I don’t believe in karma. Once, I gave twenty bucks to earthquake victims, thinking hey, maybe tomorrow my luck will change, maybe I can pay the utilities this month without sacrificing my grocery money. The next morning, my car broke down. Transmission. Nine hundred bucks. Don’t get me wrong, I still think we ought to help others, but not because we expect the universe to pay us back.
I do believe in magic. Not magyk. Not Magick. Not the stuff that Wiccans or warlocks practice. I believe in the old stuff—the real, honest-to-goodness, straight-from-fairy-world kind of magic. Am I crazy? Maybe, but not because I believe in magic.
I knocked on apartment 31C off Champion Forest Drive. Standing on the porch with my hands in my pockets and my breath coming out like puffs of cumulus clouds, I wished the guy inside wouldn’t have taken five minutes to open up. Houston was a damp place in November.
The door cracked open.
Elmore stood a little taller than me, with a paunch belly and pale skin. He was in his mid-twenties, but if he were young enough to attend high school, he would have been labeled a nerd. He ran his hands through his greasy, uncombed hair as he stared at me through thick-rimmed glasses. His T-shirt read 100% Pure Middle Earth.
“You the shrink?”
“Yes.” I’d stopped correcting people a long time ago. If they wanted to call me a shrink, let them. I’d been called worse. “My name is Olive Kennedy. Dr. Hill sent me.”
He looked at my purple Doc Martens, my dark, reddish hair cropped in a bob, and then stared at my slightly pointed ears. His brow creased. “He said you were a shrink, not a Ren fair geek.”
Ren fair geek? Look who’s talking.
Elmore took a step back. “I’m sorry you came all this way, but I’m feeling awful today. Maybe you ought to come back next week.” The door started to close, but I held it open.
“If you’re not feeling well, don’t you think I should see you now before you get worse?”
“I’m getting better.”
“You just said that you’re feeling awful.”
“Then may I please come inside?” I asked.
“I’m not sure you can help me.”
“We won’t know until I try, right?”
“Are you sure you won’t mess me up even more?”
“Elmore,” I said, “Dr. Hill trusts me. There’s a reason he sends me to all the patients he can’t cure. Because I can.”
Elmore gave me one last glare and then opened the door. I adjusted my backpack and stepped inside. It smelled of sour laundry, and it looked how I’d expected. An Advanced Dungeons and Dragons poster hung over the couch, collectible AT-ATs and homemade lightsaber hilts cluttered the end tables, and overstuffed shelves stood along the walls. I spotted a few Star Trek collections, Dr. Who DVDs, and the typical Robert Jordan books. His décor looked promising, although I wasn’t sure he qualified as my patient. If I didn’t find what I needed, I would prove to be a liar. Worse, I wouldn’t be able to help him.
“Mind if I have a seat?” I asked.
He nodded at the couch.
I placed my backpack on the floor and sat across from him.
“I hope Dr. Hill told you I’m a hopeless case,” Elmore said.
“He didn’t use those words exactly.”
He barked a cheerless laugh. “Did he tell you that I’ve suffered with depression since I was twelve? He’s prescribed every drug in the book. I’ve attended therapy sessions, I’ve been in and out of the mental hospital more times than I can count, and the panic attacks won’t go away. I really don’t know why you’re here.”
He clasped his hands, and that’s when I saw the scars. Elmore’s file said he’d attempted suicide twice. Raised keloids crisscrossed his wrists.
“My methods aren’t like the other doctors,” I said.
“I’ve heard that before. You’re all the same.”
“Are we?” I brushed back clumps of hair to draw attention to my freakish ears. This worked half the time. “I’m not much different from you.”
He shrugged. “Not bad. But my friend Whitmore’s prosthetics look better.”
“Elmore, I’m not here to prescribe medication or make you suffer through hours of therapy. I’m here to find the trigger to your panic attacks. I’m here to heal the part of your brain that’s been damaged from a traumatic event. But first, I need you to help me. Do you have any collections?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Wizards, fairies, that sort of thing?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Like I said, I’m not like the others.”
