by Kaitlynn McShea
My host told me about this path to school yesterday. Aoife, with her blonde bob and heavy eyeliner, drove past her house to the back of the cul de sac. “There’s a path there, so. Take it, it’s a half-mile, like, to your one-mile walk.”
I decided not to take it to school, because what was a mile for someone who has nothing to do in a town that’s in the middle of nowhere?
Today, though, it was pouring as I left school. Rain seeped through my raincoat, and with the wind, my umbrella was completely useless. Short of looking completely daft walking on the main street of the town, I decided to take this path.
I entered, immediately feeling a weight on my chest and a churning in my stomach. The trees bent over, making a quintessential “O” when looking straight down the path. Rain gathered on leaves and fell in massive drops, but otherwise, it was quite dry. Well, as dry as Ireland could be.
Why was this path here? It didn’t seem to go anywhere in particular but was really a trodden dirt alleyway behind the neighborhoods.
I got home in ten minutes instead of twenty. Ten more minutes to find something to do in a town where nothing happens.
But I suppose I got home with no problem.
* * *
The next day, a rare sunny day, I decided to walk the host’s puppy after school.
“Hiya, Emily?” Another blonde woman with heavy eyeliner waved to me with her free hand. Her other hand stayed clasped, belonging to her husband.
“Oh. Hi, Grainne.” She was another interventionist at my school.
“Come on this path often?” Her eyebrows arched, her smile thin.
“I’ve only come on it a few times.”
“It’s nice on a sunny day, now, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Well, now, Emily. I’ll see yerself at school tomorrow.”
“All right, bye!”
I really liked Grainne. She was always friendly and positive. She didn’t seem herself, just now, though. Her words were friendly, but her tone was off.
After taking a moment to consider it, I decided to head back to my host’s house.
* * *
The following day at school, Grainne scampered up to me, wringing her hands. Not her usual laid-back self.
“You don’t walk on that path to school now, Emily?”
“Oh, grand. You just never know who’s on it at that time, like. Take care of yerself.”
She hurried away and whispered to Niamh, a teacher for six and seven-year-olds. They peeked at me. Catching my eye, they looked away.
What was going on? And what’s the matter with walking at path? After all, Aoife seemed to think it was okay.
After school, I decided to ask Aoife about it to break up the expanse of the evening.
As she started dinner, I looked up from my laptop and tried to catch her eye. She smiled, but kept busy chopping parsnips and onions.
“Hey, Aoife. Some teachers seemed to not like the path behind the neighborhood. Do kids mess around on the path in the morning or something? Is it not safe?”
She paused and laughed. “Oh, that. Some folk will always be superstitious now, especially in a small town like this. Some say that when the sun’s not fully out, the Fair Folk still walk the path and snatch up lonely walkers to do their bidding.”
“The Fair Folk?”
“Fae. Fairies. Like in fairy tales, but they’re not kind and they don’t have wings.”
“Do you believe in the Fair Folk?”
She laughed again. “Oh, Jaysus, no. But you might consider not walking on the path in the dark, like.”
I spent the next three hours after dinner researching the Fair Folk. People actually believed this stuff? So ridiculous. Still, I went to bed dreaming of long canines and sharp nails.
* * *
The next day was Saturday, so I decided to take a hike. Emily was at the market in the town’s square, and having gone two times was two times plenty.
I started off by myself this time, no puppy to accompany me. I saw a few people on the path: it went through a field and past the boy’s and girl’s colleges of the town. At some point, though, I no longer had company. I kept going through a remote path. The grass grew high on both sides, tickling my ankles. If I had been at home, I would’ve called this a deer path. The hair on my arms stood up, and I felt a presence at my back. I kept looking behind me, but no one was there. There were no noises to suggest someone was following me, either.
Despite the creepy vibe, I walked through high grass and thicket. I hiked all the time back home, so no big deal, right?
The path opened up.
Instead of an open field, an abandoned barn rested half-collapsed. Rusted junk surrounded it.
The yard was absent of a rusted car, though…and there was no road.
There was no sign of a soul there, besides me.
My shadowy presence at my back intensified. My head pounded, my vision flashed. The words, ‘YOU SHOULDN’T BE HERE!’ pumped through my brain.
Twenty feet away, the grass parted.
Ten feet away, the grass continued to fold, as if some small animal raced through.
At two feet away, I saw it. A tan and black patterned snake raced for me. I froze.
