I always thought of the cabin on the lake as a magical place—which, in retrospect, seems a little ominous.
The four of us arrived around mid–afternoon, and everything was as I remembered, not at all diminished by time: the long, shadowy dirt drive narrowed by looming fir trees, suddenly opening into a clearing saturated with sunlight, and there a spacious cabin of worn timbers that seemed a natural outgrowth of the landscape rather than something made by human design. Beyond the cabin, the waters of the lake flashed emerald and sapphire.
When Camille shut off the engine, the silence was total and sudden, and I think we all held our breath for a moment. Then her fiancé Gregory said “Whoa,” and bounced out of the back seat, racing around the side of the cottage toward the lake, his delighted laughter floating back to us. He stripped off his shirt as he ran and tossed it on the ground, the sun shining on his brown, broad shoulders before he disappeared from sight.
“Sure, Gregory’s the hot one,” I said. “But I’m the funny one. Right?”
“I think he likes it here,” my wife Leah said from the backseat. I turned in the passenger seat to grin back at her. She was dressed in a T–shirt and shorts, hair pulled back messily, no make–up, as disheveled as the rest of us after four hours on the road—but she was still the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, a forever contradiction: so petite she was almost ethereal, dark–haired and dark–eyed and reminding me always of a blackbird, but strong enough to free–climb rock walls and paddle sea kayaks for miles.
Camille put her hand on my thigh and squeezed. “Thanks again for inviting us, guys.” Her hair was dark, too, masses of shaggy brown, her eyes a startling blue, a spray of freckles across her nose. She was lusher than Leah, a few inches taller, more inclined to shoot pool than shoot the rapids, more inclined to swear than soliloquize, but just as strong and sure of herself. If I had a type, that was it.
We heard a splash and a howl of delight. Camille rolled her eyes, but then slid from behind the wheel and went running after Gregory, and moments later there was another splash, and more laughter.
Leah and I got out of the SUV and stretched out the kinks of the drive. “Want to go jump in a lake?” I said.
“I want you to unlock the door, and I want to pee, and I want to put on my swimsuit, but after that, yeah.” I put my arms around her, my hands sliding automatically to her hips, fifteen years together making the embrace as natural as exhalation, and kissed her. We held hands as we strolled to the cabin, an old family place that had passed through the hands of assorted relatives until it ended up with me after my most distant uncle’s funeral, six months ago. I hadn’t been to the cabin since I was a kid, and stepping onto the creaking redwood porch was like traveling through time, but most of all I felt serenity and ease.
That feeling of peace lasted, with some euphoric variations, until morning: it wavered when we saw the footprints, and by the time Gregory disappeared into the fairy ring, it was well and gone.
I’d expected a nightmare of filth and spiders, but the interior of the cabin was in good shape, a little dusty and musty but well–maintained. After an inaugural dip in the lake, which was bracing but not freezing, we unpacked our bags and food and supplies, took the dust cloths off the furniture, opened up the windows to air the place, and swept out the dirt and cobwebs. By the time night fell we were cozily sprawled in the living room, my wife on the couch leaning against Gregory, Camille and I tangled up on the loveseat, her legs across my lap, our fingers occasionally intertwined. All of us drinking wine and relaxing at the prospect of four days with absolutely no responsibilities at all. Our only plans were to drink, play games, read, swim, walk in the woods, and have sex.
“Are you going into withdrawal from your phone yet?” Leah teased.
“Don’t remind me.” Gregory moaned. “I’ll start twitching and frothing at the mouth. If I’m not posting pictures of my vacation and making other people envious, how do I even know I’m alive?”
“We’ll find some way to remind you,” Camille said. She shifted her legs around and sighed contentedly. “I’m glad the stars finally aligned for this trip to work out. I didn’t think our calendars would ever synch up.”
“People think the hardest part of open relationships is coping with jealousy,” I said. “When the hardest part is actually scheduling.”
