The Fairy Booth

copyright by Leslie Ann Miller

 

The headline in Sunday's Stillwater News Press read: "Fairy Booth Appears at Stillwater Station: Disenchanted Retiree Steps Through ".

Liz read it in horrified fascination.

"June Dowlin, a retired secretary from the School of Architecture, stepped through the fairy booth which appeared at Stillwater Station midnight Friday. Mrs. Dowlin gave no explanation for her sudden departure Saturday night, and Police monitoring the booth reported that she violently resisted their attempts to stop her from passing through the turnstiles. When she repeatedly insisted that it was her right to go, they allowed her to pass. The dwarves manning the booths reportedly ignored her as she stepped through and disappeared. Mrs. Dowlin left behind her husband, Dr. Gus Dowlin and their three children: Jo, 26 of Los Altos, California; Alicia, 28, of Florence Italy, and Dionne, 30, of Oklahoma City."

Liz knew that the Fairy booths appeared all over the world at train stations, airports, bus stations, subway stations and the like. But she had always thought that they were a big city phenomena -- something that happened at Grand Central Station or LAX or Heathrow. They often appeared on lesser used platforms or in the backs of large lobbies. Usually there were two or three turnstiles between booths manned by dwarves, ugly looking dwarves with pitted faces and sharp battle axes. Those few people who dared to pass through the turnstiles simply disappeared, vanishing completely into thin air. And none of them had ever returned.

The booths would stay in one place for a few days or weeks, a lunatics would pass through, and then the booths, dwarves, turnstiles and all would vanish again, as if by magic. Of course, debate raged in the scientific community as to whether or not it was truly magic. But scientists had spent years (and billions of dollars) trying to understand the booths (and the dwarves who manned them) with very little success. There were numerous problems with the study... from trying to predict where the booths might appear to the unfailing inexplicable malfunction of any and all instruments used to try to gather information about them. While some scientists claimed that the Fairy Booths were the product of mass hallucination, others seemed more willing to let the masses believe what they would, up to and including the explanation of magic.

Liz looked at the sketch of the booth printed next to the article. The booths never appeared in photographs. Professionals had given up trying to photograph them years ago. Artists, of course, found them to be a favorite subject, and paintings of the booths were a common theme of postcards and magazines. She still found it hard to believe that one had appeared in Stillwater. The thought of it made her shiver.

It wasn't that the dwarves had ever harmed anyone, despite their unpleasant appearance. In fact, if they were ever threatened, they usually just disappeared. In those rare instances when they did not, the bullets fired at them or objects thrown at them would turn into flowers or water-droplets or bees.

The fact that they had no explanation was deeply disturbing to Liz. What happened to the people who went through? Where did they go? The speculations were numerous, but the fact was that nobody knew for sure. It gave her the creeps just to think about it.

Briefly she tried to imagine how Jo and Alicia and Dionne would react to the news that their mother had stepped through a fairy booth. Such an act was considered by most to be tantamount to suicide. She would have been horrified. To always have to wonder what had happened to her... To never know... TO NEVER KNOW.

She pushed the thought aside, tossed the paper onto the stack in the back room, and pulled out her vacuum to clean the living room for the D&D game. The gang would be arriving shortly, and Liz didn't want them to see her apartment in its natural state.

Jack slammed the door when he walked in late for the game. He knew he could come and go as he pleased at Liz's apartment, but usually he knocked first and closed it quietly after. His face, flushed and hot from more than just the 90 degree heat outside, told Liz all she needed to know. He'd been fighting with his parents again.

He took his customary seat on the carpet to her left, kissed her briefly on the cheek, crossed his lanky legs, and began unpacking his dice and character sheets from a black backpack.

He forced a grin at Liz and ran long, thin fingers through his shoulder length blonde hair. "My old man is threatening to take away car privileges if I don't cut my hair," he said as she watched silently.

Bill, the DM, whistled sympathetically. "Don't do it. You cut your hair and next thing you know your Mom will be forcing you to quit the game. Just look at Stephanie." Stephanie was Bill's girlfriend, and her mother refused to let her play in the game because her pastor had once said it was evil.

