PodCastle 554: Hosting the Solstice

Show Notes

Rated PG-13.

Sound effects used in the host spot are in the public domain and can be found here.

Hosting the Solstice

By Tim Pratt

for Heather

The first note came a week before Halloween. I glanced at an empty parking lot while I was out walking Bradbury and the leaves blew around to form the words “IT’S YOUR TURN TO HOST.”

I put my head down and tugged Bradbury’s leash to hurry him up and pretended I hadn’t seen anything at all.

The second note came a week later, when my son Rye was working the haunted house fundraiser at the high school — he was only a freshman, but his obsession with monster makeup tutorials from the internet meant his “bloody-face-wound zombie” was good enough to join the seniors-only “scare crew” for the big terror finale just before the exit. My husband, Corey, was handing out candy to trick-or-treaters in the living room. I went into the bathroom and saw the words “IT’S YOUR TURN TO HOST” dripping in blood down the shower wall.

I was almost done cleaning it off when Corey came in, putting his hand on my hip in a way that still sends a thrill-shiver up my spine after 18 years together. “Whoa. Did Rye do this? Halloween prank?”

I almost said, “It was my sister,” but there was no point, so I just shrugged.

“What did it say?”

Only the word “HOST” was left. “It said, ‘Boo, I’m a ghost.’” I could count on one hand the number of times I’d lied to Corey, but telling him the truth in this case wouldn’t accomplish anything.

Corey snorted. “That sounds like Rye. Come to the living room when you’re done, I’ve got Trick ’r Treat cued up.”

My husband loves horror movies. I like them too. They make me laugh and laugh and laugh.

The third note came in mid-November, and the words were written in ice on the windshield of my car. It took me half an hour to scrape them off.

The fourth came on Black Friday, the day after the annual gargantuan Thanksgiving dinner at my mother-in-law’s house. Me and Rye and Corey were being lazy, eating turkey sandwiches, with Bradbury begging for scraps and being indulged too often. I went to the bedroom and saw “IT’S YOUR TURN TO HOST” written in a spiderweb on the ceiling, Charlotte’s Web style. I was impressed. A few years ago, it would have been written with the bodies of actual spiders, lined up like members of a marching band spelling out the team name on a football field at halftime. Poe’s control was getting better.

The last note came in early December. I’d hoped ignoring them would make them go away; it had in the past, once or twice. But I was walking Bradbury one morning, scarf pulled up over my nose, hat pulled down over my ears, when I glanced up and noticed the clouds shifting to say “WE’LL SEE YOU ON THE SOLSTICE” before uncurling back into nonsense shapes.

“Well, Bradbury,” I said. “It looks like my family is coming to visit for the holidays.”

My dog had no idea what I was talking about. Lucky dog.

“I was raised by monsters.” I dished out big bowls of my favorite winter stew — apples and onions and carrots and potatoes, bacon and roasted garlic — and set them in front of my husband and our son. “Or maybe demi-gods, or demons, or angels, or the fey, or just the ‘Old Folks,’ as Mom and Dad sometimes call themselves. We lived in caverns, and on mountaintops, and in the belfries of churches. One summer we lived on the moon, when mom was mad at Dad. I used to sneak out and go to school, though, every chance I got. There was a glamour on me, on all of us, that allowed us to pass unnoticed among the humans, and all I wanted was the life I saw other kids have: skateboarding, sneaking cigarettes, kissing boys, growing up, going to college, meeting people who weren’t your immediate family and forming connections with them.” I cut up hunks of fresh bread and passed those around the table, then poured glasses of water. “I wanted to get married and start a family of my own, set the terms for my own life, and leave all that . . . other stuff . . . behind. So I did! It took a lot of breaking and binding and some dramatic behavior on my part, but I got away, or thought I did. But now my mom and dad and brother and sister are going to visit us for the holiday, their holiday, and I don’t know what to do.” I sat down at my place across from Rye and at Corey’s left hand and they were both staring at me very strangely, which was very strange.

“Is this a new story you’re writing?” Rye asked, and I stared at him.

I wrote things for a living, but they were things like technical documentation for software products, and I only rarely dabbled in fiction. “I . . . what?”

“What are you talking about?” Corey said. “You didn’t know your mom and dad. You grew up in foster care until you got emancipated and went to college when you were sixteen.”

