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Fantasy Sad

 I saw Miloff four times. 

The first was on June 6th, the day Wendall came to stay with me at Velle Acres for one last summer. As the sun’s final rays landed on the foot of my porch, and the frogs croaked from the edge of the forest several yards away, he appeared in the corner of my eye: Miloff. The grass sparkled, the crickets sang, and the world blurred slightly. When I turned my head, he was gone, but the mild ringing in my ears remained. I smiled.

“Make a wish, Lux,” grandma would say. “They’re fairies.” 

Wendall and I used to come to that house every summer as kids. He explored the greenways, while I helped Grandma cultivate vegetables from the garden. He had this little friend he liked to call Miloff: a fuzzy garden gnome who lived in the woods. Meanwhile, I befriended Randy, a boy I met while playing in the creek. 

“I’m trying to catch a frog,” Randy had said, from where he was crouched near the water, frowning at me. “But I need someone to hold the net. I know girls don’t like frogs, but I’ll pay you five bucks if you do it.”

“Okay,” I’d replied. “I’ll take five bucks. I’m pretty good at catching frogs.”

Ten years later, I was the temporary caretaker of Grandma’s estate, and Grandma was laid out peaceably in her favorite lace dress, six feet below the ground with the earthworms she’d so loved in her time. 

And everything was quiet.

The gentle whirring of hummingbirds and hoots of distant owls were the only sounds to penetrate the stillness, so I began caring for the neighbors' son, the four year old of a young couple who spent most non-working hours at social events and late parties. I’d arrive at the house at 4:30, where I’d receive Austin and the house key. Austin was a quiet child, and we never did much: I made dinner, and then I’d take him to the master bedroom, and we’d sleep for the next six hours until the parents returned, when I’d creep quietly home and climb into my own bed. If the parents returned especially late, I’d wake Austin up, and we’d watch cartoons on the old laptop at the desk in the corner. The cartoons were relics from a time before I was born; they reminded me of the shows Wendall and I used to watch in the living room, the TV volume turned all the way up to drown out unwanted noise from other rooms.

On days when Austin wasn’t in need of a caretaker, I’d walk down the poison ivy lined greenway, to the plaza, where they had Benny’s—a sandwich restaurant, right next to Sadie Q—a bar—and The Salon. I’d sit outside Benny’s and order iced tea or pink lemonade, and sip it as the sun set. I used to go there with Wendall, and then with Wendall and Randy, and then—later—just Randy.

Sometime in May, Austin’s parents crashed off the side of the road late at night, and Austin was relocated to a foster home, where I never saw him again. That was the same year Wendall came to spend our last summer at Velle Acres.

Wendall was my step brother: a sparkling eyed, lanky boy four years my junior; he was fifteen when he came that year, and he brought magic with him. He had his old fishing net when he burst through my front door, proclaiming: “Lux, I'm here!”

“Looks like someone’s going fishing.”

He looked down at the net, then grinned up at me. “No—I’m going to catch Miloff.”

“Aren’t you kind of old to be doing that?”

Laughter. “How are you?”

“Have fun. I’ve been alright. You?”

“I’m so glad to finally be back! It feels like it’s been forever. I want to go exploring—are all the trails still around?”

“I don’t know. But you can go see.”

“You don’t know? You haven’t been out there?”

“It’s hot.”

“Well, do you want to come with me?”

I thought about it; looked out the window at the fireflies floating along the edge of the woods… 

“I don’t think I have the energy. Sorry.”

“But it’s our last summer here.”

He gazed at me for a moment, then pitched the net over his shoulder and strode out the back door. I watched as he passed through the yard and into the woods, disappearing into a haze of yellow and green. A chill ran through me. When he was ten, he’d tried to walk across a tree trunk that had fallen across the creek, somewhere in all that green. He’d slipped and hit his head on a rock. The blood had formed little clouds in the cool water.

I stepped outside onto the porch to listen—I could hear his feet crushing through the brush, and the eerie croaking of the frogs—and it was then that I saw Miloff, for the first time, at the edge of the woods, waiting.

The second time I saw him was a few weeks later, after Wendall was settled in. Wendall had never lost the spirit he’d brought with him the first time he’d set foot on Velle Acres. I‘d worried he wouldn’t have it anymore, now that he was on the cusp of adulthood—but I shouldn’t have. He was the same kid he’d been every summer, who’d be out at sunrise, exploring the woods: discovering foxes, raccoons, and insects, running after tree nymphs, or will-o’-the-wisps, collecting cracked bird eggs and whatnot. I used to catch the insects for him, and make them homes in jars, and then he’d give them scientific names, and Randy would give them real names. We’d come back together at noon, our sweaty hair stuck to our faces, and eat strawberry shortcake or cookies on the porch, while grandma painted in her checkered apron.

Now Grandma’s apron hung on a hook in the kitchen closet, a figure in a portrait of dust and cranberry sauce cans, and Wendall came back alone, and reminded me of all the places he’d found that I hadn’t even seen because I wouldn’t leave the damn yard. He’d go out again after we’d eaten, and stay out until sunset, when he’d come back for the night.

