I spent ten years being the hockey ambassador to Faerie the fall Jessica Lin-Laird was seven. That and looking for my lost love. It was a busy fall. A busy ten years. Hard to figure out how to talk about it, but I guess I need to, because if I don't, it doesn't explain where my kid came from. I mean, other than "when a woman lost to faerie and a hockey player love each other very, very much," which, y'know, does not get you very far with explanations mostly.
It started--wouldn't you know it--on Halloween. I had agreed to take Jess trick-or-treating. Tam said he would take her. Janet said she would take her. But the kneebiter asked for Uncle Carter, so Uncle Carter she would have.
I am totally not going soft. Shut up. It's all about the Mounds bars. She had promised me a tithe of Mounds bars, and I had, in turn, promised Janet that I would stop using the word tithe anywhere near that holiday. Apparently eight years was not enough for the sensitivity to wear off. Some people get a tiny bit touchy when the Queen of Air and Darkness tries to take their husband as payment to the Lords of Hell or something. Sheesh.
Jess met me at the door already in the whole bit, black pointy hat, black dress, black buckled shoes, broom. They had opted to skip the green makeup, and I think she was much creepier without it. "This is my night, Uncle Carter."
I swung her up. Solid little thing, all muscle. Maybe next year I will settle for a hug. "I see that, but when are you going to put your costume on?"
She punched me in the shoulder. I have got to get Tam to teach her to pull her punches, because Janet never will.
"Seriously, kid. You're a witch all the time. Isn't this like dressing up as a hockey player for Halloween?"
"I consider it fair warning," she said solemnly.
"Since when have you given fair warning?" I said.
"Once a year," she said. "It is my night, and I am in my powers, and I can afford to give fair warning. We are taking Holly with us, okay?"
"Okay," I said. "Do I know Holly?"
"Why would you know Holly? How many second graders do you know, Uncle Carter?"
"Just checking." I turned Jess upside down--she was wearing real authentic premium black witch bloomers underneath, which were probably extremely warm as well as being real and authentic and premium--and carried her, muffled and shrieking, into the kitchen that way.
"Hey, Tam. Janet."
"Hey, Carter. Happy, y'know."
"Yeah, happy you're-not-dead and all," I said.
Tam shot me a look. Every year I suggest that we have a huge blowout of a party for Halloween. Every year Tam nixes the idea. Some guys just do not see an excuse for a keg when it's staring them in the face.
I turned Jess over and set her down. She was rather red but not significantly displeased. "Daddy hates Halloween," she announced.
"Yeah, well," I said, and shuffled my feet.
Jess rolled her eyes. "It's because the evil Sidhe tried to take him and Mom had to save him, I know, I know. I'm not a baby, Uncle Carter." The doorbell rang, and Jess ran off to answer it, saving me from the rest of that conversation.
"Yeah, Carter," said Tam. "She's not a baby."
"I see that."
Her friend Holly was dressed as a fairy princess. She was at least not a pink fairy princess. Blue. She had the long gauze tutu and the little wand and the golden ringlet curls and the whole bit. And mascara. Seven years old and her parents--or a big sister or a nanny, who knew, they'd just dropped her off and gone--had decided that eyeliner was key to the Halloween experience.
"Is this kid okay to be friends with Jessi?" I asked Janet in undertones.
Janet gave me the eyebrow.
"She has more makeup on than the last three women I dated put together, Janet."
"It's Halloween, Carter."
"Yeah, and the makeup isn't green."
Tam took a bunch of pictures, and we set off with plastic pumpkins in hand. I had kind of thought there might be some improvement to trick-or-treat technology, but no, the girls clutched orange plastic with black paint on it just like Janet and I had when we were kids. The one Holly had was huge. If she filled it, she wouldn't be able to move the thing.
I offered to help her with some of the candy. I got a flat little glare. Fine, kid; let the plastic handle cut into your hand. See if I care.
"Okay, here are the rules," I said. "You go to every house with the lights on, no skipping the ones with a lot of stairs. You have to say trick-or-treat, no standing there like idiots. I hate kids who stand there like idiots. You say thank you every time, or I tell Janet you didn't. And stay on the sidewalk."