“You . . . wait . . . you heard all that? What I just said?”

“Babe, are you okay?” Corey said.

“My mother is frost,” I said. “My father is the wind.” I sped up. “My brother is all the things that crawl and bite and lurk. My sister is the last thing you hear in the dark place of your greatest fear, her chuckle in your ear and then the spurt of your own blood. And I — I — I’m—”

Rye was beside me, kneeling by the chair, clutching my hands, his eyes wide and worried. Corey was on the other side, wrapping his arms around me, saying, “Holly, it’s okay, we’re okay, what’s wrong, what are you talking about?”

“You could never hear me before,” I said, numb. “I told you about my family so many times, both of you, and you’d just smile and nod and respond like I’d told you about getting a haircut or finding a new place to get a manicure or a good Cuban sandwich. The spell, the glamour, it always worked on you before, I never thought — my parents must have lifted the spell. They’re coming. They’re really coming, and they’re not going to just pass before your eyes unseen like they did at the wedding, no, they’re going to meet you.”

I wished I could pass out, like people do in books and movies when some horrible revelation occurs. Instead I sat there, in the hands of my family, very awake and aware and unsure of what to do or say next. My husband has seen my brain vapor-lock before, that thousand-league stare I get when my thoughts are so jumbled none of them will get into an orderly line, and he is a being of infinite patience, so he said, “Let’s finish eating. Give you a few minutes to get your thoughts together. Then we can go sit down in the living room and you can tell us what you want to tell us, okay?”

“Okay.” I kissed my fourteen-year-old son on the head and patted his hand so he’d think I was all right. I ate the slow-simmered sweet and savory stew I’d created, the taste of autumn itself in a bowl, but I couldn’t enjoy it; I was thinking ahead to winter.

My husband and son were very sweet and supportive, and they didn’t believe me at all. Finally I told Corey to go get the shoe box full of love letters from under the bed. Early in our relationship we’d spent a few months apart while he was on a research trip for his PhD, and we had written to one another with fervor. In between professions of love and tales of the quotidian, I’d spilled out my entire life history, knowing his eyes would pass over those lines without seeing, or that my tales of winters in the court of the Holly King and the spring we spent on the bottom of the sea would be transformed into banalities by his mortal mind.

But now the glamour was lifted, and he stared in astonishment at the old pages, turning them over and occasionally silently handing a page to my son (none of the sexy parts, I hoped; it had been a long separation). “These are real?” Rye said at last. “You didn’t just . . . like . . . make these, or . . .”

“These are the originals,” Corey said. “It’s not a trick. Or . . . it was a trick.” My husband looked at me, his dark eyes full of compassion (fine) and pity (ugh). “I’m so sorry, Holly. I never knew.”

I shrugged. “You knew I had a challenging childhood and felt alone and out of place a lot. The emotional truth made it through, if not the exact details.”

Rye’s eyes held no pity, only sparkle. “My grandparents are magic? I have an aunt who can turn into shadows and an uncle who can control rats?” My heart did an uncomfortable flip at the enthusiasm in his voice.

Corey got into bed beside me that night and said, “Are they dangerous?”

I snorted. “Are ice storms dangerous? Hurricanes? Sheer cliffs in the dark? Spiders? Sure they’re dangerous.”

“Should I take Rye away on the solstice and let you handle them yourself?”

I put a pillow over my face for a moment and then took it off. “No. They’re not . . . they’re not bad. They never abused me or anything, though my sister’s teasing can be intense. I was older and stronger, though, so maybe it was sort of self defense. My dad would be the personification of pride if he wasn’t already the personification of the wind. My mom can be cold. Poe is . . . actually Poe is my favorite. He encouraged my rebellion, even, though he likes disintegration and chaos as a rule. I didn’t leave because my family was terrible, I left because I didn’t want to live like they did, and they couldn’t understand that. They think they’re the greatest and their life is the best, so to them I was ungrateful at best, and unhinged at worst.”

“It’s like they’re from a religious tradition you chose to turn your back on.” Corey hmmed. “We’ll respect their culture while making it clear we’re doing our own thing. Right?”

“Sure. I don’t even know if they’ll acknowledge you. They lifted the glamour, so maybe, but they’re weird about mortals.”

“We’re going to have to talk about you being immortal later,” he said. “I think it has some tax and retirement implications.”