He seemed to debate my answer. I’d already shown him my oddball ears, which meant he pegged me as either a hard-core nerd or a doctor desperate to impress her patients. I wanted him to realize I was different. Most therapists guided conversations, letting their patients work through their own problems, thus coming to their own conclusions. I used that technique some of the time, but with a case like his, it didn’t matter how many rap sessions he went through—he wouldn’t be able to work this out on his own.
I’d asked about his collection and prayed he had one. If not, then I would be back outside in the rain.
“I collect a few things.”
He walked to a closet, lugged out a plastic bin, and cracked it open. Before pulling anything out, he eyed me. “This is a little strange, you know. I’ve never met a doctor who makes home visits or asks about my hobbies. You really want to see my collection?”
He shrugged, then lifted out a newspaper-wrapped package. The paper crinkled as he removed it.
I crossed my fingers. What would I do if he had a stamp collection? Or worse?
He pulled out a dragon.
I took the statue from him. The wood weighed heavy in my hand. “Not a bad item in terms of quality. Solid oak, with attention to detail. This is pretty good.”
“It’s all right. I haven’t unpacked yet because I don’t know where to put them. Back at my mom’s house, I kept them on some shelves in the living room.” He swallowed. Perhaps Mom was a sore subject. Unpacking a few more statues, all in pristine condition, he placed them on the coffee table. “I still don’t know why you care about these.”
I only smiled. He’d find out soon enough. Scanning the rows of dragons, I looked for one in particular. Dragons in glass, in pewter, and a few more wooden ones—expensive pieces—lined the table, but I looked for something else. I thought I wouldn’t find it until I spotted a multicolored dragon. Pointing at it, I asked, “What’s that?”
He picked it up. “My first one. I was five when I got it.” He held it with reverence.
“May I look at it?”
Elmore hesitated, then handed it to me. The dragon was squat with a silly grin and two fat horns. The chipped paint was thick in places, bare in others. Some of the colors blended to make an interesting shade of brown. “Did you paint it?”
He nodded. “We went to this charity thing at a church. They were letting kids do crafts and such. I’d never painted anything. I botched it up pretty good.”
“Why did you keep it? Most people would throw away something like this after a while.”
“But you kept it?”
“Can you tell me more about the day you got it?”
He cocked his head. I’m sure he wondered where I was going with this, but he didn’t question me. “It was Halloween. My mom took me to the church because she thought they’d have a free meal. They didn’t. They just had crafts and games and stuff. Didn’t even give out candy. My mom got pretty mad. We went home. She found some liquor.” He blew out a breath of air. “I didn’t realize I’d be talking about this.”
He stared at the dragon as he spoke. “We were poor. Really poor. I remember because I hadn’t eaten for a day and a half.”
“I’m sorry.” I knew where he was going with his story, and it made me cringe. I’d heard stories like this too many times to count, and still I cringed.
“I’ve never really told anyone.”
I gave him the dragon statue. “Believe me, I understand.”
The ticking of a clock broke up the silence. Staring at the statue, he said, “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
“It happens to a lot of people. Go ahead.”
His voice grew distant. “I knew she wouldn’t let me go trick-or-treating, so I stole her lipstick and grabbed a pillowcase. When my neighbors asked, I told them I was a clown. They gave me a few stares, but no one turned me away. When I got home, I ate my candy until it made me puke. I must’ve passed out because the next thing I remembered, Mom stood over me. I laid in my own vomit. I’ll never forget that smell.” He wiped his nose. “I still smell it sometimes. In my hair.”
I leaned forward. His story was heartbreaking, but I knew I hadn’t heard the worst of it. “Was your mom angry?”
“She laughed when she saw me. Said I got what I deserved. Then she locked me in the closet. I’d thought going for a whole day and a half without food was bad, but…” He stared at his hands.
“Elmore,” I said after a pause. “Do you remember what happened in that closet?”
