Changeling

Lily’s feet slapped hard against the frosted ground but she did not slow her pace. She tried not to think about how cold it was, how dark it was, or how much it hurt to feel the twigs snapping underfoot. In the distance a low and soothing voice whispered her name; the sound tugged at Lily, but she resisted, and kept running. Her body was extra-cooperative, leaping over rocks and squeezing between tree trunks. Lily had always been a clumsy child, but not tonight, not when her life depended on it. Even her heart matched her pace, slamming rapidly against her chest.

“Liiiilllyyy.”

The voice was getting louder, and more intrusive. But Lily just ran faster. Overwhelmed by her own determination, she burst out of the forest and onto the highway, where a truck had to skid to a stop to avoid hitting her. Lily stared out at the driver, her eyes surely glowing in his headlights. She watched, paralyzed with shock, as he jumped down from his seat and rushed towards her. He was screaming nonsense. When he got close enough to reach out to her it sent her into frenzied hysterics. Lily screamed herself unconscious, her tiny and exasperated body collapsing onto the street.

*****

“Lily? Lily James?”

This time it was a man’s voice. It had a lot more urgency in it and was lacking the seductive nature of the voice she had been running away from. On the silent count of three, Lily sprung her eyes open, hoping her body would have jolted forward at the same time. She hadn’t moved, but she was staring into Mr. Cole’s eyes. They were scared and confused, much like her own. Recognizing the man, Lily allowed relief to sweep through her as she curled up tighter in his arms.

“Okay, okay,” he whispered affectionately. She must have started crying, but couldn’t quite tell. “Let’s get you home.”

Mr. Cole bundled Lily in a blanket and set her down in his passenger seat. She was quiet now, secretly listening for the voice to call her back.

“What were you doing out in the street Lily?” he asked as they moved calmly down the highway. There were hardly any other vehicles; symptom of a small town.

Lily wanted to respond, but she didn’t know how. Honestly, the whole ordeal was starting to blur over in her mind. She had been trying to get away, but was no longer quite sure what from. When she remained silent, Mr. Cole stopped speaking, and they drove the rest of the way listening only to the hum of the engine.

“Here we are,” he finally said.

The drive had felt long, and Lily was pretty sure she had been dozing for most of it. Her muscles ached and her head throbbed, so she put up no fight at all when Mr. Cole scooped her up and carried her to the front door. The only thing more comforting than being held by her elderly kind neighbor was seeing her front stoop. She wasn’t sure how long it had been, but it felt like ages since she had been home. When the front door swung open, she leapt towards her mother and locked her small arms around the woman’s heavy thighs.

The satin pajamas were familiar and warm; but to Lily’s dismay, her mother did not reciprocate. In fact, she seemed to stiffen uncomfortably. Lily was a perceptive child and could sense her mother’s fear. She threw her head up and stared at her, waiting; tears streaming down her cheeks.

“Impossible,” her mother whispered, a stunned expression worn on her face. “My Lily is asleep in her bed.”

Margaret looked down at the child clinging to her thighs. She looked just like Lillian – and yet. She looked to Ed for an explanation, but the old man just looked at her as though she were an alien herself.

“Perhaps not, Marge. I found her in the street; damn near took her down with my truck out there on the highway.”

Margaret looked down at the little girl. Her eyes were watering, her dress was torn, hair unkempt. And wasn’t that – yes, the blue dress she had bought her for her sixth birthday just a few months back. Deciding instantly that she must be in a sleep daze, Margaret dropped to her knees and stared into Lily’s eyes. She wanted to scold her for running away, but first, a gnawing in her gut told her she had to be sure. Margaret snatched Lily’s hand and flew into the house, up the stairs and down the hall to Lily’s room. She could hear Ed close the door behind them and follow. Inside, the room was dark and still. Margaret flipped the light switch and stood face to face with her Lily, snug in bed.

Frozen, Margaret watched as her daughter gently stirred awake. As her eyes fluttered open, Margaret instinctively pulled the other Lily behind her, blocking her from her daughter’s sight.

“Mama?” she asked groggily, rubbing her eyes with the corner of her blanket.

Shyla Fairfax-Owen ©

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