I barked a laugh. My husband was a CFO for a tech company, and he was an economist by training. I’d definitely messed up all his statistical models.

“It’ll be fine.” Corey put his arm around me. “The solstice will come and go, and we’ll still do Christmas at my dad’s as usual, so there won’t be any need for excuses or explanations.”

“Excuses and explanations are never a problem for my family,” I said. “The problem is the visit itself. They’ll be here. In our house. Overnight.”

“If they’re used to living in caves and junk I think our guest rooms will be good enough, Mom.” Rye punched a pillow a few times and tossed it down onto the fold-out couch in the basement. We had a guest room for Mom and Dad, and the fold-out and an air mattress downstairs, which would do for my brother and sister. They liked basements. Lots of shadows, higher-than-usual likelihood of bugs, what wasn’t to love?

After some negotiations (which involved me shouting into a drain in an empty lot) I convinced them to arrive at noon on the solstice instead dawn. Waking up in the morning is hard enough without contending with them. It was Rye’s winter holidays anyway and Corey took the day off, so we were all home when the doorbell rang. Rye sprang up and shouted, “I got it!” but I followed him close behind.

He pulled open the door, and there was no one there, of course, because my family has to make an entrance. First a pile of leaves in the yard swirled into a person-high column, and then the leaves fell, and my father stood there, dressed in an old-fashioned brown suit and looking mostly like a respectable English professor, except that his hair and beard were pale green against his dark skin.

Snow flurried down behind him, first just a few flakes, then a torrent, the flakes building up into a humanoid shape that somehow became my mother, dressed in a pale blue gown, her hair white as rime, her skin tinged faintly bluish.

Rats and pigeons scurried into the yard in a great flapping skittering horde that ran away to leave my brother revealed in their midst, slouching in a black hoodie and jeans.

“Hi, Sis,” my sister said, stepping out of a shadow behind me and speaking right into my ear. I didn’t flinch; I’m her older sister, and I know her tricks. Her skin was as pale as mom’s but with more of a greenish pallor underneath, rather more corpse than frost, and she was dressed like an assassin out for a night at the Goth club.

“Corey, Rye, this is my family. My brother Poe, my sister Ligeia, my mother, Camille, and my father, Le Bon.” Those weren’t their real names, just recent aliases. Their real names are just . . . sounds.

Bradbury growled at them. Ligeia looked at the dog, and he yelped and ran for the backyard. Off to a good start.

“It’s so wonderful to see you, Eulalie,” my mother said.

“I go by Holly these days,” I said.

“Holly. Kind of on the nose, isn’t it?” So said my sister, a demigod of shadows and death who’d named herself after an Edgar Allan Poe character best known for dabbling with forbidden secrets and dying of a mystery disease.

My dad tromped solidly up onto the porch, looked Corey up and down, nodded, then gazed down at Rye. “You are my grandson. Orion. I welcome you to the family.”

He put a hand on Rye’s shoulder, and I put a hand on Rye’s other shoulder and pulled him back a step. “No sense standing around outside. Come on in.”

My family trooped obediently indoors, though Mom and Dad aren’t indoors people, and Poe and Ligeia prefer crawlspaces and rooftops. “We’re a no-shoes house,” I said, which was both true and passive-aggressive.

Father quirked a bushy eyebrow and slid out of his loafers. Ligeia’s black combat boots just dissolved into smoke, while Poe kicked off his battered sneakers. Mother slid out of her heels, and her feet were deer hooves. I looked at her, and she looked back at me with a half-smile, then gave the faintest roll of her eyes. When I looked again she had slim white feet.

“Would you like to see the back garden?” Corey said to my father. “Holly thought you might like some of the mobiles. I make kinetic sculptures, sort of overgrown wind chimes really, it’s just a hobby, but every once in a while I sell one—”

“I am familiar with our collaborations,” my father said stiffly. “But yes, I have some suggestions for how you could improve them. Show me.”

“Uh, sure, that sounds great.” He tossed me a look of love and reassurance as they departed.

I looked around for Rye, and he was deep in conversation by the fireplace with Poe and Ligeia, telling them excitedly about his zombie Halloween costume, as far as I could tell. They were a sympathetic audience, too sympathetic, and no good could come of zombie talk, not given the things Ligeia could do—

Before I could interrupt, my mother emerged from the kitchen with two glasses of white wine and pressed one into my hands. I hadn’t chilled a bottle — more passive aggression — but it was icy cold anyway, of course. She gently steered me toward the breakfast bar and sat me down on a stool beside her. “Eu — Holly. You look well. Your home is . . . charming. Very, hmm, well-insulated.”

