The Raven Queen – Chapter
The Changeling Grace blinked and, in an instant, the black eyes that had stared back at Anne reverted to soft brown. Looking suddenly human again, the being cocked its head and asked in Grace’s tepid voice, “What? What is it?”
Anne’s hand was still clamped on its arm after having roused it awake, but she recoiled now and scooted several feet backward on the bed. She couldn’t stop staring at its eyes. The moonlight trickling in from the window above Claudia’s bed danced with dark spots inside the room and cast shadows across her friend’s face that turned it from light to dark and then back again, like a traffic light on the fritz.
“What is it, Anne? What’s wrong?” The voice was eerily innocent.
Anne struggled for a response but only produced indistinguishable sputters as she continued to inch backward across the flowered bed sheet. The softness of Grace’s features muddied as darkness filled in the growing space between their two bodies.
“Good grief, Anne. You act as if you’ve seen a ghost!”
A snap from the bedside gave Anne a start as the room flooded with light, illuminating her friend’s face. The creature smiled a satisfied sort of smile as it retracted from the lamp set on the nightstand and then turned again to Anne.
“Electricity is grand, just grand,” it told her before resuming a worrisome tone. “Now, what’s all this bother? Why in heaven’s name did you wake me?”
As the being studied her, Anne saw Grace’s rosy cheeks drain of color. She watched as the tender mouth with which she’d shared so many smiles grew tight and hard. An air of suspicion now laced a voice that seemed suddenly unfamiliar. “Anne?”
The creature drew back and cast a narrowed eye towards the foot of the bed, where Anne was teetering. A flash of fear played across its face as it scuttled backwards and Grace’s apron corrected itself, once again concealing the journal and root hidden in the dress’s waistband. Anne’s eyes lingered there just as the dirty white linen stole Grace’s diary from her sight. The wheels in her head spun faster and faster. A series of images shot through her mind like dazzling, frightening bolts of lightning, and when finally she raised her face again to meet the Changeling’s, her head felt unspeakably heavy. “Ummm, a spider. I saw a spider on you.”
The being was backed against Claudia’s oak headboard, but eased slightly at Anne’s words. “A spider?”
“A spider,” Anne echoed between nods. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to freak you out. I was trying to shoo it off you.”
The Changeling Grace relaxed its shoulders and slid an inch or two down the headboard. The creases in its forehead smoothed. A little smile tugged at the corners of its mouth. “A spider,” it repeated, chuckling to itself.
Anne forced her mouth into a smile, though she had to bite her inner lip to maintain it. She pretended to laugh, but produced a sound like the false one her mother made when Anne’s father made a horrible joke in the presence of company. The creature didn’t seem to notice.
“I’m pretty sure it’s gone now,” Anne offered while sweeping the bed with her eyes. When her gaze came to rest a second time on the apron, she noticed the Changeling Grace shift and pull back. Responding, Anne quickly looked away and then towards the lamp on the nightstand. “Probably cool to kill the light and go back to sleep now.”
“Is it?” The creature tensed again, watching her with eyes that were somehow familiar but alien at the same time.
“Yeah, it’s cool.” Anne smiled again, this time more genuinely, and held her friend’s eyes. She fantasized for a moment that it was actually Grace who looked back at her, but the face of the Changeling who’d implored her at the portal gate gradually replaced the one in front of her. Revisiting the disgust she’d shown that creature, whom she now realized was her friend, Anne’s eyes shone with emotion. Watching her, the creature mistook Anne’s sentiment as one intended for it and grew milder again, switched off the light, and then melted under the bedcovers with a sigh.
“I’m so pleased,” it purred, already drifting off. “So pleased that all is well.”
Anne stayed wide-eyed as the darkness filled in around her, blinking several times until she found her bearings. The moon had climbed higher in the sky, but its bottom half still shone in the upper corner of the window and afforded enough light that Anne could make out most of her surroundings. The Changeling lay an arm’s length away, its eyes now closed and its face placid. Its arms were folded neatly across its chest, like those of a corpse in its coffin. Anne shuddered as she watched the rise and fall of its chest—its stolen chest. She gaped, curling her lips in disgust several times, as it smiled at some pleasurable snippet of a dream. For hours she silently watched it, too frightened and racked by indecision to move. By the time the rising sun lit the face she’d once adored, Anne was steeped in hatred.