Leah and I had been dating Camille and Gregory—never Greg, which was funny, since he was the most informal guy imaginable in most other ways—for about two years, and we’d been toying with the idea of a long weekend getaway for at least half that time, but it was hard to arrange. Camille was in engineering grad school, Gregory’s band was getting lots of gigs, Leah had to work occasional weekends since her promotion at the ad agency, and I—well, I had time. Freelance design can eat up all your time if you work at it, but Leah was successful enough that I let myself be a little lazy, and since I kept the house clean and the pantry stocked and the laundry done she didn’t resent the division of labor.
After our first few dates as two couples, the four of us almost never got together at once, the odd game night or barbecue aside—mostly we paired off, with Leah and Gregory going on long hikes on the weekends, and Camille and I getting together weekly for beer and film noir and screwball comedies. We knew poly couples who managed to date even though they had kids. I couldn’t imagine the logistical gymnastics that must require.
“The nice thing about no internet or phone service is, even if things totally fall apart at the office, I won’t know about it,” Leah said. “The bad thing is, if things totally fall apart at the office, I won’t know about it.”
“There’s a landline,” I said. “If you get too worried.”
Leah groaned. “I doubt the agency will burn down without me. Don’t tell me the number for the cabin, though, or I’ll be tempted to give it to my assistant.”
“I don’t remember it myself. I haven’t been here since I was ten years old.”
“Hey, I was alive then,” Gregory said. “I couldn’t walk or anything, but I’d definitely been born.”
“Yes, we’re cradle robbers,” Leah said. “Sapping all your youthful energies.”
“Never underestimate old age and treachery,” I agreed. Camille and Gregory were late twenties to our late thirties, a gap big enough to joke about but not so big it felt creepy. We really did appreciate their energy, and I think they liked the fact that we had our shit more–or–less together. We all prided ourselves on minimal poly drama.
We chatted for a while, and talked about playing a game, without being motivated enough to do it—we’d first bonded over our four–way love of games, everything from Hearts to Catan, Scrabble to Munchkin, Arkham Horror to Axis and Allies. I got up once to get another bottle of wine, and Gregory got up several times to bring us all water, “Hydrating my people.” Eventually we all got deeply mellow and I might have drowsed, though if so I woke when Leah rose and silently drew Gregory after her to one of the bedrooms.
“Whaddya say, old man?” Camille wriggled against me in the best way. “Want to frolic?”
“I thought you’d never ask.” We rose, and started for the other bedroom, when there was a huge splash from the lake out back, as loud as one of Gregory’s cannonballs.
“What was that?” Camille said.
“Let’s go see.” I opened up the French doors and peered outside, down the length of wooden planks leading to the boat–less dock, but it was full dark with not much moon, and the lake was all blackness and shadows.
Camille stood beside me. “Better be careful. How many horror movies start this way? Friends go to a cabin, hear a weird noise, and start getting murdered?”
“The friends aren’t usually all sleeping with each other in those movies,” I said. “Unless somebody’s cheating on somebody else, in which case, they die first.”
“True. By horror movie rules, we’re all sluts who’ll get killed in the first twenty minutes.”
“I’m pretty sure you would have taken your shirt off by now, too.”
We stood for a moment, listening, but didn’t hear anything else but the rustling of the forest and the gentle lapping of the lake against the dock. “Probably just a fish,” I said.
“Giant murderfish,” Camille agreed. We closed the doors, I made sure everything was locked up, and we went to bed.
I woke on the couch—Camille is adorable, but she snores, so I ceded the territory—as Leah came in through the French doors, a towel wrapped around her. I sat up and gave a skull–cracking yawn. “Hey babe. Doing a little wake–and–lake?” (I know, it’s barely even a pun, let alone a joke, but it was too early for my humor to be in top form.) Leah went swimming before work four days a week, and apparently being on vacation wasn’t going to change that. I registered her furrowed brow, noticed she wasn’t actually wet, and stood up. “Everything okay?”
