The Naiad Pond
Not far from the Interstate, but through a fence, a field, a spur of woods, and over a small hill, three children were lying in the tall grass surrounding a sluggish green pond. They could hear the occasional rumble of a truck in the distance, but other than that they could almost pretend that they were all alone in the outdoors. In these last lazy days of summer, escape from adult supervision was more than enough reason to roam beyond the edge of town and into the surrounding fields and semi-wild woods. Having done so, normally they were content to sprawl out in the grass with the summer heat beating down on them and the drone of cicadas lulling them to sleep.
Today, however, Alexandra was fighting the temptation to lay her head down, knowing that she might soon doze off like the younger girl next to her. She was lying at the edge of the pond for a reason, pushing the tall grass aside to peer across the algae-covered surface with the watchfulness of a tiger staking out a watering hole. Her eyes were much brighter and greener than the water, and her straight black hair, yellow shirt, and jeans shorts contrasted with her pale skin, none of which made for particularly good camouflage in the brown rushes surrounding the pond, so her imitation of a crouching tiger was more fanciful than effective.
The sun was turning red, low to the horizon, and she would not have much time to take advantage of the dusk, which she considered to be the most likely time to catch a glimpse of what she was here to see. Like the two kids with her, she would be in big trouble if she returned home after dark. Home was not far, as the crow flies, but a fair hike for three children who would have to run through tall grass and thick underbrush and up a hill before they would be back within sight of Sweetmaple Avenue.
Brian Seabury was thinking about how long it would take them to get home and whether they could make it before dark. He was looking at his sister and thinking about poking her awake, and not at the pond which Alexandra was watching so intently.
"We're going to have to go soon, Alex," he said.
"Ssh!" she whispered.
"If there's something in there, don't you think it already knows we're here?" He was trying not to sound skeptical, he really was, but he must have failed miserably, because Alexandra turned her head to look at him over her shoulder, and her scowl made him swallow hard and close his mouth before he said something else to make her angry.
Alexandra Quick was Brian's best friend. Alexandra's mother had moved in down the street from the Seaburys when they were both five, and they had been playmates ever since. In this summer before the start of sixth grade, both of them were testing the limits of parental supervision more than ever before, but it was always Alexandra who was bolder and more likely to get them into trouble.
Alexandra was fearless, and Brian thought it was partly because she was an only child and had never had to take care of a younger sibling, partly because her parents were rather less watchful than his, but mostly it was because she could do magic.
This was something both of them had also known since they were toddlers. By unspoken agreement, they had never mentioned it to their parents. When they were little, it had hardly even seemed important. Their world was already filled with magic, like any child's world. Dreams and storybook characters and fairy tales and cartoons and all things imaginary blended together in the disordered creativity of childhood, before they learned, gradually, that what happened in a dream couldn't necessarily happen in real life, and that children's books and fairy tales were full of made up characters, and that cartoons were just animated drawings.
But Alexandra could make things disappear, and she could make birds and butterflies (and once a plastic Splendid Stars Robot Space Warrior) appear in her hand, and sometimes she could make things move without touching them. When they were seven, Brian watched her jump off the roof of her house on a dare and land on her feet as lightly as if she had stepped down from her front porch. Another time when she got angry at Billy Boggleston because he called her a skinny little french fry, she made worms squirt out of his nose. Billy now denied this had ever happened, but he avoided Alexandra, and after that most of the other children in their neighborhood wouldn't play with her. She had gained a reputation as the "weird girl." This didn't seem to bother her, as fiercely independent and full of mischief as she was. She still had Brian as her best friend, and together they explored the vacant lots, abandoned houses, and back alleys of Larkin Mills, with a fearlessness that only seemed possible because of Alexandra.
Lately, though, her adventurousness was beginning to worry him. She wasn't just bold, she was reckless, and her "mischief" was edging into criminality.
Brian would have been content just to ride around town on their bicycles, but Alexandra had the idea of seeing how fast they could accelerate down Whipping Hill Street, never mind the heavily-trafficked intersection at the bottom. She had just laughed at the screeching of brakes and angry honking horns they left in their wake, while Brian could hardly pry his white-knuckled fingers from the handlebars for several minutes after they pedaled away. He'd refused to shoplift candy bars and Dragon Battle trading cards from the drugstore, but pretended to appreciate Alexandra's deftness in doing so. He actually felt a little nervous about her increasing disregard for rules and boundaries.
And this summer, he was often stuck babysitting his eight year-old sister, Bonnie. He didn't like bringing her along, though Alexandra didn't seem to mind much. Brian wanted it to be just him and Alexandra, like before, but he was also worried about dragging Bonnie into whatever trouble Alexandra might get them into. Bonnie hadn't been along during their downhill racing experiment, for which he was grateful. But she was with them now. Bonnie liked tagging along after her older brother, whom she adored, and Alexandra, whom he suspected she adored even more. The fearless, troublemaking older girl who was always full of wild tales seemed quite impressive and fun to Bonnie.