Just shy of eight o’clock., a heavy smell of grease trickled into the bedroom. A rap at the door followed shortly thereafter.
“Yeah?” Anne answered back, not taking her eyes off the still slumbering Changeling. The door handle creaked with a turn and the creature bolted awake like a spooked animal.
Claudia’s slippers scuffed at the laminate as she shuffled into the room. “Thought you two might like some breakfast,” she told them. Her tone was cheery and light.
When Anne turned to face her aunt, she was greeted with a toothy grin. A trickle of sweat was working its way down Claudia’s temple and she blew upwards toward it while squinting her right eye until she resembled a pirate. Anne smiled. “Sure, yeah. I could go for some decent food.”
“As could I!” the Changeling Grace chimed behind her. In a flash, the creature was on its feet and speeding towards the kitchen. By the time Anne and Claudia caught up, the beast had already piled a plate high with bacon, hash browns, eggs, and four Frisbee-sized pancakes before taking a place at the table.
“Finally, a girl who can eat!” Claudia was smiling, even wider now, and snagged the handle on a jug of orange juice as she passed it. She approached the ravenous Changeling and poured a stream of juice into the empty glass in front of it. “You eat your fill, sweetie,” she encouraged. “God knows you could use some meat on those bones!”
The Changeling grabbed the glass and drained it before Claudia had a chance to set down her jug. The juice was promptly replenished as the beast continued to gorge.
Lexie—who had been present yet silent during the discourse thus far—looked up from her lap, where her phone glowed bright with an active screen, and raised one eyebrow. “Gawd, what a pig.”
“LEXIE!” Claudia warned. The Donna Reid guise was already wearing thin and it wasn’t even 8:30 a.m.
The Changeling showed Lexie’s critique little mind and continued on eating without interruption. Meanwhile, Anne filled a plate of her own but found it unappealing as she sat down to face it.
“Sounds like your folks’ll be here ‘round ten,” Claudia told Anne as she laid out several more slices of bacon on her griddle. They popped and sizzled in time with the fresh questions sparking in Anne’s mind. “And I ‘spose after they get here we’ll all have to head down to the station to talk with the Sheriff about…umm…well…all the goin’s on with you girls.” Claudia drew a breath and added softly, “And ya know…what’s to be done with Grace.”
The creature abruptly stopped eating. A half strip of bacon was left dangling from its lips as the greasy fingers that held it slipped off and fell to the tabletop. It stared ahead, looking at no one in particular for several seconds, and then grabbed up a napkin and wiped its mouth, tearing off the bacon strip in the process. Its eyes grew wide and, when it spoke, the tone was dulcet. “What…what will they do with me?” it innocently asked.
Anne looked on as the Changeling’s eyes grew glassy, but she did not reply.
“Oh, honey!” Claudia swooned and waddled over to the creature’s elbow. She knelt down, exposing a gulf of cleavage that sparkled with either sweat, grease, or some revolting marriage of the two. “Don’t you fret. It’s gonna be fine, just fine,” she assured it. She engulfed the being in a fleshy hug and squeezed. Mrs. Donna Reid had managed a second coming.
Pat rumbled into the room just then, wearing a pair of camouflage long johns that clung to his frame far too tightly. His eyes were immediately drawn to the embracing pair, and he asked, “What’s wrong?” just as they parted.
Lexie sniffed, never looking up from her lap, and said, “Laura Ingalls over here is wigging out ‘cuz we’re turning her over to the po-po.”
Claudia glared briefly at her daughter and then took in the full measure of her husband, perhaps realizing she’d inadvertently thrown his PJs in with the hot cycle. “Grace here is just a little worried,” she explained from between suddenly flushed cheeks. “I told her that, after your sister shows up, we’ve gotta head down to the station.”
“Oh yeah, I ‘bout forgot about that,” Pat returned as he locked eyes on the three remaining slices of bacon. He approached the empty seat to Anne’s right, took up the plate laid on the table in front of it, and quickly transplanted the balance of the bacon there. After harpooning a stack of flapjacks with a fork and adding them to the plate, he plopped down beside her and asked of Claudia, “When you think that’ll be? Noon or thereabouts?”