Jack shook his head. "I know, I know. She's still convinced that she's losing me to the devil. " He changed his voice to a falsetto, "Jack! You'll be damned to eternal punishment in Hell for playing that game! That Bill fellow is the Devil's servant himself! He's trying to teach you spells and magic!" His voice returned to its normal bass. "It astounds me that my own mother can be so ignorant."

"She only does it because she loves you," Liz said quietly, "and worries about you." She liked Mrs. Ferguson. She was a sweet, middle aged woman who was a secretary for the College of Business on campus.

Jack ground the dice in his hands. "I don't care! I just want to be left alone! By both of them!"

Dr. Ferguson was a professor of Agricultural Economics. He wanted Jack to go into Agronomy, but Jack wanted to go into English. He wanted Jack to go to school at OSU, Jack wanted to go out of state. He wanted Jack to play basketball because he was so tall, but Jack had joined the band instead, playing drums.

Liz decided to change the subject. "Did you read about the fairy booth?"

Jack's face clouded over. "Yeah. Who hasn't?"

Roger chuckled. "I wonder who else'll go through? Can you imagine... a retired secretary with a husband and kids? She must have been nuts!"

"Or maybe had guts," Jack muttered.

"I know I wouldn't," Liz said.

Jack looked at her sharply. "Yeah, we know Liz. Anyone who doesn't have the courage to leave Mom and Dad to go to MIT wouldn't have the courage to step through into another world."

She flushed. She'd been offered a scholarship to MIT, but she'd decided to stay at OSU instead. It was cheaper, and, though he'd never understand it, she liked Oklahoma; she liked Stillwater. "I'd have enough courage if you did!" she retorted.

Jack laughed. "Oh really? I might just put that to the test."

Liz felt a cold chill run up her spine at his words, and Bill cleared his throat. Bill and Liz both knew that Jack just might be crazy enough to be serious.

Even Roger looked nervous. But he grinned, and then laughed. "Well," he joked, "don't go before we have a chance to throw you a going away party. I'll bring the beer."

Jack chuckled. He wasn't old enough to buy beer yet, and he was always trying to get Roger to pick some up for him. He never succeeded. "Has anyone been by to see it yet?"

Bill shook his head. "I tried going by before the game. Talk about a zoo. They had police in the street directing traffic. Looked like the whole town was trying to get a look."

Roger nodded. "Yeah, the Tulsa World carried the story. I bet half the state is here to gawk. I'm gunna wait until 3:00 some morning, and then go by and take a look."

"Yeah," Jack said. "I've heard the booths have lanterns hanging from them that never go out. Not like they're burning oil or anything. I'd like to see that."

Bill set up his Dungeon Master's screen and shuffled some papers. "Ok, ok, enough about the booths. Where were we last week?" he asked.

"In the room with the orcs," Liz said, rather disturbed by Jack's enthusiasm about the booths. "Our paladin was wreaking havoc." The paladin was Jack's character. Personally, Liz thought he was playing a character with his own personality which took some of the fun out of it, so she was playing a thief just to cause him problems. While Liz would not have played the game except for Jack, she did usually enjoy it.

"Right," Bill said, and they settled down to a long day of killing monsters and evil wizards.

Liz successfully pushed all thought of the Fairy Booth out of her mind for the next several days, immersing herself in school. Even Jack did not bring up the subject when they were together, and while that in and of itself rang warning bells in her subconscious, she successfully managed to ignore them as well. She did her homework, studied for tests, and forgot entirely to worry about the threat to her neatly ordered world which lurked on the platform of Stillwater Station. That was, of course, until Roger called one evening.

"Hello," she said, picking up the phone.

"Hi, Liz, it's me, Rog."

"Oh, hi, what's up? The game is over here again on Sunday."

"Yeah, I know," he said, but she could tell from the tone in his voice that something was wrong. "Have you seen Jack lately?"

"Well, yeah, we went to a movie Monday night," she said, puzzled.

"Did he say anything about the fairy booth?"

She thought back. "Noooooo...." In fact, he'd seemed very cheerful.

"Well, get this: I was just at the army surplus store getting a canteen for the canoe trip next week, you know; and, well, anyway, John, the guy who runs the place, chuckled when I walked in and pointed to the camping supplies. I asked him what was up and he said that he knew that Jack and I were going camping this weekend cause Jack had already come in! Apparently Jack bought a whole slew of stuff... from parachute cord and a rain poncho to MREs and a machete! I couldn't believe it!"