“I… sure, I guess. Just something weird. Come look?”
I followed her out to the dock, and she pointed. At first, I didn’t realize what I was looking at, then said, “Wet footprints?”
“Yes, but they’re not mine. Cammie and Gregory are still asleep. You didn’t go for a pre–dawn swim?” She knew how likely that was, but there was still a note of hope in her voice.
I shook my head. The wet footprints, already beginning to dry in the sun, led from the edge of the dock and along the boards until they veered off toward the woods. “There are other cabins on the lake,” I said. “On the other side. Maybe someone swam across and got tired and decided to climb out and go home on foot?”
“Maybe. But look how weird the footprints get.”
Leah is smarter than me—I like women who are smarter than me—and more observant, but once she mentioned it, I noticed, too. The prints looked like bare feet at first, but then they got smaller, more rounded, until at the end they were almost hoof–like. “Maybe they put on shoes there?” I said. “Walked on their toes? Or probably the prints just dried in a weird pattern.” I thought of Camille last night: Murderfish.
“Yeah, that must be it. Still creepy though.”
“Are you worried about it? You want to leave?”
She punched me on the arm. “No. Poke the bushes and make sure nobody’s hiding in there to watch us skinny–dip, and I’ll be fine.”
I obliged, emerging shortly with some leaves in my hair. “All clear, babe. Want me to make breakfast?”
She nodded decisively. “Waffles.”
“Definitely waffles? I wasn’t sure about waffles. I was waffling about waffles.”
She groaned. “You are the most unfunny man in the world, but if you make waffles happen, I will love you forever.”
“It’s not unconditional love, but I’ll take it. Did you and Gregory have fun last night?”
She smiled. “That boy. He’s a national treasure. How about you and Cammie?”
“I was half–drunk and pretty tired, but I rallied.”
“I bet you did. Maybe tonight we’ll try team sports. It’s been a while.”
“With wine, all things are possible,” I agreed. Gregory and Camille really were fantastic for us. It’s rare when things line up so neatly, and everyone likes everyone pretty much equally, and get along both socially and in bed. It wouldn’t last forever—they’d probably move away once Camille graduated—and that knowledge only made me appreciate our time together more.
Leah went to swim, and I headed to the kitchen, only to realize the waffle iron was still in the car, along with a couple of other boxes of non–perishables we’d been too lazy to bring in the day before.
I went out the front door to get the waffle iron, stared for a while at the empty space where our SUV should have been, and started swearing. I tried to believe I’d forgotten to put the parking brake on, that the car had rolled away into the bushes, but the ground was level here, and if it had rolled in just any direction it would have hit a tree or the cabin. I went back inside, to find Camille and Gregory emerging from the bedrooms, blinking.
“Yelling,” Gregory said. “You. Why?”
“The fucking car is gone,” I said. I went out back, down to the dock, and stood with my arms crossed over my chest. Leah stroked over to me, as natural in the water as an otter. “Our mystery swimmer stole the car.”
She sighed, then climbed out of the lake. “At least it’s a rental.”
She made a good point. Neither our cars nor the one Camille and Gregory shared were big enough for a trip like this, so we’d all chipped in to rent something bigger. I consciously tried to lower my blood pressure, breaking this colossal annoyance into manageable, actionable items. “I guess we should call the rental agency and tell them. See if they can bring us another car while they’re at it. Otherwise we’re hiking out to the road and hoping to get a ride into town.” I punched my fist into my palm. “But, damn it, they got my waffle iron!”
Leah nodded solemnly. “I suspect the waffle iron was the real target all along. They probably just stole the car to distract us from their true purpose.”
I snorted laughter. In the early days of our relationship we’d had some real barn–burning arguments, and over the years we’d learned a well–placed dumb joke could short–circuit just about any escalating cycle of outrage or dismay. “Yeah, I heard this lake was plagued with waffle thieves. I should have taken the necessary precautions.”