“Why did you come, Camille? All these years without contact, in either direction, and then . . . holiday ambush.”

Her eyes flashed, the glint of sunlight off a frozen lake. “We understand you chose to make a new life. We have accepted that. But don’t we deserve the opportunity to meet our grandson? Don’t your siblings deserve a relationship with their nephew? You know new family members are rarities in our . . . culture.”

True. We were mostly jealous and territorial beings, solitary or moving in small family groups. Eventually Ligeia might meet some chthonic entity, or Poe might find himself a spider queen, or they’d be attracted to their opposites, the creatures that dwell in sunbeams or the presiding genius of a lifeless salt lake, and I might get nieces or nephews of my own . . . but my siblings were still very young as my kind reckon time, and in no hurry. I wished I could get rid of the tension in my neck. “What kind of relationship did you have in mind?”

“A better one than you and I have, perhaps?” Her smile glittered. Mom always glittered. I was grubby and earthy and up to my elbows in dirt next to her, no matter what I wore. “It depends on what Orion wants. That’s an interesting name. Do you sense something of the stars in him? The void? Or do you hearken back to the old stories? Is there something of the hunter in him, perhaps?”

“Rye is an ordinary teenage boy. We just liked the name.”

“I’m sure,” she murmured.

“I’m his mother. If he’d . . . inherited anything . . . I’d know.”

“Mothers always know best, don’t they?” She glittered and sipped her wine and I thought, Okay, one point for mom.

We gathered around the big table, Corey at the head and my father at the other end, which I’m sure he thought was the head, because wherever he sat was the eye of the storm. I know that metaphor doesn’t really make any sense, but I get irritated, so cut me some slack. We started passing bowls and platters around and my mother simply passed the dishes down without taking anything. Poe and Lie took big helpings of everything, potatoes and turkey and green bean casserole, and Poe dropped stuff on my father’s plate while he just scowled at the table from under his eyebrows.

Rye was watching everything. We were a complex system and he was going to map our every interaction.

“Something wrong, Le Bon?” I said. “Corey’s a great cook.”

“It’s just not . . . the traditional meal,” he said.

Corey cocked his head. “Stuffing, turkey, mashed potatoes . . . but I guess that’s more Thanksgiving or Christmas. What’s traditional for a solstice meal?”

Le Bon opened his mouth to answer. I hunched into myself. The solstice, in this hemisphere, was about the return of the sun and the renewal of life and the coming time of plenty, and for our annual dinners, we’d all go out and bring back something to share, and it was usually something bloody.

Then Le Bon waved a hand. “It doesn’t matter. This is your house, and I . . . we . . . it’s . . . You welcomed us. We are pleased to be here.”

“Well said.” My mother glittered at him.

I looked at her for a moment, then went into the kitchen and came back with a crystal dish full of crushed ice and set it before my mother. “Mineral and spring and well water ice. Nothing that flowed through a pipe.” I’d spitefully held back the dish, and I felt small about that now.

Mother didn’t glitter at me. She sparkled. It was a subtle but meaningful difference. She put her cool hand over mine and said, “Thank you, dear.”

We all ate, and after a few moments of contemplative silence, Rye blurted out, “You’re all really magic! I can’t believe it!”

“Your mother is too,” Lie said. “We all thought she’d have ten babies and eighteen dogs and a hundred cats and that she’d work at a plant nursery and a human nursery and have fruit trees in pots all over your house.” Ligeia flapped her hand at me. “Your mom’s sphere of influence is nature, growing things, bounty, fecundity.”

Rye’s eyes widened. “She’s like . . . a dryad?” They’d done a unit on Greek and Roman mythology at his school.

“More like Gaea.”

“We’re not gods,” I snapped.

“Speak for yourself,” mother said.

“Flowers used to grow in her footprints,” Lie said. “I just really thought… you’d be a gardener, or something, Sis.”

“Biology isn’t destiny.” I kept my voice level. We didn’t exactly use biology in our bodies, but close enough. “I can do meaningful work with my mind, not just my . . . natural talents.” Writing was a bit like gardening, though. Sometimes you had to coax the words, carefully cultivate them, and sometimes they bolted, and you had to prune them back to promote healthier growth.

