It was only a city block wide, but it had been allowed – some said by design – to become overgrown and wild, so that there were only two clear paths through the whole thing, an X crossing the park, the center a circle where, once upon a time, a merry-go-round had stood. People hurried through the center now, even in the middle of the day. The ghosts of the children were too densely packed there, and too loud.
Whitney cut through there every day. It took five minutes off of her walk, if she did it right, and that meant she could catch the 6:30 bus instead of the 5:30 bus and still be to work on time (instead of fifty minutes early), which meant another hour of sleep or reading or drawing in the morning and being able to actually stay up in the evening; on the way home, it meant she could take the 5:15 instead of the 5:45 home. She walked the park from the Northwest corner to the Southeast corner, which to her was a matter of practicality, but to our story means everything.
Albert cut through there every day, too. He didn’t like the guys on Parker Street, and going through the park gave him a minute to breathe something other than smoke and sewage, to feel like he lived in the world and not in a concrete block. He took his time, generally taking twice as long to walk through the park as he would going around, except the part where that way the bullies on Parker Street didn’t get to him. He walked from the Southwest corner (Parker and Milton), because that way he could take Milton to school; but to the story, this means everything.
It was Monday, bus-late Monday and Parker-boys angry Monday and Whitney was rushing, her heels catching on the damn sidewalk the city never repaired and the rain sliding down the back of her nice jacket as she ran through the park, cursing the branches grabbing for her and the uneven pavement and the bus that was never on time and her own stupidity in being so damn clever with her shortcut. She tripped one more time and went flying, landing right in the arms of a mugger, a scrawny kid with a long, nasty knife and a leering smile.
“Hello, beautiful. Give me all your money or I’m gonna cut you open.”
It was one straw too many. Whitney screamed at the man, hollered as loud as she could and headbutted him, then kicked him while he was still startled. “You. You dare!” she snarled. “My day has been hell, my week was shit last week and my month is totally in the red and you want my money? I have negative three hundred fifty dollars to my name, sweetie, you can have my debt if you really want something. ‘Cause that, this is all I have to give.”
The mugger backed up three steps and, much to her surprise, bowed. “Done,” he agreed. “Your debt is now mine, Whitney of Hidden Acres.” When he doffed his hat, long, pointed ears stuck through his greasy hair.
“You… what?” She blinked. “Oh my god I kicked a fairy in the nads. Why, why were you….”
“Well,” he grinned. “A man’s got to do what he’s got to do.”
“Here, let me give you…” she dug through her purse. “I’ve got a candy bar and my sandwich for lunch. I’m sorry…”
He shook his head. “You did what was meet, Whitney of Hidden Acres, and I have taken your debt. May it lighten your load.”
“May it… thank… may your path be light, carrying it.” She knew the old stories, she knew what to not say. And she walked, stunned, into the center of the park, for she had faced down a fae and walked away lighter for rit.
At the same time, in the same park, Albert was, too, crossing on his daily route. he was running late, too, the boys on Parker Street having ranged further out today (although they would not enter the park, and had, instead, stood outside yelling taunts at him as he fled into its leafy embrace).
He nearly tripped over the panhandler before he saw the old man, crouched at the side of the path, his hat out. “Sorry, grampa,” he murmured, respectfully for all his hurry. He dug into his pockets for some change. “I don’t have much, but this should get you a coffee.”
The man creaked out a thank you. “You’re a kind boy, sonny.” He doffed his second hat – the one on his head – revealing long, pointed ears. “And I’ll give you a gift for it, too, you parsimonious foot-stepping little snot. Hot feet have you, and may they never stop moving.”
Dancing uncomfortably as his feet seemed to warm up, Albert glared uncertainly at the old man. “What was that for?” he complained. “I gave you what I had.”
“You gave me what you thought you could spare with no trouble, and that’s no gift at all. Now get on with ye, for you won’t be wanting to stand still.”
Albert jogged uncomfortably into the center of the park, where Whitney had paused, thoughtful and happier than she’d thought possible when she’d woken up, he more miserable than seemed fair. Around them, the ghosts of children swirled, ignored, for the moment, in their confusion.
What the fairy tales forget to tell you is that the nature of the fae on the roadside matters as much as how you treat them.
Next: Planting Some Good.