We went back into the cabin, where the front door was standing open. Camille and Gregory were on the porch, her in a terrycloth robe, him shirtless in his boxers. I’m not totally straight, but when it comes to boys I am both picky and shallow, and Gregory hit my sweet spots. I was not immune to jealousy, almost nobody is, but Gregory has never triggered it in me. He made my wife happy, and Camille happy, and me happy, too. He was just an easy guy to like.
“Welp, it’s definitely gone,” Camille said.
“We saw footprints on the dock,” I said. “Someone climbed out of the lake, before dawn. They must have taken it.”
“Car–stealing mermen,” Gregory said. “How do they even work the pedals with their floppy fish–tails?” He walked off the porch. “Huh, weird. Did you notice all these mushrooms yesterday?”
I squinted. Dozens of little red and white mushrooms surrounded the place where we’d parked the car, forming a circle about thirty feet across. “Huh, no.”
“How come none of the mushrooms are crushed?” Gregory crouched down to examine them. “Like, when the car drove out, it should have squished at least a few of them.”
“My fiancé, the shirtless detective,” Camille said. “Who knows? Mushrooms can spring up overnight. Maybe they grew after the car drove away.”
“Weird, though. I don’t see any tracks, either, except the ones we made coming in, and the ground’s pretty soft.” He stood up, stepped into the circle of mushrooms, and disappeared without so much as a flicker. Like he’d fallen into a hole, except he didn’t fall—like he’d stepped behind a curtain, except we would have seen a curtain. Most of all like a trick cut in a film, a special effect: Gregory there, and then Gregory gone.
Camille drew in a sharp breath, and I thought she was going to scream, but instead she exhaled and ran toward the ring. Leah grabbed her by the arm and shouted “Stop!” and Camille struggled for a moment, then fell to her knees in the dirt, momentum sapped.
“Gregory!” she called. “Gregory, where did you go, Gregory!” There was no answer.
“What the shit,” I said. “What in the shitting shit.”
Leah bent, picked up a handful of loose stones, and threw them into the ring. They disappeared the moment they passed the boundary. “Huh.” She walked purposefully toward the trees, then returned with a broken branch as long as she was tall. She stood a few feet back from the ring and pushed the stick over the boundary. The far end of the branch disappeared slowly, like she was pushing it into the surface of a mirrored lake. I had a terrible vision of something on the far side grabbing the stick and jerking it inward, of Leah tripping and stumbling into the circle and disappearing too, so vivid I took a step toward her.
But she pulled the stick out, whole and unharmed, and examined the end. “Wherever it went, it didn’t hurt the stick.”
Camille got to her feet. “Okay. Fuck this. I’m a scientist.” She stomped into the house and returned a few minutes later wearing jeans, hiking boots, a long–sleeved shirt, and a jacket. She also had a roll of duct tape. She took the stick from Leah and silently used the tape to attach her phone to the end.
“Smart,” Leah said.
I couldn’t believe they were making plans and doing things, when I was so stunned I couldn’t do much but stare at the ring of mushrooms.
“We don’t get service here, but I can still take video.” Camille turned on the phone, now thoroughly mounted on the end of the stick, and swiped at the screen. Once she got it recording, she pushed the end of the stick over the edge of the ring. The phone disappeared. Camille walked slowly around the ring, holding the stick out parallel to the ground, taking video of whatever was on the other side. Once she’d completed her circuit, she took the stick out, jammed one end into the ground, and poked at the phone.
“Crap,” she said. “It’s dead! The battery was totally charged!” She stormed into the house.
“Uh,” I said. “Maybe phones don’t work… over there?”
“Get rope,” Leah said.
Happy to be given a task, I went into the house. Camille had plugged her phone into an outlet in the bedroom we’d shared for part of last night. “All I get is the little lightning bolt icon. The battery’s so flat it won’t even turn on.”