“How do you not have ten babies though,” Poe said. “Seriously.”

Corey was trying hard not to laugh. I was trying hard not to scream. If Rye was trying not to blush, he was failing.

“I have an IUD,” I said. “Modern technology is amazing. Come out of the cave sometime and you’ll see.”

“We’ve been living in some trees mostly lately,” Poe grumbled.

After dinner we drank spiced cider, and then Rye showed his aunt and uncle his makeup collection, and mother discussed math with Corey — who knew she was into math? — while my father and I sat in silence. He rose abruptly. “Come outside. I wish to discuss something with you.”

We stood out beneath one of Corey’s more ambitious pieces, a series of colorful nested triangles counterbalancing several proliferating arms that dangled ovals and squares and circles, all turning lightly in the breeze. Le Bon stood straight as a birch tree and watched the movement as he spoke. “Your son is of our blood.”

“We don’t even have blood unless we want to.”

“Then say instead that the old songs sing within him. Or the old wind blows. I have looked into him. I see his power.”

I’d always worried Rye would manifest . . . something. Some ability, some quirk, some fundamental strangeness. I’d hoped that even if he did, the glamour that protected us while we lived within the mortal world would suppress any symptoms, as it did most of my own unusual qualities. Even more, I’d hoped the issue would never come up at all. I wanted to say, “You’re wrong,” but though Le Bon was many things, he wasn’t usually wrong about magical matters. “What’s his sphere?”

“Glamour.” Le Bon shrugged. “It makes some sense, given how he has been raised. We often develop what we need to survive and thrive.”

I frowned. “We all have glamour.”

Le Bon shook his head. “We blend. It is . . . your brother told me a word for it . . . Crypsis. Animals do it. Chameleons, stick insects, the octopus. We match our background, and this protects us. If we step out of that background, the glamour helps there, too. Mortals do not truly see the world, not as we do. There is too much information for their senses to take in, so their brains discard what is meaningless or confusing, and create a little . . . puppet theater version of reality, brightly colored and simplified.” He shrugged. “It might be nice, sometimes, to see less clearly. But. Orion can see. Orion can change what others see. Not in the passive way our glamour does, but actively. He can create illusions. He can decorate the puppet theaters of mortal minds any way he sees fit.”

I thought about Rye’s monster makeup, so realistic it startled even jaded teenagers who’d grown up on a steady diet of horror movies. I thought about the times I’d asked if he’d cleaned his room and he’d said yes and it looked clean, and then a little later I came back and it was demolished again. I thought it was just talent, for makeup and for destruction, but what if Rye was changing what people saw? A talent of a different kind.

“His powers are nascent,” my father said, “but once I have trained him—”

“What? You can’t train him. You can’t stay here, Le Bon. We have schedules, routines, a whole life.”

“I do not wish to stay, Eulalie. Orion should come with us and discover his true nature—”

“Out,” I said. “All of you, out.” I grew. I didn’t mean to, but I couldn’t help it. I rose up, until I was taller than Le Bon, and fangs crowded my mouth, and spines burst from my elbows, and talons from my fingertips, and the roots in the garden trembled and readied themselves to tear Le Bon apart and toss him to the four winds where he belonged.

Le Bon scowled and bowed his head, but not even he could stand against me in my garden, in my home, and he shredded into colored smoke and blew away. Inside the house I heard shouts as my banishment took hold, and when I looked through the back door, I saw mother turn into a reverse snow, falling up to the ceiling; Ligeia fading into a silhouette and then puddling to a shadow on the floor and disappearing; Poe exploding into thousands of scuttling things that disappeared beneath a crack under the door.

Corey and Rye looked at each other, stunned, and then Rye, fourteen years old, began to cry, and my husband took him in his arms.

I watched them as I slowly let my greater essence drain away. I needed to look human again before I went inside or I’d just make things worse.

“They had to go,” I repeated. “Don’t take it personally. They’re terrible at goodbyes.” I was the one who was terrible at goodbyes. My mom and dad and I had argued for months, and then one night I just left, never expecting to see my family again, willing to make that trade for a new life of my own.

“Okay,” Corey said. “Maybe they’ll visit again sometime, Rye.”

