He made a list of the places where they'd got him:
- When he was asleep.
- Down at the end of the garden, where they dumped him when he got too noisy.
- Under the bed.
- In the cloakroom at school, if no one else was there.
- In his mum and dad's room.
- Places where he could be alone. Places where he could touch himself. Places where he could get touched.
Richard wanted him to go with him round the back of the temporary art and music cabins at school. He didn't want to go. He wanted to play kiss, cuddle, or torture. He wanted all of them from everyone. But you had to run fast and not get caught; scream, shout, fight, otherwise you got nothing. Richard was a poof, everyone said, so if he went back there, he'd be a poof, too. He waited until Richard went away, and went round the back himself.
He added behind the cabins to the list.
He came home with another bruise under his shirt and his dad saw it when he was giving him his bath.
"Look at you, the wee fighter, eh?" said his dad. "Close your eyes or the shampoo'll get in."
He tried to hold his head still while his dad scrubbed. He thought his dad would have to use his hard little brush later to get the bits of scalp out from under his nails. His head hurt. He wondered if he was bleeding. His dad was a stupid blind bastard.
Then he was getting dried. He liked getting his head dried; trapped under the big dark towel, the harsh rubbing changed into something much nicer.
Damien went behind the cabin with Richard and everyone agreed without speaking to go and see what they'd do. Richard had his hand down Damien's trousers, and Damien was smiling. James was glad he hadn't gone back there with Richard. That night he put his hand down his pajamas. He liked the way it felt and he wondered what it would be like if someone else, Richard or Damien, did it.
He stopped playing when he heard his mum coming to kiss him good night and turn off the light. She hurried. He could hear from the TV that it was a break in The Generation Game. He kissed her, made sure that nothing was outside the covers before she turned out the light.
As usual, they got him anyway.
They waited until he was asleep, dreaming of going down the slide at the park. He got too warm flying down, running back round, climbing up, and he pushed his arm out from under the covers. They grabbed it immediately, yanked him out onto the floor. This time they didn't just torture him. They tickled him, held him tight, made him laugh instead of scream. They sang some old song, sounded like his gran, all ochs and awa's, and you'll be underhill afore me. He saw the door of his little old bedside cabinet was already open and his collection of river stones had been pushed onto the floor. They stopped singing, stopped tickling, but didn't let go. There were three of them standing behind him, and when they went still he saw a movement in the back of the cabinet and something, a space, a way, was clear. He took a quick breath and tried to scream, but stopped, feeling the quick sharp teeth on his throat.
—You'll stay with us, they said. Stay always. Be our King, our kind Prince, our Sovereign, our Good-Hearted Man. Stay.
—No, he whispered, I don't want to.
—You will. Listen to the music, you'll like the music.
On the train they sat on each side of him. He looked at the strange, thin back of the worn orange bench in front of him instead of at them.
—I want my mummy, he said once, trying not to cry. Boys could only cry sometimes. This was almost one of those times, he knew, but not yet. He kicked them both at once, tried to get up but their long skinny fingers had his ears and his arms. The sharp, sharp nails cut him and he wanted to cry. He kicked them again and one of them leant gently down and put its teeth against his throat again. Like a fox, he thought, and him a hen, a girl. Chicken.
—Be quiet, the other one said, and put a dry, crackly arm around him.
He couldn't nod, couldn't speak, had to wait until the first one moved away.
The train was running along the coast on the line to Glasgow. They were almost at Ayr when he saw a hill in front of the train that he knew wasn't there when him and his mum went shopping.
—Hold your breath, the kinder one said.
He did. He closed his eyes and tried to block his ears.
He woke up King. There were four-and-twenty blackbirds watching from the corners, two-and-thirty robins watching from the window, and a dozen black swans singing quietly to wake him up. The swans left, their song done. He knew from school that swans only ever sang just before they were going to die.
Next day at the end of the last class, Ms. McRuath let everyone out five minutes early, except when he tried to go she asked him to stay behind. He wondered what he'd done wrong.
"James," she said. "What happened to your arm?"
He looked at her. She had small round glasses and they all called her Specky Telekinety because she always knew what was going on. She had him every day for reading, just like they had him every night. It made him tired. Made him want to get on the school bus and never get off, just see where it went.
"It was the fairies, miss," he said, looking at the floor, now.
"The fairies?" she said.
He nodded his head. "They always get me," he said. "Miss," he said, "did they ever get you?"
"No, James. They didn't. How do they get you, James?"
"At night when I'm asleep, miss. They wouldn't get me if I could leave my light on, but my mum always turns it off. Even if I've switched it on after she says goodnight."
She let him go when the bell rang, he had to get his bus. On the bus someone told the big boys that Specky had kept him in and they wanted to know if he was a grass. He had some more bruises when he got home, but he told his dad they were taking karate in PE. His dad thought this was fantastic. "Maybe I can come in and learn it, too, eh?" he asked, making stupid moves with his hands. "Dad," he said, stretching it out. "It's only for kids." His dad laughed.