Liz's heart froze.

"You weren't planning on going somewhere together, were you?" Roger asked slowly.

"He hasn't said a thing to me," she said, but she knew where the conversation would be going from there.

Jack was planning to take the fairy booth.

"I'll go talk to him," she finally said to Roger's silence.

She could almost hear a sigh of relief from the other end. "Good," Roger said. "I mean, Jack has done some pretty weird things lately, but I'm really scared this time, Liz... he's losing it! You gotta talk some sense into him!"

"Yeah, I know," Liz said quietly. "Thanks for calling Rog. I'll let you know how it goes."

Jack lived in the Country Club, and an hour later Liz was banging the brass knocker on the Ferguson's front door. His little sister opened the door.

"Hi, Tiffany, is Jack home?"

She made a face. "He's in his room. He won't let anybody in. Mom sent him to bed without supper."

Mrs. Ferguson appeared from the kitchen. "Hello Elizabeth! It's good to see you," she said pleasantly, pushing the door further open. "Jack's up in his room."

Liz stepped into the plush front hall and kicked her shoes off. Mrs. Ferguson was very protective of her thick white carpets.

"Thanks," she said, and dashed up the stairs to Jack's room. She knocked on the door despite the "Do Not Disturb" sign hung on the handle.

"Go away," Jack's voice growled.

"It's me, Liz," she said.

"Go away anyway."

She opened the door.

Jack was sitting in the middle of the floor beside his large internal-frame backpack. Scattered around him on the floor were heaps of odds and ends. She noted a whetstone, a butane lighter, several packets of seeds, sunglasses, a tarp, a solar blanket, a slingshot, three pairs of brand new 501 bluejeans, two flannel shirts, hiking boots, a package of Snickers candy bars, nylon repelling rope, a toothbrush, an odd assortment of jewelry, waterproof matches, a mirror, camping gear, a machete, a hatchet, a fishing kit, and a set of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

"Going someplace?" she asked sweetly.

"Shut the door," he said. "I don't want anyone to see me with all this stuff."

"Where did you get it?" she asked, looking around at the various heaps.

"Here and there. Army surplus, mainly." He stuffed two pairs of heavy socks into a side pocket.

"Where'd you get the money?" she asked. Jack still hadn't found a summer job, and she knew he was broke.

"I took the old man's Gold Card."

Her jaw dropped. "You did what!?"

"Keep it down!" he said angrily. "I said I took the old man's Visa. He'll never even notice."

"They let you get away with it?! Jack, that's stealing!"

He looked up at her angrily. "Be real, Liz, this is Stillwater. And no, that's getting my own back!"

"What do you mean? What are you talking about?! You seemed perfectly happy on Monday. What's gotten into you?!" Liz was horrified. Her paladin had just turned into a thief!

He stood up and rummaged through a stack of papers on the desk next to his computer and handed her an envelope.

The return address was from Harvard. Liz opened it up and read the letter. He'd been accepted to Harvard.! Harvard was his dream! She almost squealed with joy -- but then it occurred to her that he should have been rejoicing too, which he clearly wasn't. "You've been accepted...?"

"Yeah, for all the good it does me. I didn't get enough scholarship money, and the old man says that if I go I'll be on my own. He won't give me a dime because he wants me to stay here at O.S.U. where he can keep his damn noose around my neck!" He wadded up the letter and threw it into the grocery sack beside his speaker.

Liz shrugged. "So you get a job! Work your way through! Other people have... you can too!"

"Bull! Do you know how much Harvard costs? Do you know what the cost of living is like in Boston? It was just a useless dream. A miserable useless dream. I should have known they'd screw me. Well, now I'm going to screw them back."

"How? By throwing your life away?!"

Jack looked around his room, at the LA Raiders poster next to the Frazetta print in a gold frame, at his bookshelf and his lava lamp standing beside his CD player. "What life?!" he asked. "I'm a prisoner here, Liz! I'm seventeen years old and my mother still sends me to bed without my supper! My God! They complain because I want to borrow the car too much, but they won't let me buy a motorcycle because it's too dangerous. They want me to get a part-time job, but dish washing and fast food isn't good enough for me. They say they want me to be whatever I want... that I can succeed at anything I want to do... but then they don't lift a damn finger to help, and they put down these restrictions like `cut your hair' and `don't play D&D' and `if you want to be a respectable professor you'll have to learn to wear a suit and tie' and `playing in a band will get you hooked on drugs' -- like you've gotta be an addict to play music or something. I'm sick and tired of it! I want something MORE...! And I intend to get it."