Alexandra Quick was Brian's best friend, so he was not quite sure why the idea of his little sister looking up to her as a role model gave him an uneasy feeling. Maybe because Alexandra was too willing to let him take risks along with her – and her magic didn't always work. When she talked him into leaping off with her in a repeat of the rooftop-jumping feat, they both landed in the emergency room, she with a sprained ankle and he with a broken elbow and a concussion, and their parents angrily demanding to know "What were they thinking?"
At age seven, it had seemed like a reasonable thing to do. But Brian worried a little bit about Alexandra talking Bonnie into jumping off a roof.
Then there were the magical creatures that only Alexandra could see.
Brian had seen Alexandra do magic, so he believed in magic, past the age when most kids became skeptical of such things. He had not, however, actually seen any of the supernatural creatures Alexandra claimed inhabited Larkin Mills. Gnomes in her back yard, a ghoul seen through the broken windows of the upper floor of the abandoned Third Street Regal Royalty Sweets and Confections warehouse, a giant black bird, larger than an airplane, flying low over the town one evening, and now, a naiad in Old Larkin Pond.
"Are there really such things as naiads?" Bonnie murmured sleepily, and Alexandra hissed, "Ssh!" savagely again.
Although he hated to doubt Alexandra, Brian could not help thinking that it was awfully coincidental that just a week after she'd finished reading An Encyclopedia of Spirits, Sprites and Fairies, she was now seeing naiads. Old Larkin Pond seemed a particularly unlikely place to find water spirits. The water was brackish and smelled like old boots, with only a trickle flowing into it. Unlike Larkin Mills Pond proper, which was in the center of town with a nice park built around it, Old Larkin Pond was not a picnic site or a popular landmark. It was hidden from view and not even marked on most town maps. It was off the edge of what was known as Old Larkin, which was also not a particularly nice part of town. In short, it was somewhere children were not supposed to be at all, and this was emphasized by parents with wagging fingers and admonishing tones who told them that more than one errant, unsupervised child had drowned in "that nasty little pond."
Of course this was the sort of thing parents would say to scare children away from somewhere they didn't want them to be, and since no one would want to actually swim in the pond, or even go wading in it, Brian wasn't too worried about that. But Alexandra claimed she had seen a naiad, right there in the middle of the pond, one evening as she was running home. This had captured Bonnie's imagination, and she was more than willing to come along with Brian and Alex to watch by the water's edge. Bonnie's eagerness to see a naiad had quickly given way to drowsiness, though, and now Brian was thinking it would be a good idea to give up on naiad-sighting for the evening. Bad enough if they came home after dark, but they'd be in real trouble if Bonnie let slip that they had been at Old Larkin Pond.
Just to say he'd given the naiad a fair chance to appear, though (and to avoid Alexandra's wrath), Brian waited a while longer, one eye on the pond and the other on the setting sun. Alexandra didn't move or make a sound, and her unusual patience and single-mindedness almost made him believe there was something hiding in the water. Certainly he believed that she believed there was.
Eventually, judging that they had waited as long as they possibly could (they would have to run all the way back home as it was), Brian nudged Bonnie and said to Alexandra, "Maybe it won't appear if there are too many people around. Anyway, we really have to go."
Alexandra turned her head and glared at him again. Brian tried to meet her glare with a placating expression, but he held his ground. "You know we'll be in trouble if we wait any longer."
"Did the naiad show up?" Bonnie yawned, sitting up. Brian and Alexandra both ignored her.
"You go, then," Alexandra said.
Brian frowned. "Alex..."
"Go on. I'm waiting until sundown."
He looked over his shoulder at the setting sun, and back at her, now with real concern on his face. "It'll be dark before you get back. Your parents will tear you a new one for sure." (This was a new expression they had learned recently, and while they weren't exactly sure what would be torn, it sounded ominous.) "You want to spend the last few days of summer vacation grounded?"
"I don't want to stay here after dark," Bonnie said, her voice quavering very slightly, and while the older kids ignored her again, privately Brian agreed with his sister. Old Larkin Pond was just an old pond during the day, but he thought it would be a pretty creepy place to be at night.
"Then go!" Alexandra repeated. Her stubborn expression was one Brian had seen before. Alexandra was not to be crossed when she had her mind set. Vainly, he struggled for words that would make her see things reasonably, knowing how very unreasonable she could be. And a little shiver went through him as well. Alexandra was fearless and she could conjure butterflies and jump off rooftops (sometimes), but Brian did not at all like the idea of her remaining out here alone in the dark, outside town. He was only eleven, but just old enough to have some idea that ghouls and naiads weren't the dangers their parents really feared, and that as annoying as such rules might be, it wasn't really a bad idea for children to be home by dark.