After Jimmy Savile had fixed it for a couple of poor kids on TV his mum ran him off to bed. He liked Jimmy's gold chains, his magic chair that had secret drawers and could do anything. TV magic was better than real magic, the fairy kind. He wished Jim would fix it for him, but how could he ever ask. His mum came in, kissed him, and turned off the light. When she was gone he got up and as quietly as he could he turned his bedside cabinet around to face the wall. It was heavy, but he didn't want to open the door to empty it in case they were already waiting for him.
—When the world was young, one of them said, we played with you. We were friends, great friends. I was young, you were young, maybe you don't remember me? We played Red Rover, Leviathan chasing Giant Squid, high tig, rainbows and sunbeams, hide and seek, tops and bottoms, forts and castles. Those were good days. Do you remember yet?
He shook his head, watching the sea. It was gold, always gold, as if the sun was everywhere in the sky.
—I always called you over, I always chased you. You were strong, you were fast, so fast. How you could jump and twist around.
—I don't like Red Rover.
—Your Queen was very good with ropes, it said. Oh, so good.
—Hold your breath, the kind one said, here's the tunnel under the hill.
—This is Lily, your Queen. My Queen, this is James, our Once and Future King.
He looked at the girl. He'd never seen her before.
—Where you from? she asked.
—Girvan, he said. She kept looking at him. —In Scotland.
—I'm from Llandudno.
—In Wales, he said.
She smiled. —Yeah.
—We went there once. In the caravan, we stayed at a farm and ate rabbits the farmer shot. Then we had ice cream.
—I've never eaten rabbit. Is it like rarebit?
—No. It's smooth, like stones long in the river.
He stopped. This wasn't him talking. Someone else, someone shadowy and huge, was filling the spaces in between his thoughts, moving his body, making it comfortable on the throne.
—No! he shouted. I won't!
But they were onto him, holding him, saying, —We have a drink here, a brew most delicious, won't you drink?
Lily was watching him as he tried to throw them off, but he couldn't, and they made him drink.
There was a parade later that seemed to go on all night. He was soon tired of waving and smiling, feeling one of them always behind him. Thinking about their thin spiky nails, scary like his dad's awl. He could tell Lily thought it was fantastic. She liked dressing up. He couldn't wait to wake up.
Ms. McRuath gave the class reading time and took him to see the headmistress. He couldn't believe it. Maybe he was getting expelled. Everyone had heard the story of Martin MacAlisdair who got expelled when he was in Primary One. He'd put a potato in the head's exhaust pipe. Everyone said the car blew up and they had to get a new head.
He hadn't done anything, but it didn't stop him wanting to wet himself.
He sat on the scratchy seat beside the secretary and Ms. McRuath went on in to the head's office. The secretary was old but nice and gave him a green lollipop for later.
The door opened and the head came out, all tall and skinny like the fairies, he thought, and felt sick.
"Come in, James," she said, pointing. "Here's a seat for you. We'll talk later, Sheona," she said, shutting the door on Ms. McRuath. They were alone. He squeezed his legs together, tried not to think about water.
He answered her questions, didn't grass anyone up. He told her he loved the older boys on the bus, they told great stories about the bigger classes. They laughed at the younger kids, how stupid they were. He couldn't wait to get into those classes. He really couldn't.
Damien left but Richard was still there. James wondered if the fairies had got him. He'd heard someone call Damien a fairy, but James knew Damien was just a poof. Richard started ordering the other kids around, and now they listened. He knew something. Not like James knew; something different; something they all wanted to know. Richard liked games where there was chasing, catching, counting. He started a new one that joined skipping, catch, and leapfrog. After the rhyme "Jump to Paddie's Milestone / jump down the hill / jump over all the boys / jump over a girl!" all the girls crouched down and the boys had to jump over two of them and then crouch down, too. The last boy to jump two girls was it, and had to catch another boy to be it—usually the boys chased Richard. James was too tired to play. He watched them and thought he knew who would be caught next, thought he knew where they could run to escape; was often wrong.
There hadn't been a King in fairyland for a long time. The robe was old, the crown too big for him.
—You'll grow into it so soon, they said. You'll love it, they said. You'll love us.
Sometimes after the train ride he woke up naked in bed with them. They kissed him, ran their pointed nails over him. He thought of Richard, of the stories the older boys whispered on the bus when they thought he was reading or looking out the window.
He liked it. Wanted more. Had more. He fell asleep, woke up, and knew that one day soon he would want to stay. He didn't want to be married, didn't really like Lily, but marriage was different here, since fairies never died.
Lily had stopped going home. She was there when he woke up, there when he went back to the Midnight Train. He'd seen her picture in the papers back home, but she ignored him when he asked her about it.