Liz fought the urge to burst into tears. He was serious! "You're... you're planning on going through the fairy booth?"

He looked at her, and his blue eyes regarded her with an unreadable expression. "Yes."

She couldn't help it, she started blubbering. "Oh Jack! Please don't do it! Please don't do it! You don't know what will happen to you! You could be killed! You could be made into a slave or cat food or land in a swamp or a desert or be turned into something hideous by aliens! Maybe they'll swipe your memory or sacrifice you to an evil demon! Please don't do it, Jack! Please don't go!"

He started laughing. "You're such a scaredy-cat, Liz. Maybe I'll step into an enchanted forest or a magical cave. Maybe I'll meet elves and dryads and find glowing swords to slay dragons with! Maybe I'll meet a beautiful princess..."

That brought her up short. "Is that why you're going?! To meet Cinderella in her pretty castle? To find some fairy princess that you can sweep off her feet when you save her from the dragon?!"

"The kind of princess I want would never need rescuing," he said scornfully.

Liz felt her ears go scarlet. "Well I hope those dwarves put you in chains and make a slave out of you instead! Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it's off to work you go!" She stood up in a huff and reached for the door knob.

He grabbed her hand and turned her around to stare into his eyes, her momentary anger washed away like a sand castle before the tide.

"You could be my princess, Liz" he said. "I want you to go with me."

"No!" she said, struggling to keep her head above water.

"Why not?!"

"My parents! My friends! My school! This is my home, Jack! Why would I want to leave?"

"Why would you want to stay? You can't live your life like this! Who are your friends? Me, Roger, Bill, and Stephanie. Roger wants out of Stillwater as badly as I do...well, almost, anyway. He's too good for this place and won't be here long. Bill and Stephanie are an item. They don't have time for you. And I'm leaving. Who does that leave you with, Liz?"

"I'll make friends in my classes!"

He snorted. "Who will all go off and leave you when they graduate. Stillwater is a dead end, Liz. You have to leave it sometime or you're going to rot here like everyone else. What are you going to do with an Engineering degree in Oklahoma? Do you want to be unemployed for the rest of your life? Or maybe you can work as a clerk at WalMart or Hobby Lobby..."

"That's not true!" she exclaimed angrily. "There's always jobs for engineers. Or I could go to graduate school!"

"Where? At OSU? You're too scared to go anywhere else! Look at yourself, Liz! You're beautiful, you're talented, you're smart -- and you're NOBODY because you're too scared to take any risks... You're afraid to grasp for success because it means the possibility of failure... so you never even try! You're AFRAID of LIFE, Liz. This is your chance to change all that!"

"I AM NOT afraid of life, Jack!" she spat. "I'm afraid of DEATH -- just like everyone else! DEATH. Which is what you're asking for if you go through that stupid booth!"

"Death? Ok. But at least we'll die trying to do something -- ANYTHING! We'll be reaching for our dreams! We'll be trying to get something different, something better! We don't know that we'll die there... maybe we'll live forever... maybe we'll find paradise... It's a chance! I don't know what's over there, but I do know what's here: nothing. Perhaps there's more on the other side."

"But what if we just die!?!" she persisted, confused, angry and scared all at once.

"We all die sometime. At least this way we'll die reaching for greatness instead of wasting away here like Mom and Dad."

She pushed him away as her feet suddenly hit solid ground. Mom and Dad! How could she leave them!? "You're crazy!!" she screamed and grabbed for the door. She stumbled down the stairs two at a time, scooped up her shoes in one hand and flew out the front door to the sanctuary of her beat up pickup waiting in the driveway. She slid behind the wheel as Jack bounded into the yard through the door which she hadn't bothered to close.

"Meet me on the hill at midnight Friday if you change your mind!" he shouted.

Liz slammed the door shut.

"I love you, Liz!"