“I think they’re going to stay together,” he said one evening, as we were finishing up a pan of egg rolls I’d made from some ink-stained recipe in grandma’s drawers. He peered at me, concern deepening the shadows cast under his eyes by the porch light. “I don’t want them to. She’s angry all the time. And he’s starting to get angry too. They should just end it.”

A moth landed in his hair, vibrated softly. He brushed it off, surprised. “I think she doesn't want me around anymore.”

The way he said it almost suffocated me, as if I were trapped in that stuffy closet with the checkered apron. I thought of Grandma, sitting on the porch at her easel, the pink ribbon on her broad sunhat dancing in the breeze. Grandma saying,“Maybe I should’ve picked another day to paint. It’s hot today,” her wide smile sweeping out like the brim of her hat. “But then, the flowers are so pretty. Ah, well. Swings and roundabouts, as they say.”

Grandma saying, “Oh, Sweetheart. Your mother had a hard time. But she loves you, Lux.”

The sharp, fruity smell on Mom’s breath, the day I left; I hugged her, and she smiled at me, eyes bright and shiny, like Wendall’s.

“You can always come stay with me when you’re ready,” I muttered. “It’s easier.”

After he’d hit his head on that rock, I’d dragged him back through the woods. He was a skinny kid, but I was fourteen, and his body bore me down with each step. I could smell the blood, and taste the salt from the sweat dripping down the sides of my face—or maybe it was tears, as I felt Mom’s nails digging into my arm, and she screamed at me, and her voice sang off the sides of the trees….

“Sometimes you see the lights,” Grandma would tell us. “They can look like fireflies, or sparkles, or will-o’-the-wisps—but they’re not. Then, sometimes you hear the bells, very quietly, in the back of your head. And then you see him. Only from the corner. Never directly. He comes out when you’re sad, or lonely, or afraid, and takes away the bad memories.”

That night, for the first time in a while, I walked to Sadie Q. For the first time in a while I had more than half a glass, too. Stringed bulbs pulsed faintly over the wooden patio, and some of them flickered; some were already gone. Limes rested on the rims of drinks. I imagined Randy sitting across from me, the way he had when I was sixteen, biting the flesh off his lime, his hair falling around his face contentedly.

“So… would you maybe wanna go to Benny’s with me tonight?” he’d asked, glancing sideways at me, casual and uninterested. But the second syllable of night wavered just enough to let me know how interested he really was in my answer—

With Wendall?” I’d asked, cautiously.

“No. Just you and me—if that’s alright?”

We both smiled.

When he turned seventeen I said, “Do you wanna try something a little more mature?”

He frowned. “Like what?” 

“How about Sadie Q’s tonight”

Uh… okay.” His voice went up at the end again. “Just to eat, right? Because you know they won’t serve us—”

“Yeah, I know,” I’d said. “Just to eat.”

On the way back, the trees looked like Grandma’s paintings, like something I couldn’t see because my eyes wouldn’t focus. When I stumbled into the yard, my ears rang, and the warm air seemed to sway around me. I made a wish then, unsure if it was fairies, or the fact that I was intoxicated: “I wish I could just forget about him—” before promptly passing out on the ground. I woke up later, face pressed into the warm earth, fireflies floating lazily above me, the treetops shifting in the dark breeze. 

Just feet away, beyond my line of vision, stood what I at first thought was a doll, with the face of an old man, looming in the grass like my guardian angel. Things went fuzzy: the grass and the trees turning into soft dots, pulsing in the air. I looked up to see the rustling of bushes at the side of the house, and nothing else. The world fell back into place. And that was the second time I saw Miloff. 

“I like your room.”

That’s what he mumbled between breaths, our foreheads together, noses brushing. And I could feel his breath against my face, and I could feel the warm August breeze from the open window, and it smelled sweet.

“It’s Grandma’s room.”

“I—ew…. Well, you sleep here, so it’s your room.”

“Okay. Look, the moon is out.”

He’d smiled. “I like it better at night.”

“Yeah. Me too.” 

And he’d looked really happy, at that moment. And I thought it was a different kind of magic, something sweeter than fairies, more sincere than garden gnomes. Something like Grandma’s pies, soft and warm. Close together, noses brushing: that’s how we were when Mom opened the door—

It was after Miloff’s third appearance that it struck me: there was something sinister about the gnome. The third time I saw him, Wendall was with me. We stood in the kitchen near the open back door, while the sun set behind the trees. I’d been about to say something, when I heard it: the faint ringing, just inside my ears. A breeze rattled the little round mirror hanging on the wall behind us; my eyes landed on it, and I saw a hazy image: the trees, green and distorted in the roundness, and the stretch of grass just beyond the porch, and—right between them—something small, and dark. I didn’t turn my head, afraid that it would disappear; but I studied it in the mirror. The earthy woolen cloak. The soft red hat, tip weighed down by a silver bell, jingling in the dark wind. Thick brows, sunk low over the sullen expression. I couldn’t tell because it was so far off, but it almost looked… angry. 