He looked up. “I remember starving. I remember holding it until I had to urinate all over myself. The worst part was knowing my mom was out there. I went to sleep knowing that she’d put me there.”
“What happened after that?”
“After a few hours, I woke up. I remember thinking, Mom loves me. She’ll let me out. And it made me feel better for a little while. But then my hunger returned, worse than I’d ever felt before, and I knew,” he swallowed, “I knew I would starve to death. The thirst and hunger were eating me from the inside out, so I curled up on the floor and waited to die. The thought of my own death frightened me as I drifted off. But then…”
“I woke up and found the door open. I knew my mom had left hours ago. She couldn’t have opened the door. It was weird. I don’t know—I was certain I was going to die, but I didn’t. The strangest part was,” he paused, stared at the ceiling, then began again, “I’m probably crazy for saying this, but I didn’t feel hungry anymore.”
“You weren’t hungry?”
He shook his head.
“Are you sure you remember correctly?”
“Yes,” he answered.
I leaned forward, choosing my words carefully. “Elmore, what if I told you that something happened to you in that closet—something impossible for you to comprehend?”
“Your heightened emotions may have opened a portal to an alternate world called Faythander. You traveled to fairy world.”
He looked at me as if I’d lost it.
“Your emotions opened the portal as a way to escape. It happens to people who go through similar traumas. There’s a reason why fairy creatures surface in every civilization we know of, because many of us have been there. The conscious part of your brain doesn’t remember, but subconsciously, you know the truth. You saved this statue because deep inside, you felt a connection to it.”
I leaned forward. “You’ve been there. You’ve seen the dragons that you collect. You’re trying to remember, but until now, you didn’t know how.”
He shut his eyes. “You’re telling the truth?”
“I’ve told you my worst memory, and now you’re making fun of me?” Elmore snatched up his dragon statue and wrapped it in the newspaper. He shoved it back in the box, and then he did the same with the rest.
I kept my composure, knowing that at any moment he could get more agitated, possibly violent. No one believed me when I told them, but they didn’t have to. I opened my backpack and removed my mirror.
At one point, it had been a clunky, old-school laptop, but I’d made a few modifications, replacing the screen with an ordinary mirror and gutting out the keys and wires to replace the bottom with a velvet lining. Inside were my figurines: an elf, a dragon, a Wult, a pixie, and a goblin. The five races of Faythander. Each glowed with their respective magical colors, though only I could see this sort of magic. Dragon magic was green. The elf glowed blue; pixies were pink, and goblin magic was shrouded in gray.
Blue wisps of magic, the sort that could be seen by anyone, rose from the mirror. Elmore stopped packing and knit his brows. He didn’t speak as I turned the mirror to face him and removed my dragon statue.
“What are you doing?”
“This will help you remember.” I held my dragon out to him. He didn’t take it.
“Did someone put you up to this? Because I swear, if someone—”
“Elmore.” I said his name in a quiet voice, though I hoped he heard the intensity. “Your past is haunting you. You can’t tell me it’s not. Please. Take the statue.”
“What will happen?”
“You’ll relive your memories from Faythander. You’ll remember.”
He swallowed. “That’s all?”
His eyes didn’t leave my dragon statue. He exhaled a long breath, as if trying to convince himself I told the truth.
I couldn’t force him to take it. This part was up to him. I tried to put myself in his position. He’d been through years of therapy and never shared with his doctors what he’d shared with me. And now, in his mind, I mocked him.
All he had to do was touch the statue. It seemed simple, but was it?
Sweat beaded his brow.
He snatched my statue. As soon as he did, my mirror reacted. Blue Faythander light spilled out, sparkling with magic. Real magic. Usually, when a person saw Faythander magic for the first time, they were impressed. Magic resonated with a part of the brain that had never been opened before. It created a sense of déjà vu. They knew it was real the instant they saw it.
The mirror’s light became a dense fog as the magic engulfed us. Around us, the room disappeared.
