We’re all called Thomas, because it’s easier for the old ones, who hardly notice the difference between us.
And most of us don’t ever realize we’re only one of many. But it’s been happening forever and we’re each of us only good for ten years on the outside. I think I was about fourteen when I escaped, and I don’t know how young I was when I was taken, but I had to have been four or so because I have dim memories of my mother and father. She had milky green eyes and black hair, though I have black hair and so might be conflating the two because I want to remember. Father was missing two fingers from one hand and I remember when Hop came for me, its grip was like his against my wrist.
I track her because she’s been elf-touched, and once touched you become like a magnet for others of their kind. She wasn’t stolen like I was – I can tell when you’ve spent time in their castles and rocks. Perhaps she’d been to a mushroom dance: one night when she was out late with her boyfriend she followed a light around her house and beyond the edge of the backyard. She woke in the morning hungover and frightened and unsure what had happened. If her boyfriend was lucky, she recalled that he’d dropped her off and driven away first.
She appears normal to everyone around her, though maybe a bit distracted. Her fingers twitch at things no one else sees. To me, when my eyes are anointed, it is as though she’s been dipped in oil and a rainbow shimmers over her skin. I wish for her sake it was a rainbow that washed away, but even a swim in the ocean might not remove the taint.
The attraction she holds for them makes her perfect bait.
My prince was not the worst, by all I’ve gathered, but he was bad enough. He was beautiful like stars are beautiful, like angels are supposed to be. Cold, alien, pristine. Being with him was like drinking the most delicate champagne all the time, until I didn’t care that when he laughed there were teeth all the long way down his throat.
Hop would take me from the toy room and limp before me, dragging its crushed leg along as we twisted through the rocks and roots to the prince’s feast hall. I asked Hop once what happened to the leg. It told me a tragic story of a human girl it had loved who’d betrayed it to her village and they’d laid in wait at its hovel-hole, and as Hop emerged they’d thrown salt water from the sea. The salt shriveled the skin of its leg and cracked its bones into millions of tiny pieces. (I saw the prince’s daughter grow tired with a tatterfoal once, and she swallowed his hind leg as he scrambled from her boredom. After long moments where his screams harmonized with the song I dared not stop singing, she released him. The bones were shattered and skin shredded. I thought of Hop’s story, and knew they could lie, sometimes.)
I could not help loving Hop, for I was a child and it looked after me and brought me food. It cradled me against its chest when I cried, hard enough that I could feel bones through the velvet of its doublet.
I cried against that same chest after I shoved a hawthorn wand up into its brain. The salt in my tears seared his neck and chin. But Hop’s blackened blood soaked into my pores as I rubbed it onto me, as my disguise and means of escape. I could smell my sin for weeks. Every time I breathed, I tasted it on my tongue.
As I follow the girl, I watch the crowd to see who notices her. I search for odd bits of anachronistic clothing or an eye that cannot seem to glance away. We are walking through a crowded outdoor market near the Mississippi River. There are teenagers and tourists everywhere. I blend in. None of them wonder why my shirt is inside out (I’m not the only one) or why I’ve drawn labyrinths on both my palms. They can’t see there’s salt in my jeans pocket or smell the marigold and clover scent of the ointment on my eyelids. The wand in my hand is only a stick to them, smooth and buttery gold, that I’ve picked up to poke at bugs or fight invisible enemies.
There is a boy, over there by the hot dog car, crouched as though he is just picking something up. But his gaze follows her and his hair is dripping. There is no rain today. But a small pool of water has formed beneath him. As he stands and goes after her, he leaves two footprints: bare feet, although he appears to wear boots.
I shift my attention fully to him. As I walk, I rub a pinch of salt over my eye-ointment to cancel out the magic. The water horse should not smell it over the stink of his own breath. I also shove the wand up my sleeve so it runs like an exoskeleton from my wrist to my elbow.
Picking up speed, I come alongside the water horse and my nostrils flare at the overwhelming scent of rot. He slides a glance at me when my shoulder brushes against his. I see the red flash in his eyes as he notes the rainbow shimmer over my skin. I smile at him. “I can’t find the marina,” I say.
“I can show you.” He forms the words carefully and quietly. His smile is shy. I feel his glamour pushing against me like warm air. “Over here.” He offers his hand, and when I take it, his smile grows. Were I what I appear to be, my remaining allotment of life would be measured in brief moments.
It was the first Thomas, the original, the real Thomas who taught me how to escape.
“We’re all called Thomas,” he said. He was not a boy any longer, but had a man’s gaunt face and triangular cheekbones through which I could see the shine of his heart. It was so full of light.
I pressed my back against the rough limestone of my prince’s underground castle, cutting my palms on the edges, and stared. Thomas knelt, and his knees were knobby like a goblin’s under red hose. The strap of a guitar cut across his jerkin, and he shifted so that its head didn’t knock against the stone floor. “Do you remember what you were named before?”
“No,” I whispered. “I don’t remember.”
“Ah, Tom,” he said, shaking his head as if disappointed in me. “No worries, lad, most of us never do. They take us so young, don’t they?”
