Dee grinned at her granddaughter as the girl settled into the chair and fixed the old woman with an expectant gaze. Dee scattered a pinch of powdered ginger into a steaming cup of tea to finish it off.
“Grandma?” Pepper’s little face was pink from the sun, and her acorn brown hair was wind tousled.
“Yes, my love?” Dee turned to face the child.
“That’s not hot cocoa,” she said, pointing at the mugs in Dee’s hands. One for herself, and one for her Granddaughter.
“Well, you seemed upset, Pep. And I think we need to have a grown-up talk about what you saw in the field today. This tea is for grown-up talks. But, if you’re —”
“Oh.” Pepper put up a hand. She looked so much like her mother at that age that Dee couldn’t help but smile. “Nevermind, Grandma. I didn’t realize it was grown-ups tea. Yes, I’ll have some grown-ups tea, if you don’t mind.” Her words were all her father’s: no-nonsense and dusty dry.
Dee chuckled as she sat beside Pepper at the table. She pushed the mug of “grown-ups tea” over so that steam curled loving fingers around her granddaughter’s round cheeks. She would soon outgrow those chubby cheeks and become more herself and less an amalgamation of those closest to her. That growth might mean something more, or it might mean nothing at all. But the way the child had raved when she came crashing through the door that afternoon made Dee believe that this growth would be a doozy.
Pepper sipped her tea and her face crumpled. “Ew, Grandma, this is gross!”
“Oh, I forgot the most important ingredient. It’s what makes it grown-up, Pepper. Because no kid could be trusted to put their own honey into their tea. Do you think you’re ready?”
“Yes!” the girl said. Then, in a formal tone, one her father would be proud of, she said, “I am ready to care of my own honey.”
Dee nodded and brought the jar of honey. “I knew you were, pumpkin.”
There was a brief pause in the conversation as Pep spooned enough honey into her tea that the cup was nearly overflowing. She mixed the brew, sloshing honey-thick tea onto the table. She bent to the cup and took an experimental taste. “Perfect,” she announced.
“Good. Now, tell me, Pepper, what happened in the field today?”
The girl frowned into her cup.
Dee frowned too. She hated to see her Granddaughter looking so unsure of herself. “Grown-ups trust each other. And they don’t make fun. I know Bea wasn’t very nice to you when you told her, but she isn’t as mature as you are, Pep. But, I'm a grown-up, right?”
Her granddaughter snorted. “Yeah, you’re like a hundred.”
Dee chose to ignore this and said, coaxing her, “So you know I won’t tease or laugh.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Pepper slurped from her tea. “You probably will, though. Beatrice said I’m crazy and seeing things.”
“I give you my word, Pepper Pear, I’d never.” Dee patted her granddaughter’s sticky hand.
“Okay,” she sighed, resigned. “I’ll tell you.”
Pepper and Beatrice were almost to the bend in the creek that marked where they weren’t allowed to pass. The hiss and crash of the ocean was faint, and Pepper could smell the sea mixed in with the dry smell of the golden grass of Grandma and Grandpa’s field.
Bea was brave. Pepper knew it. But she was also not a good kid, or at least that’s what Dad always told Pep. He’d say, Pepper, my love, don’t do what that girl Beatrice does, she’s a knucklehead. This always made her laugh because she imagined her friend with a big old harry knuckle for a head.
“What’s so funny?” Bea asked. She was wandering into the oat weeds, her eyes on the little stand of trees near the creek.
Pepper shrugged. “You with a giant knuckle coming out of the top of your head.”
“What?” Her friend looked at her like she had a booger hanging out of her nose.
“Nothing,” she said. “Come on, we have to go back. Let’s go to the Hill and look for fossils.”
“There’s no fossils, Pepper,” Bea said, rolling her dark eyes. “My dad told me that the Hill is just some old dirt that someone dumped in the field. It’s probably got nails and screws in it.”
“When have you ever seen a nail in there, Bea? We’ve dug in it a thousand times.”
“Yeah, and we never found a single fossil. I wanna go to the creek. Dad says there’s crawdads and some parts are deep enough to swim in.”
“My Grandma and Grandpa don’t want me near that part of the creek. We can go to the creek up there,” she said, pointing toward the house. “That one is safe.”
“Yeah, because it’s like, an inch deep. Dad says the trees are where it’s deep.”
Pepper crossed her arms. “Well, Grandma and Grandpa said we can’t go over there. And it’s their field.”
“Dad says it’s not.” Bea was chest-high in the weeds now. Her blond braids were starting to catch the little arrow-shaped seedheads, and soon they’d look like strands of barbed wire hanging over her shoulders.
“Beatrice!” Pepper called, but the other girl just shook her head and stomped away. “You’ll step on a rattlesnake!”
“Nice try!” Bea shouted back over her shoulder. “Come on, quit being a baby, and let’s just go look, for cripes sake!”
Bea was being a real knucklehead. But Pepper couldn’t let her friend go alone. She wasn’t sure why, but she knew she had to be there when Beatrice reached the little forest of eucalyptus trees. With a frustrated groan, Pepper charged into the weeds after her dumb friend.
It was colder under the trees, the sunlight was green and it smelled like mud and dead leaves. Bea’s dad was right, the water was deeper here. It came rushing over a big boulder and thundered into a pool that was clear all the way down. Water swirled and rocked through the trees until it calmed down near the end of the tiny forest. But it was deep because it was down in a big, long hole in the ground. The banks were so steep and high that if the girls decided to swim there, they’d have to go all the way downstream to get out.