“I think Leah has an idea.” I rummaged in the duffel bag at the end of the bed and came up with a few coils of rope, in lengths ranging from ten feet to fifty. Some people with our hobby like fancy hemp stuff in a rainbow of colors, or even weave their own rope, but I’m a simple man, and I mostly make do with black, quarter–inch, multipurpose camping rope, good for just about anything indoors or out, short of mountain climbing… which isn’t what we use it for.
Camille followed me out, bouncing from foot to foot, clearly needing to do something, and who could blame her? Leah sorted through the ropes until she found the longest coil, then wrapped it around her waist and tied the loop off with a knot. She handed the other end to me. “Loop this around a tree a couple of times and hold on to the end, okay?”
“Wait. You want to go in there?”
“On a line, yeah. Give me ten seconds and then pull me out.”
“Nope.” I undid the knot at her waist. She tried to slap my hands away, but I ignored her.
“I’ll do it,” Camille said, but I ignored her, too, and tied the rope around my own waist. I thought of astronauts tethered to space stations, old–fashioned divers walking into the sea in giant suits with iron helmets. I wished for a scuba tank.
“Don’t be sexist,” Leah said.
“It’s not that. You two are level–headed and good in a crisis. I flail around and knock stuff over. I’m the dispensable one.” I overcame their arguments by the simple expedient of ignoring them until they gave up arguing and wrapped the other end of the rope around a tree. “Here I go.” I tried to remember if you were supposed to exhale completely before going unprotected into outer space, then decided that probably wasn’t applicable, and stepped over the mushrooms into the ring.
The transition was instant. The other side was so dim I blinked for a moment, waiting for my eyes to adjust. The sky was deep, dark blue, streaked with orange, like instead of a sun there was a series of dying campfires up there. I was still in the forest, but a different forest, old gnarled trees as tall as towers. I smelled honeysuckle and ashes. The car was there, parked right where it would have been in relation to me, if we’d both been in the real and right and proper world. Maybe no one had stolen the car at all. Maybe the ring of mushrooms had just… opened a hole, and the car had fallen in.
“Gregory?” I said, but didn’t quite shout. I listened hard, and thought I heard distant music, something jangly and atonal, more like an accident in a harp factory than proper song. There was a path, of sorts, ahead of me, the land rising up. I was near the top of a small hill, with either a gentle slope or a drop–off on the other side, where the music came from. I looked around and glimpsed pale stone among the trees, and realized there were bits of buildings and statuary there, pillars and arches, all pitted and broken and incalculably ancient.
This was some other world. An old one, and ruined.
Far more than ten seconds had passed. I’d been here a minute, at least. I turned, running my hands along the trailing end of rope, and saw it disappear into a seemingly arbitrary place in the air. I tugged the rope, afraid a cut end would come flying at me, stranding me here, but the rope was solidly tethered, somewhere on the other side. I walked toward the spot where the rope disappeared, moving hand–over–hand along the line, and when I hit the place where it vanished—
I stepped out of the circle, back in front of the cabin.
“What?” Leah took a step back. “You were in there, not even a second, you didn’t even really disappear, you just sort of flickered.” She came up to me, peering into my face, and grabbed my hand in hers.
I shook my head. “No, it had to be a couple of minutes, at least. I mean… on that side anyway. Maybe time works differently?”
“The phone ran out of battery,” Camille said. “Like it had been running for hours.” She stepped toward me too, grasped my other hand. “Did you see Gregory? Where did you go?”
“Um,” I said. “Maybe it’s better if I show you.”
We tied together all the rope and made three tethers, giving us several hundred collective feet of leeway. Once we were all tied off to the tree, we held hands, counted to three, and stepped into the ring together—because the time differential meant if one of us went through first, we might find ourselves waiting a long time for the others to arrive.
The two of them stood silently for a while, gazing around. “This is some elfy–welfy shit,” Camille said finally.
“Fairyland,” Leah said. “Aren’t those rings of mushrooms sometimes called fairy rings?”
“Goddamnit.” Camille crossed her arms and glared at the trees. “This is the first and only time I’ll ever say this, but maybe I should have gone into the humanities. Folklore or something.”