“You remember yours, though?” I clasped my hands together behind my back and stepped away from the wall to show him I was less afraid. I looked down at his reddish hair, and he raised his chin. I saw how beautiful he was from that angle, and why they’d taken him. All of us were beautiful.
“My name has always been Thomas. I was the first.”
“They’ve always taken children, of course.” He chuckled. “But I was the first they remembered.”
“They think I am you?”
“When they think of us at all.”
It is a strange sight to the locals; two boys walking hand in hand toward the river. But after a moment their efforts to surreptitiously gawk are thwarted by the water horse’s glamour. Their stares begin to slide off of us until we are as good as invisible.
The river laps calmly here and the noise of the city behind us overwhelms the calling of gulls and the roar of the interstate zipping by on the bridge overhead. I say, “We’ve passed the boats,” but not as if I care.
The water horse smiles at me. “I know better ones, and you’ll love the water.”
I nod. He takes me to the edge, where the bridge shades us so the sun cannot glare off the river (a milky green-gray that reminds me of my mother’s eyes). I see the rough sand and pebbles spilling under, for almost six feet I can follow the sloping descent. He tugs me, and I resist, but he pulls again. My hand is trapped in his. I frown, but when he grins I pretend to look relieved. As if I cannot see the sharp lines of his teeth or the old meat trapped between them.
The first Thomas stayed with us for an entire season. It was winter, and that is when the princes conclave, when they stay hidden from the Hunt in their hills and ruined castles, making lights and fire through the dark, dead nights. That winter the Queen had chosen our hill for her revels and treating. I never knew why.
Thomas sought me out frequently, escorting me between bonfires and feasting halls, teaching me the names of his friends and allies, and the faces of his enemies. They were all my enemies, I wanted to say. I asked, “Are there others now? Other Thomases?”
“Always, Tom. But none of you ever last.”
I frowned, picked at the skin stretched over the back of my hand. It was pale and soft and I saw dark veins running below it. Not shining ones like the first Thomas’s. “You lasted,” I said.
It was his turn to frown. “Tom,” he said, stopping under the dripping branches of a silver tree. “I chose this place. And that choice made all the difference.”
“They took you. How was that a choice?” My voice cracked. I didn’t even remember what my mother’s voice sounded like. How could I know if I preferred it to the Queen’s?
“Hush,” Thomas said. “Do not draw their attention. Two of us together is like to create a tear in their spacetime continuum.” His lip twitched into a grin, but I did not understand the jest.
I quieted, realizing that my cheeks were hot and my chest tight. “How did you choose?”
“I left. I escaped from their hold and wandered the world on my own. I loved and sang. I – ”
He continued, but all I heard was that he had escaped. I interrupted him. “Tell me how. How did you free yourself?”
Pausing, the first Thomas took my face in his hands. “How old are you? Thirteen? Twelve?”
I nodded, although I had no idea.
“Use the weapons you have, Thomas,” he told me.
“I don’t have any.”
He tapped his long fingers against my temples. “You do.” He leaned in and kissed my eyelids. Then he pulled me so that my cheek rested against his.
I killed Hop with my own salt tears and the hawthorn wand with which it chased off the grims and goblins. I ran away on the longest night, when all the old ones and ugly ones, the shining and dancing ones huddled away from the Hunt. When it crashed over our hill, I caught onto the edges of the wild magic and sailed away with the howling and screaming.
Since that night, I’ve killed five others, though none of the old ones. And until I manage that, the Hops of the world will continue to take children.
We walk into the river, me slowly, him guiding me. I pretend to panic. He tugs and muscles stand out on his arm. His glamour is falling away and his hair looks stringy and coarse. He is taller, longer, and walking on his bare toes. I cry out, and he laughs. It sounds like a horse’s whinny. He dives into the water and drags me under. I hold my breath and don’t have to fake the panic anymore. I dig in with my feet but his pull is inexorable and we go farther and farther under. My only relief is that I know he will not eat me until I am dead and the water softens me. Water horses are like crocodiles.
I twist, sliding my free hand into my jeans. The salt is soaked, but still potent because this is not truly running water thanks to slow rains and man-made dams. It is gritty between my fingers. My feet leave the bottom of the river as the water horse hauls me into deeper water. I put the grains of salt to the place where our hands touch and he jerks still. I am free and my lungs burn as I slide the wand out of my sleeve. The water horse’s face lengthens and he snarls at me, bones changing and skin rough with newly sprouting hair. He snaps at me with razor teeth and reaches with his arms, with fingers growing together and thickening into black hooves. I do not swim backwards, but dive at him and put the hawthorn wand to his neck. He freezes, and I think for a moment that I might force him to the surface and ask him three questions he’ll have to answer truthfully. It could lead me to the nearest prince. But the risk is too great now that he knows what I am.
I shove the wand up through his throat and into his brain.
Black blood billows out and I wrench my wand free. I kick away, hanging in the water, lungs crushing for air, and watch the water horse die.
I close my eyes then and hang, suspended in the cold river, thinking of all the long years of life the creature had had. Since before the city had been built, probably.
It is quiet in the water. But I cannot breathe, so I swim to the surface.