“So,” I said tentatively, “what’s the catch?”
I sat awkwardly perched on a tall stool by The Upturned Pint’s bar, swizzled round to gaze at the faerie before me. Its alien beauty struck me – I had never seen one in person before, had only ever heard stories of their strange human yet inhuman likeness. This particular one had long, silky hair the color of green apple; its skin a waxy, pale color, like an apple’s flesh; and red lips just a shade too deep to be natural, bold against the drapes of its hair. Little accents of gold leaf adorned itself like forbidden fruit on a tree: most perched daintily in its hair, some painted across its cheekbones, highlighting the shadows cast by their sharpness. It wore a gold satin dress that fell down to its feet, just to graze its bare toes. It was effortlessly slim; it was beautiful, truly, just like I’d heard. I knew better than to allow its beauty to get the better than me. Faeries were deceiving and manipulative, despite being unable to lie.
“It makes you immortal.”
“Yes,” I said, a little exasperated, “we’ve gone over this. I swallow it, wash it down with a glass of water, and it makes me forever invulnerable to any blade, poison or attack to kill and immortal – never to grow old, never to be killed.” I looked down at the miniature pill that lay in the faerie’s open palm. A little drug of power. “I won’t die because I won’t be able to. I get that. But what’s the catch?”
The faerie gazed back at me, quiet. Unspeakable lies seemed to dance behind its eyes, irises identical to the color of its hair.
I sigh. “It’s too good to be true. Surely there’s something. A catch. You know, the downside to such a brilliant bargain... You couldn’t only want the beating of my heart – and I can still live without it, given the immortality thing. Like, what good is that to you?”
“It makes a nice melody.”
“A nice–” I paused, taken aback. “But you have heartbeats. You – the Fair Folk. Yeah, we have our differences, but a heartbeat isn’t one of them. That’s vampires.”
“Our hearts beat thrice as quick of yours,” the fae admitted. “Yours are slow. Calming.”
I stared at it incredulously. And what are you going to do, make a little music box out of it to listen to at night? Use it as a metronome? A good drum beat for your next hit single? Ignoring my thoughts, I chose to say: “So you value my heartbeat more than immortality?”
The faerie cackled, a single gold leaf fluttering down from its green apple locks. “Foolish human, I am not giving you my immortality. Only the means to get it yourself. I cannot extract my immortality and put it into a pill – that’s blasphemy. If I wanted to die, like you sickly beings, I’d kill myself.”
“Awesome. I’m happy for you.”
It stared at me blankly. Faeries don’t get sarcasm: it’s like lying.
Heartbeat for the pill. Heartbeat for the pill. The pill that will make me invulnerable, immortal. The heartbeat that does nothing but keep me alive, but with the pill, it would have no use.
“It’s a deal.”
The faerie’s gorgeously alien face twisted into a detrimental smile. Its teeth were crystal clear, completely transparent; I wondered how many luxurious fruits and treats they had broken down in the span of its life of eternity. Probably enough to rot a human’s stomach right down to the acids. Not me, though, not after the pill.
Briefly, just briefly, I also wondered if I could even count myself as a human after this.
Only briefly, though.
It tipped the pill delicately into the palm of my hand. I marveled at it.
“Once you swallow that,” said the fae, “the magic will start to work. I will take your heartbeat, but you will live.”
At first, the pill showed no signs of working. The only sign that kept me from panicking was that my chest was silent; my heart ceased to beat. And I was alive, against all biology. That, and that faeries can’t lie, for else their tongues will twist and shrivel until they are bloody stumps, or so the stories say. The fae I bargained with showed no signs of a bloody tongue stump and had said it would work, and so it had to. Or at least, the fae had to believe it would – even if it was wrong, if it believed it to be right, it couldn’t lie about what it believed.
Lucky for me, the faerie was indeed correct. I tried to lightly cut myself but the blade seemed to turn to blunt rubber as it came to touch me, yet when I took it away, it returned to its ideal carrot-chopping sharpness, and I could continue with my dinner. Not that I even needed dinner, anyway – being invulnerable, starvation isn’t really something you have to worry about. I next tried slicing off my hand from its wrist – a bold attempt – and the knife acted exactly the same. Invulnerable to any blade.
There went any heroic dreams of being stabbed in battle. Which, I assure you, I had none.
I tried raw chicken, probably just seething with salmonella – absolutely fine. An upgrade to arsenic did nothing, too.
It seemed legit enough for me. My biggest impossible hope, true: I couldn’t die.
Granted, there was no way for me to test the immortal part without waiting, only the invulnerable, so I just had to trust the Fair Folk on that.
I didn’t often think back to that evening at The Upturned Pint. It occurred in the odd dream, but never haunted me. I’d been young, then, almost twenty-one, therefore for the first thirty or so years, it was basically like living normally.
If only looking twenty-one when you were supposed to be fifty-one counted as living normally.