“Your family’s had that cabin for generations,” Leah said. “Were there, I don’t know, ever any stories?”
I started to say “Of course not, I wouldn’t bring you to a cabin where people disappeared,” but then I remembered and said, “Oh. Well, sort of. My great–uncle Davis came up here one summer and never came back. They thought maybe he drowned in the lake or got lost in the woods, but nobody ever found a body. And now that I think of it, my dad said he had a dog, he loved that dog, and she loved him, loyal as hell, and on a trip up here, she ran away and never came back. Dad thought she must have gotten trapped somewhere or killed, because he said there was no way she would have stayed away from him if she had any choice. Maybe they…” I waved my hand. “Fell through?”
“Gregory!” Camille shouted, and my wife took it up, too, shouting “Gregory! Gregory, can you hear us?”
I’d heard both of them cry out his name before—once or twice I’d even cried it myself—but never with quite that kind of urgency.
The faint, jangly music stopped. We looked at each other, and in unspoken agreement walked along the path, ropes spooling out behind us. We crested the hill, and on the other side, found the end of the world.
A roofless temple of old stone stood in a grassy clearing, on the edge of a cliff. The size of the space beyond the cliff was impossible to judge, as it was full of clouds, but we saw occasional dark shapes flying there, flashes of immense wings. A perfectly round pool on one side of the temple reflected the strange sky.
There was a woman, or something that looked like a woman, sitting on the top of the temple steps. She wore a clinging dress that shimmered like black water, and when she smiled at us, her face shimmered, too, changing color and shape, though it was always eerily symmetrical and beautiful—but in an uncanny valley sort of way, too perfect to be real.
Gregory sat two steps below her, gazing up at her worshipfully as she rested a hand on his head, idly stroking his hair. He held something in his lap that might have been a dulcimer—maybe that was the source of the terrible music.
“More visitors.” The woman’s voice tinkled like bells. “How amusing.”
Camille marched toward her, boots stomping, and hit the end of her rope. With barely a pause she untied the line, dropped it, and continued on her way, untethered. She slapped the woman’s hand away from Gregory’s head—the woman’s smile never faltered—and tugged at his arm. Gregory glanced at her briefly, then turned his adoring gaze back to the woman.
“Are you his bride from the other side?” The woman clucked her tongue a few times, though it sounded more like dice rattling in a cup. “He is mine now. He came to me, said he was a musician, and boasted that he could play anything with strings.”
I’d heard Gregory make that claim before.
“I bet him he could not play something sweet on this dulcimer, and he agreed. He failed.” She shrugged. “I think we must tune our instruments differently here, and this one is made for someone with far more fingers, besides. He did not realize what he was betting, but that was his own fault, for not asking. He lost, and forfeited his freedom.” She patted Gregory’s cheek. “I am teaching him to play. In a few years, he will be marvelous, even if he has to grow more fingers along the way.”
“Bitch,” Camille said, “I will kick your ass off that cliff if you don’t let my fiancé go.”
“Oh, you can try to take him back by force.” The woman’s face rippled again, this time as if some dark fish swam below the surface of her features. “I do not think you could best me, but you could try. Even if you did take him, he would not go willingly, and he would die, pining away for me. All that’s yours is mine, and all that’s mine is my own.” She held up her hand. “Nevertheless, the customs of my people demand I extend certain courtesies even to mortal lovers. Will you play a game against me, for his freedom?”
“What happens if I lose?”
She shrugged. “You give up your claim on him, and leave this place.”
Camille looked at us, then back at the woman, and smiled. “You want to play a game? Shit, yeah. Let’s play a game.”
“As the challenged, it is my right to choose the game. Do you know tables?” She patted Gregory on the head. “Go and fetch my board and dice, darling.”
Gregory leapt up and ran into the temple, returning with a dark wooden box. The woman took the box and walked down the steps, moving like water flows, then sat on the grass. She opened up the board on the ground.