Rye sniffed and nodded and disappeared upstairs.

Corey started to speak, but then just put a hand on my shoulder for a moment and went upstairs himself.

I sat downstairs in the dark and brooded. My family had come to take Rye away. They wanted to drag him into their world, always wandering, contending with dark forces, being dark forces. Le Bon wouldn’t give up easily, and my mother even less so. I’d have to be vigilant, set up wards, remember old safeguards—

“Hey, Sis.”

I started to swell, then fought it down. My sister was in the armchair off to my left, just a shape in the dark. “Lie. How did you get in here?”

“You can’t banish shadows without a lot of light, Sister, and you seem short on that just now.”

“What do you want?”

“To talk.”

“So talk.”

Ligeia chuckled. “Dinner was really nice.”

I wouldn’t let myself soften. I said nothing.

“Poe and I . . . Mom and Dad too . . . we really enjoyed meeting Rye. He’s a great kid. Quick, smart, enthusiastic. Reminds me a lot of you.”

“He’s my son.”

“I know. I’d know even if I’d met him at random on the street. He has your heart, too.”

When I left home, Ligeia’s only interest in hearts was making them stop through the sudden application of terror. But that was a long time ago. Back then she couldn’t have circumvented my banishment, either. She’d grown.

“We came to your wedding,” Lie said.

“I know. You weren’t invited. I saw you, standing at the back. I was afraid you’d . . . I don’t know . . . do something. Thank you for making a stressful day even more so.”

Lie sighed. “We didn’t come to disrupt anything. We came to show our support, but you ignored us, and we left because we didn’t want to bother you on your special day. We came, Holly, because even though you stopped being our family, we never stopped being yours.” She leaned forward, still a shadow, but a nearer one. “I won’t pretend there weren’t a couple of cold years. Mom can hold a grudge, and Dad took it all really personally. But Poe and I talked to them, explained that things change, and that you just wanted to live in a different world. We still loved you, and if we’d handled things better, maybe we wouldn’t have lost you. I’m sorry I was such a little monster. I didn’t really understand that you’d leave. I couldn’t imagine leaving. I still can’t. You’re stronger than me, Holly, in some important ways.”

“I . . . thank you, Lie. That means a lot.” It surprised me that it did.

“We looked out for you, too, when we could, over the years.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, just little things. It’s not like we stalked you. We mostly left you alone, but Rye is family, and we can sense things, so sometimes . . . remember when he was a newborn and the doctor was afraid he had bacterial meningitis?”

I nodded. That had been one of the most terrifying days of my life. Even babies who survive that diagnosis often develop serious disabilities, and I’d been so scared. “The doctor said it was a false alarm.”

“That was Poe. He sent the bacteria away.”

I stared at her. “What? That’s not . . . Poe, he’s . . .”

“The lord of all scuttling things.” She shrugged. “Turns out that includes bacteria, though it was hard for him to drive them away, so he won’t be curing any pandemics. Microbes are harder to shepherd than rats or beetles. We did a few other things for Rye. Even in the coldest winter, he’s never very cold. That’s a gift from mom. Dad makes sure the wind is always at his back, and that his kites fly high. You know how fairies love to give babies gifts.”

“Did you . . . give him anything?” The idea of my sister’s gifts was frightening.

“He’s never been scared of the dark, has he, Sister? Because when he was very small, first learning to sleep through the night on his own, I made the dark sing lullabies to him.”

I’d thought of my family as an estranged and abandoned thing, but they’d been there, without being asked, without hope of thanks or appreciation. Wasn’t that what family was? I’d changed diapers, nursed Rye through fevers, soothed his tantrums, without expecting gratitude or acknowledgment, because he was my son. My family.

“I appreciate all that. But . . . Le Bon wants to take him away.”

“Le Bon is undiplomatic and bossy, Sister. I would have brought up the idea more delicately. We’re not going to steal him away. It’s just — visiting relatives. He goes to stay with his other grandparents in the summer, doesn’t he?”

I nodded. “But they don’t want to teach him magic.”

“He is magic. He’s your son, he’s mine and Poe’s nephew, he’s Mom and Dad’s grandson. His powers will manifest. It’s a question of whether they’ll do it with or without guidance. You really want a teenage boy who can control the perceptions of other humans running around without any training?”

“But what if he learns about your life, the way you live, and he . . .” what if I lose him what if I lose him what if I lose him.