"Alex..." he whispered, pleading now, his voice trailing off. His loyalty to Alexandra warred with his responsibility for his sister. He did not want to leave Alexandra out here, if she insisted on not leaving, but he could already see that having dug in her heels, she would be admitting defeat if she let him persuade her now, and Alexandra Quick never admitted defeat.
"Go on. Take Bonnie home," Alexandra muttered. Reluctantly, she turned away from him.
He looked at her a moment longer. She was angry, but she seemed to be absolving him for abandoning her. It was small comfort. "Promise you won't stay out here too much longer?" he asked, as he pulled Bonnie to her feet.
"Alex?" Bonnie asked, not quite believing that the older girl was really not coming back with them. But Alexandra didn't answer them. She stretched out in the grass, and rested her chin on her hands, still staring at the murky, greenish-brown water where she was sure she had seen a naiad. She tried to ignore the sounds of Brian and Bonnie tromping off through the brush, and the little tingles that were running up her back and down her arms as the shadows grew longer and deeper.
When she opened her eyes again, it was very dark. She sat up with a start, and realized, as she slapped at a mosquito, that she had fallen asleep after all. There was just a sliver of moon overhead, reflected in the pond below, and thanks to the isolation which had made Old Larkin Pond such a promising naiad lair in Alexandra's mind, none of the light from town was visible. At the moment, she couldn't even hear the distant rush and roar of freeway traffic, and she would have welcomed that small reassurance that she was not alone in the universe.
I'm not afraid, she thought. Yes, being out alone at night was a little spooky, and the pond was even less pleasant now, dark and silent and still smelly, than it was during the day, but she wasn't really in any danger. (Although An Encyclopedia of Spirits, Sprites and Fairies had been somewhat inconclusive on the matter of whether or not naiads were dangerous, the impression Alexandra had gotten, and chose to cling to now, was that unless you married one and then bragged about it, or tried to steal something that belonged to her, or insulted her watery dwelling place, she probably wouldn't hurt you.)
Her hand went to her left wrist, and she began rotating the gold bracelet that hung loosely there, a habit she'd developed recently when thinking or (more rarely) when nervous. It was a recent habit because her acquisition of the bracelet was recent. She'd found it while poking around in her mother's closet, and since it was covered by an old bag, a box of combs and dried-out cosmetics, and a high school yearbook, she'd assumed her mother wouldn't miss it – though she was careful not to wear it when her mother was around and might see it.
Deciding that she really wasn't going to see a naiad tonight, and trying not to admit to herself that Brian had been right (about her parents tearing her a new one, anyway – she was definitely going to be grounded), Alexandra began to stand up – and then froze.
She wasn't alone in the universe, because something else was moving through the grass along the edge of the pond. An animal of some kind, she thought at first, maybe a deer or a possum or even a coyote, or a feral cat. But it didn't sound like an animal. It sounded like footsteps. It sounded like people.
Brian thought of Alexandra as fearless, but that wasn't entirely true. She was bold to the point of recklessness, and found it exciting and interesting to do dangerous things, but she wasn't stupid, and only a stupid person felt no fear when there was good reason to be afraid. She knew that running into wild animals, or worse, people, creeping stealthily about in the darkness was cause for concern. But she did not panic or cry or gasp. Instead, she spent just the space of two heartbeats to decide whether she should loudly confront whoever or whatever it was (and likely scare it away, if it was an animal), try to sneak away quietly (hoping that the intruder was not yet aware of her presence), or abandon stealth and run for her life.
In the space of two heartbeats, she heard voices uttering a little sing-song chant, and they sounded like they were coming from very close by:
"I smell mortal flesh
I smell blood.
I smell a little girl
Up to no good."
Well, that settled the question of whether or not it was an animal and whether or not they were aware of her, so Alexandra turned and ran, and bowled right into someone. She went tumbling head-over-heels across the grass and landed with a thud in the soggy ground right by the water's edge. The person she ran into made a nasty, indignant squawking sound and she heard him also scrambling to his feet. In the dim light of the new moon overhead, she saw odd, elongated heads bobbing over the top of the tall grass, all around her. She was surrounded! There were at least half a dozen of them, and she noted that they did not appear to be any taller than her, other than the odd triangular pointiness of their heads, but she couldn't make out anything more. The sinister rhyme and the way they were closing in on her, however, was enough to tell her that they were the ones up to no good.
"Who are you?" she yelled angrily. She hoped she sounded angry, because she really didn't want to sound like a frightened little girl.