She turned the key in the ignition and revved the engine as if she hadn't heard. She slammed it into reverse and tore out with squealing tires, knowing that it would get Jack in trouble with his dad, and raced down the street without looking back.

Liz had almost calmed down when Roger called two hours later. It was nearly midnight.

"How'd it go?" he asked.

"I don't want to talk about it," she said sullenly.

"Uh-oh, that doesn't sound good. What happened?"

"Listen, Rog, you want him to stay, YOU go talk to him. He won't listen to me."

"Lovers spat?"

"Shut up, Roger! This isn't funny!"

"Jeez, who peed in your Post Toasties? I'm not exactly taking this lightly, you know. My best friend is thinking about throwing his life away, and I'm worried about him!"

"Well he doesn't seem to think he has anything to throw away!"

"The guy's a genius, and he doesn't think he has anything to throw away?! Sheesh! I could kill him! That is, of course, if he wasn't already planning on doing so himself... Did he say when he was planning to leave?"

"Not before tomorrow. He said I could meet him on the hill at midnight."

"Good. I'll talk to him tomorrow afternoon. And if that doesn't work you'll have to try again when you meet him. Catch you later!"

"Bye." She didn't tell him that she had no intention of meeting Jack on the hill. Roger seemed to be enjoying the excitement of it all, and between the two of them she was so disgusted and upset that she could hardly study.

She tried to live the next day as if nothing was the matter. She went to classes in the morning and participated in class discussions just as always. She was determined not to meet Jack on the hill. If he wanted to do something stupid, he would just have to do it by himself. Nevertheless, the day seemed to creep by, and by dinner time she was already beginning to work out the arguments she would use when she saw him on the hill.

Four hours later the stars were pinpricks in a black velvet sky above the hill at midnight. Together, holding hands, Jack and Liz looked toward the silver waters of Lake Carl Blackwell and beyond it to the shimmering lights of Stillwater.

"There should be a circle of stones on this hill," Jack said quietly.

Liz didn't say anything; there was nothing she could say that wouldn't disturb the peace of the moment.

"Back in the middle ages they still had something to believe in -- unicorns, dragons -- even God. We don't have that anymore. Only the fairy booths. I'm glad they started popping up to throw a wrench in it all. We were losing our sense of wonder. I want adventure... and magic."

Liz shuddered. It was time to start the fight. "You want to escape. You want to run away. You can't face up to the challenges of real life. You're just as hopeless as those poor kids who wander off into sewers because they're trying to live their D&D game!"

Jack turned to me. "Yeah, I am just as hopeless. And for the same reasons. They get lost in a fantasy world because the real world isn't satisfying enough. The parents accuse the game of causing the problems, but the game is just the catalyst. They should be looking at what they're doing to make the kid's life so miserable that he feels he has to escape! The fantasy is better than reality. But I'm not running away from this world, Liz, I'm choosing the fantasy, the dream. I know what this world has to offer, and I know what the potential is of the other."

He tapped his head smartly. "Magic belongs to the imagination. Dreams. I may step into a nightmare, or I may step into my greatest fantasy. I don't know. But whatever it is, the experience will be more meaningful than anything I can find on this side of the turnstile. Dreams are better than reality - especially in a world that's based on mathematical principles."

"You're crazy!" Liz hissed. Why couldn't he see that he was talking nonsense!

He looked at her coldly. "Am I? Or are you? Do you even HAVE dreams, Liz?"

"Of course I do!"

"Are you coming with me, or not?"

"No! Jack, I can't! And you shouldn't either! It's a lie! It's all a lie!"

"What's a lie? What do you mean?"

"The fairy-tales! They don't really happen, Jack. They're just stories. There is no such thing as `happily ever after'!"

"Maybe not on this earth," he said softly, and turned away from the lights. Liz watched silently as his tall shadow waded slowly back through knee-high grass down the hill toward his bike.

A police officer was leaning nonchalantly against a light pole outside of the Stillwater Station when Liz pulled up. He watched her curiously as a swarm of insects circled the light over his head. She just sat in the truck and waited. She couldn't see the booth from the parking lot; she didn't really want to.

Jack pedaled out of the darkness an hour later. He had his hiking boots and backpack on, and he ignored Liz as she climbed out of the cab while he chained his bike to a post.