“You got to choose, Holly.” Her voice was soft in the dark. “You tasted our life, and mortal life, and you made a choice. Not one I would have made, but I respect it. Doesn’t Rye deserve the same chance?”

I wanted to say no, but instead I said, “He’s too young to decide that.”

“Agreed. Too young for a decision, but not too young to start getting informed. His powers will grow, too. You can deal with that on your own, or we can help. Mom and dad are good teachers, and you have a special perspective from living among the mortals. We can teach him the logistics of using his super-glamour . . . and you can teach him the ethics.”

I considered. “Living in a cave is not going to be very tempting for someone who grew up in the mortal realm. Firelight on the wall is no match for video games.”

Lie laughed. “So why worry? Anyway, you’re thinking about this all wrong. Le Bon’s mistake way back when was making you choose: our world or the mortal world. You’re a lot smarter than Dad, though, Holly. If you don’t make Rye choose, he won’t have to. He can visit our world and live in yours, or, when he’s older, if he decides . . . vice-versa.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“Do that.” She kissed my cheek, fleeting as a shadow in shifting light, and she was gone.

The day after Christmas, we all stood in the cold on my porch. “Just until the end of winter break, Le Bon,” I said. “Rye needs to be back in time for school. Remember the date.”

Le Bon nodded. “I do not know what these dates mean. They are meaningless numbers. Tell your sister the phase of the moon.”

“I’ve got it, Sis.” Lie grinned. “We’ll have him tucked home the night before.”

Rye had a backpack like he was going camping — which he sort of was — and he bounced around the lawn in delight. For a moment, he seemed to shimmer, and looked less like a boy and more like a forest spirit, hair shaggy with leaves, skin textured like bark, face an arrangement of merry knotholes, and then he flickered back to my usual son again.

Mother stood beside a sleigh of gleaming silver, pulled by reindeer carved from ice. I wondered how the neighbors, or even Corey, saw the sleigh. Probably as a station wagon or an RV. “If we have so little time, we should go soon!” she called impatiently.

“Think about spring break.” Poe gave me a hug. “I’ll take him to the swamps and show him amazing things.”

“We’ll see how this visit goes first, Poe.” But I hugged him back.

“By Mom! Bye Dad!” Rye waved as he danced toward the sleigh. He was off on an adventure. Being with my family was kind of an adventure, I supposed, if you had a home to come back to, and Rye always would.

Ligeia stepped out of a shadow and said, “Don’t worry. We’ll take good care of him.”

“I know you will, but I still want to hear from Rye every night, Lie.”

“Dad will send his voice on the wind.” She grinned and hugged me, and then, to my surprise, hugged Corey. “You two made a good kid. You should make more. I like being an auntie.”

I snorted. We watched the sleigh pull away and vanish in a cascade of sparkles. I knew Rye would be safe. No harm would come to him in the company of my family, and much good might result. But even so, I worried. I can’t help it. I’m not a mother goddess, not really, but I’m his mother.

“Well,” Corey said. “Twelve days of no parental responsibilities.” He cleared his throat and moved a little closer. “What do you think of your sister’s suggestion?”

I elbowed him away. “I think we agreed to have one child, and that agreement stands.”

“Fair enough, Still, we have the whole house to ourselves. We could, you know. Celebrate the return of the sun.”

I laughed, and pulled him inside, and banished worry for a while.

About the Author

Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt is the author of over 30 novels, most recently multiverse adventures Doors of Sleep and Prison of Sleep. He’s a Hugo Award winner for short fiction, and has been a finalist for Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards. He’s also a senior editor and occasional book reviewer for Locus magazine. He tweets incessantly (@timpratt) and publishes a new story every month for patrons at www.patreon.com/timpratt.

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Tim Pratt

About the Narrator

Brie Code

Brie Code

Brie Code is the CEO and creative director of TRU LUV, a Toronto-based studio that makes companions—interactive experiences that aren’t quite apps and aren’t quite games. Companions are built on a framework of deepening friendship, not increasing challenge, to help you unwind and achieve your goals. Previously Brie was a lead programmer at Ubisoft Montreal on the soft, ethereal game Child of Light and three Assassin’s Creed games. TRU LUV’s first companion, #SelfCare, is one of Apple’s Best of 2018 Trends of the Year selections.

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Brie Code