“This was what all the fuss was about?” Bea snorted.
Pepper wasn’t paying attention. She’d spotted something strange in the muddy bank on the other side of the creek.
Holes. They looked like gopher holes, but sideways and a foot above the water. She imagined gophers digging through the dirt, minding their own business, and then, pop, all of a sudden they were in mid-air over what must look like the grand canyon to them! And, just like in the Bugs Bunny cartoons, they look down, up, then down again before they fell into the churning waters.
She squinted and took a few slow steps forward.
“What?” Bea asked.
Pepper ignored her. She was nearly at the edge of the creek now, and something was moving in the holes. Several somethings. They were looking at her with green and brown and bright sky-blue eyes. They had wide bullfrog mouths and gripped the sides of the holes with stick-like fingers. They sat, dangling twig legs that ended in boots made of shiny brown leaves.
“What are they?” She whispered.
“What are what?” Bea asked. She sounded bored.
“In the holes.” Pep pointed.
Beatrice moved closer.
The little creatures were popping their heads out now. Some looked like they had long hair made of moss, others were as bald as acorns. Some grinned and flitted wings made of spider silk and mist. One slipped out of a hole and climbed a ladder of tree roots to stand at the top of the opposite bank.
Pepper gaped. Her stomach shivered and she blinked furiously. “Do you see that?” she whispered to her friend.
“Holes?” Bea asked, annoyed.
“Him,” Pep said, breathlessly.
He was taller than most of the other … whatever they were. He wore a cloak made of oak leaves and oat weeds. She was pretty sure he was wearing a crown, too, one made of woven grass and dew. He leveled his golden eyes with hers. Warmth spread out from the tips of her fingers to the soles of her feet and crackled all the way across her head.
“This is boring,” Beatrice said, sighing. “Let’s go back to your Grandma’s house.”
“Don’t you see them?” she asked, grabbing Bea’s arm before she could turn away.
“See the holes? Yep.” Pepper didn’t need to look at the other girl to know she’d rolled her eyes.
“No, the … the….” She shook her head, at a loss. “The stick people.”
“Oh geez.” Bea yanked her arm away. “We’re gonna be in fifth grade soon, Pepper. We’re getting too old to play pretend.” Bea started walking away.
Pepper might have yelled for her to come back, but the King stick person shook his head. All at once, she understood. Bea couldn’t see them, only Pepper could. The King lifted a hand and waved. The others smiled and waved, a few blew kisses. Somehow, this felt familiar, in a way that made her feel sort of foggy. If she’d known the word “nostalgic” she would have known that it was a little like that. Pep was confused but managed an awkward wave before she wandered off after her friend.
Pepper’s mug was empty by the time she’d finished telling Dee her story. Her eyes were downcast. Her tangled hair fell to hide her features.
“So, you broke the rules and went to the deep creek,” Dee said.
Pep nodded but didn’t look up.
“And you saw the hidden folk,” Dee said, with a quirk of her lip. She had wondered if it would be Pepper. The gift certainly hadn’t passed on to the girl’s mother.
Pepper looked up. “Hidden folk?”
“I always suspected you saw them. You used to tell me stories about the people in the grass, or living with the bees in their hives. Or in the knotholes of the old oaks. You stopped talking about them for a time, so I had to wonder. Maybe it was only your very healthy imagination.” She got up from the table, took her granddaughter’s mug, and put it in the sink.
Pep’s eyebrows were knit, she was biting her lip and gazing at the jar of honey without really seeing it. A spark shone in her gray-green eyes. “I do remember them,” she said.
“You’re the next in line,” Dee told her.
“Next in line?” Pepper asked.
“Well, I got it from your great Aunt Lily. It skipped over your mom and your aunts and uncle. None of your cousins seem to have it. Just you. That’s usually how it works.” She sat back down and reached her hand out across the table.
Pepper reached over and let her grandma’s fingers close around her own. “What do you see?” her granddaughter asked.
“Well, my sight is getting worn out. I can’t see them like you can, I used to be able to. They’re only shadows and blurs to me now. I know where they are, and how to keep them safe. As to that,” Dee said, squeezing Pep’s hand, “you have to keep Beatrice away from that place, where the water is deep. It’s dangerous for her. They don’t like people in their homes. Just us. We’re okay. But others….” She trailed off.
“I knew she shouldn’t be there. I knew it I felt like I had to keep Beatrice safe even before I saw them,” Pepper whispered.
“Good.” Dee hadn’t known how worried she’d been until relief washed through her. “For the most part, they build homes in places people don’t like to go.”
“Like beehives?” Pep asked.
“Yep,” Dee said, smiling at the girl. “You’re going to do just fine, Pepper Pear.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty mature for my age.” She sighed and nodded. “I can totally handle this, Grandma. You can count on me.” Her dad was coming through loud and clear again. But that spark of joy and mischief in her eye, that was her mom through and through.
Dee choked on a laugh. “I know I can, sweetpea.”
She wouldn’t tell her granddaughter all of what was to come yet. Not at nine. The house, the field, and the deep creek were all hers when she was old enough to keep them safe. But for now, it was enough to let her know she wasn’t alone.