The police officer swatted at a moth and walked towards them. "What are you kids up to?" he asked.

"What does it look like?" Jack asked sourly. "I know my rights. You can't stop me."

"How old are you?" the officer asked, and it occurred to Liz that maybe he had been given orders to stop minors from going through.

"I'm twenty-one," Jack lied.

"Do you have any identification?"

"I left it at home. I don't expect to need a driver's license on the other side."

The officer scratched the back of his neck. "Do you really understand what you're doing here, son? Once you go through, there ain't no coming back."

"I realize that," Jack said calmly.

"Do you mind if I call your parents?"

"Yes!" Jack said, and tried to push his way past the officer.

The officer grabbed his arm. "Hold on just a sec. I think we should give your folks a call."

"No," Jack said, prying the officer's fingers off his sleeve. "Either arrest me for breaking the law, or leave me alone! Otherwise I'll sue you and the City for every penny you own for unlawful interference in my private affairs."

The officer scowled and stepped back. He looked at Liz. "Do you know how old he is?"

She nodded, and Jack grabbed her sleeve. "Liz, do you love me?"

She hesitated.

Jack whirled and karate kicked the officer in the head. He fell back hard on the asphalt and didn't move.

Liz gasped in horror and fell to her knees beside the officer. At least he was still breathing! She looked up at Jack. "I can't believe you did that!"

He grabbed her shoulder and pulled her to her feet. "Why not? I've got nothing to lose. And I'm not about to let some redneck cop stop me from going through."

"Redneck?! He was very nice!"

"Everybody is `nice' to you, Liz," Jack sighed, turned her arm loose, and started to walk toward the station building.

"Maybe that's just because I see the good in everybody!"

"What you don't see is what will end up hurting you the worst in the end, Liz. Mark my words. You'll get screwed by the whole world as soon as they see how naive you are." He rounded the corner of the building, and stopped dead in his tracks. Liz ran into his pack from behind.

In the dark shadows behind the building, just on the edge of the platform, were three wooden booths with engraved wooden turnstiles in between. Brass lanterns hung from spiral hooks swaying lightly in the breeze sending eerie shadows playing over the platform. It was just bright enough to see the pitted, bearded faces of the dwarves seated inside the booths. Liz drew a deep, shuddering breath.

Jack grinned, and started forward eagerly. "God, what a sight."

Liz grabbed his pack and pulled back. "Jack, look at them! I don't think God has anything to do with this!"

"All the better then," he said without turning around. Liz was hanging on to his pack with all her might, but he started to drag her forward anyway. "If you keep hanging on, Liz, I'll drag you through the turnstile with me..."

"Don't do this, Jack. Please! I'm begging you!"

He dragged her a few more steps. "My mind is made up, Liz. I want more."

"Am I not enough?!" she finally wailed.

He stopped, and turned around. "Will you go with me?"

"No!"

"Then no, you're not enough."

She stood there, stunned.

He turned his back to her, walked through the shadows to the booths, and pushed through a turnstile. Before the wooden blades had turned a complete circle, he looked back. Their eyes met for one eternal moment as the blade squealed, turning yet another fraction, and then he was gone. He vanished into thin air, right there in front of her disbelieving eyes.

"Jack!!!" she screamed. But he was gone.

He was gone.

He was gone....and she was not.

She didn't know how long she stood there, but eventually the police officer staggered around the corner and came to her side.

"Did he go?" he asked quietly.

Liz nodded dumbly.

"What was his name?"

"Jack. Jack Ferguson." Her voice cracked on the last syllable.

He was silent for a moment, then sighed heavily. "Listen, what's your name?"

"Liz."

"Liz, how about if I drive you home before I contact the Ferguson's? An officer will come by later in the morning to take a report, but it's pretty late and you should be getting home."

She nodded, still numb from shock.

They waited until another officer arrived at the scene, and then he dropped her off at her apartment. She gave him the Ferguson's address and unlocked the front door mechanically. Turning on the light made the apartment seem less empty, but she noticed two calls blinking on the answering machine. Her stomach knotted. One was probably Roger. The other was probably Mrs. Ferguson wondering why Jack had missed his curfew.

Ignoring the phone, she sat down on her couch, covered her eyes with her hands, and began to cry.


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