Time passed differently for her. He'd never realized before she came. She was older than him now, ready to be married, and she told him he had to stay and get older, too. He didn't want to, still had to be dragged from bed, still wanted to be a boy and grow up and be a man like his dad. To drive a lorry and smell strong and watch the football on Saturday and play it all Sunday afternoon. He knew he couldn't make the fairies take him back much longer.
—You must marry her, one of them said as he took off his robes, headed out to find the train station.
—You must marry each other. You must. It's been so long since you were married, since there were children here.
He pushed past, running, taking a different path from yesterday. The station was always moving, although the train always came out in his bedside cabinet.
—There are no others, the fairy said, flying over his head, sometimes coming lightly down and brushing its cold feet against his back.
—There are only one King and Queen.
Richard was the new king of the playground and James wanted to go back behind the cabin and tell him everything, ask him what to do, ask him if he wanted to be the real King.
Richard started a new game. "An old game," he said, but it was new to them.
"Lavender's blue, dilly dilly," he sang, circling a group of them, "Lavender's green." He closed his eyes and ran around them. "When I am King, dilly dilly—" He stopped suddenly and put his arms out straight and walked slowly back toward the group of them who stood completely silent and still.
James relaxed as Richard put his hand on James's arm and sang, "You will be Queen." James knew this was wrong, but everyone pushed them together and then behind the cabins. He could hear them laughing. Richard only watched him for a bit, then ran outside.
"Again!" he heard Richard shout as he realized he'd been left alone in one of those places. "Again!"
He couldn't decide which was worse: day or night. Every time he got a word in their language wrong, one of the animals that were always winding around their feet—cats, stoats, badgers—would scratch him. Sometimes the fairy with the long nails would tickle his back and he liked it, liked it so much.
—Everything feels strange, you fucking fool, he said, and woke up on the floor, the covers still on the bed, his sheet wrapped around his neck and tied to the tiny doorknob of the bedside cabinet. His feet were inside the cabinet, everything he had put in there, all the books and blocks to try and stop them coming through, was scattered on the floor. He untied himself, tidied up, and made the bed. His throat hurt and he wondered if he had a cold. His head felt as big as a loaf of bread and the ceiling seemed far, far away. He climbed back onto the bed, lay back. His head, the loaf in the oven, grew and grew, became thinner and thinner. The ceiling moved toward him, the swirling pattern in the plaster moving round and round, slow, then fast, as it came toward him, pressed down, pushed him into the bed.
"James!" said his mother from the hall. She came in. "What's wrong?" she asked and put her hand on his head—and everything started moving very fast.
"Hamish!" she shouted, "Ha-mish!" and she picked him up and tried to open the door. His dad appeared, lifted him up from his mum's arms. She was in and out his sight, waving her hands, picking things up, knocking fairies out the way. James laughed.
"What?" asked his dad. "What?"
His dad drove to the hospital and he tried to see the speedometer from where his mum held him on her lap. He must be doing the ton, James thought. Wait until I tell Richard. That'll stop him, that'll . . .
He saw the fairies outside the car. He heard them. —Don't go, they said, come here, with us. And he saw the hill ahead on the road.
"No! Fuck off!" He shouted at them, and tried to twist away from his mother. She grunted when he tried to punch her, kick her. Held him tight and said, "Faster, Hamish, he's fair burning."
At the hospital they stripped him and put him in a cold bath. He kicked at the doctors and the nurses and especially the fairies. More swans were singing and he told them he didn't want to wake up. The cats and stoats ran along the edge of the bath and scratched at his back, his eyes. More birds came in, flying through the closed windows.
—Lily, they sang. Lily is your Queen. You must go to Lily.
He kicked and kicked, swore and shouted, and he saw the fairies were winning. They'd flickered around his parents, driven them out the room, and now they were pushing the doctors and nurses out; only the fairies came back.
—Come now. Come, now! said one he thought he knew. —Come now. We'll play with you. And you're King: we'll kiss you, cuddle you, torture you.
"Mum! Mum! Dad! Da. . . ." He was losing his voice and he was burning up despite the ice that the last nurse was still adding. She was looking around, wondering where everyone else had gone. He could see she was going to leave, so he grabbed her arm and held on. Even when the fairies tried to push him under the water, when they tried to cut off his arm, then hers, he didn't let go. He wouldn't let go, he wouldn't be King. He wanted to play on the swings, watch TV, break something, play football, he'd do all his homework, anything, anything.
—Come under the hill, the fairies said and he cried and cried and cried.
—We want our King. It's been so long and we miss you. Come, come.
His mum and dad moved his bed into their room. He asked if they'd throw out his bedside table. His dad broke it up and they took it to the big fire on the beach on Bonfire Night and burned it.
He hoped they'd left him alone but he knew he was sleeping in one of their places. He covered himself carefully at night, but his dad had put the heating on for winter and he knew that one night soon one of his hands would stick out. Maybe one of his feet.
"Hold Tight," by Gavin J. Grant, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.
If you redistribute this story, please include a link to