A foot away from me, it stopped with a jerk. It lifted it head, tongue testing the air. It lunged, fangs bared, and sank into my ankle. It bit through my hiking socks and leggings.
It was gone.
I sank to the earth, fearing to mess with my sock and leggings right now. My stomach rolled, and my ankle already felt swollen and bruised.
I stayed glued for another minute before scrambling back and limping as fast as I could.
About a half-mile later, once the grass became trimmed and green once more, I let myself slow. The pain was excruciating, but I had to get the hell out of there.
Finally, finally, I reached my host’s street. I dragged my right foot, unable to flex my foot now. I reached the doorknob, twisting it.
It was locked.
Where was my key, where the hell was my key? Screw it. I banged on the door, still feeling the presence at my back, still feeling my vision flare.
Aoife swung the door open and stared.
“What in the devil is going on, Emily?”
* * *
A shooting pain awoke me. I blinked my eyes open, seeing white walls and hearing beeping machines.
I glanced down, registering the i.v. and that my foot was propped up on a pillow.
“Oh, grand, yer awake!” Aoife blonde bob shifted as she stood and crept over.
“What happened? Why am I here?”
“Well, I believe you were on a hike. Don’t you remember?”
In flashes, I did. The path, the barn, the snake.
“Did you figure out what snake bit me?” I said, too loud.
“Emily…” she paused, smiling halfway.
“Well, there are no snakes in Ireland now. You couldn’t’ve been bit by a snake.”
“But I remember it!” I insisted, “It was tan and black. It was patterned! It had a tongue!”
One of the machines started to beep faster.
“Calm down, Emily. I’m sure you thought it was a snake.”
Her pause felt heavier this time, and not because I was ignorant.
“What does that mean?”
“You’re coworkers tried to warn you, Emily…” She paused, mouth moving but no words coming out.
She took a breath and continued. “I didn’t believe…I thought it was just superstition. But, Emily, I was wrong…that path is for the Fair Folk, the Good Folk. That was no snake.”
My vision swam. What the hell kind of place was this?
“Can I speak to the doctor, please?”
“I’ll go find herself. Lie back now, be a good girl.” She exited the room, but not before giving me a pitying smile.
The doctor entered. She paused at the threshold before entering.
“Hiya, Emily. I’m Dr. Ó Murchadha, and I’ve been taking care of you. What can I do for you?”
“What’s wrong with my foot?”
“Emily, I’m afraid it’s very likely you’ll be hiking anytime soon, if at all. There has been some degeneration of the muscles in your ankle.”
“I don’t understand. How did this happen? All I remember is that a snake bit me.”
The doctor and Aoife’s eyes darted towards each other.
“Emily…that was no snake.”
“And I’m sure it was some damn faerie, huh?”
Aoife gasped, and the doctor’s face became grim. She advanced, a crease forming in between her eyes.
“You’re lucky to be alive, Emily. Heed this warning. Do not go on that path again. Do not hike again while you’re in Ireland, do you understand? If you never hike again, even if you never walk again, it’s better than what could’ve happened.”
She stepped back a foot and squared her shoulders.
“I’ll be releasing you shortly. It’s best if you move past this. Don’t talk about, don’t dwell on it. If anyone asks, you were bitten by a mutt. Do you understand?”
I looked from Aoife to Dr. Ó Murchadha and gulped. “Yes.”
Her face brightened. “Grand! Someone will be with you as soon as possible to release you.”
I slumped against the pillows. “Ugh, I wish my foot would just get back to normal,” I groaned.
Aoife turned to me, grinning.
Too weird. I needed to get out of this place.
She stopped, looming over my bed. “A favor requires a favor in return, Emily.”
She closed her eyes, nostrils flaring. Her features smoothed. Years of wrinkles disappeared, her eyeliner lessened, her blonde hair turned from brassy to glowing and grew at least a foot. She opened her eyes and winked at me. She grinned again, but this time with long, sharp canines.
“I haven’t been entirely honest with you, Emily.” She swung her hair. “I’m the Queen of the Fair Folk, and I can make your foot back to normal.”
These must have been some good pain meds.
“Okay, I’ll bite.” I paused to giggle at my own pun. “What favor do you require of me?”
Her grin turned feral. “I’m so glad you asked. Welcome to the real Ireland, Emily.”
◊ ◊ ◊
Kaitlynn McShea is a fourth-grade teacher by day and a writer and Pilates instructor by night. She specializes in all things fantasy. Discover more at https://www.instagram.com/kaitlynnmcshea/