“Oh. Backgammon?” Camille said.
The woman nodded languidly. “I have heard it called such, though I played it long before it had that name.” Gregory tried to snuggle close to the woman again, and she absent–mindedly gave him a kick, making Camille hiss in an outraged breath, and Leah grunt in sympathy. Gregory slouched off to sit by the reflecting pool.
Camille sat down on the grass, looking at the board. I tried to remember the last time I’d played backgammon. The game could be frustrating—it wasn’t entirely decided by luck, but it wasn’t all down to skill, either. Leah and I stood, watching Camille and Gregory—the former glaring murder, the latter gazing with empty–headed adoration.
All four of us are good at games. Leah is probably the best, with a ruthlessly methodical mind, but Camille comes a close second. Dice rolled, markers moved, all in silence, and in the end—Camille lost. Just bad rolls. I wondered how honest the dice were, but it didn’t really matter. I stared, numbly, as Camille got unsteadily to her feet. “Two out of three?” she said.
“No, no,” the woman demurred. “Custom demands I let my new toy’s lover challenge me, but only once.”
Leah untied her rope and stepped forward. “I challenge you, then. Same stakes. If I win, you release him.”
The woman frowned, turning her head in our direction for the first time since we’d arrived. “Don’t be ridiculous, you—oh.” She glanced at Camille. “This woman has lain with your man, and a flame burns for him in her heart.”
“No shit.” Camille shot her a nasty grin. “Kick her ass, Leah.”
The woman didn’t look happy, but she shrugged and set the board back up again. “Very… well.”
Leah examined the dice carefully before they started, nodded once, and then they played. My wife was magnificent, ferociously concentrated, grimly focused…
But she still lost. It’s that kind of game. A bad roll can be your undoing.
The woman rose to her feet, and seemed somehow taller than she had before. “You have had your chance. If we play again, it will be for higher stakes. I grow weary of this—”
I cleared my throat. “Excuse me, ma’am. I guess I’d better challenge you, too.” Did I love Gregory? I’ve never been comfortable calling myself bisexual because I’ve never wanted to have a relationship with a man, just sleep with them occasionally, and Gregory and I had never even played together in bed just the two of us, but he was one of my best friends in the world, someone I admired and looked forward to seeing almost as much as I did his fiancée.
“Oh, really now.” The woman stared at me—I felt like she was staring through me—then sat back down hard, with no grace at all. “Come, then. Same game, same stakes.”
I untied my rope and sat with her, trying to remember how the hell you even played backgammon exactly. As far as desperate last gambits went, this one was pretty desperate. I did my best, concentrating on the board, barely aware of Leah and Camille standing off to one side, talking in low voices.
It became pretty clear to me that I was going to lose. I’d have to get several lucky rolls, and my opponent at least a couple of bad ones, to have a chance. I picked up the dice, wondering if I should play for time, wondering what I’d use the time for, when Camille suddenly grabbed me under both arms and hauled me backward. The dice fell from my hand—I noticed, in my shock, that they landed favorably—and then the SUV roared into the clearing, Leah at the wheel. The woman stood up just in time for the SUV to crash into her and knock her down.
Leah stopped the SUV and climbed out… holding my waffle iron. It’s a family heirloom, not as old as the cabin but almost, one of the old–fashioned kinds like a heavy iron skillet with a hinged lid. Weighs a ton, but it makes better waffles than any electric bullshit.
“There’s a thing about iron,” I said. “Right? Fairies and iron?”
“That’s the idea,” Camille said. We walked around the front of the SUV. I glanced at Gregory, who was just sitting there, staring, agape. At least he wasn’t attacking us to save his new mistress.
The woman was trying to claw her way out from under the SUV. One of her legs was pinned under the wheel, and as I watched it transformed into a goat’s leg, thin and hoofed. I thought of the footprints on the dock, transforming from human to animal. She pulled her goat’s leg free and crawled backward. Antlers pushed through the skin of her forehead, like tree branches emerging from a pond, and her face lengthened into some kind of snout.