“I ‘spect so.”
Pat only nodded, his cheeks already engorged with Claudia’s doughy pancakes, and lifted another bite towards his lips. Shiny ribbons of syrup hung from his fork and Anne watched as one or two stuck in his beard like garland dressings on a Christmas tree. He smiled sideways at her and she grinned back. For a split second, she forgot about the beast sitting across the table from her and her poor friend, trapped in its vile body, in the bowels of the Faerie realm.
When the Changeling sniffled and called Anne’s attention, the grin slid from her face. It smiled innocently back as she studied it, fresh tears still shining in its eyes—Grace’s eyes. Anne stared for a time at those eyes, all the while revisiting images from the past couple of days in her mind. Slowly, her smile returned. The beast seemed encouraged by this and mirrored her growing grin as would a child mimicking a parent.
“Claudia,” Anne piped, “what time you say you think my parents are gonna show?”
“Hard to say, exactly,” Claudia trailed as she waddled towards her griddle. “Ten, maybe?”
Anne’s eyes darted towards the rooster clock perched halfway up the wall opposite her. It read 8:27 a.m. “Cool, that should give us plenty of time,” she said with a sneer.
“Plenty of time for what?” Claudia had just pulled a cigarette from her purse but her hand froze in mid-air as she lifted it towards her lips.
“I just, I gotta go get something. Me and Grace—” Anne went on, wincing as she glanced at the Changeling, “We forgot something…there in the forest…and we’ve gotta run back and get it.” Anne felt her eyes drift instinctively downward, towards where the journal was still concealed beneath Grace’s apron, before adding, “It’s real important.”
“In a pig’s eye!” Claudia dropped her cigarette on the kitchen counter and pounded towards Anne’s spot at the dining table. “I’d sooner ship you off in a rocket to the moon!” Suddenly she was inches from Anne’s side and the perspiration that had been blossoming on her bosom now enveloped them both in a cloud of stink.
Anne shrunk in her aunt’s shadow and looked upwards with imploring eyes. “No, no… Please, Aunt Claudia. You don’t understand,” she pled, while trying her very best not to inhale. “It’s super important. I—we—We have to go back.”
Claudia was stiff and she stayed that way. “Sorry, kiddo, not on my clock. Not about to lose you again.”
Anne batted her lashes, but Claudia responded only with an infallibly straight face and then returned to her cigarette. As she clamped it between her lips she muttered, “Think I’ve about had my share of heart attacks, thank you very much,” and then exited out the door to the back patio.
“Nice try, weirdo.” Lexie teased as she rose from her seat. She swiped her iPhone screen twice, chuckled to herself, and then wandered off down the hall without ever looking up.
In Lexie’s absence the space filled with silence, save the constant chaw from Pat’s end of the table. His beard now glistened with a full coat of syrup, and Anne found herself mesmerized as the light refracted off of it. After inhaling his final pancake in one bite, he caught her eyes and smirked. “Savin’ some for later,” he said, giving his beard a little tug.
Anne forced a chuckle that turned into a sniff and then watched as the last of her relatives left the room. Pat’s snug long john bottoms shifted as he rounded the corner into the hallway and she looked away as a crack began to peek from the waistband. The swivel of her head placed her eye to eye with the Changeling, which had been examining her with great interest for far longer than she realized. It cocked its head to one side and narrowed its eyes before asking, “Why did you say that? Why did you say you wanted to return to that dreadful place?”
Anne’s focus dropped to her plate, where untouched food was piled in a cold heap. “Um, I—I was thinking about going back to see…if…we could—”
“Yes?” the Changeling hissed.
“Well, I just thought…I was thinking that—”
Grace’s hands gripped the oak table, but their dainty nails were no longer those of a young girl. Deep rivets materialized in the wood as the Changeling pushed itself to a standing position and leaned across the table, drawing its face within inches of Anne’s. “YES?” it repeated, this time spraying Anne’s face with hot air.
Anne fumbled, struggling to push a believable lie from her lips, rather than reveal her intent to return and rescue the real Grace. Yet, the nearer the creature came, the more elusive her words seemed. She sputtered and spat but found she could not speak, and as the Changeling bore down and its hot breath threatened to burn her alive, Anne found even breath escaping her.