I couldn’t keep it from my family; I told them mere months after it occurred. They were upset with me and thought me foolish, but I couldn’t see why. It was fabulous – I was good-looking at twenty, something I would’ve lost had I aged. My hair was soft and golden blonde permanently: I never had to worry about it greying or falling out, never had to worry about having to dye my roots frantically to keep the natural color. Who wanted to age? It only brought you perils.
Nonetheless, watching my friends and family grow old together took a toll on my heart. My beatless heart. I realised how much a wistful, beautiful thing it is. I’d never know what I would’ve looked like with wrinkles, if my hair would grey or whiten, if I’d go bald by eighty. I’d never know the face that most children wonder over, making silly predictions. I’d only ever know my twenty-year-old face and the faces before that; I’d always feel twenty-one. And no matter how awesome being young and athletic felt then, it began to feel wrong as I watched others grow old. Like looking in the mirror and seeing somebody else, or waking up in the future and not being able to tell your past self where their decisions lead them.
If I thought that was bad, I clearly hadn’t thought of death. In fact, I hadn’t thought of much at all when I made the bargain, only that I could escape my own death. But how – how could I truly escape death when I wasn’t the only one on the planet? People I cared for would die, over and over again, and I’d have to suffer the grief infinite times what I would’ve if I’d not seen my own natural end as a fault.
All good things come to an end. I suppose, I often thought bitterly, that’s why I made myself destined to not have an end.
My mother and father died in the same year, my elder sister three decades later and my few friends only months after that. Each loss struck depression alight like a match. I wondered how any human could possibly go through with such feelings in such a short lifetime, knowing I had to go through them so much more.
But I felt so far from human.
Love after love after love after love; it took me centuries to realise it was hopeless. Every mortal I fell for seemed to slip away before I could even get a hold of them, even if I was with them for decades. Time and time again I tried, I gave it another chance because I wanted to be human and I wanted to love. Eternity seemed so unfriendly faced with the prospect of facing it alone.
I then tried to find other immortals. There were faeries, vampires. I tried them both.
The Fair Folk turned me away with one look from a strangely colored eye. “But I’m immortal, just like you,” I’d protested.
“You are an unnatural being,” the fae boy had said. He looked an age similar to mine, thought he was likely to be centuries, also alike me. His irises sparkled pink and deep blue and his hands were shimmery and scaled. “You are human, yet you cannot be, for you live forever and cannot be killed.”
Vampires paid no interest. Some tried to attack me for my blood, surprised when their fangs couldn’t pierce my flesh and they came away having just salivated on me, not embarrassed but perplexed.
Finally, I looked for other people like me. Nevertheless, it seemed there were either no other humans who had had an encounter with a faerie and had turned immortal. I was of an unfortunate minority.
I was starting to think, if only I could end this.
I couldn’t love or live happily. I couldn’t take my life. I couldn’t even feel my heartbeat.
I’d never thought I’d miss my heartbeat, of all things, but I did. I already felt so far from human; at least that would’ve tied me to it, even if just a little. I felt emotions entirely mentally – there was never any racing blood, fiercely pumping heart, thrumming in my temples with fear, excitement, joy. It was all in my head and I was alone in my mind.
I found myself back at The Upturned Pint in sleep, in nightmares instead of dreams.
I knew there was an entrance to Faerieland there. An impossible possibility that I could reverse what I did centuries ago and let old age finally and rightfully claim me, murder me utterly.
So, I went back to the bar where I’d first taken the plunge. Tropical and blissful waters at first, I remembered, the sun sparkling daintily through the surface. But after you’ve sunk a little too far, it closes in on you, and you choke, choke, choke.
The same faerie was there, exactly where it had been before by the bar. Drapes of green apple hair, skin like apple flesh, rich red lips. Her dress was now velvet black, her eyes haughty and expecting. Long, delicate fingers clasped a pint of beer winking in the light.
I let out a hollow laugh but now my voice seemed empty of humor.
“Don’t tell me you’ve been waiting here all this time.”
The fae turned her face up to mine, her nails ticking infuriatingly against the glass of her drink. “How have you enjoyed it?”
“You waiting here for like, six centuries? I don’t know, seems kind of lonely.”
“The immortality, you fool,” it snapped. “You came here to ask me if I had a pill to turn you back. To allow you to die. Well, I don’t.”
“Not necessarily a pill,” I corrected, despair tinging my voice.
“Anything. From any fae, doesn’t have to be you.”
I blanched. “Just nope? Is my doom that simple to you? Why are you even here, if only to tell me that?”
“Only to tell you that,” mused the fae, “and to see what you’d do, given eternity to torture. Humans are fascinating.”
“But I’m not really human.”
It sighed. “No. But you could’ve been.”
At that, I turned and ran to the bathroom. There I retched right to the pit of my stomach, till acids dribbled down my chin, desperate to, by some miracle, throw up the pill. Who was I kidding? I could barely throw up. Invulnerability restrained me.
What’s the catch?
It makes you immortal.
It hadn’t been avoiding my question. It had been answering it, and truthfully, that.
The catch was being immortal. It was almost like the faerie had followed me into the bathroom and was cackling right behind me.
Maybe it had.