“You don’t fuck with our boys.” Leah smacked the woman hard across the face with the iron pan, snapping one of the antlers off near the base.
The woman howled, clutching her head.
“That thing you said, about taking him by force,” Camille said. “We’ll go that way.”
“He will go mad,” the woman said, her voice far more inhuman than before.
Camille took the pan from Leah and smashed the woman’s other antler. “No, he won’t, because you’ll fix him, or we’ll beat you until there’s nothing left but a smear.”
“I don’t claim to be an expert on… whatever you are,” I said. “But I’m thinking maybe wounds made with iron won’t heal so well?” I took the pan from Camille and raised it high.
“Stop!” the woman shouted. “I abjure all claim to your man!”
Gregory groaned, stood up, looked around, and said, “What the hell happened?” Camille ran to him, squealing and throwing her arms around us.
“You have to promise to leave us alone,” I said. “And no more swims in the lake on our side.”
She hissed at me, and I swung the iron back and forth in a threatening arc. She ducked her head and said, “Fine. It is agreed.”
“Let’s go.” Leah tugged my sleeve, and we climbed into the SUV, my wife driving, Gregory and Camille piling into the back seat.
“Do you think we can get out of here again?” I said.
“We’ll find out.” Leah looked backward, put the car in reverse, and peeled out, back over the hill. She didn’t slow down as we approached the point of entry—
—and the car suddenly filled with full sunlight as we reappeared in our world, driving backward over the edge of the fairy ring. Leah stopped the car. “Do we just keep driving?” she said.
“Mmm,” I said. “Maybe not.” She kept the engine running as I climbed out. I picked up a rock and tossed it into the circle, though it wasn’t really a circle anymore, since a bunch of the mushrooms had gotten squished when we drove over them. The stones just landed on the ground: no disappearing act. “I think we’re okay.”
We didn’t want to stay. We siphoned some gas and tossed it over the remaining mushrooms and burned them, then started loading up our shit. Gregory’s memories were fragmentary after he passed through the mushroom ring, but he remembered enough that he didn’t doubt our account. As we loaded the car, he kept saying, “Damn. Damn. Day–um,” and things to that effect. “Stolen by fairies. Damn.”
“We stole you back though,” I said. “Grand Theft Gregory.”
“Cammie told me what you did. What all of you did.” He punched me in the forearm. “You love me, man.” Then he wrapped his arms around me, hugging me, and picked me up right off my feet, though I am not a small man. “I love you, too.”
Leah and I did a last pass through the cabin to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything. “I guess we won’t be vacationing here again, huh? I’d feel weird selling it, too, knowing what the, uh, neighbors are like. Maybe it’s better just to let it rot.”
“We could just sow the earth with iron filings,” Leah said. “I was talking to Camille about it. She was going on about intersecting higher dimensions, stuff I didn’t follow, she says it’s really just an engineering problem. Fairy–proofing.”
“Yeah, okay, but you’ll have to bring your other boyfriends here, because I am done.”
We got into the car, Leah riding shotgun—she’d done enough driving—and me behind the wheel, with Cammie and Gregory in back, holding hands like they were trying to keep each other from flying away into deep space.
I did a three–point–turn and aimed us back toward civilization. We rode in silence, all thinking our own thoughts, and I could sense a four–way brood coming on; that is easily my least favorite kind of four–way.
Instead of dwelling on distressing and impossible things, I smacked myself in the forehead. “Damn it!” I said. “When I was about to hit her with the waffle iron, I should have said, ‘Don’t make me batter you.’” I looked around. “Yeah? Waffle iron? Batter?”
“Dude,” Gregory said. “Dude, no. Dude.”
“You are the worst person in the world,” Camille said. “You are history’s greatest monster.”
“What she said,” Leah agreed. “But we love you anyway.”
© 2016 by Tim Pratt