled their scrawny carcasses off the grass.

“What tripped me?” Nick asked as I frog-walked him to the gate. “You’d never have caught me without help.” He glanced at me and said with a smug grin, “You’re all wet, Claire.”

“Yeah,” I growled. “I wonder whose fault that is. You know, Nick, you’re a goblin. If you don’t straighten up, you and Doug are going to grow up to be orcs.”

“Awesome,” said Nick, enthusiasm warming his voice. “Hey, Doug! Her Weirdness here says we’re on our way to orc-status.”

Doug jerked away from Lexie and grinned so wide he looked like a Halloween pumpkin. “All riiiight! Hey, you want to find some white paint and plaster our faces with handprints?”

Lexie and I groaned, shook our heads and glanced at each other in dismay. At least the rug-rats would be fixated on something besides us for the next couple of hours. I opened the gate and Lexie propelled her brothers through it. Already deep in discussion about how best to complete their transformation, they barely noticed they’d been expelled from our sanctuary.

Lexie eyed me speculatively. “We’re already wet,” she mused. “Want to swim a few laps?”

“Sure,” I replied and headed to the steps that would ease the transition from sun-warmed air to the water’s blue chill. I shivered, but not from cold, and glanced at the place Nick had fallen. People didn’t shimmer in and out of existence…did they?

*~*~*

 Two days later, we repeated the airport scene in reverse. Same Portland International, same milling crowds despite a difference in individuals, but this time we dealt with departures, not arrivals.

Mom kept grabbing my hand, squeezing it ‘til I flinched and then releasing it with a sob. I’d never seen her face so white, like a vampire had drained her during the night, and her eyes…well, I’m not quite sure how they could look excited and terrified at the same time, but they did.

“You’re going to have a wonderful vacation, dear,” Gran crooned as we stood in an endless line at the ticketing counter, “and Claire and I are going to have a grand visit. We’ll be best friends in no time.”

Yeah, right. I already had a best friend and she wasn’t a fruit loop like Gran.

Parents are weird. I mean, getting Mom onto a plane for the French Riviera should have been a cinch. She should have been dancing through the airport, hopping up and down with impatience in the security line and then finally flying down the concourse to her gate. I certainly would’ve been. But I’m not Mom.

Wait a minute. Maybe that’s it exactly…I’m not a mom. I don’t feel responsible for the world. I’m not worried that the alarm will fail to ring, my child will starve, the laundry will pile up and be trodden underfoot and the household will generally fall to ruin if I’m not there to do everything.

“Mom! Chill,” I said, smothering my exasperation beneath a sunny smile. “I won’t be late for school. I promise to do my homework and eat on a regular basis and between the two of us, Gran and I can figure out how to wash a load of laundry.” As if I hadn’t been washing my own clothes since I was twelve.

Who knew Mom had inherited so much of Gran’s ding-battiness?

Dad finished loading their luggage into the security scanner and returned to find Mom near tears, fingering a tattered to-do list. He pulled it gently from her fingers and handed it to Gran.

“They’re going to be fine, Emily,” he said quietly, in the soothing tones you’d use to quiet a frightened animal. “Claire will take good care of Deirdre,” he winked at me and led us all toward the entrance to the security line, “and Deirdre will make sure Claire remembers the rules.”

“We’ll be fine, Mom,” I added, taking my cue from Dad and keeping my voice soft and low.

“Don’t you worry about a thing, dear,” said Gran, patting Mom’s arm. “Roddy and I have some very special treats planned for Claire. She’ll have wonderful stories to tell when you come home.”

I rolled my eyes at the mention of Gran’s stuffed dragon and a frown flitted across Dad’s features, but Mom laughed and threw her arms around Gran’s thin shoulders.

“Oh, Mother,” she sighed. “You always know just what to say to make me feel better.” She wiped her eyes on the handkerchief Dad produced from his pocket and turned to me.

“Be good, Claire. Stay out of trouble and enjoy your visit with Gran.”

I scowled at the stay out of trouble part, but didn’t want to start the waterworks again. With yet another sunny smile, I hugged her a final time, accepted a shoulder squeeze from Dad and waved them into the security section. Relief flooded my soul…Gran and I weren’t allowed to follow. The leave-taking ordeal was nearly over.

We stood patiently, waving whenever either of them turned to look at us, until they threaded their way through the line, up to the security gate and then past it, to the concourse beyond. At the final corner, they turned to wave one last time and then disappeared on their European adventure. The one from which they’d purposely excluded me.

“Well,” said Gran, “that’s that. Let’s get moving. You have a big day tomorrow…your first day of high school.”

I tore my gaze from the spot where my parents had disappeared and focused on Gran. She smiled at me, vibrant in a red sweatshirt and black pants. I smiled back. I couldn’t help it. Not while her gray hair rioted over her scalp like the victim of a Van de Graaff generator.

“Yes,” I said. “Let’s swing past the high school. My schedule said it would be open today for walk-throughs. I’d like to figure out where my locker is and find all my classrooms.”

“Jefferson High, here we come.” Gran turned and we headed for the parking garage.

So far, so good.

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