“What’s happening?” Elmore breathed.
“The mirror will show us an image from your past.”
The fog burned away. I stood with Elmore in the dragon’s forest. Magic pulsed around us, in the trees, in the grass, from the giant stones down to the tiniest pebbles. With the infusion of magic, ordinary trees grew taller than Sequoias. The grass became velvet soft, like treading on moss. The sky became a brighter shade of blue. The leaves grew a deep emerald.
Magic transformed not only the plants, but also the animals, and all other living things. Soft flecks of blue twinkled under fern-like branches. Fairies. Their wings beat with a quiet flutter, like listening to the gentlest summer breeze.
Huge leaves formed a canopy around us, though I spied the ridged eyes and nostrils of a green landwalker sleeping beneath.
Sounds of whooshing wind disturbed the stillness. Before us, a portal of electric-blue magic formed. Elmore stepped back, his hands raised. I prayed he wouldn’t have a heart attack.
“It’s okay,” I said. “This is only a memory. Nothing can harm you here.”
The portal grew wider. It disappeared as a little boy stepped through. The boy’s feet sank into a carpet of moss as he stared at his new world with wide eyes. With his matted, dark hair, his bony arms and legs, I felt certain of his identity.
“Is that me?” Elmore asked.
The green landwalker rose from his resting place. I expected the boy to react with fear. He only stared up, his mouth agape.
For the most part, dragons resembled their earth-world portrayals, though I’d always found them more dinosaur-like than most artists envisioned. Like the extinct Apatosaurus, the landwalker stood on four feet, though evolution had given him talons and massive wings, which he tucked around his body as he lumbered toward the boy.
“A traveler from Earth Kingdom,” the dragon said, his voice deep and surprisingly gentle.
The boy continued to stare.
“You’ve come a long way from home.”
The boy didn’t move. The dragon leaned forward, his cat-like eyes a shade of yellow topaz. “Are you hungry, young one?”
The dragon cocked his head. “Aren’t you afraid of me?”
Young Elmore clenched his fists. I noticed the ceramic dragon clutched in his hand. Something inside the young boy must have drawn him to pick that statuette over the others—he must have felt a connection to dragons even before he came here.
“I’m not scared,” he said in his tiny voice.
The dragon smiled. Gentle claws encircled the boy’s waist. The landwalker lifted him up, and his voice, though it came as if from far away, pierced to the soul. “Joy will make you forget the sorrow that has brought you here. I will tell you my name, though someday you will forget. Remember my name, and you will remember Faythander.”
I heard a thump, and the memory disappeared. Once again, we sat in Elmore’s apartment. Dim, gray light filtered through the slatted blinds, illuminating my dragon statue that lay on the carpet. I picked it up.
Elmore’s eyes grew wide as he stared at the pewter figurine.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
He stared at the statue.
“Would you like a glass of water?”
His eyes stayed wide.
Was he going into shock? It wouldn’t be the first time I’d seen it happen, though honestly, I’d thought he’d be able to handle it.
“Can you hear—?”
“Yes,” he interrupted me, “I can hear you.”
“Do you remember?”
Behind his thick-rimmed glasses, tears formed. When he spoke, his unsteady voice sounded barely louder than a whisper. “The dragon fed me Meriwether berries. They tasted like peaches.” He removed his glasses as tears leaked from his eyes. “It’s true, isn’t it?”
“What do you think?”
He exhaled a deep breath, staring at the sunlight on the carpet, alternating shades of dark and light. “His name was Havanstache. Yes,” he said and looked up at me, “I remember.”
I left the apartment, my bank account still empty. I didn’t care. I’d never done this for the money. Seeing the look on Elmore’s face when he finally remembered the past—that feeling of genuine joy in knowing I’d helped someone who really needed it—that’s what I did it for.
Come to think of it, is this karma? Not a paycheck, but a reward without price?
That thought stayed with me for the next three-and-a-half minutes, right before I hit the five-o’clock Houston traffic.
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