In reply, they chuckled, but it was a nasty chuckling sound, along with a grating, rasping sound like the gnashing of teeth, and they continued shuffling forward, until they were almost within arm's length of her. She thought they looked like children or dwarves, and that their skulls were pointy because they were wearing something on their heads. But she couldn't take a closer look because they were reaching for her with long, gnarled fingers, so she backed away, having no choice but to step into the pond, first one foot and then the other sloshing into the mud. She took more steps backwards and the little people pressed forward, right up to the water's edge, and Alexandra wondered if they would follow her, and then she tripped and fell backwards right into the water.
They were laughing as she sprang back up, dripping and muddy. What she'd tripped on was a tree branch sticking up out of the mud in the shallow water, so she grabbed it and swung it at the nearest ones.
"Leave me alone!" she yelled. She was afraid it sounded more like a scream. And angry that she was being chased by these strange little people, and that they had forced her to take a fall right into the dirty pond, and angry most of all at the fact that she was frightened, she suddenly saw bright blue and yellow sparks erupting from the end of the branch and whipping through the air over the heads of the little men gathered at the water's edge.
They were little people, very ugly little people, men with wizened, wrinkly faces and cruel expressions. Alexandra saw sharp teeth glinting dully in the light cast by the shower of sparks from her tree branch, and she saw that they were all wearing pointy caps that looked dark and wet sitting on their heads. They also looked as startled as she was by the sudden fireworks.
The fear they displayed galvanized Alexandra. She whipped the branch around even harder, willing it to produce more sparks, and this time not only did it spark, but little balls of fire erupted from it and went shooting into their midst. One struck the nearest little man right in the chest, and he howled as he was knocked off his feet. Another one screamed and turned and fled, snatching his cap off his head and beating his face with it as one of the fireballs singed his cheek. Alexandra didn't pause to think about where they were going or how she had made fireballs shoot out of a wet branch, but immediately swung the branch again, and more fireballs came spinning out, crackling through the air, hitting the muddy shore with a wet pop followed by an awful stench, or shooting amidst the ugly little men in caps who were now ducking and fleeing, making croaking, squawking, panicked noises.
She clenched the branch tightly in her hands as she stepped quickly back onto shore. The first few steps were painfully slow as the mud sucked at her feet and she almost lost a shoe, but once she was out of the water she was able to run, and she ran in loopy zig-zags as she kept swinging the branch around her. Sparks and a few fireballs continued to burst out the other end, and she kept running away from the pond, through the woods and up the hill, until she got to the top and could see the highway. Only then did she look once over her shoulder, and see that there was no sign of the little men behind her. Far away, she could see a tiny ripple where the moon reflected off of Old Larkin Pond, but she didn't spend any more time looking back. She dropped the branch and ran headlong down the hill towards the highway and its welcome flotillas of headlights and the sound of interstate traffic.
Someone less fearless than Alexandra might have balked at going through the underpass which was the only way to get back to town without actually running across the Interstate. Alexandra paused for only a second, but it was just an underpass and while it was dark, there was enough light that she could see there was no one lurking there, so she took a breath and ran on. Soon she was back in Old Larkin, which as shabby and suspect as its dingy streets might be, now seemed cozy and welcoming. She didn't stop running until she reached her own neighborhood.
By the time she turned the corner and arrived on Sweetmaple Avenue, Archie was already coming down the street towards her. Her mother and stepfather had by now called Brian's parents, who must have extracted a confession from Brian, so Archie was headed towards Old Larkin Pond to look for her. When he met her on the street, dripping wet, shivering, and smelling like pond-scum, he was too angry to say anything, so he just pointed, and Alexandra slunk into the house.
Her mother yelled at her for about ten minutes before the smell finally made her order Alexandra upstairs to the tub. After Alexandra had taken a very long bath (which didn't completely remove the algae and mud smell), both her mother and her stepfather yelled at her some more, before sending her to bed.
Of course Alexandra didn't say anything about naiads or little men with caps, or about sparks and fireballs coming out of a tree branch. She just bit her tongue as she received her grounding ("Until you're eighteen unless I change my mind!" her mother shouted), and then went to her room.
Under the covers, she opened An Encyclopedia of Spirits, Sprites and Fairies and paged through it until she found an illustration that most nearly fit the little men she had encountered:
Nasty little creatures related to goblins and elves, but with mean dispositions and a taste for murder. They have sharp fingernails and sharper teeth, and get their names from the caps they wear, which they soak in the blood of their victims. Most often found in Scotland and Ireland, but wherever in the world fairy folk can be found, Redcaps are sure to be lurking in the darkest caves and deepest forests. Children in particular should stay away from them, as Redcaps find human children easy prey.
After reading the description of Redcaps, she lay awake for a long time, and it was only as she drifted off to sleep that she realized that she'd lost her bracelet. Somewhere between the pond and Sweetmaple Avenue, it had slipped off.