I turned to Wendall. He was fuzzy, like everything around me. I reached out to touch him—and he felt soft… like cotton.

“Hey,” I said. “Wendall.”

Everything returned to normal. Wendall was smiling, and tears were streaming down his cheeks.

It was then that I began to realize that something wasn’t right. I didn’t see Miloff for a while after that—but he started showing up more often. I knew him from the ringing in my ears—only the ringing began to be accompanied by headaches and dizziness. Sometimes when I showered, in the dark, with the yellow shower light coming off the steam around me, I’d hear the bells bouncing off the bathroom walls, and I’d know that Miloff was somewhere nearby—right outside the door maybe, or walking softly up the steps of my front porch. I’d wake up to the sound at night, and wonder if he was waiting out there, in the woods.

Sometimes, when I was with Wendall, the edges of his face would appear to be made of fuzz. Sometimes I would brush against him, and for a moment he would feel soft—as if he wasn’t there at all.

“There will be other boys, sweetheart,” Grandma had said.

“Maybe,” I’d cried. “But not like this one.”

Our last day at Velle Acres, I sat on the patio with Wendall, looked out at the trees, and thought of how Mom had screamed at Randy, the last time I saw him. We’d stood in grandma’s room with flowers on the walls, and she’d screamed him away, until there was no one left, no one left at all, because he was gone. 

And he had never come back.

I’m so happy when I’m with you,” he’d whispered into my ear.

I was reminded again of what magic was. And I’d sworn I’d never forgive her, the night she took it away from me.

“Hey Wendall—” I started, but he was already saying something.

“I wish you’d come outside with me the way you used to,” he was telling me.

“Wendall—” I tried again—

“You used to play with me out there all the time. And I know you’re older, and you don’t have to play if you don’t want to, but you could still come out, at least. It’s really nice being out there—I mean you could just walk around—unless you’re worried about getting your shoes dirty or something—” a sideways glance, “I didn’t think you were like that, but I really don’t know what happened to you—”

I shook my head. “Nothing happened to me, and I don’t care about my shoes.”

“Well, what is it then?”

“Wendall,” I said. ““I don’t think you should go into those woods.”

“Why?”

“I just have this weird feeling—about you being in there. It doesn’t feel safe.”

“I’ve been going in there for years, Lux. Why would it suddenly be unsafe?”

His voice suddenly seemed to come from far away, and for a moment he was made of something soft and woolen, something that pulsed and faded and—

“What?” his face returned to normal. He was frowning.

“Something feels wrong.”

“Maybe something is wrong—but not with me. It’s you. It’s always been you. You just changed, and I don’t know why—”

“No, there’s nothing wrong with me—it’s the fairies—or the gnome thing, or whatever the hell it is—”

“It’s the fairies? No, you grew up! And you changed. You used to be fun, Lux. We used to have fun together—do you remember that? Do you remember when we built that fort, and—and we claimed all the land within a twenty yard radius, and then we marked our territory, and mapped it all out, and then that kid—Janet—from across the creek knocked it over, and we went on an expedition to her house, and destroyed her fort? Or when we found that tree with the vines hanging from it, and I wanted to swing from them but I made you go first because I was too scared—”

“And then the vine broke, and I fell into all those thorns, yes I remember that—”

“Yeah, and you cried—”

“All the way home.”

“But then Grandma let you eat the whole lemon meringue pie she made—”

“And I ate it all, and I didn’t share any of it—”

“Yeah, that was a really shitty thing to do Lux.”

“I had cuts up to my neck. I think I deserved some pie.”

He laughed, a tingling metallic sound that scared me.

“Hey, Lux,” he was crying. “I’m sorry about Randy.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“I told her about you, so it is my fault.”

I shook my head. “It’s not your fault things were the way they were.”

“I told her because I was mad—”

“I know. But I’m not mad.”

He turned fuzzy, along with everything else around me. “I wish things had been different.”

He sniffed, but now it sounded far away. 

I found myself longing for grandma’s perfect world, a playground of goods and bads that were never really all that bad because she wrapped them up in lace and kisses; remembering how she looked pretty, and almost young, even laid out in the dirt. She didn’t understand our perspective—she couldn’t get far enough past the lace to see how much of her daughter was really left—and I’m glad she died that way. Drunk on sunshine.

“It’s like grandma said,'' I mumbled, Wendall’s face a fuzzy blur before me. “Swings and roundabouts.”

When the world returned to normal, Wendall was far away, at the foot of the woods with his gnome. They faded into the green.

That was the last time I saw Miloff.

July 22, 2022 18:55

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4 comments

Marilyn Briant
18:56 Jul 28, 2022

Amazingly descriptive and interesting. I found myself fascinated by the story!

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Britannia Howard
17:22 Jul 29, 2022

Thank you! 😊

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Katy Borobia
18:14 Jul 26, 2022

Excellent story! I thought it was very touching and well-executed.

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Britannia Howard
17:22 Jul 29, 2022

Thank you so much! 😊

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