"Uncle Carter does landscaping," Jess explained. "He gets picky about that kind of thing."
Holly rolled her eyes, and off we went. I didn't say I had to go up to every house; I stood at the bottom of the driveway with my hands in my pockets and wondered why Tam and Janet didn't move to a neighborhood with more hot single moms in it.
We were two blocks away from Tam and Janet's, and the girls found that mythical score: that guy who hands out whole candy bars.
"Whole ones, Uncle Carter!" Jess squealed, handing me a Snickers.
"This is your haul, kiddo," I said reluctantly. God, being a grown-up sucks.
"No, he sent this one for you."
I thought I should have made note of the address so I could tell Tam who to invite to barbecues. I stuck the Snickers in my pocket, thinking I'd want it later. Boy, was I ever right.
"Whole candy bars!" said Holly, doing a little victory dance. "You live in the best neighborhood, Jess!"
"I hear there's another house that does the king size on the next block!" said Jess.
"Woohoo!" Holly kicked up her heels into the grass, then squeaked, "Ow!"
I distinctly remember thinking that the last thing I wanted was to have to carry a seven-year-old in a tutu back to Tam and Janet's on my back, crying about how she was missing out on Halloween. I am that stupid, that I thought that was the last thing I wanted. With the life I've had? I should know there are a million things I want less than that.
"My foot's caught on something," said Holly.
"Not something," said a nasty little voice, and Jess and I looked at each other.
"Shit," I said. I shone my official Uncle-Doing-Trick-Or-Treat flashlight on the ground. A red hat and a truly ugly face popped up next to the blue pastel tutu.
"Hi!" said the redcap with malicious good cheer.
I had never seen a redcap before, but I know them. Oh, I know them. I've seen their work at a dozen of my sites. They're always trying to mess up the stone circles and gardens I put in. This one had a circle of its own: a fairy ring of nasty little red and white mushrooms that are definitely not native to Minnesota, and Holly had stepped right in it. Caught for sure. She was pulling, but the redcap wasn't letting her foot move even a little bit.
"Didn't I tell you to stay on the sidewalk?" I said.
Jess sighed. "You told her."
"Eeeee!" said Holly. She had already perfected the "I am a cute girl faking being upset" shriek. Seven years old, people. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that if Jess was already working on a mean left hook, her classmates were working on the things their parents thought they'd need, too.
Fake shrieks do not work on redcaps. Holly peered down at it. "Let go, okay? That's not funny."
It cackled. She tried to pull back and found she couldn't. "Jessi's Uncle Carter," she said really softly.
"That's not another kid, Holly," I said. "That's not some guy in costume."
Jess leaned forward and poked it with a finger.
"Yahhhh!" said the redcap, making a horrible face.
"Yahhhh!" said Jess back. Her face was not as horrible, but that was genetics, not lack of trying.
Holly burst into tears.
"Uncle Carter--" said Jess.
"You want a Starburst?" I said to the redcap. "Kid will barter you two Starbursts and a Milky Way Dark for her leg back."
For some reason this made Holly howl.
"Can you make her quiet down? It's not going to help the bargaining," I said to Jess. "Three Starbursts," I told the redcap.
"I don't want her," said the redcap.
"Good!" I said. "Then we're agreed. Three Starbursts and a Milky Way Dark and you'll let her go. I'll even let you peek and make sure the Starbursts aren't all the orange ones. You can't say fairer than that, for a kid you don't even want. Truth to tell, I don't want her either, but you can't get a reputation for letting the fair folk make off with little girls you're in charge of. People talk."
"No, no, Carter Hall," said the redcap. It knew my name. Not a good sign. "You misunderstand. I don't want her."
I took a deep breath. I was about to turn around, but my goddaughter had already beat me to it.
"You?" she said in the coldest little scornful voice you ever heard coming out of a kid. "Why'd you even bother to come here? Don't you know it's my night to beat you? It always has been. I'd say I was born to do it--but I didn't even have to be born, did I?"
"Oh, Jessi, careful, careful," I said. I turned the rest of the way and wrapped my arm around Jess's little shoulders. I don't even have to tell you who it was, do I? She hadn't changed in eight years.
The Queen was back.